“Fleabag”: television’s newest anti-hero

THE protagonist of “Fleabag” can’t stand earnest s.e.x. She charges customers £12.55 for a cheese sandwich in her failing café. She steals her stepmother’s art, masturbates to videos of Barack Obama and wonders whether her arsehole is unusually large.

With a central character this profane, “Fleabag” is not to everyone’s taste. Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the six episodes follow the titular character as she stumbles through life, trying to revive her guinea-pig themed business and mourning her dead best friend. She finds validation in gratuitous s.e.x with loathsome men with bad teeth. She relishes the strained encounters with her distant, repressed father and passive-aggressive stepmother. She dutifully attends feminist lectures with her sister who is “uptight, beautiful and probably anorexic”. 

Released on Amazon on September 16th and available in Britain on BBC3, “Fleabag” is part of a new wave of provocative, anti-hero comedy written by and about women. There has long been a scarcity of women writing for the screen; a 2016 study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Film and Television found that 29% of television writers were female. Perhaps this is why female characters have for a long time been consigned to secondary roles and stereotypes. Women on screen are more likely to be defined by their marital status than their male counterparts, the study found, while male characters were almost twice as likely to be portrayed as leaders. Fleabag is no leader: she scuppers her chance of a loan by inadvertently flashing the bank manager. It is her fallibility that appeals.

The popularity of the HBO show “Girls” by Lena Dunham, now in its fifth season, has proved that there is an appetite for female characters that are individual and complex. Issa Rae’s upcoming HBO series “Insecurity” arose from the success of her YouTube show, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”, the first episode of which has nearly 2m views. Another show, “One Mississippi”, released on Amazon on September 9th, follows a character (played by comedian Tig Notaro) in a year where she goes through a break up, loses her mother and receives a cancer diagnosis.

These shows about unhappy and difficult women differ from their “Sex and the City” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” predecessors. Though still unflinching and confessional in its depiction of social and s.e.xual life, the storyline of “Fleabag” does not revolve around men. The central relationships are between women, whether Fleabag and her sister, Fleabag and her dead friend Boo or Fleabag and her smiling, icy stepmother, played by the always-brilliant Olivia Colman.

Ms Waller-Bridge dissects the absurdities of being a young woman in the modern world. In one episode, Fleabag and her sister attend an all-female silent retreat in a grand country house. Sitting on yoga mats, the group is told the weekend is for mindfulness, or “trapping your thoughts in your skull—think of it as a thought prison for your mind”. They undertake a series of menial tasks, scrubbing the floor in silent misery. It’s a searing (and funny) indictment of the failures of contemporary sisterhood. Next door in the “Better Man” retreat, men shout “SLUT” at blow-up dolls and pat each other on the back. They look the better for it.

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Ms Waller-Bridge originally created “Fleabag” for a stand-up monologue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Elements of live performance remain, especially in her liberal use of direct address. Through these asides to camera, the audience becomes both voyeur and confidante. Ms Waller-Bridge is interested in exposing the theatre of social life, how we perform a version of ourselves and fail to say what we think.

With graphic discussions of anal s.e.x, hairy nipples and “flash poos in Pret”, “Fleabag” is more verbally explicit and formally daring than most British comedy shows. As the series progresses—each episode is only 30 minutes—Fleabag’s self-destructive behaviour is given psychological grounds. A revelation in the final episode will make some revolt and others feel empathy. “Fleabag” is not a show for all. Yet it is important to have someone on screen that makes the audience uncomfortable; a woman who is spiky, divisive and not trying to be liked.


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