Fleabag

‘Hair is everything.’

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Being interested in gender, in the dystopian nightmare of modern life, in drama and comedy, and also in cultural phenomena, I thought I’d put myself through one of the biggest television hits of the past few years, the comedy show ‘Fleabag’. Painful to watch, excruciating at times, but instructive too. If you haven’t watched it — and I’d be both astonished, not to mention nauseated, if anyone reading this has — here’s what’s happening at the cutting edge of drama these days…

The series begins with an amusing story told straight to camera by the eponymous heroine (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, playing a version of herself). She has allowed a guy she’s just met to come round and have sex with her. She says she feels him edging towards her arsehole, and she lets him. ‘He’s thrilled’, she says.1 Then, the next morning, he tenderly expresses his love for her, for allowing him to ‘fuck her in the arse’ (she says, as an aside, that ‘to be fair, he does have a large penis’), which she says she finds ‘sort of moving’. She then concludes the story with, ‘and you spend the rest of the day (cut to coffee shop) wondering…’ here comes the punchline, are you ready? ‘do I have a massive arsehole?’

This is the first gag of the whole series. Waller-Bridge must have thought to herself it was one of her strongest; ‘the hook’. Presumably it was the first joke that the producers, backers, director and so on read, perhaps a hit on the comedy circuit that Waller-Bridge started out on. They all knew that people would turn off if they hated it, or keep going if they loved it, and they all must have been sure it was a winner, that it was guaranteed to please — and evidently they were right. Millions of people must have loved this joke. A woman wondering if her arsehole is massive.

In the next scene a man on a bus smiles at Phoebe. From her saucy knowing glance to camera we see she is interested, he is handsome. She looks back at him — but he has ugly teeth! Oh dear!2 This fellow turns out to be a nice idiot who, just after she has stolen some money from him, she calls ‘a pathetic dick’ because he won’t have sex with her; but before we get to that we see Phoebe masturbating to notorious arms-dealer and mass-murderer Barack Obama.

After an adventure at a feminist lecture, where we discover that Phoebe isn’t a ‘proper feminist’ because she wants to look thin (implication: she is a feminist, but a maverick one, too real for the stuffy academic version), and a few problems related to clothes (Phoebe’s sister; ‘You really shouldn’t wear such cheap materials, they don’t let your fanny breathe’) we get to the denouement of episode one in which Phoebe tells us ‘I have a horrible feeling that I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,’ before stealing a valuable ornament from her step-mother.

An intelligent viewer is likely to ask, around about now, why is Fleabag such a gigantic cunt? Is it because she slept with her friend’s boyfriend, which inadvertently led to her death? No, that’s not it. The death of a friend, even one you have betrayed, doesn’t turn you into a irremediable — yet otherwise cheerful — demoness; and there’s no real evidence that her character has changed anyway — after all, she betrays her friend before the death. On top of that all the other lead characters are just as vile (or stupendously, pathetically weak) and it would seem, by the end of the twelve episodes, that actually nothing much has changed for any of them anyway, least of all for Fleabag herself. Sure, she’s stopped talking to the camera, and her lovely little café is turning over a profit now, and she’s stopped thinking about her friend, but apart from what she says, is there any evidence that she’s not still greedy, perverted, selfish, etc, etc? No! None whatsoever. There’s just This Feeling by the Alabama Shakes, a big signpost held up to Guardian journalists telling them they can softly weep now.

But what is the reason? Why is Fleabag so vile? Why is she, in her own words, ‘thirty and angry?’ Is it perpetual sexual harassment and assault, the gender pay gap, domestic violence, and restrictions on abortion access? Those are the usual reasons given for ‘women’s anger’. There’s no evidence for any of that though. Nobody harasses her, not really. Her horrible step-brother goes in for a drunken kiss, but it’s not harassment, or assault — of course it is to the maniacs in charge of the cultural industry now, but Fleabag herself doesn’t consider it as such, nor does anyone else; because it’s not. There’s no violence in her life, nor any evidence there has ever been. Or any hardship, whatsoever. So why is she — and so many other people in this show — so repulsive?

