Goodbye 2010s: The Decade We Embraced Fleabag Feminism

When Millennials Grew Up

Goodbye 2010s: The Decade We Embraced Fleabag Feminism

Illustration: Sid M

In this age of normalised binge-marathons, it’s easy to forget that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag — a show that has officially cemented its status as a cultural phenomenon — is, in its entirety, only four or so hours of TV. Each season consists of half-a-dozen sitcom-length episodes which follow the existence of the cynical, bitingly witty eponymous protagonist, played by Waller-Bridge. To put it in 20th century terms, that’s half a season of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, up to the episode which fans will recognise as “The One with the Dozen Lasagnas”.

Unlike F.R.I.E.N.D.S however, Fleabag doesn’t have ten more seasons to come. Like a bomb, it dropped into global consciousness this year with its second and final season, four years after its excellently economic first season. Somehow, the tragic and unenviable Fleabag, a millennial woman who deals with trauma through a cocktail of sex, sarcasm, and repressed feelings resonated most of all with young women.

Like many others, I hopped on the Fleabag bandwagon earlier this year around the time of my 27th birthday. It was as an age I felt where youth could no longer be an excuse for my follies. On one hand, a 26-year-old who orders pizza four days a week and forgets to file her taxes can still be regarded with an indulgent eye. But a 27-year-old in plain sight of the doomed three zero, still acting like the star of an “adulting” video on YouTube sounded like a dubious proposition at best. The prospect made me wonder if I was “That Millennial” – the one who gets featured in magazines for killing the auto industry while sipping Starbucks soy lattes.

Fleabag

There is a defiance of shame in how Fleabag allows herself to feel the vastness of the human experience, including all that is crass, distasteful, and selfish, with a wink and a nod to camera.

BBC One/ BBC Two

For one, I’m guilty as charged: I still can’t afford a car or actually drive. My negligence in living up to the traditional ideal of a functioning adult probably is killing the auto industry. But who among us can claim to be any better? Certainly not Fleabag, who in her early thirties, is categorically a mess. Fleabag’s cafe is failing, her twitchy on-off boyfriend wants nothing to do with her, her family regards her as an inconvenience, and her self-destructive choices are hard to watch without cringing. By every conventional measure of success, Fleabag is a failure.

And yet, there’s a strange sense of the aspirational that hovers around Fleabag. There’s the fact that she is heartbreakingly relatable: She’s not believed when she tells her sister about her cheating husband, a reference to the #MeToo fallout that defined a new generation of women’s rights. While her casual attitude toward sex is both funny and familiar, Fleabag lives the modern woman’s paradox. She wants sex to be just that but still has to navigate relationship dynamics that leave her feeling unfulfilled. Fleabag hooks up with guys she barely knows and hardly likes, and would still rather masturbate than have sex with her boyfriend. In these contradictions of the flesh, Fleabag searches fruitlessly for answers, even though she wouldn’t know what to do if she found them. Fleabag, perennially unable to adult, doesn’t really want to come of age.

There’s something to be said about her brand of feminism and why it feels so familiar bro the millennial woman. Reams have been written about the visceral satisfaction of watching a woman be treated as an anti-hero: selfish, manipulative, insecure, and immature, but still a likeable character that we’re meant to root for. Fleabag is searingly honest even when she’s lying to herself. In an absurdist take on a classic feminine trope, Fleabag worries that she looks too good at her mother’s funeral and tries unsuccessfully to rumple her hair to appear appropriately grief-stricken. It’s a dig at the expectation on women to perform their emotions in a narrowly prescribed way – one that’s echoed when her sister gets an edgy asymmetrical haircut. Fleabag confronts the cavalier stylist who says the haircut will grow out, ranting, “Hair is everything! We wish it wasn’t, so we could actually think about something else occasionally, but it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day.”

Fleabag plumbs the depths of guilt and shame in a manner unique to women, to whom these emotions fundamentally belong.

As usual, Fleabag hits the nail on the head. As a good millennial feminist, I recognise that the quest for perfect hair is a distraction – but that doesn’t change my belief that hair is everything. From break ups to new jobs, my milestones are usually marked by a hairstyle change that will, I am convinced, better represent my newest avatar. After all, if Samson acknowledges the power of good hair, why shouldn’t Fleabag? Why shouldn’t all women?

In a way, that’s what made the impulsive, flawed Fleabag the unlikely role model we needed in the 2010s. Fleabag plumbs the depths of guilt and shame in a manner unique to women, to whom these emotions fundamentally belong. The genius of the first season is revealed only in the last episode, when we finally come to understand the source of Fleabag’s self-loathing. The full weight of her guilt at betraying her closest friend  – a fellow woman – hits like a truck, forcing us to consider that she really is a fleabag after all. And yet, there is a defiance of shame in how Fleabag allows herself to feel the vastness of the human experience, including all that is crass, distasteful, and selfish, with a wink and a nod to camera. What she really wants and takes seriously – a partner who listens but remains unavailable, an absolution from her past sins – is universal.

At the close of the 2010s, Fleabag, nearly a decade in the making, has emerged as the literal last word in feminine black comedy – more universal than the self-indulgent whiners in Girls and more visceral than the witticisms of Broad City.  Perhaps, it’s because Fleabag had both the sharpness and the courage to identify problems with millennial feminism as we know it. If Fleabag can be said to have a moral, it’s about seeking self-love not in sheet masks and social media platitudes, but in its most fundamental sense, in self-awareness. It’s about finding a way back to acceptance even when it feels impossible. And although these traumas are the provenance of women, so is the fortitude to heal from them. As we face the angry, unstable world that this decade is leaving behind, Fleabag’s feminism gives us a means to salvation in the one to come.

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