Resisting Popular (Post)Feminism: Womanliness as Masquerade and Unlikeability in Fleabag (4)

 
 

I sometimes worry that I wouldn't be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.

- Fleabag [1]

 

As an ideology that could be said to span various centuries and cultures, the term “feminism” still lacks one agreed-upon universal definition, which consequently means that the views regarding the solutions to women’s oppression may vary from person to person (Mendes 140). While this thesis is not concerned with providing a new definition for feminism, nor does it claim that the two works which I analyse are inherently feminist, I nonetheless argue that the contemporary state of feminism (which I have analysed under the term “postfeminism”) facilitates a distraction from sexism that continues to impact women’s lives. As Kaitlynn Mendes puts it in Feminism in the News: Representations of the Women’s Movement Since the 1960s (2011), while the Second Wave has been largely defined by women’s fight for equal rights, wage and sexual and reproductive freedom, it is less clear to understand the issues that contemporary feminism stands for (140). Therefore, by focusing on Fleabag as a case study, this chapter aims to discuss how the depoliticization of contemporary (post)feminism has resulted in ambivalence and profound confusion regarding the nature of feminism and women’s relationship with it, despite being consistently described as “universally desirable” (Hemmings 1).


In writing and directing Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge creates a character that is unapologetic about her confusion towards contemporary feminism. In this sense, I am going to make use of Joan Riviere’s concept of “womanliness as masquerade” (1929) to show how Fleabag assumes a mask of “womanliness” or femininity that allows her to navigate the high expectations imposed on contemporary female characters. Yet, she disrupts these norms by continuously breaking the fourth wall and letting the audience see her true, cynical nature, which allows the protagonist to establish ironic distance between herself and postfeminist ideals of femininity. As Waller-Bridge claims in an interview with Alex Jung form 2016, “Fleabag couldn’t take [feminism] seriously because there was something about sincerity around the whole conversation that she was finding quite uncomfortable.”


Moreover, as the aim of this thesis is to critique the imperative for female characters to be likeable, an idea ascribed to postfeminist ideals of femininity and positivity, I maintain that Fleabag’s unconventional emotions and failure to resolve her struggles by the end of the series further discloses what Ngai calls the “limitations of sympathetic identification” as our society’s dominant way of understanding the making of female characters in contemporary media (33). Finally, as the figure of the comedian is (historically) commonly coded as masculine, and, as Savigny and Warner argue, comedy as a genre of Hollywood cinema is typically understood as produced and consumed by men, particularly that which focuses on physicality and vulgarity (114), Fleabag’s protagonist ultimately subverts such expectations by assuming the figure of a woman comedian who embraces typically masculine codes of conduct (she indulges in sex, alcohol and nicotine and subverts traditional gender roles by constantly poking fun at men who lack her intellectual capacities), which further exposes her “unlikeability” as a female character.

 

Feminism as Universally Desirable

The dominance of popular media in our everyday lives has a significant consequence in the construction of our cultural discourses, as well as in the way we relate to the world. In its current incarnation, postfeminism (aided by capitalism) has achieved “selling” feminism back to us by focusing on what Savigny and Warner describe as “women’s willingness to engage in their own commercialisation as objects” (15). This idea has opened the door to a consumer-driven, mediated feminism, one that positions women as “empowered” subjects through what Douglas (2010) calls “enlightened sexism” (qtd. in Savigny and Warner 16). This part of the chapter aims to explore the increasing popularity of feminism in media and celebrity contexts, which consistently position feminism as “desirable” amongst both men and women, paying particular attention to the role of femininity in securing this appeal. In doing so, I set the ground for my subsequent analysis of Fleabag as an unlikeable female character.


