Warning: Spoilers ahead, read on at your own risk.
In the first episode of the BBC3 television show “Fleabag,” our anti-heroine Fleabag and her loveably rigid sister Claire meet up to attend a feminist lecture called “Women Speak,” whose proud motto is “opening women’s mouths since 1998.”
The two sisters have been attending such talks since their mother died when they were young, and their father began buying them tickets to feminist presentations, presumably, to fill the gap.
A grey-haired woman in a matching tweed skirt suit takes the stage to much applause. “I pose a question to the women in this room today,” she begins in a grave and earnest tone. “Please raise your hand if you would trade five years of your life for the so-called perfect body.” Fleabag and Claire shoot their arms up without a moment’s hesitation. The rest of the room looks on, aghast.
“We’re bad feminists,” Fleabag whispers with a smile.
“Fleabag,” now streaming on Amazon, was created by British playwright and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, adapted from her Edinburgh Fringe play of the same name. Waller-Bridge plays the title role, who, by her own description, is just a bit “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt” and “can’t even call herself a feminist.”
The brief six-episode season ― an excruciatingly dark and hysterically funny exploration of grief, sisterhood, sex, and female friendship ― opens with Fleabag grappling with the death of her best friend Boo. She attempts to keep a firm grasp on her struggling business and sanity, with the help of her austere sister, salacious brother-in-law, distant father, vile stepmother, and a variety of unworthy sexual partners.
But there’s another source of potential strength and guidance Fleabag solicits throughout the show: feminism. In times of crisis, Fleabag turns to established feminist gatherings ― namely a lecture, a retreat, and an art exhibition ― with reticence, hope, and, eventually, disappointment.
In “Fleabag,” feminism is framed not as a source of power or refuge, but as an additional standard our main character struggles to meet; yet another barometer against which women inevitably measure their inadequacy. In the second feminist gathering of the show, Fleabag and Claire attend an all-women silent retreat, whose motto, a glorious foil to “Women Speak,” is “No matter what happens, a word must not be heard.” The weekend sanctuary requires attendees to remain silent at all costs, while partaking in menial tasks like gardening and scrubbing the floors.
“This weekend is about being mindful,” the retreat leader explains with tranquil determination in her welcome speech. “It’s about leaving your voice in your head, and trapping your thoughts in your skull. Think of it as a thought prison in your mind.” However unappealing and somewhat nightmarish the description sounds, Fleabag has another interpretation of the weekend’s festivities: “We’ve paid them to let us clean the house in silence.”
The combination of “Women Speak” and the less officially named “Women, Shut Up” satirizes the constant tightrope women walk in the name of empowerment, caught between say more and say less, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Although feminism is clearly important to Waller-Bridge’s character, something she feels compelled to pursue and embody, she constantly fights to keep a straight face when confronted with the impassioned absurdity propagated by established feminist spaces.
Fleabag’s final foray into feminist terrain comes via a “sexhibition,” an erotic art show erected by her odious (yet artistically gifted) godmother-turned-stepmother, featuring photographs and “casts” of Fleabag’s father ― who, the stepmom informs his daughters smugly, is a “very sexual” man.
Stepmom continues to warn the family that, along with plaster molds of penises she’s encountered throughout her lifetime, the exhibit will feature a series of her nude photographic self-portraits. “I’ve taken a photo of my naked body every year for the past 30 years,” she explains with great pride and import.
Fleabag, more fascinated and perplexed than offended, asks why. Stepmom responds: “I think it’s important for women of all ages to see how my body has changed over the years. I think they have to have a healthy perspective on my body.” The character gently pokes fun at feminist performance artists like Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, imagining their revolutionary spirit living on in the body of an unlikable caricature.
The show doesn’t posit that the stepmother’s work is stupid or even bad ― in fact, quite the opposite. “I keep forgetting that she’s actually talented,” Claire says when the sisters enter her studio without permission. “It’s infuriating,” Fleabag responds. Yet whether her artwork is doing much to help womankind, one plaster penis at a time, remains dubious.
Throughout the show, Fleabag scrambles to contain her cynicism and depravity, in a world in which both make others extremely uncomfortable. The feminist spaces that pop up along the way only reify Fleabag’s self-destructive self-loathing, offering additional models of health and virtue she can’t live up to.
In an interview with The Guardian, Waller-Bridge expanded upon Fleabag’s deep seeded fear that she is a bad feminist, or perhaps not one at all. “Am I still a feminist if I watch porn, or if I want to change my body to make me feel more sexually attractive?” she asks.
