TV’s Fleabag Shows Us That Women Can Be Mean, Too

  Photo: Amazon Prime

Photo: Amazon Prime

 

As 2016 ended, one thing was sure--television was exceptional. While everything else spiraled out of control, television served as the comforting elixir that soothed our collective spirit. No matter your viewing preference—you were sure to find something you could enjoy. The breadth and depth of the human condition was at a premium. It isn’t quite clear what caused this trend though. Did TV execs acknowledge the clamor for better, more diverse television (see: #OscarsSoWhite)? Or, more practically, did they just respond to a competitive, quickly fragmenting market? Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt there was a tangible change in the industry. And nowhere was this more evident than in the year’s hit new show, Fleabag.

An Amazon distributed six-part comedy series, Fleabag lures viewers into the mind of a sex positive, manipulative twentysomething who finds pleasuring herself to Obama’s state of the union more satisfying than tending to her rather unremarkable boyfriend. Fleabag, and its antagonist (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), shatters what audiences have come to expect from woman-centered television. Exchanging the perennial prim, shame-driven role for one more compelling—an erratic, self-indulgent misfit. In the spirit of its theme song, the show subverts patriarchy and its influence on woman in the media. Quite refreshing if you ask me.

What separates Fleabag from the small cadre of other misfits belching their way into our homes (see Broad City, Amy Schumer, and Lena Dunham) is its emotional complexity. While “adulting” is by far the most prominent theme, so is grief, rejection, and narcissism. We, the audience, stay off kilter throughout the series. Just as we think we figured her out, we watch as she fails to establish a healthy relationship with an estranged sister; avoid the radioactive decay of her mother’s sudden death; and steer clear from a one way collision into the wall built by an emotionally distant father. Did I mention her best friend (and business partner) committed suicide? And of course, her stepmom’s a dick. Clearly, she is not okay. Yet, her antics entertain. And so, we watch her disengage from the world, wreaking havoc on those who come too close.

But, who could blame us for watching? The ticking time bomb that is her life is far too entertaining as we wait for her to blow. There’s a familiar quality to the flippant disregard of her suffering. We see it all too often in our own lives. She connects despite her antiheroic qualities. Deep down we all have a bit of Fleabag in us, and because of that, we like her all the more. As Sady Doyle points out, TV finally has a female anti-hero that suffers on her own terms. You won’t find the show employing women’s grief as a male centered plot device. You also won’t find a woman suffering to indicate a man’s worth. In fact, Fleabag does the opposite. Her suffering boyfriend is used to hilariously reveal just how much control she exerts on the hapless fellow. Up against this gendered lens, Fleabag presents a radical departure from what has historically been depicted on television. And for that reason, TV is better off. But, just how far does it push?

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Michael Che, co-anchor of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, recently released a comedy special. We watch as he questions an array of controversial topics, making us laugh and cringe at the same time. For instance, in one bit, he stretched the comedic limits to critique women, particularly white women, and their stealthy power.

[White women] took Brooklyn. I didn’t see that coming. I was terrified of Brooklyn. All of a sudden, a bunch of rich, white girls from Seattle came to live [there], and said, Brooklyn’s mines now, and they just owned it.”

A bunch is packed into that statement. Yes, we laugh. But, as we dig deeper, Che provides a colorful commentary on the power of women who are white, that frankly, not everyone (especially women of color) can wield. A power firmly rooted in a centuries’ old social contract allowing those who possess to destruct, and for their victims, to redeem in spite of it all. It’s like boldly taking someone’s hat and getting away with it Che describes. Fleabag seems to perpetuate this phenomenon.  

I applaud Fleabag for its boundary pushing depiction of women on television. The subversion of femininity is invigorating, giving license for women to be cruel, self-centered, and frankly, an absolute mess. In this vein, the role is reminiscent to the Walter White’s of TV land. But, also like Walter White, viewers are compelled to absolve her from wrongdoing. And, this is done deceptively well. Her exoneration doesn’t come from the people around her, but from the audience as she breaks down the theatrical fourth wall to invite us into her world. And we oblige in hopes of catching more of her havoc. This back-and-forth, before long, creates a powerful urge to redeem.

Fleabag seemingly obliterates the rigid gender norms depicted on television. On its surface, the show rejects the traditional woman-man script for one where a woman can feel on her own terms. Yet, like most antihero depictions, the tendrils of whiteness are still present. This time a woman is front and center.