In Defense of Fleabag Feminism

The Wyndham’s Theatre in London where Phoebe Waller Bridge debuted her original play, Fleabag, before it became a TV series. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Raph_PH, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

Who among us—in this case, “us” being straight cis women, since the woman in question is—has not at least considered masturbating to a video of Barack Obama? Who among us—this time those of us of any gender—hasn’t contemplated stealing a trinket from a hateful relative’s home to prove a point about annoyance?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2016 dark comedy Fleabag is powered by small transgressive moments like these, blurring the boundaries between real life and its imagined counterparts and constantly breaking the fourth wall to shift the freewheeling narrative into moments of penetrative reality. Fleabag lets the near-constant absurdity of women’s experiences within a male-controlled world open out into a refreshing slant of realistic, female-centered and implicitly feminist viewpoint.

And in 2019, it’s coming back to the small screen.

Fleabag follows the darkly comic life of the titular protagonist, narrator and (anti-)heroine. Fleabag is never actually named on the show—but her perceptions, questions and snark control nearly every scene. She lives in London, working to keep her tiny ghost town of a café afloat. periodically visiting with her straight-laced sister or emotionally distant father and almost purely evil stepmother while she grieves the loss of her best friend and sleeps with several men along the way. (Along with Fleabag’s general scathingness of wit, that last part is what has focused the lion’s share of reviews and critiques of the show, but I’m not so sure it should have.)

From the very beginning shot of the first episode—with Fleabag poised behind her apartment door, breathlessly recounting what might happen when she opens it to admit the man on the other side—Waller-Bridge shows herself to be a maestra of the female gaze. From her hidden vantage point, Waller-Bridge-as-Fleabag unfurls a giddy, anticipatory stare that is aware of all of the possibilities and absurdities inherent in hiding there, and she intones them out loud to her audience, adding another level of awareness. In moments like these, Fleabag is a comic version of Janet Leigh in Psycho, except she’s holding the metaphorical knife, wielding a kind of quiet power that lightly destabilizes everyone she encounters. She’s also Lucille Ball: she bumbles, she puts her foot in her mouth and makes mistakes, pushing everyone else off kilter along the way.

Fleabag’s constant wit has a sharp and sometimes acidic edge. Many reviewers have read this tendency, which the Guardian and the New York Times describe as “bitter,” as contributing to her emotional distance from everyone around her; while that makes sense, it’s more interesting to examine as a narrative of power and empowerment. Fleabag’s relatively unapologetic complexity is, after all, what makes her such a compelling character, at turns both fun and excruciating to watch.

Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker called the show “a precision black-humor mechanism, a warped and affecting fable about one single woman’s existence,” all of which sets up its importance to female, femme and feminist experiences under late and eternal patriarchy. In so many critical takes on the show, however, power critiques get lost in examinations of Fleabag’s personal flaws.

Jen Chaney wrote in Vulture that “Fleabag’s unsavory qualities are diluted a little by the fact that she obviously wants to change them and just doesn’t know how,” adding that “it becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s broken, but we don’t fully understand the extent of the damage until the final half-hour.” Chaney’s particular version of the Fleabag-as-sex-maniac critique takes on a different cast when viewed in light of Vulture’s regular publication of Sex Diaries, which publishes anonymous accounts of sexual habits without that added layer of judgment. (And Fleabag doesn’t even end up sleeping with that many men.) Chaney’s point is definitely well-taken with regard to Fleabag’s frequent lack of concern for others—but I’d counter that everyone in the show, with the possible exception of her best friend, Boo, tends that way. Her sister regularly snaps at her, her oily brother-in-law leers a constant stream of sexual commentary, her father ignores her and her stepmother simpers poisonous words.

Fleabag’s world is one of a continuum of bad attitudes towards others, from judgment to nasty insults to sexual harassment. Why should we judge only her behavior?

