Fleabag takes on the 'tragic woman' trope
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Steve Schofield / Amazon Studios
“I also sometimes wonder if I’m a tragic figure,” my friend said the other night over drinks. It was less of a dramatic or vulnerable admission and more a response to the laundry list of concerns I’d laid out for her examination: Why do I feel like I’m failing in my career? Why don’t my relationships ever seem to last? Why do I have a constant sinking feeling that I’m a rotten piece of shit?
It was a simple but disarmingly profound observation. As late-20-something single women with generous amounts of privilege, many of my friends and I spend time in an odd paradigm. In one moment, we’re trying to be the type of people who are smart and conscientious—“good friends” and “good feminists,” “women without our heads stuck in our asses.” In the next we’re sipping some $15 cocktail on a patio parsing our place in the world, discussing whether or not getting waxed is indeed succumbing to the patriarchy—because though it’s 2019, our culture still isn’t quite sure what to do with a single woman in her late 20s or 30s, and sometimes we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves.
Fleabag, the cuttingly hilarious and dark British series created by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, begs the same question my friend posed the other night—“Am I a tragic figure?” The first season details the sexual misadventures and hilariously dark familial moments of a British woman in her 30s (unnamed but hereafter known as the titular Fleabag) dealing with some seriously repressed grief and trauma, consistently pausing to break the fourth wall and include us, the audience, in the delightful horror of it all.
Fleabag season two, recently released to American audiences via Amazon Prime, begins over a year after season one in the aftermath of our heroine’s attempts to better herself, grow business at the guinea-pig-themed café she runs in London, and navigate her broken relationships to the best of her abilities. Waller-Bridge spends more time this season writing comedy gold for her incredible ensemble, a genius she flaunts from the get-go in the opening episode of the new season, or as
I call it, The Best Episode of Television I’ve Ever Seen.
Waller-Bridge’s genius is supported by a flawless cast: Fleabag’s tightly-wound and repressed sister Claire (Sian Clifford), her sister’s slimy husband Martin (Brett Gelman), her condescending and snide soon-to-be stepmother (Olivia Colman), and the unnamed “Hot Priest” she falls in love with (Andrew Scott).
I’ll admit that I’ve spent a lot of time processing my experiences and worldview in front of the TV. I found myself looking my own caricature in the face during season two of Fleabag, when our protagonist attends a spiritual meeting with aforementioned “Hot Priest” and blurts out “I sometimes wonder if I’d be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.” Fleabag is a show that uses this humor to make you weak in the knees, and once you’ve lowered your defenses, it knocks you out with hard-truth-one-two-punch lines: “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,” she confesses to her father (Bill Paterson).
The emotional waters might run deep, but Fleabag is absolutely hilarious. The second season builds upon the first’s unique style of examining the human psyche through Fleabag’s direct address to the audience. Waller-Bridge employs the device by giving us a particular role: We, the viewers, are Fleabag’s vehicle of dissociation with her own life in its most humorous, overwhelming and devastating moments. We are the out she needs when she can’t cope.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge—dubbed “the British Lena Dunham” by Julia Raeside at The Guardian—has confessed that she worries about “doing this right.” In many ways, she does. But like Dunham’s Girls, the conversation framed by Fleabag is largely white and heteronormative. Despite that narrowness, what Fleabag does so well is honor the dark, complex, tragic and hilarious reality of being human: Yes, maybe I am a rotten piece of shit; maybe I am a woman with her head stuck up her proverbial ass; maybe it does hurt and maybe it is funny.