Last year, during an utmost gray and rainy stay in London, I spent some rather dull hours, would have been otherwise, in Waterson’s, a well-known British bookstore. I gazed through the shelves, passing through the newest releases, all to the classics. Bought a poetry book to match the outdoors mood and noticed near the check-outs, while the assistant was trying to eagerly sell me a gift card as if that was my weekly shopping spot, some kind of newer section of books, entitled: Feminist literature. Odd, I said to myself, thinking about books written by women for women as if they needed a special category.
It never occurred to me that someone would identify as a ‘feminist’ because I was definitely blessed with a strong-willed mother, so my parents did their best of protecting me from any kind of gender imparities.
We all fear categorization and the concept of ‘essential feminism’ adds another label to women, who are constantly being forced into a box that cannot quite accommodate the whole spectrum, as seen in the Fleabag series.
What is feminism, anyways?
According to the Cambridge online dictionary, feminism is “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.” The literature tends to examine, question, and argue for change against established and antiquated gender roles through the written word. Currently, some TV shows have adopted a single female point perspective, voices to be heard if we want to comprehend the ongoing picture of gender discrimination without any judgments.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: writer, comedian, creator of Fleabag series.
Originally a play, a one woman show, focused on the relationship with the audience and presenting her life in three days with full control of telling the story, Phoebe sketched her life experiences honestly, through awkward moments and jokes. ‘As a woman’, Fleabag starts pouring her rushing thoughts right in front of the camera, to the audience, an invitation for the moments of monologue to come. The humor, the turn of phrases and the anecdotes, were amplified from her life as she wrote it all on post-it notes and then cracked them all up so that it was painfully humiliating. In the first season she grabs us by our hands into her messy life full of lies only to drop us in season two, while the 4th wall remains definitely blocked as she learns to own herself and give up the sarcasm she used to deflect from reality. And this is how drama-comedy best works, as Phoebe declared in an interview: ‘When there is a joke and the audience laughs, it’s like they are practically handing their heart to you and begging to be broken.’
‘The problem with gender is it prescribes how we should be, a constant pressure, and women can be as equally flawed as men are.‘Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- Nigerian writer & feminist
They shouldn’t be held up to some ridiculous standard of beauty or dress or opinion or behavior and that is why Fleabag is an inherently feminist character. Her creator understands that feminism isn’t easy. It doesn’t mean adhering to some specific list of rules. It’s frustrating and messy and difficult. Fleabag’s narrative mocks the dynamic between society’s expectation of women, and Fleabag’s outrageous character who says and does whatever she likes, whenever she wants to.
In the first episode, the two sisters are gifted by their father tickets to a Women’s speak conference as if they need be educated in the art of making noise. At one point, the characters are asked if they would trade five years of their life for the “perfect body”. One of them whispers to her sister: “We’re bad feminists.” After getting a glimpse of Fleabag’s dry-witted character, a narrative of a horny, hapless and motherless 33 years old woman haunted by past events, she bursts at the end of the episode at her father’s door steps at 2 am in the morning:
“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.”Fleabag, Season 1, Episode 1
Later in the series, the sisters visit a women-only healing retreat where they are asked to do menial housework in complete silence.
The gist of the weekend is to help people let go of their past and help them open their senses by closing their mouths and living in the present. Basically, being mindful becomes a thought prison for them while at the same time, a retreat designed for men who have harassed women is happening on another part of the property. The dichotomy is priceless; while men are permitted to be vocal and expressive in vulgar slurs at a doll named Patricia, women are told to quiet themselves and dedicate their energies to snipping grass with nail clippers.
Hidden in the obvious comedy is the message: women are still often unable to freely express themselves when there is an issue. The pithy scene also pokes fun at the fact that even though the men at the retreat are the ones who have committed an offense, it is still the voice of the female victim that is missing as she is reduced to a human sized doll. Overall, there is a sense of brotherhood in the male camp as they reconcile with their frustrations at the campfire, while women are left alone, reduced to a silent fate, the only communal moment being a shared bedroom which ought to create ‘bonds’.
During a sisterhood quarrel about Claire’s desired Finland job promotion, the elder sister, who literally portrays the ‘successful career women’ model, immediately tries to refuse the offer due to her current marital status, while Fleabag encourages her to not let other people stand in the way of what she really wants. This rationale dwells on the fact that women are praised for obedience from a very young age – be polite and smile for the camera! Thus, girls grow up to not being able to see they desire things and thus silence themselves, to not being able to see what they think and tragically, turn pretense in an art form.
‘My husband is not other people. My husband is my life.’Claire, Season 1
When Fleabag presents Claire’s pitiful, drunk husband’s sexual harassment as he tried to kiss her at a birthday party, her sister refuses to believe her, mimicking the feeling of what is like to undergo unpleasant circumstances that shall pass in complete silence. Unfortunately, the whole play out of sexual objectification of women for entertainment reasons, mostly, still adds up to fault victims for the ‘male gaze’ in assault cases, stripping them away of any real credibility.
In season 2, the 3rd episode tackles exactly the description of women in our current work environment through a ‘Women in Business’ (only) ceremony. Its award mustn’t be too pink or feminine, or it might be hated by the public. When asked about the prize, the winner, who we find out is a lesbian, says: ‘No, it’s ghettoizing. It is a subsection of success. A fucking children’s table awards.’ No wonder, these events feel like shows that unmask the inequality going on, starting with the wage gap between sexes, an issue still not resolved in 2021.
Fleabag’s feminism, if we were to outline it, would have to center on doing what you want without regard for others – certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, as the main character inspires simply in her ability to keep going under tremendous pressure: sexual harassment, economic insecurity, incredible grief.
The series lets the near constant absurdity of women’s experiences within a male-controlled world open out into a refreshing perspective of realistic, female-centered and implicitly feminist viewpoint. Her relatively unapologetic complexity is, after all, what makes her such a compelling character, at turns both fun and excruciating to watch. 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, but lately we are witnessing the renaissance of female-centered shows that tell real stories of flawed people, from Girls to Insecure – girls/women who are awkward and say terribly inappropriate 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.” 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.
Fleabag, essentially a story about self-love as we get a much needed a taste of the human side of feminism, the relatable and the real struggle of trying to accept ourselves without judgment, is not meant to be a standard feminist allegory, but there is something empowering in her refusal to care too much, especially 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 and male-identified children.
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.
Thus, I keep on wondering why is the so called ‘essential feminism’, benchmarked by masculine standards. Can’t we all agree that the ‘feminism’ stand is a marketing tool not able to encompass the full experience of being a woman. Or at least accept that feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. Females should be equal to females. Periooooood.