And, of course, all female characters have, and ought to have, the right to be unapologetically complicated and flawed, just as all women and femmes do. We’ve got centuries of male-created, male-focused stories like that. They should be allowed to have as much sex as they want—all, none or something in between. In literature and film, female characters have been the bland backdrop of Updike and Roth or the pedestal-placed damsels of men like John Wayne and John Ford; even when women focus the narrative, as in classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy and I Dream of Jeannie, male control asserts itself in the framing. Television’s first few golden ages were, of course, marked by women in the center of their own universes—Lucy, Mary, Gidget, Maude, Murphy—but they all had certain ladylike codes to follow. They all had to frequently bend in really revolutionary ways, but never truly break.

In recent years, though, television in particular has opened up beyond men—putting complicated women in the foreground, and with more women and femmes earning funding to create female-focused shows. We are currently in a renaissance of female-centered shows that tell real stories of flawed people, from Insecure to Scandal. I’d argue that Grey’s Anatomy, now in its fifteenth season, was a trailblazer there as well, with Sandra Oh’s incomparable Dr. Cristina Yang, in the company of several other fierce women, refusing to diminish herself for anyone else. While she has recently gained well-deserved cultural currency as the creative force behind Oh’s badass and long overdue small screen return in Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge’s work creating and starring in Fleabag introduced audiences to a new side of the timeless cultural force that is the challenging, complicated female protagonist.

Flaws are important to see—because we all have them, and because female characters haven’t historically been given an equitable amount of space to express them. Male control of production, direction and writing has had a stronghold on so much of our collective cultural life; the male gaze has dominated most of the widely-distributed and widely-seen films and TV shows of the last several decades. (Consider the long shots of Fordean Westerns, and even the tight circles of single-camera sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld that center on complaining.) No recent television show articulates the complexity of the female gaze so clearly as Fleabag—directly drawing the audience in, challenging us to put parts of the narrative together ourselves and winking at us even through incredible trauma.

In her classic 1975 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey offered the first comprehensive definition of the male gaze: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy [in the Freudian sense] on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” 

One thing Mulvey does well is root her radical notion in a long history of cinematic work. But even just the act of naming a pervasive form of control as such proved revolutionary in its very ordinariness. How is it that we had never had a word for the male gaze before Mulvey gave us one?

The female gaze is indirect, complicated, interesting. The male gaze, which Mulvey should have immediately clarified was in her scope largely white and heterosexual, has the luxury of straightforwardness—just as straight, white, male hegemony does. The female gaze, along with the Black male gaze and the queer male gaze and so on and so forth, has had to operate more quietly under patriarchy, has had to be more aware.

If anything links Fleabag’s incredibly paced but disparately plotted episodes together besides female connection, it’s hetero sex—between Fleabag and several male partners. Part of Fleabag’s transgressive feminism is that she takes back some of the power white men have been exerting on women for centuries by using them just as much as they use her. They aren’t central to her story; sex is. And, as the show’s pilot episode memorably shows, a video of President Obama does more for her orgasms than most of the men she actually sleeps with.

The way Waller-Bridge deploys the female gaze ensures that on this show, men are essentially an afterthought. They move the plot forward and they provide fodder for many of Fleabag’s acid-tongued asides. Although the show as a whole wouldn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, certain episodes come close, due this disinterest. The narrative only evinces a passing fancy with male characters, and none of them are fully developed. As the show is developing, the female gaze has the freedom to focus on men—but it doesn’t have to. It isn’t defined by them or by their interests. And all stories have the right to put men to the side, or should, just like it.

Another effect of Fleabag’s female gaze is a nuanced showcase of feminism. If women are supposed to claim their power, what happens to women who muddle through the world in a more intermediate way, or even in an angrier one? What Fleabag throws into relief is how inexorably the male gaze takes from—while the female gaze, as Waller-Bridge’s carefully set up shots illustrate, takes in. It’s more perceptive, sometimes to a fault. Because in a world where women and femmes are likely to experience harassment or assault in any number of seemingly safe situations, the female gaze has to be extra aware. And even in her self-absorption, Fleabag is all about noticing things.

In 2012, Roxane Gay offered a very useful examination of the complex and sometimes conflicting realities of being a feminist under the limiting dogmas of what she clarifies as the misperceptions and blind spots in mainstream feminism, or what she calls “essential feminism”—”the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist,” which “doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality” and offers “little room for multiple or discordant points of view.”

