Difficult Women: The Portrayal of Female Sexuality in “Fleabag”
As creator and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge stood on stage at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards to collect her third accolade for her Amazon comedy series “Fleabag,” she remarked, “It’s just really wonderful to know—and reassuring—that a dirty, pervy, angry, messed up woman can make it to the Emmys.”
The title of the television series “Fleabag” comes from the nickname of the protagonist—a cynical, sexually adventurous, riotously funny, loud, and unabashed mess of a woman, quite unlike most female protagonists of television’s past or present. Fleabag first presents as someone very much in control of her own narrative: a cosmopolitan, single woman, living in London, sleeping with whomever she pleases, always ready with a witty remark.
But cracks quickly appear in this facade. Fleabag compulsively turns every situation sexual, and treats her sexual conquests more like objects or social experiments rather than human beings. Throughout the series, the viewer comes to understand that Fleabag relies on sex for validation and as a means of escaping the trauma of her best friend’s and mother’s deaths, which she only reluctantly reveals to her audience as her life begins to unravel.
One of the main pillars of the show is Fleabag’s constant breaking of the fourth wall, as she levels quips, loaded glances, and a host of wildly entertaining facial expressions toward the camera in every scene. The audience is meant to feel both as if they are Fleabag herself, and also as if they are Fleabag’s closest confidants. However, by the end of the first season, it becomes clear that Fleabag was simply performing for her audience all along, attempting to both process and dissociate from her experiences by turning her life into a series of carefully crafted jokes for her viewers.
Fleabag’s performativity is most clear during the show’s many sex scenes. In the first episode, Fleabag looks straight into the camera and explains, “I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it. The awkwardness of it. The drama of it. Not so much the feeling of it.” As the show progresses, her libido feels punishingly theatrical, and even during moments of intense physical intimacy with her partners, Fleabag is still performing, still dissociating, and is still falling short of experiencing any type of real physical or emotional pleasure in these interactions.
There is a stark contrast in the show between Fleabag’s paralyzing fear of opening up about her struggles to her older sister or her therapist, and the ease with which she decides she wants to have sex with strangers. This illustrates even more clearly that Fleabag is unable to be vulnerable with the people closest to her and instead turns to sex as a form of escapism.
Ultimately, Fleabag is not obsessed with men nearly as much as she is obsessed with women; her relationships to the women in her life are the most important ones in the show, and it is only when she learns to find emotional fulfillment through them and through herself that she is able to heal from her pain.
In an interview with Vulture News, Waller-Bridge explained her character’s approach to sex. “It’s not necessarily about her going out and having millions of orgasms, it was really that she knows that she needs it for validation, but she can’t admit that it comes from that place, because she’s also like, I just want it, so I don’t want to apologize for it, but I also know that I don’t really like the actual feeling of it,” she said. According to her, the dissonance between seeking out sex for validation and finding actual physical pleasure in a sexual encounter is something that resonates with many of her viewers, particularly young heterosexual women.
Tufts junior and “Fleabag” fan Carrie Haynes says that she found herself “rooting for Fleabag from the very beginning,” because she saw so much of herself in the show’s protagonist. “I so badly wanted [Fleabag] to find love and success in the show, because that’s what I want for myself. But I’d be lying if I said I’d never settle for validation the way Fleabag does multiple times throughout the show. Yes, Fleabag is deeply flawed, but aren’t we all?”
Haynes also expressed her appreciation for the honesty of Waller-Bridge’s portrayal of pleasure for straight women, particularly in the show’s unabashed discussion of masturbation as Fleabag’s primary emotional outlet and preferred method of orgasm. During one of Haynes’ favorite scenes in the show, Fleabag is caught masturbating to a clip of a speech by Barack Obama while her boyfriend sleeps next to her in bed. While the scene is meant to be funny, it emphasizes the gap between what Fleabag actually finds pleasurable and what she experiences in her sexual encounters.
Ultimately, as Haynes explains, “Fleabag treats the men she has sex with the way that society teaches us heterosexual men supposedly treat the women they have sex with—no feelings attached, only valuable until the end of the encounter, a vessel for a sexual experience more than a human to form a connection with.” Is there something radical about the way that “Fleabag” inverts the traditional gender roles of hookup culture?
Perhaps, but Fleabag’s stereotypically masculine presentation of her sexuality is still problematic—just in a different way than it would be if she were a man. For heterosexual men, the objectification of their partners that is often part of their hookups has its roots in the societal pressures placed on straight men to be hypermasculine and sexually dominant.
According to Tufts junior Rebecka Henrikson, “The moments in which Fleabag is objectified by men display [their] insecurities in the face of Fleabag’s unapologetic strength. When Fleabag objectifies the men she encounters, I think it comes partially from a place of insecurity, but also from a place of reclaiming sexual power from men and harnessing that power for her own pleasure.”
Fleabag’s willingness to engage in hookup culture on the terms of maleness and traditional heterosexuality is neither a subversion nor an endorsement of sexist norms. It is simply her way of avoiding the pain of her past and attempting to protect herself from future trauma by filling the void in her life left by the deaths of her mother and best friend.
In interviews, Waller-Bridge often acknowledges the intersection of pain and pleasure in Fleabag’s character. “I’ve never played a part that’s just shamelessly dangerous as a woman, and she’s like, I know I’m dangerous. I know I’m naughty. I know I’m massively broken. But she’s going to let it all hang out. I knew I wanted to play…somebody who was unapologetic about desperately needing sex and affirmation,” she explained.
It is Fleabag’s honesty about the nature of her desire that makes the show feel so original. Rarely has television seen a heroine so open about seeking sex for validation and so unwilling to apologize for it. “Fleabag” might just be the beginning of a sea change in television that will finally portray women in all of their complicated, difficult glory.