In her study of news representations of feminism (2011), Kaytlinn Mendes discusses overall trends in the coverage of feminist subjects spanning from the 1960s until 2008. As the author agrees, the last couple of decades have seen a consistent shift from straight reporting to interpretation and commentary (134). Supporting this idea, Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace stated in 2007 that “today’s newspapers are not necessarily about news,” and that it was “no secret” that Daily Mirror has moved towards a more “magazine-style road.” As Mendes notes, the shift meant that currently nearly all stories on feminism within this publication are in some way related to “celebrity culture, lifestyle or consumption,” which she views as “a worrying trend for many feminist scholars who feel that such shifts remove feminism of its politics” (134).


Let us look at a couple of recent examples in which feminist topics are covered through what Mendes calls “soft” news stories (135). In 2014, Marie-Claire released an article titled “10 Signs That You’re A Feminist,” in which feminism is downgraded to a lifestyle concern stemming from women’s fashion magazines. Yet, it is important to acknowledge how the “signs” themselves are distinctly postfeminist, stemming from professional opportunities for women and girls (“You believe that women’s careers are just as important as their male counterpart’s”), freedom of choice (“You believe in a woman’s right to choose anything”), positioning women as empowered consumers (“You know how to take care of yourself and take pride in doing so”) and sexual empowerment (“You believe in women having access to affordable birth control”). As Clare Hemmings observes, “[t]he acceptability of those ‘10 Signs …’ was underwritten by Beyoncé’s endorsement underneath; her hyper-feminine lacey attire captioned with her determination not to be a domestic drudge” (7, emphasis added).


In her study, Mendes observes a similar trend in popular culture, where feminism was linked to neoliberal themes of personal choices, sexual freedom or consumption (148). As she notes, “[s]uch views open up space to claim that anything is feminist – so long as it is freely chosen – and are problematic because they allowed women to claim feminist credentials while rationalizing and excusing patriarchal or capitalist practices that oppressed them” (148). Examples range from articles discussing young women’s pleasure in their “freedom” to wear high heels, indicating that they are symbols of “sexual power and independence” (148) to others that question whether “good feminists bake cupcakes,” which fit with wider notions of domesticity and what the author calls “retreatism”: pushing women back into the home (149).


Another powerful example of a campaign that aimed to rebrand feminism as universally appealing was Elle’s T-shirts that claimed, “This is what a feminist looks like,” which were photographed on many different celebrities (such as Ryan Gosling, Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Watson), leading subjects interviewed by Mendes to say:

 

I wear mine [T- shirt saying, ‘This is what a feminist looks like’] with a mini and lipstick, and I tell anyone who asks that I love men, but that I’m also very clear about the importance of women having equality. I’ve learnt from Mum that being flirty and feminine is perfectly compatible with being a feminist.

(qtd. in Mendes 150)

 

The problem with the above statement is twofold. On the one hand, it reduces feminism to a mere commodity that enables women to “consume” a feminist identity through promoting consumption as the quickest path towards female empowerment, which, as Mendes claims, further reinforces “patriarchal paradigms of (white, middle- class, heterosexual) beauty and femininity” (150-1). On the other hand, the subsequent shame that derived from wearing the “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt did not only disclose the mismatch between “claiming feminism and doing no work towards the alleviation of gender inequality,” but rather, as Hemmings observed, it arose from “being implicated in the global economic inequality that produced the t-shirts themselves, as though there were no relationship between these issues” (11). Consequently, as Hemmings puts it, “any lingering sign of embarrassment in (…) Cumberbatch’s strained smile appears to reference the subsequent scandal about whether the t-shirts had been produced under exploitative labor conditions in Mauritius or not” (7).


When Waller-Bridge is asked by Jung in the Vulture interview about Fleabag’s relationship with contemporary feminism, she claims that when the play was being written, feminism was becoming increasingly popular in the UK: “It was around the same time that Ryan Gosling was wearing T-shirts that said, This is what a feminist looks like," which made Waller-Bridge wonder, “Is it cool to be a feminist?” and “Are there any rules to it and I’m getting it wrong, and how did you get it right?”