She writes: “Essential feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman, or at least a proper white, heterosexual, feminist woman—hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don’t cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don’t shave.”

Instead, Gay identifies herself as a “bad feminist”—one who doesn’t comply with all of these rules at all times, who feels uncomfortable with some but enthusiastic about others. It’s a realistic and welcoming response to what she identifies as “the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive.” Essential feminism is not enough, Gay observes, because it turns too intensely on misperceptions of what women should and can be, rather than the vast range of what their experiences are.

Both the book and the essay Bad Feminist were revolutionary, in part because they admitted, out loud, that it’s really hard to do everything in your life in a classically feminist way, and that maybe you can be a feminist without checking all of the boxes you might think it presents to you. “While I may be a bad feminist,” Gay writes, “I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women and on and on.” In Gay’s hands, the idea of the “bad feminist” has become less of a self-directed critique of one’s own feminist practices as a kind of complexity that a person can openly claim.

The feminist lecture that Fleabag and Claire attend in the first episode of the show is prototypical essential feminism, and the show’s framing of it is “bad.” Waller-Bridge cannily uses the lecture to skewer exactly the kinds of prescriptive feminism that Gay undoes in her essay and book. The speaker, a white woman, addresses a crowd of mostly white women, asking them to “please raise your hands if you would trade five years of your life for the perfect body.” Fleabag and Claire’s hands are the only two to shoot up. They look a little sheepish, embodying the kind of conflicted honest for which bad feminism makes purposeful room. Claire even notes later, in a sharp parallel: “We’re bad feminists.”

Traditional, essential feminism was a surrogate parent for the sisters in a certain sense, as well as by their absent-eyed father’s faint attention, and they treat it with the amount of disdain you might imagine, even while expressing the freedoms it has given them. These feminist lectures, which their dad brought them to after their mother’s death, help to take up the space that both parents left through their different kinds of absence. In a typical move, Fleabag hurls a deeper barb by stating the specific as the general: “See you next time women speak, then.”

She makes a similar move in the fourth episode, when she and Claire attend a silent retreat, again on their father’s blinking patronage, and when, in the room they are sharing, skincare comes up in conversation. Fleabag is incredulous at all of the bottles Claire has; she has only one tub, “for my face and body,” letting us know in her specificity that she’s aware of the contrast and, by extension, what society expects of her—more than one.

But the fourth episode is where the show’s surreal, pointed gender politics really crystallize. Fleabag and Claire have been sent out for a weekend, to the “Female-only Breath of Silence retreat.” The silence, as the holier-than-thou woman in charge announces, “is about leaving your voice in your head,” and Fleabag, who talks constantly, chafes against it. A parody of all spaces that appropriate eastern traditions in the name of mindfulness, and many white feminist-dominated spaces, too, the main activity at the retreat seems to be angry floor-scrubbing, wherein a group of mostly white women becoming empowered through the work they might pay brown women to do in their own homes.

By challenging the orthodoxies of mainstream feminism through unblinking satire, Fleabag puts the audience in a very particular kind of hot seat. Just as we are made to feel some degree of discomfort watching Fleabag navigate a constricting and unfair world in which she herself often disregards the feelings of others, we are simultaneously asked to interrogate the ways the world puts us into conflict and tries to dictate our own experiences.

If Waller-Bridge had moved past a white, cis perspective with these questions, the really important work her show is doing would only have been enriched. But like GIRLS before it, the show mostly operates in a world without people of color, and when they do appear, they are relegated to the periphery of the narrative. Fleabag very clearly has only white friendson the other hand, Fleabag seems to only really have had one friend at all.

In Gay’s sense, then, Fleabag is a deceptively subtle feminist manifesto. It’s not Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale: it doesn’t take itself that seriously or pretend to be inclusive. It’s not House of Cards: no woman is elevated to high office, or even to a more stable job. But in a lot of ways, it’s more feminist in intent and execution than either of those. Fleabag is proudly and complexly and even horribly flawed, but she keeps men firmly to the side of all of the other things in her life, and she doesn’t really care what you think about that. She embraces her sexual autonomy openly and sometimes intimidatingly, as male characters receive it. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend is painted as too sensitive, and her one- or several-night stands tend to give her the looks of incredulity, as well as not pay very much attention to her sexual needs and wants. (Waller-Bridge’s face during a consensual but uncomfortable jackhammer session with a man she calls Fuck Me Up the Ass is in itself a work of comedic art.)

