The British TV series, Fleabag, swept some major awards at the Emmys this year—the show about a thirty-something woman called Fleabag, written and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, chronicles the emotional and sexual turbulence in the life of a not-very-nice single woman, who, at some point says this of herself: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
Going by Season 1, she is all of the above, and no matter how wickedly funny the series may be, with Fleabag carrying on a fourth-wall-breaking conversation with the audience, in a wry, mostly self-mocking tone, it seems like another insidious attack on the single woman. Never mind how happy she may be, popular culture continues to portray the single woman as either a pitiable or a contemptible creature, constantly on the lookout to snare a man. Back in 1996, Helen Fielding created Bridget Jones, a comical woman anxious about her “singleton” status while enviously mocking the “smug marrieds” in her circle; in 2019 Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is so desperate for a man in her bed, she even eyes a rat-faced man in a bus and eagerly gives him her number. Fleabag’s sister says, “We’re going to die here. We’re going to be raped and die” as they wait outside a remotely located retreat home. Fleabag replies, “Every cloud—”. Even rape is a silver lining according to Fleabag!
Fleabag (what’s her real name?) ran a guinea pig themed café with a friend, Boo, who had committed suicide because of her, but is always in her thoughts. She has a sister, Claire, who is the opposite of her—prim and collected, while Fleabag is scattered and vulgar. Their widowed father is living with their godmother, an artist (played by Olivia Colman, winner of the Oscar and multiple other awards for The Favourite), and his idea of gifting is getting his daughters tickets for feminist talks. In an episode, both attend one, at which the speaker asks the audience, “If you could lose five years of your life to have what society considers the perfect body, would you?” Only Fleabag and Claire raise their hands.
When the series opens, Fleabag has just been dumped by her boyfriend Harry. That morning she is to present a business plan for a loan for the café and behaves in a highly unprofessional manner, and at one point raises her top to flash her breasts at the bank manager, and then calls him “perv”.
At one level, the dark-haired, red-lipped Fleabag, is independent and sexually liberated—even when things are not going her way, she manages to look at the camera with a sardonic twist of the lips and a gleam in the eye.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge developed the series from its beginnings as a ten-minute stand-up act and it retains that nudge-wink, often, smutty humour. It is sad though to know that even today the single women is perceived as being predatory and/or pathetic. Both Bridget Jones and Fleabag are creations of female writers—if men had written these characters, they would probably have been accused of misogyny or sexism.
Emily Nussbaum notes in her piece in The New Yorker, “Fleabag’s brother-in-law, played with sinister brio by Brett Gelman, of “Married,” is a charming drunk whose flaws mimic her own. ‘He’s one of those men who is explosively sexually inappropriate with everyone but makes you feel bad if you take offense, because he was just being fun,’ she says, either unaware of the irony or just furious that he can get away with it, as a married man, while she’s left exposed by similar behavior.”
The difference in male and female attitudes are also uttered by other characters. A woman played by Kristin Scott-Thomas has a monologue about pain, in which she says, “Women are born with pain built in…period pain, sore boobs, childbirth...Men have to seek it out…then they create wars, so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren’t any wars, they can play rugby.”
Then, a priest with whom Fleabag falls in love in Season 2, gets to say these lines, “Love is awful. It’s painful. Frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. Makes you selfish, makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair….It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope.”
Fleabag could be seen as romantic in a perverse sort of way, but she is also nasty, conflicted and masochistic; surprisingly, audiences and awards juries found the character real and relatable, which makes you wonder when there will be a serial or film as popular and acclaimed as this one, about a happy, well-adjusted single woman who is not flagellating herself with guilt or self-loathing. But if you are not all that deferential towards a much admired show about a woman like Fleabag, you must be a wet blanket!
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.