As such, Fleabag, Waller-Bridge admits, was born out of her desire to write a character that does not shy away from exposing her bewilderment towards the shifting nature of feminism and feminist identities that were becoming increasingly “fashionable.” Hence, the next part of this chapter is devoted to analysing Fleabag’s cynical relation with cotemporary feminism, which challenges the notion that the work of feminism is over. As I will demonstrate, this is evinced by the protagonist assuming the concept put forth in 1929 by Joan Riviere called “womanliness as masquerade,” which argues that women who possess masculine traits wear a mask so as to hide their masculine traits and display, instead, their femininity. Although this concept is almost a century old, I argue that it still maintains its critical force in the postfeminist society, where women are continuously encouraged to wear masks that display feminine identities, which, in turn, allows for the re-stabilization of traditional gender differences.

 

Cynicism and Womanliness as Masquerade

Throughout Fleabag, the eponymous protagonist is given to a running commentary on the absurdity of events unfolding around her. Her cynicism (which covers both her conflicting relationship with feminism and her forged femininity towards men) reveals a stark contrast to the various “masks” women wear to perform idealized femininity. On the one hand, cynicism works to cover the protagonist’s unbearable sadness at the death of her mother, who succumbed to breast cancer, and her best friend, Boo, who hurled herself into traffic in a desperate attempt to make her cheating boyfriend feel guilty. On the other hand, I argue, she turns to cynicism in order navigate to the puzzling gender relations of contemporary (post)feminism.


Fleabag’s titular protagonist lives in London and struggles to keep afloat her small café business, which she had started with her now deceased friend, Boo. She periodically visits her widowed, distant father, who has started a new life with her manipulative stepmother (whom Fleabag openly dislikes), and sleeps with several men along the way. In times of crises, she and her sister go to established feminist gatherings – lectures, silent retreats or art exhibitions – which always end up being a disappointment.


In the first episode of Fleabag, the protagonist and her sister, Claire, attend a feminist lecture called “Women Speak,” the motto of which being “Opening women’s mouths since 1998.” According to the protagonist, she and her sister have been attending such lectures since they were children because “[their father’s] way of coping with two motherless daughters was to buy [them] tickets to feminist lectures” (09:32 – 09:36). The woman moderator opens the lecture by asking the audience the following: “Please raise your hands if you would trade five years of your life for the so-called perfect body” (14:29 – 14:42). Without a moment of hesitation, both Fleabag and her sister raise their hands, with the rest of the audience looking at them aghast. “We are bad feminists,” Fleabag whispers amused (14:50 – 14:52).


The notion of a “bad feminist” goes back to Roxane Gay’s essay published in 2012 carrying the same name, where she claims that “[t]here is an essential feminism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist, and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.” Essential feminism, Gay claims, suggests anger, humourlessness, hating pornography, not catering to the male gaze, hating sex and decrying the objectification of women – all of which being characteristics that Fleabag embraces throughout the series. Yet, neoliberal feminism, which I have suggested throughout this thesis that best represents the postfeminist sensibility, is closely linked with beauty and femininity. As Elizabeth Wurtzel argued in a 2002 article for Harper’s Bazaar, “[l]ooking great is a matter of feminism. No liberated woman would misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.”

However, despite contemporary feminism being closely linked with postfeminist ideals of beauty and femininity, there is also an imperative that demands of women not to perpetuate such groupthink, which explains why everybody fell silent when the moderator from “Women Speak” posed the question. Fleabag is aware that physical attractiveness is seen as a woman’s main source of identity in postfeminist culture and she is unapologetic in admitting it out loud. However, she also notices that nobody else (except for her sister) is willing to acknowledge this issue, which further discloses McRobbie’s image of “the immaculately groomed young woman in masquerade” (8). The concept of “masquerade,” I maintain, lies at the heart of postfeminist practices, and functions as a catalyst for Fleabag’s bewilderment at contemporary feminism. However, acknowledging the masquerade, as Fleabag does, might be the only way to “unmask” such practices.


