Fleabag, Feminism and Frustration: An Exploration
The ideal body type is a crusade that all of us inevitably surrender to. We may not outrightly admit that we wish for leaner arms, defined cheekbones, a well-endowed rounded b*tt, with a snatched stomach and of course, bigger t*ts. The question arises ~ are we bad feminists?
This question is explored in Fleabag, a British comedy-drama series following the life of an imperfect woman and her unstable relationships with those around her. Fleabag is a woman who is a self-proclaimed sex addict who has a distant relationship with her emotionally unavailable father. Her way of life is completely opposite to that of her sister Claire, who has the perfect well-paying job, is married and outwardly conveniently balances the role of a superwoman.
a woman with exceptional physical or mental ability, especially one who successfully manages a home, brings up children, and has a full-time job.
Claire and Fleabag, being total opposites and are treated as perceived as such by the people around them. This polar understanding of women rooted in either excellence or misery is how even today women’s personalities are assumed to be of a single-absolute quality. Claire and Fleabag’s relationship is turbulent throughout the series as her sheer perfection clashes with the latter’s fun-loving attitude. This turbulence is aggravated by their Godmother, who is engaged to their father, with their dead mother taking up the unsaid tension. Fleabag is a reflection of the fourth wave of feminism that is the successor of the previous movements, in addition to the influence of the internet.
The second and the third wave still continue to influence many older generations of feminists as their notion of feminism comes from taking a visible part in the economy alongside the perfect balance of family and social life. Effortlessly ‘having it all’ is liberating in this context. The Godmother subscribes to this understanding of feminism where it is perfectionism mixed with self-sexualisation (as known from her sex-centred art pieces and ‘sexhibition’). In this journey of flawlessness, the Godmother continues to passive-aggressively berate Fleabag for her non-conventional life choices. Seemingly, Claire also subscribes to this philosophy of being perfect but is ultimately unhappy in her marriage to Martin, her alcoholic husband. There is no doubt that building the illusion of being flawless in every aspect would mean to live in the constant fear of judgement from your own community, especially other women.
For us feminists, there is a mental checkbox that we adhere to. It is a list of items that we care about, and consciously work towards. Another item on this list would be to be perfect at each and every one of them, the idea is to become a superwoman. But is the concept of perfect an illusion in itself? The foundation of social movement such as feminism comes down to humans, and are humans a little less than perfect, if not flawed?
Another fly that roams over our heads is the hyper-sexualisation of women that stems from the long-established male gaze. The societal obsession with the human body, primarily women’s bodies is one of the core experiences that a woman goes through. A profanity as you walk on the road, a comment by an older relative, constant staring, a turbulous media representation with a side of casual sexism - a package that many women have unknowingly subscribed to. Fleabag has knowingly accepted the male gaze, wherein she uses sex and humour to deflect from the grief of her mother and best friend’s death. This notion of social desirability and our obsession with the perfect body, stems from the expectations of the male gaze, which has been a defining obstacle in the balancing act of simply being.
So when Claire and Fleabag go for a feminist lecture (tickets of which were gifted by their father as a “way of coping with two motherless daughters”) and the lecturer asks the audience:
“Raise your hands if you would trade five years of your life for the so-called perfect body”
The sisters promptly raise their hands; gaining side eyes from the other feminists in the room. Does this want of being perfect that was conditioned for us to adhere to, make us bad feminists?
With the internet waiting to cancel anyone, the pressure of being a perfect feminist has never been higher. This is an issue that has only been faced by women, which has been well highlighted in Fleabag. In a quaker meeting she confesses that she worries that she would not be such a feminist if she had bigger t*ts. This is extremely relatable, which makes it funny because even today, the culture around us prizes a woman’s conventional beauty over everything else. This is ironic as over decades the question of what is conventionally attractive has been defined and redefined again and again, as long as it fits the male standards of objectification and fills the capitalists with enough money.
Witnessing friends be in substandard relationships where their male counterparts treat them poorly is nothing short of heartbreaking. This is where the simple act of emotional intimacy and the ability of expressing it becomes revolting, because men have never been raised that way. The woman finds a way and adjusts at the cost of her emotional well-being. This is extended to workplace paradigms with the corporate culture completely neglecting emotions and the fact that they are what makes us a person. Showing emotions, especially the ones with confrontation, sadness, anger are discouraged altogether with respect to women. Further, imbalanced power dynamics and harassment in its unique forms, both in the household, public and workplaces is proof that it is very hard to live as a woman. It presses the nerve even more when the unwarranted criticism comes from fellow women; mother, godmother, grandma, and the stereotype of toxic ‘bi*chiness’ in female friendships.
An overlooked sexist comment from a male friend that you have known for years. The perpetual supply of men unwilling to put in equal effort in a relationship when it comes to dating, and women coming to the rescue with the ‘fixing’ and ‘this person will change for me’ attitude. The breaking news is that people do not change for anyone but themselves, and never overnight. Change is a radical process that invites identifying problematic behaviour patterns and working towards un-learning them. It means acceptance, accountability and a lot of apologies.
Another question arises ~ who is a good feminist?
Is it Claire who silently works her successful job while taking jabs from her alcoholic and abusive husband, so as to not break the illusion of how her life is so perfect. Claire, who refused to believe Fleabag when she came forward to tell her that Martin had assaulted her. The lack of belief in coming forward is a nightmare many victims of assault go through.
Is it the Godmother who continues to criticise her goddaughters with every decision they make, whilst riding on the credit of being a successful artist creating liberating pieces that makes women appreciate their sexuality. The Godmother, who is manipulative towards their father and has an unsaid disdain for his daughter’s relationship with him. She is perfect on paper but does not contribute effort when it comes to supporting other women; her brand of feminism is rooted in self upliftment.
Is Fleabag a good feminist? Who succumbs to the male gaze, is rebellious and vocal about her needs. She is admittedly flawed and regrets sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend, which made her lose her.
Womanhood is a complicated journey to navigate and would not be possible without the support of other women. The good feminist, in reality, is the one who is humane and imperfect but tries. Tries to build that community and give back. Believes in the journey of others. Understands the way media representation of women’s bodies affects us negatively, but instead of blaming aggravation on other women, the good feminist is sympathetic and works towards that change. This does not mean forcing oneself to be present for every sub-cause, or to have that checkbox for being perfect. It means to engage with the movement, with your community in your own capacity and to accept the full spectrum of love that is without panic or compromise.