In “Fleabag,” TV Finally Gives Us a Female Anti-Hero to Love

The six-part British series shows us a self-destructive, bitter, angry young woman and trusts that we will care about her pain.

Sady DoyleOctober 25, 2016

Creator/executive producer/actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, actress Sian Clifford and director Harry Bradbeer speak onstage at the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Are we final­ly ready to deal with female suf­fer­ing in pop culture?

"Fleabag is willing to let a woman take the anti-hero seat, and to trust that we’ll provide her with the instant, unquestioning forgiveness we’ve supplied so many male leads."

It’s not that we’ve nev­er seen women hurt before. There are plen­ty of vari­eties of female pain that are not only accept­able, but down­right pop­u­lar. For instance, a woman can suf­fer trag­i­cal­ly in the back­ground in order to moti­vate her man. This works best if she dies, or at least gets raped — then he’s real­ly angry, and will almost def­i­nite­ly go on to solve the case or fight the mob­sters or what have you.

Women can also suf­fer vir­tu­ous­ly to demon­strate a man’s val­ue: the all-sac­ri­fic­ing, saint­ly moth­er, or the wife who sheds a sin­gle tear (with­out fuck­ing up her mas­cara) as her hus­band goes off to war and/​or to fight Ultron. On a few occa­sions, we’ll even allow women to suf­fer with­out being per­fect, though, again, this is most accept­able if we get to kill them for it. Think psy­cho-bitch­es Glenn Close in Fatal Attrac­tion or Cer­sei Lan­nis­ter on Game of Thrones, who get emo­tion­al­ly demol­ished to prove that mean women nev­er pros­per, or train­wrecks like Amy Wine­house, who become crowd-pleas­ing tear­jerk­ers after their deaths.

These por­tray­als all have some­thing in com­mon: They show suf­fer­ing as seen from the out­side, as it exists to grat­i­fy or moti­vate oth­er peo­ple, rather than an inter­nal con­di­tion. Suf­fer­ing women are plot devices, rewards or obsta­cles; they are uni­lat­er­al­ly won­der­ful or uni­lat­er­al­ly ter­ri­ble, depend­ing on whether they help or hin­der the man at the cen­ter of the sto­ry. What they don’t get to be is the heart of their own sto­ries, or the peo­ple whose eyes we see that sto­ry through: messy, screwed-up, com­plex human beings who just so hap­pen to be in pain.

Fleabag, the six-part British series that Ama­zon Prime picked up after it aired on the BBC this sum­mer, seems like a refresh­ing depar­ture from that trend. The show is will­ing to encounter a woman’s suf­fer­ing on its own terms, even when the woman in ques­tion is inca­pable of help­ing any­one, includ­ing herself. 

The main char­ac­ter, played by cre­ator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is cred­it­ed only as Fleabag;” none of the oth­er char­ac­ters address her by name. She is griev­ing her best friend’s recent sui­cide, which may or may not have been acci­den­tal, and try­ing to save the café they opened togeth­er, which is on the verge of bank­rupt­cy. This is heavy stuff; you could make a tear­jerk­ing indie dra­ma out of it. Yet Fleabag her­self stead­fast­ly resists our pity.

In one of the première’s most-quot­ed lines, she refers to her­self as a greedy, per­vert­ed, self­ish, apa­thet­ic, cyn­i­cal, depraved, moral­ly bank­rupt woman who can’t even call her­self a fem­i­nist.” She’s also self-destruc­tive, sex­u­al­ly com­pul­sive, and deeply, bit­ter­ly angry, capa­ble of cru­el­ty both venge­ful (she steals an invalu­able art piece from her father’s pas­sive-aggres­sive new girl­friend) and pure­ly gra­tu­itous (she delights in jerk­ing around her sad-sack boyfriend, tim­ing their peri­od­ic breakups for when­ev­er the house gets too dirty — he’ll wind up clean­ing it while gath­er­ing his things). 