According to Waller-Bridge’s creative partner Vicky Jones, “[Fleabag] was written at a time when feminism was much more in doubt than it is now,” which made them envision a protagonist who had been exposed to contradictory messages about women’s roles in contemporary society. Above everything, their aim was to explore what would happen if an intelligent young woman internalized mixed cues about sexual freedom, empowerment, liberation and desirability, while assuming them as her own identity (qtd. in Edevane). As such, Fleabag is a product of postfeminism, although she never once explicitly diagnoses what causes her dysfunctional relationship with sex, men and self-identity. Instead, she consistently breaks the fourth wall to address her audience, forcing viewers to step inside her obsessive brain, unpicking her sly jokes regarding the female condition in contemporary society.


In the opening scene of the first season, she addresses the audience by offering a detailed description of the scene they are about to watch:

 

You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at two o’clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can come and find you and you’ve accidentally made it out like you’ve just got in yourself, so you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business – suspender belt, the whole bit – and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?

(00:18 – 00:34)

 

Yet, despite letting the audience know that she is in complete authority regarding the events that are unfolding, in “reality,” she portrays herself as calm and obedient, assuming an attitude of “womanliness.” As Waller-Bridge claims, “[t]he thing I really got off on was putting a female character out there that was all-knowing about sex and one step ahead, who knew what the guys were thinking before they thought it and yet still played slightly dumb to them. Oh God, it brought me so much pleasure” (qtd. in Malone).


The idea of performed femininity, or “womanliness” dates back to Joan Riviere’s article titled “Womanliness as Masquerade” (1929). According to Riviere, “women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” (303). To better explain her argument, Riviere goes on to offer the example of a housewife who can very well attend to typically masculine matters. Yet, when “any builder or upholsterer is called in she has a compulsion to hide all her technical knowledge from him and show deference to the workman, making her suggestions in an innocent and artless manner, as if they were ' lucky guesses’” (307). Fleabag is always one step ahead of her peers, and she rejoices in informing the audience on a character’s next line before they get to it, but she always makes sure she wears a mask of womanliness that positions her character as hyper-feminine and docile in front of a man:

 

Fleabag: He says that…


Arsehole Guy: Last night was incredible.

Fleabag: Which you think is an overstatement, but then he goes on to say that…

Arsehole Guy: It was particularly special because (….)

Fleabag: And then he touches your hair (…) and thanks you with a genuine earnest…

Arsehole Guy: Thank you.

Fleabag: It’s sort of moving. Then he kisses you gently (…) and then he leaves. 

(“Episode One” 01:46 – 02:38)

 

In the above dialogue, Fleabag pokes fun at the man’s behaviour to the audience, but she nonetheless smiles and acts thankful while waiting for him to deliver his lines. This works as an example of Riviere’s “womanliness as masquerade.” Fleabag navigates her relationships with men as if “acting a part,” where she pretends to be a rather frivolous and bewildered woman, yet in the end always poking fun at the camera, assuring the audience that she is playing a game. According to Riviere, a woman “has to treat the situation of displaying her masculinity to men as a ‘game’, as something not real, as a ‘joke’. She cannot treat herself and her subject seriously” (308). Yet, the consequence of acting in this way is that “the flippant attitude enables some of her sadism to escape, hence the offence it causes” (308). Consequently, many people might feel attacked by the rawness of Fleabag’s performance, as it challenges traditional gender norms in revealing how modern femininity requires women to constantly wear masks.


In the fourth episode of the first season, Fleabag and her sister attend an all-woman silent retreat, the motto of which being “No matter what happens, a word must not be heard” (07:22 – 07:25). The sanctuary requires all women to remain silent at all costs, all the while partaking in menial tasks such as scrubbing the floors of the building and gardening, which led writers such as Annette Pankratz to argue about the scene that “[t]he therapeutic women-centredness sells Victorian misogyny as Zen exercise” (149). When the organizer asks women the reason for their decision to take part in the retreat, Fleabag, again, is the one who reacts first. Assuming a cynical attitude to the audience and her sister, yet taking on an expected position of “womanliness” towards the organizer, Fleabag claims: “I want to shut the noise and reconnect to my inner thoughts on the road to feeling more at one with myself” (06:24 – 06:28). Pleased by Fleabag’s answer, the retreat organizer goes on to explain how “[t]his weekend is about being mindful. It’s about leaving your voice in your head, and trapping your thoughts in your skull. Think of it as a thought prison in your mind” (06:34 – 06:47). As Fleabag concludes later in the episode, “We’ve paid them to let us clean the house in silence” (14:52 – 14:55).