We’ll come to that. It’s worth asking, first, how this story has won numerous awards and received glowing praise from reviewers? Series one currently has a 100% review score on Rotten Tomatoes, and 91% audience score (season two 100% / 97%). ‘Gut punch comedy’ said Emma Fraser in The Observer. ‘It’s dirty, it’s sexy, it’s disgusting, it’s hilarious — and it’s about being a girl. As in, a real girl.’ said Ailis Brennan of GQ Magazine (a real girl mind you! Not a fake one!). ‘Razor sharp and fizzes with a daring, deadpan wit’ wrote Daisy Wyatt of the Independent. ‘[it] just gets better and better. And better,’ swooned Deborah Ross of The Daily Mail. ‘What sets the show apart isn’t the surface quality of its humor but its restless, almost feral energy and its slap-in-the-face attitude.’ Mike Hale there, of the New York Times. ‘It’s another entry into the growing canon of really wonderful comedies that also make you want to cry.’ That was Lisa Weidenfeld of the Onion AV Club.

Needless to say, everyone at The Guardian loved it (obvs!); Emma, Stephanie, Hadley (‘Waller-Bridge is a much more self-aware writer than Brontë’3). Stuart Heritage said ‘I found myself caught up in it purely by the strength of characters alone. They’ve all got such unexplored depths that, unless the final episode ends with them all driving a bus off a cliff, I could happily watch them wallow in misery for years to come.’ (my emphasis) Eleanor Morgan said it was ‘a ferocious dissection of grief, memory, trauma, friendship, family dynamics, self-esteem and the pain of love. The seam that binds this emotional patchwork is female anger. This shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it does.’ Hannah Jane Parkinson’s assessment: ‘As for that ending: the Priest’s speech on the nature of love was electrifying. “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. [Makes you cruel…]” Who among us could not relate?’.

Me. That is not love. Love is not awful, or painful, or frightening — it is the opposite of those things. It makes you selfless, sweet, honorable and discerning. And you don’t give a tuppenny toss about your hair, or at least no more than usual. So what’s The Hot Priest talking about? He says, at the end of this speech — and these are surely Waller-Bridge’s ideas — ‘When you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.’

No, it doesn’t. Love does not ‘feel like hope’. Anyone says or writes such a thing doesn’t know what love is. There is nothing hopeful about love. What Waller-Bridge is talking about, is sex, which is pure hope. She doesn’t understand the difference. Like many people she thinks she does, because somewhere inside her there is a yearning for something other than sex, and, alongside that, the knowledge that loveless sex will crucify you…

‘I also fucked [my cafe business] into liquidation… I fucked up my family… I fucked my friend by fucking her boyfriend… And sometimes I wish I didn’t even know that fucking existed. And 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 just kill it. And somehow there isn’t anything worse than someone who doesn’t want to fuck me. I fuck everything except for when I was in your office, I really wasn’t trying to have sex. You know, everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone which isn’t fucking funny.’

That’s Fleabag at the end of the first series. You can see she has some understanding of the problem of loveless fucking. Sure, there is the unspoken subtext that continually humping everyone and everything and being a complete slave to sexual desire is, like anger, just fine for women now (no suggestion that both are an abomination, for both sexes), but one of the principle ‘messages’ of the series seems to be that Fleabag has learnt that she is using sex to fill a hole. But what of the truth that should be there instead? Of that, of love, there is nothing. It plays no part, whatsoever, in the story. But let’s go back to the ‘comedy’ for a moment.

Episode 2 of series one is made up of jokes about: Phoebe having a piss, Phoebe obsessed with fucking (again), Phoebe’s bleeding vagina, Phoebe’s small breasts, Phoebe masturbating and Phoebe’s vibrator. At the end of the episode she steals a bottle of wine from a local shop. Episode 3 gags: farts (like mum’s! She’s got ‘mum-bum’!), deformed penis, ‘shit grieving’, sending photos of your vagina to an ex-boyfriend… you get the idea. On and on and on it goes, although all this mad, mind-blowing wit and acute observations on what it is like to be exactly like Phoebe Waller-Bridge sort of peter out during the first series as the jokes give way to drama, to the interest we are supposed to have in the characters and in the plot.