It’s worth noting that the three models of feminism featured in the show are all led by older women, perhaps hinting at the obsolescence of an earlier feminist generation. For fourth-wave feminists, for example, watching porn certainly doesn’t contradict feminist values; unabashedly embracing one’s sexuality is a key facet of contemporary feminism. But Fleabag, privileging her body above her mind and attention above pleasure, pushes the boundaries of “acceptable” sex-positivity.
In one particularly bleak meltdown, Fleabag unloads on a slightly terrified lender who made the mistake of asking if she was OK. “I know that my body as it is now really is the only thing I have left and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well kill it,” she says through tears. “And somehow, there isn’t anything worse than someone who doesn’t want to fuck me.” These feelings may not be feminist, but they’re real. And women deserve the space to be real.
For Fleabag, at least in this moment, life is a mess. Even as a middle-class white woman, she struggles immensely to like herself, support herself, engage with others, and simply survive. Being a woman certainly doesn’t make things any easier.
On top of mourning her best friend and keeping her business afloat, Fleabag is hit on by her brother-in-law, slut-shamed by her stepmom, and praised by her ex for being “not like other girls” because she can “keep up” intellectually. And even at the ugliest points of her interior emotional downfall, Fleabag’s pin-curled hair and red lipstick look flawless. Because that’s what women do.
Fleabag’s reluctance to fully engage in feminist rhetoric is reminiscent of contemporary artist Audrey Wollen, who often describes her alienation from popular feminist discourse. “Working hard, staying positive, fighting back, keeping strong: this isn’t my language,” she said in an interview with Artillery Magazine. “Our bodies and our pain, physical and emotional, have to be taken back, and I don’t think it can be done by romanticizing the inverse of our symptoms: strength, energy, vigor, sanity, ‘health’ as defined by masculine standards. Our symptoms can be transformed into our weapons, and create a new image of what strength can look like.”
One such weapon rears its head when Fleabag, with a wry smile, introduces her stepmother to the viewer as a “c**t.” The Guardian’s Eleanor Morgan writes, “it’s refreshing, and rare, to watch a woman use the c-word like a bullet.” While you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would describe lodging the foul word as “feminist,” there is an undeniable power in Fleabag’s willingness to call out such an obviously wretched human being without reservation.
Fleabag is a feminist character in that she actually resembles a complex and imperfect human being, itself still a rarity for women onscreen. But within the world of the show, whether or not Fleabag as a person qualifies as a feminist, even a bad one, remains questionable.
Trying to categorize Fleabag as feminist or not, viewers end up questioning whether certain actions qualify as “empowering” to an almost absurd degree. Loving your best friend more than anything in the world? Feminist. Sleeping with her boyfriend? Not feminist. Masturbating to Barack Obama giving a speech? Umm, feminist? Inviting a black-out drunk girl to spend the night at your place? Er, phone a friend?
This endless cross-examination, attempting to figure out whether or not Fleabag is an affront to feminism, illuminates the absurdity of the enterprise. Is judging a woman for how feminist she is really very feminist? Must every damn thing a woman does be feminist?
The issue recalls a recent interview with musician Angel Olsen who, when asked if her album was feminist ― the subtext being, because a woman made it ― responded with some exasperation. “I mean, if that’s the case, I’m eating a feminist salad right now,” she said. “I just went on a feminist walk with my dog. I just took a feminist shit.
“The word is trendy, the word means a lot to me and I’m not not a feminist. But I feel like we should just all take a chill pill and be human. And I just want to walk from A to B without being hollered at in the meantime.”
Feminism is powerful and hugely important, as Olsen clearly states. Yet sometimes women just want to be goddamn human beings. Fleabag’s ambivalent relationship to feminism is, in part, a sign of how far the movement has come. She engages in casual sex, owns her own cafe, and speaks her mind without censorship or hesitation ― qualities which would not be possible without the tireless work of the feminist camp. And yet, within the confines of the show, the movement is repeatedly depicted as coming up short.
Much has been written about Fleabag as a radically “difficult” woman character; she makes her compatriots Hannah Horvath, Ali Pfefferman and Rebecca Bunch seem chill. But along with presenting a nuanced portrait of an imperfect woman, “Fleabag” offers audiences something that is perhaps even rarer: a portrait of imperfect feminism. Of a movement that is, at times, irrelevant, obsolete, hypocritical and alienating.
However, as women desperate to see themselves reflected on screen, in all their complexity and darkness, know all too well, an imperfect picture is a realistic picture. And in the words of artist Mary Reid Kelley: “I think feminism is about presenting reality. Feminists are realists.”
Through its critical portrayal of feminism, “Fleabag” paints a truthful picture of feminism that, though less than ideal, is real. And a truthful representation is a far more dutiful tribute than an airbrushed accolade.