The above scene is highly descriptive in terms of the contradictory messages put forth by a postfeminist society towards women, with the important detail that they are further encoded as feminist. As Priscilla Frank argues:

 

The combination of “Women Speak” and the less officially named “Women, Shut Up” satirizes the constant tightrope women walk in the name of empowerment, caught between say more and say less, damned if you do, damned if you don't. Although feminism is clearly important to Waller-Bridge’s character, something she feels compelled to pursue and embody, she constantly fights to keep a straight face when confronted with the impassioned absurdity propagated by established feminist spaces.

(Frank)

 

Furthermore, the absurdity of this scene is only surpassed by the existence of an all-men’s retreat nearby called “Better Man.” In this setup, the men learn how to fittingly redirect their sexist anger by yelling “Slut!” and “Whore!” at inflatable female dolls. It is at this point that Fleabag takes off her cynical mask and admits that she is sad and lonely. “I just want to cry. All the time” (22:32 – 22:36), she says.


Fleabag’s final incursion into a (post)feminist terrain is presented through her stepmother’s “sex-hibition,” which is an erotic art show that features plaster molds of penises that she has encountered throughout her lifetime, as well as a series of nude photographic self-portraits, which are further encoded as feminist. As Frank argues, the show does not posit that the stepmother’s work is foolish, yet, she claims, “whether her artwork is doing much to help womankind, one plaster penis at a time, remains dubious” (Frank). Whether on purpose or not, I would argue here that this scene mirrors perfectly the ironical underpinnings of Elle’s “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt campaign, as it is quick to assume a feminist identification without considering doing any palpable work towards the dismantling of gender inequalities.


As usual, Fleabag does not refrain from her cynical commentaries, yet by the end of the episode (which is also a season finale) she admits that she feels completely lost at what I would argue to be the hypocritical and alienating politics of contemporary (post)feminism. As I explained in Chapter 1, such feminism presents the obsession with the female body as constantly needing surveillance and monitoring, with the crucial difference that it is now a matter of a woman’s choice, rather than obligation, to continuously attend to it. As such, the end of the first season leaves Fleabag claiming: “I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it (…) You know, everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone” (22:30 – 22:37). Consequently, the feminist gatherings that appear throughout Fleabag only manage to reify the protagonist’s conflicting relation with contemporary feminism. Moreover, her cynicism (directed towards the audience) and presumed “womanliness” (directed towards men, as well as female figures that she finds preposterous), are strategic techniques that the protagonist uses in order to navigate the perplexing and contradictory ideas put forth by popular feminist discourses.


Nonetheless, despite being what could be considered an entirely relatable woman (Swain), Fleabag continues to be described as an unlikeable female character. As Stassa Edwards claims in an article titled “Amazon’s Fleabag Is a Complex Look at an ‘Unlikeable Woman’” (2016), “[t]here’s a lot of cursing, drinking, sex with ridiculous men, and obligatory mentions of being a bad feminist. In short, everything that, in the world of television, signifies the modern middle-class woman’s “unlikability” is played for its comic potential.” As such, the last part of this chapter aims to discuss the implications of a female character that continues to subvert expectations by refusing to partake in normative expectations of womanhood. It is here, I maintain, at this site of challenge and subversion, that she is deemed “unlikeable.”

