There’s this scene I keep thinking about in the second season of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterfully acerbic BBC comedy about a single, early 30s, unnamed hot mess of a woman who is perennially back on her bullshit, which involves routine casual sex, bad choices, lots of unnecessary drama, family conflict, existential life questions, extreme self-absorption and a finger poised on the self-destruct button.
It’s not the most talked-about scene — that’s the one where the priest tells her to kneel.
Nor is it the scene where she admits she’s bisexual and kisses Kristin Scott Thomas, who delivers a sick bit of wisdom about the female experience:
But it’s a critical scene for other reasons. Even though she’s horny for this hot Irish celibate priest (Andrew Scott) who swears and drinks Gin and Tonics in a can, it’s kinda taking too long to seal the deal, and it’s totally unclear as to whether they ever will. Also, I should repeat, she’s horny.
So she decides to go fuck this other dude, her lawyer, the Hot Misogynist (Ray Fearon), because he is brash and arrogant and hot and maybe or maybe not good at fucking but will do in a pinch. So they fuck. And he ends up having a huge dick and being so good at fucking that he gives her nine orgasms and she has to cowboy-walk it off on the way home from being so solidly pummeled. Did I mention her sister also fucked him, which she is fully aware of before also fucking him? Did I mention the entire season is a love story?
It’s the sort of scene that’s supposed to be outrageously cheeky and refreshing, not only for its implied moral transgressions, but because of its brutal honesty (question: Why does the hot misogynist always give you the best orgasms?) and implied brazenly self-destructive arc. Here is a woman who is already playing with fire, about to pour more gasoline directly on it. In an exchange with a therapist she sees for only one session — a gift from her distantly absent-minded father that she intends to merely cash in for the money — she confesses to her female therapist:
“I want to fuck a priest.”
“A good one?”
“He looks good in the…?” ::gestures to attire, referring to his priest get up::
“Do you really want to fuck a priest, or do you want to fuck God?”
“Can you fuck God?”
For Fleabag, as we know from Season One, and as we are reminded in Season Two, this is just another issue on top of all her other issues, which are as follows: that her mother died; that her best friend killed herself; and that she and her sister haven’t spoken in a year because her sister’s husband tried to kiss her on her sister’s birthday, and as she puts it, “I’ve spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.”
Fleabag is gonna Fleabag, meaning she’s going to numb the pain and confusion of the ambiguity with more ill-advised sex, which means sex with a guy who is an ass and will never be her boyfriend — all the while chasing some Godly, celibate tail.
It succeeds as being brilliantly funny while also feeling novel, but not because Fleabag’s choices really are so scandalous or radically dysfunctional, but because they are a brutally honest reflection of the lives many single, modern, urban women live. It’s also novel because it’s so shameless about it, and because there still aren’t enough of these things on television to level the playing field. The choice of a priest as a love interest may seem like it’s there for shock value, but it’s sneakier than that and never treads on gimmicky ground without doing so ironically: It ends up being a vehicle for her to address her fear of real intimacy.
To be clear, the lots-of-ill-advised-sex stuff is not the entirety of the show, but more like a skillfully infused through line. Season Two’s handling of female and celibate lust, and the chemistry between the two leads, and the unfiltered conversations the women in the show have about sex and lust when no one is listening, is undoubtedly a huge part of its charm. Plus, for every over-the-top fuck moment, there is depth, backstory, darkness and heart.
There are complicated tensions between every character, and stories of family conflict, sibling rivalry, unhappy marriages, difficult friendships, struggling businesses, blended families, remarriage, fidelity, faith, meaning, love and grief. There isn’t a bad performance in the lot, with stellar turns from her sister’s husband Martin (Brett Gelman), her uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford), and her godmother played by Olivia Colman, who masters the passive-aggressive ding like only a Brit could (“You have a lovely, thick neck,” she tells Fleabag in one scene). And nothing, not even the darkest moments, escape Waller-Bridge’s sardonic humor.
Most remarkable of all, though, these stories could be just as easily about the mishaps of a man in his 20s or 30s. The tell is that unlike any story of a male character, we keep being reminded that she’s doing all this because she’s fucked up. Everyone she knows thinks she’s fucked up! She knows she’s fucked up! Remember, Bad Things Have Happened To Fleabag!
But it shouldn’t need to.
By adding in these motivations for a female character just being an aimless thirtysomething who’s dealing with some shit, it feels like an apology, a Trojan Horse that we still need that allows us to sit back and let this woman fuck around and fuck up until she stops being terrified of Real Love.
In other words, two people shouldn’t have had to die in this woman’s life for her to get on a lot of dick if she wants or make bad choices. When men spend their 20s, or 30s (or 40s, or 50s, or 60s) fucking anything that moves and avoiding real intimacy, we don’t need an explanation.
We shouldn’t for women, either, when they, just like men, are horny and want human connection, and like men, are also grasping in the dark about how to make it go. Many women are terrified of actual, honest-to-God intimacy, too — for a variety of reasons, most of which can be summed up by two words: It’s scary.
And during our young adult lives, which by today’s standards spans until about 35, there’s an unbearable number of shapeless nights, almosts, near-misses and otherwise excruciatingly ambiguous relationships that never take off, or do but crash and burn rapidly, all before you get tired of that shit and then go do what everyone always does: pair off.
In the empty spaces, we all fumble about, hurt each other and ourselves, use people and get used, fall in love and out, get rejected and reject, make lots of impulsive choices, masochistically fall into all the wrong beds, return to the scenes of our own crimes and sadistically muck it all up until we get a little foresight to beat back the myopia. Shit happens, for which many of us are ill-equipped to deal or cope. That’s just life.
The idea that a woman might spend a decade being really selfish, being attracted to the wrong people and not always taking care of herself on the road to proper adulthood should not be so radical anymore, but it is. And we still demand that they be likable above all else, not just on television, but in reality. Even when they’re not.
Much has been made in recent years about girls on film: That there aren’t enough women’s stories, enough female leads, enough fully fleshed out female characters, enough of a range of women from all different identities and backgrounds behind or in front of the camera, much less running the show at the executive level.
Critically, one major argument goes, there aren’t enough female dirtbags — cinematic opportunities for women to be fucked up, amoral and pathologically messy and selfish, just as men have been since the invention of cinema itself.
Fleabag, also created and written by Waller-Bridge, who also has a hit show Killing Eve, and who will write on the next Bond script, is one example of what happens when this all comes together with stunning success. It comes off the tradition of other shows or movies with scummy or scammy female leads that have begun to chart in the last handful of years: Girls, Trainwreck, I Love Dick, Broad City, Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Love, The Good Place.
Amorality, horniness and being kind of a selfish bitch seem to be the prevailing prerequisites that define the genre, and Fleabag leads the pack on all three in spades. It’s also a cut above because the writing is so prickly and clever, the pacing so tight and tidy and because it has such a high degree of self-awareness about its purpose, and such a relish for leaning in completely to the antics and absurdity of this particular point in a person’s life. And Fleabag’s backstory, a woman dealing with a double dose of complicated grief, never feels slight. It’s a valid point of exploration that gives the character a lot of depth and potential for growth.
To be clear, it’s not a flaw of Fleabag that she has to be positioned as such a hot mess to get away with what is, by all accounts, a fairly universal experience of adulthood. It’s a flaw of us. Whenever we’re actually ready to accept that a girl with no friends and an empty heart might fumble — or fuck — through an entire stretch of her life while she figures it out, whatever that means, we won’t need a good excuse to just let her.