Some of those last details may have revealed that this is meant to be a com­e­dy. And it is — a very fun­ny one, actu­al­ly, with some fan­tas­ti­cal­ly over-the-line sex jokes packed in along­side all the mor­bid­i­ty and despair. One date is so sex­u­al­ly inse­cure that he tries to for­bid her from mas­tur­bat­ing. Things fall apart when he dis­cov­ers her stream­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion on her lap­top and, um, respond­ing enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly to Pres­i­dent Obama’s speech

But Fleabag is bleak, dark, acidic com­e­dy even in its goofi­est moments, and it nev­er blunts the jagged edges of its main char­ac­ter. We see the whole thing through her eyes as she deliv­ers first-per­son nar­ra­tion to the cam­era and forces us to flash back to her mem­o­ries. We have to empathize with her for the show to work, and the show nev­er tries to make her lik­able.” Fleabag starts a fuck-up, and stays a fuck-up; she just hap­pens to be a fuck-up with decent jokes.

It’s strange that this approach works — because it does work; Waller-Bridge is fun­ny and unpre­dictable enough that we want to keep watch­ing, if only to see what she’ll do next — but even stranger that some­one was will­ing to try it. Fleabag, upon exam­i­na­tion, is that rarest of all items: a female-dri­ven com­e­dy with­out a redemp­tion arc. There’s no per­fect guy to save her from a life of sport-fuck­ing, no makeover mon­tage or peri­od of self-exam­i­na­tion, no quest to con­nect with the wicked step­moth­er or be kinder to the dopey boyfriend, no life-alter­ing epiphany that drags her out of the dumps. Fleabag is, sim­ply, a sto­ry about a dif­fi­cult, sad, angry, suf­fer­ing woman. There is no light at the end of that woman’s tun­nel; there is no path to being any­one oth­er than her­self. We can­not ask her to change into some­one bet­ter” or more lik­able,” and we shouldn’t watch the show in the hopes that she’ll learn her les­son or repent for her sins. We should watch the show sim­ply to under­stand who she is.

That is a stag­ger­ing amount of trust to place in your audi­ence: trust that we can tol­er­ate and under­stand women’s human­i­ty, trust that we want to under­stand a flawed woman more than we want to pun­ish her, trust in our patience. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly mis­placed. Pop cul­ture is filled with bro­ken, bit­ter, cru­el anti-heroes, and we often love them for their awful­ness. But we pre­fer them to be men. It’s why some Break­ing Bad fans saw Wal­ter White as a badass” when he was sell­ing meth and poi­son­ing chil­dren, but hat­ed Skyler White for nag­ging” him — or why we can for­give Jaime Lan­nis­ter for push­ing a child out of a win­dow and rap­ing his own sis­ter, but still need that sis­ter, Cer­sei Lan­nis­ter, to be rit­u­al­ly humil­i­at­ed and prefer­ably killed for her own sins.

Fleabag is will­ing to let a woman take the anti-hero seat, and to trust that we’ll pro­vide her with the instant, unques­tion­ing for­give­ness we’ve sup­plied so many male leads. We’re encour­aged to see much of her awful­ness as an expres­sion of her grief and ensu­ing depres­sion — her pat­tern of draw­ing sex­u­al part­ners in and then demol­ish­ing them as soon as they express real affec­tion, for exam­ple. But in its most dar­ing moments, the show sug­gests that Fleabag has always been this way, that she was exact­ly this destruc­tive even before her friend died, and that grief is just one more ingre­di­ent thrown into what was already a fair­ly tox­ic stew. Though that’s a harsh judg­ment on the char­ac­ter, it’s a thrilling way to blow off our cul­tur­al ten­den­cy to see women as either angel­i­cal­ly per­fect or hate­ful­ly sub­hu­man. Fleabag may nev­er be a nice or hap­py woman, and she may nev­er have been nice or hap­py a day in her life. But that doesn’t make her pain less real, or less impor­tant — not to her, and not to the audience.

Either every­one feels like this, at least a lit­tle bit, and they’re just not talk­ing about it,” Fleabag says at one point, or I am com­plete­ly fuck­ing alone. Which isn’t fuck­ing funny.”

You get the sense Fleabag is bet­ting on the first option: that we can deal with the character’s suf­fer­ing, and her flaws, sim­ply because they look like our own. That we’ll watch the show sim­ply because she isn’t alone, or because we fear we might be. As with all anti-heroes, she exists to act out what we can’t. Again, that’s a lot of trust to place in your audi­ence. But then, audi­ences are made up of peo­ple — some­times, of women — and those peo­ple always have their own pain.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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