 

Challenge, Subversion, and Unlikeability

By the end of only the first episode of the series, the protagonist engages in anal intercourse (which she explains to the viewer by claiming “you’re drunk, and he made the effort to come all the way over here, so you let him,” followed by the observation that “he’s thrilled” (01:14 – 01:20)); masturbates while watching a speech by then-U.S. President Barack Obama; gives her number to a stranger she has met on the bus, who in turn promises to treat her like “a nasty little bitch” (06:24 – 06:26) (which she finds amusing, but then pouts to the camera when he says he was joking); and, in an attempt to take off her sweater, reveals her lacy undergarments in the middle of an interview for a small business loan that would help her café remain open. Such scenes have led critics to claim that Fleabag “spearheaded a seismic shift in the way women could be depicted on TV – flawed, relatable, contradictory” and “not always particularly likeable” (Pollard). While I agree with Pollard’s analysis of Fleabag as marking a shift in the way we see female characters, I argue that Fleabag’s unlikeability stems precisely from the fact that she differs from female characters that we are generally exposed to in literature and television.


Firstly, in order to better understand where her so-called “unlikeable” characteristics come from, it is important to note that the figure of the comedian, according to Rosie White, is often culturally coded as masculine. She argues that, “like a surgeon…the word is ostensibly unmarked by gender [yet] it contains the traces of learned prejudices about male and female behaviours” (qtd. in Warner and Savigny 114). Furthermore, comedy as a genre of Hollywood is understood as produced and consumed primarily by men, “particularly that which centres on the physical, raunch or gross out” (114). Throughout Fleabag, Waller-Bridge does not shy away from showing off her transgressive behaviour as a female comedian, as I have noted previously. She indulges in alcohol, sex, nicotine and never misses a chance to poke fun at men who lack her intellectual acuity. While shopping for a sex toy as a present for her sister’s birthday, accompanied by a character who is introduced to the audience only as “Bus Rodent,” she cannot help from openly ridiculing the man’s bewilderment towards a plastic vagina:

 

Bus Rodent: You should totally get one of those.

Fleabag: A vagina?

Rodent: Yeah.

Fleabag: Oh, I’ve already got one.

Rodent: Really? You have? No, you’ve got one?

Fleabag: I take it with me everywhere.

Rodent: Look, no, you lie. You don’t have one on you now?

Fleabag: Yeah. [Into the camera] Never gonna get it.

Rodent: Where? [...]

Fleabag: Ha, you got me! I don’t carry a vagina around with me. That’d be way too provocative. [Into the camera] Didn’t get it. 

(“Episode Three” 14:34 – 15:03)

 

In an interview from 2019 with Tina Fey, Waller-Bridge mentions that, when Fleabag first came out in the UK, the British press was outraged at the explicitness of the series: “‘This is the filthiest, most overly exposed, sexually exposing show ever’,” Waller-Bridge recites. She continues,

 

They made out like I was naked the whole way through. I was like, ‘There is not a moment of nudity in the series.’ I just say stuff about my arsehole straight down the barrel. I think that makes people feel so naked, but the language was more naked than the actual performance.

(qtd. in Fey)

 

Further, as several critics observe, “Fleabag doesn’t even end up sleeping with that many men” (Ashton), and the only time she is portrayed as having an orgasm is while masturbating. However, she nonetheless challenges traditional images of female characters as feminine beings by adopting typically masculine codes of conduct – from cursing, sexualizing everything, poking fun at men and at her uptight, hyper-feminine sister, to owning a business and refusing to “settle down” or to “better herself.” Therefore, I maintain that comments which describe the protagonist as “vulgar” (Kearns) or “dirty” (Youngs) simply point to the pervasive concern in contemporary culture towards women who refuse to perform idealized femininity.


Moreover, Fleabag does not only push past conventional expectations of femininity, but also revolutionizes the way in which stereotypes are illustrated in comedy. Instead of the stock “hot girl next door,” the characters from Fleabag are introduced as “Arsehole Guy,” “Handsome Man,” “Hot Misogynist,” or “Rodent Bus,” depending on the protagonist’s interaction with them. Such stereotypes challenge the pervasive, patriarchal “male gaze” in popular media by marking a shift in the way in which the dynamic between men and women is portrayed in television, while also allowing women to assume a position of power, instead of vice-versa.


