Fleabag: Dark Humour and Sexism— Dhyanvi Katharani

Updated: Jun 3, 2020



BBC’s mini-series, Fleabag, originally a play by Phoebe Waller Bridge follows the story of Fleabag, a 21st century metropolitan woman in her early thirties who is shown making certain impulsive choices about her life as she struggles to make a living, deals with complicated familial relationships and struggles with not knowing where she belongs. Despite sounding much like a late coming-of-age story on the surface, there is something about the show that made people recommend it to their friends; many even sought inspiration for their Halloween costumes from the show, especially a black jumpsuit that Fleabag has been shown wearing; while, some hardcore fans claimed to have even watched the first season of Killing Eve, a spy thriller, also by Phoebe Waller Bridge, also involving a fair amount of dark humor. Let us look at why Fleabag gained popularity in an industry where women’s voices are not given enough recognition.

Fleabag has short hair, wears dark lipstick and, at times, takes questionable decisions that may make her come across as a classic temptress at first sight, but as one gets to know the real her, they realize that she is the epitome of a character who keeps oscillating back and forth from black to white: she is neither inherently decent nor degenerate but stuck somewhere in-between, in a grey area trying to undo her mistakes and be honest with herself.

The phenomenon of looking at characters through a binary lens is flawed in the 21st century context as many women often find themselves falling into both categories; the show very carefully normalizes this and lets the audience form an opinion of her. In a society where you’re predominantly and persistently being judged based on personal aspects of your life, such as what you buy, the way you dress and look, your age, your place of work and the people you’re friends with, Fleabag creates a safe space for women to be themselves.

While everyone loves a love story, they tend to remember a heartbreak. Waller Bridge, in the second season of the show, carefully blends the two by introducing the character of a ‘hot priest’ played by Andrew Scott; who, given his priesthood and thus, requisite celibacy, is forbidden fruit to Fleabag. But the sexual tension between them and their chemistry makes her inevitably fall for him. However, it’s not just Fleabag who falls for him but several women watching the show in a way, also, begin to idealise him.

Waller Bridge in her Saturday Night Live monologue attributes this hype to his ability to listen. Listening is something of which women in romantic relationships these days are starved; they don’t want to be rescued by a “prince charming on a horse” out to solve all their problems, but instead they want someone who is patient and understanding. As our definition of love evolves, it is high time that our male protagonists reflect this change.

Fleabag’s sister Claire follows a similar trajectory as she finds herself stuck with Martin, her husband, who is a selfish alcoholic and doesn’t know where to draw the line. While Fleabag is characterised to be impulsive, Claire is portrayed to be an instinctive rule-follower and over-achiever and thus, finds it hard to come to terms with the failure of her marriage. The instability that it causes her is reflected in her uneven haircut. She realizes how terrible Martin is for her when she meets her Finnish colleague Klare and falls for him. Claire subsequently gains the confidence to call her manipulative husband out and goes down on her knees asking him to leave her, ironic since one usually kneels down to propose.

For the first time, Claire prioritises herself before thinking about what others would think of her, a bold step on her part as she finally moves away from the endless circle of societal expectations. This comes to show that though Claire is a woman of financial stability, because of the prejudices she has internalised, she too, finds it difficult to cut ties from a toxic relationship which is often seen in case of many women. In this sense the show very subtly addresses some feminist issues that need to be brought to the forefront.

One of the key things that drives the show is its humor, to a large extent emanating from Fleabag’s personal insights into other people’s behavior. Each character is depicted with very specific characteristics that makes them funny — Claire is smart and yet, takes some silly decisions; in the case of Fleabag’s step-mother-to-be, it is her overt two-facedness; with Fleabag’s father, it’s his blunderous sentences that become a manifestation of his self-effacement; with Martin, it’s his lack of concrete personality; with the priest, it’s his tendency to evoke humor by ironically not fitting into the conventional image of a priest; lastly, and most importantly, with Fleabag, it’s her hasty comments and snappy lack of filter.

All these inherently human flaws are very tactfully used by Waller Bridge not only to arouse humor but also, to bring these characters to life. The show often breaks the fourth wall which makes it easier for the audience to understand Fleabag and her relationship with others.

The show achieved a great amount of success not in its first but second season, the latter sees Fleabag trying to move on from her past and arrive at a climax in terms of her romance with the priest. Additionally, while the first season ends with a cliffhanger, the second, since also serving the end of the mini-series, gives some sort of much-desired closure to the audience.

A recent article from the Guardian pointed out that only five female directors have been nominated for their productions over the 92-year-old history of the revered Academy Awards, culminating in only a single win. This demonstrates just how difficult it is for women to get recognized for their talents. The year 2019 saw several films such as Hustlers, Little Women, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Booksmart that were directed by women filmmakers and enthusiastically acclaimed by critics, which however failed to get nominated for any major awards of the season. While these films were dismissed, Fleabag as a show has been highly successful in not only winning the hearts of the viewers but also of the critics.

Waller Bridge has been well-recognized as a writer as well as an actress, and is already actively involved in some major projects. In an industry which belittles the capabilities of women, this victory needs to be grandly celebrated and carried forward.

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