Fleabag, Mrs Fletcher, and Succession: When Older Women Owned their Desires On the Small Screen

Pop Culture

Fleabag, Mrs Fletcher, and Succession: When Older Women Owned their Desires On the Small Screen

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

They say if you fold a piece of paper a hundred times over, it assumes the thickness of the universe. That is perhaps also true of the size of women’s repressed desires. When yearnings are finally allowed to unfurl after being neatly pleated and stowed away, they are unafraid of taking up space. Mrs. Fletcher, an HBO miniseries explores these impulses while chronicling a single mother’s sexual reawakening.

As her only child leaves for college, Eve, a middle-aged divorcee (Kathryn Hahn) also faces a new beginning. The empty nest syndrome is not just something that compels parents to miss their children but also marks the transitional phase that prompts them to look at themselves and pay attention to their identities – far removed from their roles as caregivers. This psychological void is threaded into Eve’s latent longings; she finds the missing pieces in her transgressive fantasies. In one of the episodes for instance, dithering between having a real date and the possibilities of the virtual world, she chooses the latter. It’s a fascinating exposition on the shifting priorities that engulf our sexual lives. Mrs Fletcher goes a step ahead and examines pornography as a tool of exploitation as well as self-discovery as it juxtaposes the dual coming-of-age journeys of the mother and the son.

Mrs Fletcher goes a step ahead and examines pornography as a tool of exploitation as well as self-discovery as it juxtaposes the dual coming-of-age journeys of the mother and the son.

HBO

Usually, pop-culture has an archaic way of portraying older women on screen. They are mostly depicted as women who are devoid of desire. Even when shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives staryed from convention and allowed its older protagonists to own their desires, it came at a price. For instance, in Desperate Housewives, female sexuality was largely tethered to sensational plot twists like murders and “immoral” affairs with teenagers. Sex and the City on the other hand, often employed the sex lives of its women for laughs. Their desires existed more often than not, to serve something else. In contrast, the TV shows of this year unabashedly put female gaze, front and center, casting the sexual autonomy of an older woman in starring roles. The upshot of this was that middle-aged women got to wore their desire like second skin.

Before Mrs Fletcher, Hahn had been embodying the length and breadth of the facets of 40-something female desire in I Love Dick, Girls, and Transparent. The actress topped it off with her turn in Private Life last year, a criminally underrated Netflix film revolving around a couple coping with infertility. The film hurled us into the throes of the couple’s IVF drill, which went to the core of how easily the complexities of female desire can be flattened to a mechanical act meant to fulfill societal expectations.

TV shows of this year unabashedly put female gaze, front and center, casting the sexual autonomy of an older woman in starring roles.

Then there were shows that chronicled the desire that rolls off the acerbic tongue. In Succession, HBO’s addictive dysfunctional family drama, a thrilling yet unsettling sexual relationship develops between Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son of Logan Roy, a brutish media magnate and the cautiously ambitious Gerri ( J. Smith-Cameron), the company’s longtime general counsel. She is approximately 30 years older than him and having seen him grow up, is supposed to share an almost maternal connection with him by default.

In the second season, Gerri starts off as Roman’s confidante and starts coaching him the ways to convince his father that he is the rightful successor. As Gerri doles out choicest insults with deadpan eloquence, their alliance takes an unpredictable turn. Things escalate with a late-night phone call, where Roman masturbates while Gerri humiliates him. She is titillated and mildly amused. It also gives her an edge in this ecosystem where everyone, but her, represents a sense of nepotistic entitlement. Desire and Gerri’s sexual roasts, in this case are grounded in their impropriety.

Fleabag

The Godmother’s humblebrags, unabashed carnal comments and backhanded compliments breathe new life into the generic stepmother template.

Two Brothers Pictures Limited/ BBC One

Incidentally, her role was originally written for a man and Gerri was supposed to be a part of only four episodes of the first season. Yet, Smith-Cameron’s chemistry with Culkin carved out a dynamic that the makers hadn’t anticipated, that resulted in her earning a recurring role. Although, if you were to ask me, the spark was evident in their first scene together where Roman’s stinger, “I’ve always thought of you, and I mean this in the best possible way, as a stone-cold, killer bitch,” is met with a fitting retort from Gerri that goes, “Who says you don’t know how to flirt?”

The tangle of female desire and ambition at the workplace is a newer terrain for TV in the era of Times Up that Apple TV’s The Morning Show compellingly explores. After Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell), Alex Levy’s (Jennifer Aniston) co-host on is fired due to allegations of sexual misconduct at the workplace, the long-reigning empress of the AM news show finds herself infuriated and unmoored. Unbeknownst to her, the network is also looking to replace her for a younger female host. But in a coup of sorts, she announces an outspoken regional TV reporter as her new partner – Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon).

Female Desire

In Succession, HBO’s addictive dysfunctional family drama, a thrilling yet unsettling sexual relationship develops between Roman Roy and the cautiously ambitious Gerri.

Warner Bros. Television Distribution/ HBO

While Jackson is intent on delving into the culture of complicity in her new workspace, Levy grapples with her deep exhaustion of being in the public eye for years and her crumbling personal life. Fluent in the language of their longings, the duo strikingly navigate the labour of surviving female celebrityhood in the world of television, rife with sexism and ageism, where women are often forced to deploy sex as a transaction.

In that sense, desire and power often boomerang off each other as the electric second season of Amazon Prime’s Fleabag reminds us time and again. In the show, the Oscar-winning Olivia Colman plays Godmother, the love interest of Fleabag’s father. An artist with a penchant for sex and nudity, her “sexhibition” includes the likes of objects that were instrumental in causing her first orgasm –  a row of plaster-cast penises and photographs of her own disrobed body. In stray conversations, she freely mentions how working on a good painting can make her climax, even revealing to Claire and Fleabag how sexual their father is, with the same reckless abandon that she compliments Fleabag’s boyfriend attractiveness. The Godmother’s humblebrags, unabashed carnal comments and backhanded compliments breathe new life into the generic stepmother template. At least now, she can be sexual while being evil.

The shows of this year then, will be remembered for upending conventional ideas about age, sex, monogamy, motherhood and female agency, reinforced models of modern womanhood that expanded notions of having desire and being desired. And thankfully for us, it’s the kind of desire that doesn’t have an age barrier.

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