Another reason which could potentially explain the protagonist’s unlikeability stems from her portrayal of negative emotions throughout the series, such as anger, sadness, grief, shame, doubt, etc. Unlike postfeminist works featuring so-called “unlikeable women” (such as Sex and the City or Girls), where such flaws are overcome or resolved by the end of the movie, series or book – due to the heroines’ successful careers, their choice to marry or to have children – Fleabag takes a completely amoral approach, by refusing to control, solve, or redirect the protagonist’s issues.


To return to a point that I made earlier in the thesis, where I mentioned McRobbie’s idea that postfeminism takes feminist elements into account in order to repudiate them, I maintain that Fleabag, as well, takes postfeminist elements into account so as to portray the opposition between traditional femininity and its subversive counterpart, best depicted in the dichotomy between Fleabag and her uptight, high-achieving sister. Just like Reva in Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Claire is portrayed as an uptight, career-driven female character, with a diploma in business and working in finance across two firms – in both Finland and UK. She embraces positivity as her life philosophy, and claims, in the first episode of the second season that, “It takes a real commitment to be this happy,” (15:55 – 15:57) and “Positive energy takes work. In the last six months, I’ve excelled. I take all the negative emotions and just bottle them and burry them and they never come out. I’ve basically never been better” (15:39 – 15:48).


In the fourth episode of the first season, when she receives an ardently desired promotion that requires her to move to Finland, Claire initially refuses to accept it, as it would mean leaving her husband and stepson, mentioning that “My husband is my life” (16:25 – 16:27). As Pankratz argues, this scene perfectly describes Claire’s personal predicament and her decision in favor of family and husband. “Fleabag’s life, however, is slightly more complex,” Pankratz claims (150). As such, as Elizabeth Alsop has observed, what distinguishes Fleabag from other postfeminist characters is not necessarily her “unlikeability,” but rather her vulnerability; that is, the openness with which she discloses feelings and experiences that women have long been encouraged to suppress (Alsop). Moreover, the end of the series does not resolve the protagonist’s issues, but rather makes a point that its dysfunctional heroine is nowhere near her happy ending. At the end of the first season, the audience finds that it was her who engaged in sexual intercourse with Boo’s boyfriend, which later motivated her friend’s lethal accident. Similarly, at the end of the second and final season, the audience departs from Fleabag without any resolutions for the future. Besides, unlike postfeminist movies, television series or books that provide a happy ending for their protagonists, Fleabag’s only chance at love is not reciprocated. Rather, just as in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the ending is explicitly amoral and non-cathartic.


Too often have characters been rewarded with a happy ending, despite their various faults. Yet Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag aims to challenge this habitually recycled stereotype, and it does so through a kind of politics. In contrast to the “strong” female characters that have been dominating mainstream cinema for decades, Fleabag’s comparably “weak” and “unlikeable” protagonist undermines the conflation of complexity with an implicitly masculine code of values (Alsop). The victory in that resides on the fact that a world populated only with aspirational, strong female leads might suggest to readers or viewers that there are no impediments left to their broader attainment. As Alsop claims,

 

Fleabag’s protagonist, by the finale, has copped to some startling sins, and yet the episode’s mantra (“people make mistakes”) signals the sort of equanimity with which viewers are invited to accept this news. No matter how deplorable her actions, the point is for audiences to feel with the character, not about her.

(Alsop)

 

Finally, the unnamed protagonist from My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag’s eponymous protagonist challenge the notion that the work of feminism is over, by assuming identities that confront and deviate from what readers and audiences expect from them. In doing that, they are critiqued and marginalized as “unlikeable” female characters in a society that aims to silence, punish or ultimately redeem unhappy, angry, cynical and violent women by providing them with a happy ending that solves all their problems. The unhappy ending in both works, thus, can be thought of as a conciliation between aesthetics and politics, which pleads in favor of the continuous need of feminism in women’s lives.

 

Footnotes

[1] Season 2, episode 4.


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