Of characters there are two basic settings in Fleabag. There are unbelievably aggressive, unpleasant and selfish characters (the step-brother, the step-mother, one of the boyfriends) and there are feeble, weak, sappish, ‘nice’ characters (the father, two of the boyfriends, the dead friend ‘Boo’4). Then there’s Fleabag herself and, to a lesser extent, her sister, who move from the former state to the latter.5 In all twelve episodes there is one exception to this model, one ‘weird’ character; a needy nephew who plays the bassoon and stares a lot! Hahaha! So weird!

Episode 1 of series two has a quite extraordinary insight into Fleabag’s characterisation. The scene is building up to a menstruation joke — Fleabag’s sister is bleeding, chuckle — but then it turns out to be… a miscarriage! ‘Get your hands off my miscarriage!’ she cries. Not quite a full joke, of course; a bit of sadness follows, ‘it’s mine,’ she whispers, ‘it’s mine…’ And then a few minutes later she’s getting pissed and trying to pretend nothing has happened. What are we to make of this? It could happen, after all, in the ‘real world’. Someone could be this fucked up. But how does Waller-Bridge deal with it? She doesn’t. Nothing is made of it! The event — the secret miscarriage — yes, that is a big plot point. But the person, the sister, who reacts in this totally and utterly fucked-up manner? What happens to her? Well, four episodes later she reacts ten times more intensely to a bad haircut. But then, ‘hair is everything.’

It’s difficult for a show to be this well loved, and this successful, without there being something good about it — and there is, just about. Phoebe Waller-Bridge can be quite charming, particularly when she does her (famous is it?) ‘wait, what? no!’ awkward little nose-wrinkle (two or three times an episode), her sister does play uptight okay (until she ‘actually’ laughs, then it’s horrific) and the two of them versus the cartoonishly evil step-mother6 is crude but effective. The ‘Hot Priest’ in the second series is quite charming too, and their romance is handled quite well,7 at least for an episode or two; but how does that evolve and conclude, the central arc of the second series?

Remember Hadley Freeman, of the Guardian? Hadley loves Tom Hanks, Nicholas Cage, Romancing the Stone, Dirty Dancing, mass-murderer and arms-dealer Hilary Clinton and the persecution and torture of Julian Assange. She also loves Fleabag (’obviously!’), but, she tweeted, ‘I thought the (admittedly hot) priest was emotionally manipulative, toxically selfish and dangerously broken.’ This is because during a pretend confession he makes a move on Fleabag, which she gratefully reciprocates. This makes him ‘emotionally manipulative, toxically selfish and dangerously broken.’ Hold on, no, not just this, also because he has sex with Phoebe ‘even though he’s taken (by God)’ The sanest event in this entire series, a man giving up his idiotic life of celibacy to be with a woman he loves, shows he’s really a ‘Hot But Horrible Man’.

But going back to Waller-Bridge, how is this central love-affair handled? The big will-they-won’t-they story; how does it end? Does he give up the cloth and unite with her after she bares her soul and tells him she loves him? No, he doesn’t; he goes back to his bring-and-buy sales and weekly readings to an audience of nine. Are we supposed to find this deranged, cowardly and spectacularly small-minded? Doesn’t look like it. What’s more, Phoebe, who’s just just lost the only man she has ever really loved, winks at the camera and strolls off, apparently quite happy with herself!

What is going on!? Who are these inhumans? To paraphrase my favourite philosopher, anyone who watched this show without feeling like they were in an insane asylum, would belong in one.

But it’s easy to answer this question. We know who they are. Phoebe lives in a ‘community’ in London. Dagenham is it? Lewisham? Croydon? Nope; Camden and Highgate. She and all the main characters in the series, are either very wealthy, or extremely wealthy. They all talk and think and act like wealthy people. Phoebe is the poor one of the crew — she’s so poor! Her cafe (in Dartmouth Park) is going under, and she has to borrow money, but then in series 2 it’s doing much better, but she’s still a humble failure to the rest of her family, in her colossal and beautiful flat in one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

That’s where the ‘fictional’ character of Fleabag is at. And what of Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself? What about her life? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Waller-Bridge was born 14 July 1985 in west London, the daughter of Michael Cyprian Waller-Bridge (who founded Tradepoint) and Teresa Mary (née Clerke). Her maternal grandfather was Sir John Edward Longueville Clerke, the 12th of the Clerke baronets of Hitcham; on her father’s side she is a descendant of The Rev. Sir Egerton Leigh, 2nd Baronet, Conservative member of parliament for Mid Cheshire from 1873 to his death in 1876.

