Bad feminists: redefining feminism through the eyes of a modern woman
How Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag is helping women to see feminism through the eye of the beholder
Our first glimpse of “Fleabag”, aptly named and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, demonstrates all the tropes which the ideal feminist would despair over. Her impulsive, sexually rampant nature ) is hinted at from the moment we meet, as she waits at the door of her apartment for a casual one-night stand. As she simultaneously breaks the fourth wall to engage with her audience, she addresses this extremely relatable sexual encounter in a way that flips the switch on the typical feminist persona. Fleabag is both a character who knows who she wants to be, as well as being hindered by life’s trials and tribulations.
The power of the Fleabag narrative, in respect to the feminist cause, revolves around the way that we can see ourselves unequivocally through the characters quirky lens. Fleabag’s authenticity allows us to believe that our own versions of feminism are acceptable, even under the scrutiny of the ideal feminist.
Andrienne Trier-Bieniek notes how ‘pop culture has the power to put up a mirror to our lives’, therefore we make connections with media, and we identify with it. ). It is so poignant that Waller-Bridge chooses to focus on a selection of complicated women—motherless daughters, femme-friendships, and unhealthy relationships, to name only three aspects of a woman’s life, due to their relevancy and critical exposure to these topics in recent years. The screenplay also strikes a chord as feminism is progressing into its fourth wave, which refers to the growing community of feminist activists,who have seen a resurgence since the internet created a ‘call out culture’ where misogyny and sexism could be challenged.
Not only are there new communities of female activists, but there also seems to be a new message among women; to empower women to love and be themselves. Therefore, Fleabag’s traits that would normally be seen as removed from the purest form of feminism and femininity; ; ‘obnoxious, drunk, sexually promiscuous, flawed’, appear more valid than before. The obscurity and juxtaposition of a woman’s story who appears liberated, draws us in and makes women collectively feel enabled, where we often share her faults.
The most common stigmatisation that has defined feminists, is that of a woman who hates men, or a movement of radical 'men-haters and lesbians'. As someone who was born in the 90s, I have grown up surrounded by more widely accepted feminist attitudes and often took feminism for granted, as well as accepting the rumours that this generally inclusive movement were angry, hateful women. A view that I now perceive to be a patriarchal idea, devised as a gatekeeper for a woman’s voice. Baumgardner and Richards discussed the fact that ‘feminism is more often described as what it isn’t, than what it is’. This is perhaps what makes Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unusual feminist depiction so refreshing, as we are greeted by something so unorthodox yet brutally truthful.
The term “bad feminist” is often thrown around to excuse us from the perfect pedestal and the alarmingly negative connotations that surround the word feminism. Roxane Gay, author of ‘Bad feminist’ and essay writer, describes her experiences with feminism in a similar way to that of Fleabag. In an interview with the Guardian, Roxane described herself as “deeply committed to the issues important to the movement”as she shared strong opinions about misogyny, sexism and violence against women. However, Roxane referred to initially falling for the ‘grossly inaccurate myths’ surrounding the movement and that she had got it into her head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. In particular, the militancy and man-hating, a misconception that I had once believed in. Much like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s screenplay, Roxane allows us to be the women that we are, with contradictions, imperfections, and trauma, but still be feminists.
As the story of Fleabag progresses throughout this two-season series, I found myself attached to her cynical nature and melodrama. The screen play uses such colloquial language, that you could be watching Fleabag’s life as a fly on the wall, which also gives Waller-Bridge the artistic license to publicise all of Fleabag’s very unfiltered, real-life issues and insecurities. The tropes which stood out for me as breaking down feminist mythologies, focused on her love for sex, her body image, and interactions with her sister. In season 1, episode 2, Fleabag talks of her love for sex;
“I’m not obsessed with sex, I just can’t stop thinking about it…. the moment you realise someone wants your body, not so much the feeling of it”
The way she discusses sex, gives the impression that she does succumb to the idea of male validation, yet her ability to define this lust is also empowering.
Fleabag’s increasingly tenuous relationship with body image is crucial in highlighting her progressive attitudes towards feminism, as she tackles her own failings with the beauty standards of today. Another portrayal of the complexity of femme relationships, is the depiction of Fleabag’s sister, Claire. Claire embodies all the aspects that women habitually desire: money, family, and beauty. The screenplay emanates the jealousy and inferiority complexes that are held between women, as a hindrance to becoming a true feminist. One of the most impacting moments within the Fleabag series, is the sexual harassment scenario, in which Claire’s husband makes advances upon Fleabag without her consent. This scene holds so much gravity as it imitates versions of sexual harassment claims, especially as the woman’s integrity is always the first to be questioned, despite Claire’s husbands’ alcoholism and daily sexual indecency, often being coined as “fun Martin”.
In the year ending March 2020, the office for national statistics estimated that 4.9 million women had been victims of sexual assault. Women still face massive amounts of public scepticism, which Fleabag seems to captivate with the intensity of these scenes within her family. It is in the moments where Fleabag breaks the fourth wall to speak to her audience directly, that a new feminist identity seems apparent. Our own frustration that develops with the injustice portrayed in Fleabag, is one of the reasons why my attitudes towards feminism changed. Despite Fleabag’s evident love for men, there are also underlying issues surrounding her relationship with them; ; potentially stemming from the disappointment of a father who doesn’t understand her and neglected her for another woman. The neglectful father, the bad husband and the young male attitude tropes in fleabag all imply that the patriarchal society still has a hold on even the most clever and powerful women, Fleabag is no exception.
Fleabag is certainly an eye opener, with its focus upon upon the ordinary woman who is chic yet unflashy. The idea that a woman can be both feminist and not comply to stereotypical feminist images, such as not shaving or man-hating, was in some way a relief. Fleabag is the smartest person in most rooms, yet has no impulse control, which is how she caters for many women like me. She is neither perfect nor the perfect feminist and this is an attitude that I would like to see pop culture adopting, to break down unrealistic expectations for women and help to translate these attitudes into everyday life.