How Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag Taught Us the Art of Female Coping

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How Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag Taught Us the Art of Female Coping

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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or a long time, I was convinced that the act of coping had an eventual destination – that it was a temporary stopover between the heart processing the origins of pain and the mind co-existing with it. I anticipated its arrival every time my life descended into the kind of dysfunctionality that accompanied being summarily dismissed. And just like the heartbroken Fleabag whose future seemed devoid of promise following the violent loss of her best friend, I wouldn’t think twice before surrendering myself to a performance of coping during these bittersweet excursions.

So when the eponymous anti-heroine broke the fourth wall in the opening moments of Fleabag’s second season 371 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes since we’d last witnessed her cope with her grief, I was certain it’d cut close to the bone. And it did. Like so many of us, Fleabag instinctively chose to cope with the world that had left her behind by willingly leaving herself behind. She dived headfirst into adopting an experimental nourishing routine: For the first time in her life, Fleabag worked out, embraced a healthy diet, and abstained from meaningless sex, even when it meant turning down a ridiculously gorgeous pickup’s offer to go down on her. And like me, even Fleabag performed a version of herself, succumbing to the assumption that coping is “overcoming” – the sunset that would make way for sunrise.

In that same episode, Claire, Fleabag’s barely-held-together elder sister, scoffed at this ostentatious display of escapism, instead insisting that the only way to live is to “face who you are and suffer the consequences”. Yet even Claire’s version doesn’t veer very far away from Fleabag’s coping mechanisms. Both exist on the premise that coping is a passage and not a lifelong condition. A way to detach your future from pain. For the belief has always been that, when coping ends, living starts. Except, like so many other women, Fleabag, Claire, and I were pressuring ourselves to heal, not cope.

At its primal state, as Fleabag posits, female coping is an endless cycle of mutiny.

In those minutes, Fleabag translated something unimaginably intimate about the female condition. It probed the female mind that inadvertently confuses coping with healing. Over the years, pop-culture has bypassed the convoluted terrains of female pain by inaccurately capturing coping as a temporary “suffering” inevitable for survival. And it’s this precise narrative of female coping that Waller-Bridge reclaims in the new season of Fleabag. Through the span of six piercing episodes, she demands the exact opposite: That female coping be regarded as survival that replenishes us for a lifetime of suffering.

Fleabag distills this singularity of female coping with a sensational monologue in its third episode. Over martinis at a bar, Bellinda (Kristin Scott Thomas), a 58-year-old lesbian businesswoman who Fleabag has befriended only minutes back, reminds her – and us – about the inescapable, cyclical nature of female suffering. “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives,” she argues, adding that men tend to “seek it out” by inventing gods, demons, and by creating wars so that they can feel things and touch each other.

The only time a woman can exist just as a “person” and not “a machine with parts,” Bellinda claims, is when she hits menopause. With that episode, Fleabag at once, busts the myth that the world keeps force-feeding pained women all their lives: That the easiest way to have a semblance of control over our lives is to lock away our loss somewhere we can’t access. To will ourselves to emerge unmoored from pain. Yet, what the world forgets, and what Fleabag keenly underlines, is that women go through their entire lives without any control over their own bodies or their pain. It’s why men can escape pain by healing but women are programmed to rage with it – their bodies can never forget or deflect pain. Female coping, then isn’t a reaction but a continuous action. Loss doesn’t trigger it. Life does.

Fleabag

In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge offers an unflinching subtext for female pain.

Image credit: BBC America

It’s poetic that this scene feels like a piece of writing and acting directly inspired from female rage – a sublime, breathless TV moment that doesn’t ration its bite, astounding instead with its abject fearlessness. The pathos also acts as a reminder that for a gender whose existence is dictated by pointed diamonds of pain, coping can rarely be packaged as a respite. And Fleabag paints a defining portrait of the permanence of this pulversing emotion when Claire secretly suffers a miscarriage during a family dinner. When Fleabag ends up discovering her sister’s tragedy and expresses concern, a wounded Claire retaliates by yelling, “Keep your hands off my miscarriage. It’s mine! It’s mine!” In those seconds, a distinct shade of rage seeps through Claire’s face for she isn’t just bearing the full extent of her pain but also simultaneously coping with it. But Claire’s coping doesn’t cleanse her pain; it merely equips her to tolerate it. At its primal state, as Fleabag posits, female coping is an endless cycle of mutiny. It is both, sunrise and sunset.

It’s no surprise then, that at its heart, the mordant Fleabag remained fixated with being an account of a woman in perpetual pain; a woman who doesn’t heal but copes with her agony by not hiding it. If the show’s comically dark first season introduced us to the origins of female pain, then this season offers an unflinching subtext for that pain.

At a time when the world focuses on healing, Fleabag permits its female lead to flit through abandonment, guilt, heartbreak, loneliness, and isolation with an aching clarity of the fact that her wounds can’t be eradicated or ignored. It’s as if the show rebels against what Godmother (Olivia Colman) tells the sisters during their mother’s funeral, warning them that people get spooked out to be around “someone who is perpetually in pain”. In doing so, Waller-Bridge reclaims the female experience: She turns the presumed humiliation of a female setback on its head by deconstructing it and prodding the audience to confront its ruins.

Two seasons and a bravura 12-episode run later, Fleabag stands on its own, as a modern tragedy: a dark exploration of what comes into play when women aren’t made to obsess over terminating the umbilical cord of pain, but instead taught to cope by tolerating it. It feels almost devastating – and fitting – that the priest’s (Andrew Scott) visceral speech about love in the show’s finale can also be read as an ode to female coping. After all, just like being a romantic, even living with pain takes a “hell lot of hope”.

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