That’s Waller-Bridges family; who’s nickname for her was Fleabag. Do you know any parents who affectionately call their children ‘Scumbag’ or ‘Dirtball’ or something of that nature? What kind of people are they? Or have you ever spent time in massively wealthy hotels, had to serve, maybe, at a Michelin star restaurant, or perhaps even worked or studied with a descendant of a Baronet, or similar? How did they behave, the kind of people who have enormous offices on the South Bank, or manors in France, or nice little cafés in Tufnal Park? What did they find funny? What did they really value? What did they really say? What kind of relationship did they have with humanity? With nature? Did you notice the tone of their voice, the quality of their awareness, their sensitivity, their subtlety — their ‘heart’ if you will?

Here then is the clear and obvious answer to why the character of Fleabag is an abhorrent witch. Phoebe is extremely wealthy. She therefore has a very limited understanding of what life in the world is, with no real contact with uncertainty or discomfort or anyone who is radically different to The Standard Modern Female. Being wealthy she is shaped from birth into the blandly confident and insensitive consciousness which all wealthy people exhibit, even wealthy children.8 These attributes confer upon her worldly success; which is to say, success in the male world. Like all women raised in the male world, she has absorbed maleness, but because she is wealthy, and modern, there are no pressures on her to experience any deeper psychological reality, so she remains, essentially, an unhappy pseudo-man, with all the problems of unhappy men — restless mentation, sexual obsession and anger — which she excuses, just as insane men do. This doesn’t just make her as unhappy as men are, but far more so — because she is a woman. She is therefore effectively possessed, but she can’t do anything about her possession because, like the millions of successful or ambitious women who adore the show, her worldly power is based on being possessed, based on her acquired maleness, and she can’t give that up without giving away the power. So instead she lovelessly fucks her way around the world, cheerlessly ‘joking’ about her disgusting life, and creating a narrative, based on the given unculture of the world, which justifies the unholy nightmare of it; a living dead horrorshow that all her friends cheerfully engage in; all papered over with the bloodless, soulless, sentimental idea of love that Waller-Bridge tranquilises her, and her viewer’s, self-loathing with.

Fleabag.n.|ˈfliːbaɡ| A dirty or shabby animal, person or object infested with blood-sucking parasites.

Postscript

I’ve had a few negative comments on this piece centering around the idea that it is, of all things, misogynist. Apparently criticising an inhuman female character — one who is fairly frank about her loveless depravity — in a morally and aesthetically repulsive narrative, is expressing hatred of all women. Such an absurd charge doesn’t deserve a response9; the motive for making it is, to anyone with any intelligence, all too clear.


See also: my review of Black Mirror.

Notes

  1. With a slight note of ‘of course’ — for isn’t that what all men dream of, inserting their penis into the anus of women they hardly know?
  2. Essentially, a modern twist on the classic ‘oops! he / she is actually ugly!’ gag. A subtle reference to Benny Hill? Or Dick Emery?
  3. Because ‘Self-awareness’ = admitting that your fanny smells.
  4. Boo. Boo.
  5. No coincidence, I think, that of the eight main characters, only half of them have names.
  6. Cartoonish in execution that is, not in extent. No doubt many people think ‘oh, I’ve met women like her’, but they haven’t. They’ve just met women as bad as her, in fact probably much worse. ‘Like’ though is something else entirely, and entirely impossible.
  7. And there is one actually funny joke too, kind of. A picture falls from the priest’s office wall at a critical moment and he laughs and says ‘I love it when He does that.’
  8. Phoebe Waller-Bridge: ‘I suppose some of the criticism is that it was “just for posh girls” and what I loved was that people were sending me photos of tweets … There was one guy saying “I’m a disabled 42-year-old man living in Hull and I am Fleabag”. And it was like “Yes mate!” because that’s always what I’m striving for … That people feel like it is a human story.‘ Darren Allen: ‘a few minutes ago I was chatting with an electrician from Shrewsbury. He said “I’ve met a lot of rich people. Couldn’t stand one of them.”’
  9. Nor does the criticism that I have used foul language. Yes, a fan of Fleabag accused me of this!
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