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Darkest taboos: how Fleabag busted unrealistic portrayals of women on TV

Cringeworthy moments, eye-watering sex scenes, gleeful swearing, naked vulnerability and vulgarity of every stripe: groundbreaking BBC sitcom Fleabag fully deserved its recent BAFTA award.

Fleabag (2016-) is part of an extraordinary new trend in television that kicked off a few years ago with Netflix prison drama Orange is the New Black (2013-). Both are shockingly stark and deliberately vulgar when it comes to exposing the taboo corners of female psychology, biology and anatomy. Both are realistic to the extent of being naturalistic in terms of visuals, dialogue and narrative.

This is writing by women which promises to show female characters as they really are, and not through society’s obligatory filters that exist to pigeonhole women.

Fleabag’s titular protagonist, played by its writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge and adapted for the screen from her one-woman play Touch, is a twenty-something Londoner struggling to find meaning in life. She is a promiscuous, pornography-watching sex-addict juggling a string of grotesque relationships and random encounters with managing a failing café business.

She is also trying to come to terms with the death of her best friend who committed suicide after her boyfriend cheated on her. Halfway through the first season, we learn he cheated with Fleabag herself.

Defying expectations

Waller-Bridge’s character comes from an upper-middle class family, but defies all expectations that normally come with this kind of background. For example, she is a compulsive liar and a thief. The stealing bit comes from a deep sense of insecurity and the need to attract the attention of her emotionally unavailable father.

Fleabag’s entire life is a series of shameful mishaps, ranging from taking her top off at a bank interview to stealing a statuette of a naked woman, made by her infuriating stepmother (wonderfully played by Broadchurch actress Olivia Colman) who considers herself to be an artist. Fleabag’s unpolished “neglected orphan” image (the opposite of what a young woman is expected to be) is partly the result of her mother’s death from breast cancer.

Traditionally, female protagonists in TV dramas have been “presented” to us rather than speaking for themselves. We can’t hear their real voices as they are obscured by various societal roles and expectations collectively reflected in narratives: passive, objectified sexuality, longing for a partner and a family, looking elegant and groomed, emotional maturity, readiness to provide emotional support, sacrificial motherhood, and so on. They are “clean” characters.

This “cleanliness” is both internal and external – the purity of character and body. A “proper” woman does not steal, or lie to your face, or swear, or talk about inappropriate things at the table. Likewise, she does not sweat or smell, does not have hairy legs, is not seen to have periods, or use the toilet.

Nudity on screen has become so common that it no longer shocks. Yet filmmakers are still reluctant to show a female character who wakes up looking terrible; who has spots or rolls of fat (particularly outside comedic settings). Fleabag offers true naturalism; this is what is truly groundbreaking – not the increasingly dull sex scenes involving toned bodies to which film and TV audiences are treated to every day.

Of course, there were the four heroines of Sex and the City who candidly discussed sex and the perils of modern dating, but they were beautifully made up, successful, and fashionable. None of them evoked associations with a “fleabag”. Waller-Bridge’s creation is much closer to Lena Dunham’s series Girls (2012-2017), but still deliberately avoids HBO’s polish. Everything about Fleabag is rough and raw, from the music and camerawork to the POV (point of view) and monologues.

The Sex and the City girls: candid but glossy. Shutterstock

In fact, cinema and TV are generally still operating along the lines of these stereotypes for both female protagonists and secondary characters, making any deviation from the norm look refreshingly gritty. A “proper” woman is therefore so sterile she practically smells of chlorine.

Blundering and failing

It is this sense of blank sterility that Waller-Bridge defies with her depiction of a blundering, failing young woman. Her hilarious asides to the camera, often including candid, uncensored remarks on uncomfortable subjects such as anal sex, masturbation and survivor guilt, show that not only she is not ashamed of her behaviour – she is proud of it.

The hyper-naturalism, which is the hallmark of the series, is the result of this pride. After all, male protagonists in TV and film have been allowed to be make mistakes for decades. Men on screen are allowed to be funny, ridiculous, ugly, promiscuous and terrified of settling down. Why can’t women?

When asked what constitutes the “female journey” (that is, the difficulties the female protagonists have to overcome on their path in narratives), the American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell allegedly replied that there was no such thing as a female journey as a woman didn’t have anywhere to go in the first place.

In his books Campbell explored the path of the male hero in world mythology. The path consists of multiple steps, and is full of problems to be dealt with, puzzles to be solved and monsters to be killed. A woman need not bother to activate her agency like a man would: she is already “there”, already perfect. She is born at peace with herself, whereas the man has to endure trials and tribulations to become the true hero of his own story.

Fleabag is imperfect and unhappy and aching to go on her own journey to fight her demons. Soho Theatre, CC BY

This view implies that a woman does not have to face the journey of finding who she is, blundering and looking for meaning through trial and error, let alone looking stupid in the process. Her chlorine perfection stays unchanged through her life and guarantees happiness – particularly if she finds the right man with whom to start a family.

Fleabag’s rebellious naturalism successfully challenges this vision of the female protagonist (of whom we still have very few, although their number is growing – particularly on TV). Fleabag the woman is imperfect, unhappy, itching to go on her journey and fight all sorts of internal and external monsters: addictions; insecurities; the neglectful father; the dead mother; the chilly sister; the fake pompous stepmother; the weird arsehole guy; the rude bank manager. This is her way of becoming herself, of finding her own voice.

At last there is a trend that frees women from the bland stereotyped portrayals of feminine perfection and the need to conform to good girl expectations. We should be grateful to Fleabag for showing female characters who are not ashamed of being imperfect and real.

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