“Women are slaves to pain…” says Belinda Friers, while drinking martinis with Fleabag.
So many viewers relate to Fleabag. Aside from her speaking directly to the audience, it is also because many of the female viewers have dealt with the same struggle — the pain of being a woman and dealing with pain as a woman. The character is going through a grieving time in her life and her only way of coping is to either express her pain, in which case she is deemed selfish, or cope by blocking it out with the drama of one-night stands and messy relationships, in which case she’s just as bad as the men who take advantage of women.
A lot of Fleabag’s actions are unacceptable, but it’s important to understand that her character isn’t just a funny anti-hero; she’s a cry for help. Her character is meant to be relatable so that women might begin to accept their similar experiences and notice the unspoken gender inequality that ignores women’s pain and shames them for admitting it.
The modern young woman sees her struggle and cannot help but relate. Fleabag and her sister, Claire, are good examples of the average woman. They’re both experiencing emotional pain — the death of their mother and a dead-end marriage (Claire), and the death of a friend (Fleabag). Yet, it would be hard to tell if it weren’t mentioned so casually. When Fleabag acts out — her “little shows” as her step mother calls them, such as smashing champagne glasses at her stepmother’s gallery — she’s being attention-seeking and selfish.
During Claire and Fleabag’s weekend retreat we see women are meant to rest and heal through silence and letting go of the past (a past that they don’t even know how to deal with!). Whereas the men in the retreat next-door are encouraged to scream and let out their anger when they are the offenders. Fleabag and her sister are encouraged during the retreat to lock away their thoughts and trap them inside their “skulls”. The writers of Fleabag convey the truth of modern woman-hood: no-one cares about your pain. The modern feminist is meant to shove down the pain so they can be equally as respectable as men. And then, act like men.
So how does the modern feminist deal with pain? In Fleabag’s case, she uses sex with strangers as a distraction from it. She believes that the best way to regain a sense of control is to take advantage of men who would otherwise have control over her. But even though modern feminism supports sexual liberation, this simply gives women a false sense of power. Fleabag knows she has what men want, giving her a feeling of control. But she doesn’t want sex. She claims she doesn’t even like sex. She’s allowing herself to be used and convincing herself she’s using men so she can feel the power, control and approval that they already have.
Even when it comes to sexual liberation, women still feel guilty or used. Society, the corporate world, even women themselves, expect other women to act as though they’re equal to men. When Fleabag takes on the role of a man, i.e. masturbating in front of her boyfriend, ditching a guy for not having sex with her, ect., she’s a fleabag. And when she tries to be authentic about her feelings, i.e. smashing champagne glasses or trying to be open about her feelings in conversation, she’s selfish. Reacting to pain, speaking about her problems… again, she’s a fleabag. Leaving her, like many other women today and throughout history, in a constant and quiet state of guilt. And pain.
Both seasons of Fleabag are available on BBC iPlayer. You can watch the trailer for the first season below.