The show’s ultimate love story is probably between Fleabag and herself, especially evident once the last episode’s shattering impact has fully settled. But her complex love for her sister, Claire, and her best friend, Boo, are just as compelling. The episodes that focus on the sisters’ relationship are some of the funniest, in their banter, and some of the saddest, when they revisit or mourn or passingly discuss their mother’s death.

Revisiting the show after the worldwide explosion of the #MeToo movement is an interesting exercise. I found myself much more alert for misbehavior from the men in her life than I was when I watched it two years ago—and indeed, male misbehavior is sprinkled throughout the episodes, from Fleabag’s slimy brother-in-law constantly leering at her and making harassing comments toward her to the bank Fleabag attempts to get a loan from denying her claim.

Her own action in that meeting, accidentally removing her shirt because she thought she had one on underneath, comes up again in the retreat episode when the banker is one of the men on the other retreat. He tells her, “we haven’t had the opportunity to represent any women-led businesses since the…” and she finishes, “sexual harassment case?” She also endures near-constant harassment from her sister’s smug American husband, something her sister doesn’t believe in the show’s devastating conclusion.

The show also allows Fleabag a tendency toward sadomasochism that doesn’t ever get fulfilled. Men continually disappoint her, either by not trying or by not caring about her experience. She meets an over-eager gentleman on a bus who cracks: “I’ll be sure to treat you like a nasty little bitch.” She thrills to the camera, and then pouts when he says he’s joking.

Waller-Bridge explained the changes in Fleabag’s feelings about sex to NPR in 2016:

She just feels the pressure of being sexual and being sexually attractive so much more that it’s kind of become innate in her character. And my fear for so long about younger women, especially today, was that they would feel like a vital part of being a woman and especially a young woman is how sexually attractive you are. And I wanted to create a character that kind of was the walking example of how that can go wrong, because she does feel like that, I think.” And Waller-Bridge preserves an interior life for the character by never completely laying bare the roots of her pain. As she said to NPR, “And I feel so often that stories of angry young men are often unexplained, and actually so often when there’s a broken, damaged woman it’s because at the end you go, ‘Oh right, oh, it’s because she was abused. That’s why.’ Or, you know, she was abandoned or she was raped. … I was really determined to make sure that she didn’t have the one reason.

Fleabag is not meant to be a standard feminist allegory, but there is something empowering in her refusal to care too much, specially as a response to the highly, and binarily, gendered ways that the act of caring has been taught or ignored with respect to female-identified children and male-identified children.

Fleabag feminism, if we were to outline it, would have to center on doing what you want without regard for others—certainly an “unsavory quality,” in Jen Chaney’s terms. In some ways, it tracks as the opposite of bad feminism, because Gay’s philosophy is shot through with humanistic concern and with awareness that women and femmes, though we exist in a patriarchal system, also exist among other people, and part of being an authentic feminist is treating others well when they’ve shown us they deserve it.

Fleabag herself, while not wholly a working role model, inspires simply in her ability to keep going under tremendous pressure: sexual harassment, economic insecurity, incredible grief. The audience may be more important to Fleabag than anyone alive in her lifeshe breaks the fourth wall with more apparent verve than she does anything else. But what makes the rest of us, with our socially mediated outward glances, so different from her? Everyone else in Fleabag’s life is pretending as hard as she is, after all, and has their own interests just as central to their own worldview as she does. We can make the same critiques of everyone else in the show that we can of her, and of ourselves.

The show thus poses a critical question: Why should feminism, or women’s experiences, be categorical or tidy when misogyny is not?


Hilarie Ashton has been published in Electric Literature, NPR's Turn the Tables series, the LA Review of Books' blog, The Hairpin, Modern Loss, Literary OrphansHuffPo and Style. She is an English Ph.D candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she focuses on American studies and literature, and received her M.A. in humanities and social thought from NYU and her B.A. in English and philosophy from Williams College.