“Yes?” (Fleabag, Series 1, Episode 4)
In Fleabag’s first season, Phoebe Waller-Bridge sends her titular character (played by Waller-Bridge) and her neurotic, uptight sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), to a ‘women’s retreat,’ where they must perform housework and chores in complete silence. Next door, an all men’s retreat sees sexually abusive and manipulative men attempting to cope with their sexual issues through liberating activities, such as screaming “sluts” and verbally assaulting a sex doll. In this country estate home, which symbolizes the regression of modern society, the normative gender roles are enforced: the women must keep their mouths shut while undertaking household duties, and the men are encouraged to slut-shame the women who won’t sleep with them. It’s not unlike Waller-Bridge to put her female characters in these situations. And it’s not unlike her to reinvent the narrative of how these characters cope. In this instance, Fleabag reclaims “slut,” embraces it and acknowledges that being a “slut” is okay.
Waller-Bridge’s women don’t shy away from their sexuality; much like Fleabag, they all embrace their sexual desires, driven by their sexual wants. But it’s not the post-feminist reading of sexuality that seems to be dominating female representation lately (you know, that women are sex machines, unfazed by any emotions associated with sex, heartless creatures just out for an orgasm). Rather, Waller-Bridge’s women are complex, complicated, confused, hurt, lonely, isolated, scared. They are women attempting to find themselves and satisfy their needs in a male-dominated world. These are women with depth, layers, and imperfections, broken by the oppressive society they live in.
Take, for instance, Fleabag: a woman liberal in her sexual actions and unruled by the narratives of female sexuality. Like all of Waller-Bridge’s characters, we can view Fleabag as a liberated feminist character, who reclaims derogatory terms and uses men for her own pleasure. But there is more to her than just a faux-feminist narrative; she’s plagued with trauma and guilt, using sex and one-night stands to satisfy her craving for affection, to replace her loneliness, to make her feel something. She is, by her own admission, a bad feminist. But that’s what makes her a great feminist: because she’s honest about wanting love and affection, about wanting to be cared for, about loving sex and loving men.
In Waller-Bridge’s lesser-known series, Crashing, the character she portrays, Lulu, is just one of the boys: she farts, she drinks, she has sex when she wants and leaves the next morning unaffected. She’s the cool chick, who just wants a laugh with seemingly no emotional attachments. But Lulu, reminiscent of Fleabag, has a hidden sadness, masking her loneliness and pain with laughter and jokes. In the series’ final moments, Lulu is once again dismissed by the man she came to London to be with. After passionate lovemaking the night before, Anthony (Damien Scarborough) looks to Lulu for advice on making up with his fiancée Kate (Louise Ford), leaving Lulu with the only option of telling him to reunite with Kate and forgetting about her. Despite her outwardly unfazed sexual persona, Lulu reminds us that sex does create emotional strings, but the modern woman is expected to pretend she’s disinterested. In Waller-Bridge’s iconic sad smile, we are reminded of the sacrifice women make for men.
And, of course, there’s Killing Eve. Eve (Sandra Oh), the seemingly dutiful wife and just overall average woman, soon finds herself questioning her sexuality and confused about her relationships. Instead of staying placid and being a woman trapped in a patriarchal narrative, she challenges her story by exploring her sexual desires and her inclination for sexual adventure. In series two, Eve has explosive sex with her husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), the most exciting sex the couple has had in a while, with Villanelle (Jodie Comer) watching outside. In her journey to find her own sexual pleasures and excitement (BDSM, voyeurism, lesbian-eroticism are all alluded to), Eve is ostracised by her husband, villainized for her desire to pursue something other than, in Eve’s own words, ‘the missionary position.’
Eve’s rising complex sexual exploration is balanced by Villanelle’s chaotic sexuality. The closest of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s characters to embody the post-feminist, emotionless woman – the psychopathic assassin has bodies in her bed just to fuel her needs, developing no emotional connection with the men and women inhabiting her bed. Yet her obsessive, complicated love for Eve confuses her and challenges her own self-obsessed behaviour, forcing her to care for something rather than destroying it (of course, she fails at it, but it’s the effort that counts). In Villanelle and Eve, Waller-Bridge embraces the crazy chaos of female sexuality, validating a woman’s desire to use self-destruction for sexual liberation.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s women aren’t stereotypes; they’re not cardboard cutouts of women. They are full-bodied, vibrant women, full of emotion and complexities. They are the female characters we long for, the women we want when we ask, “where are all the good female roles?”. They reflect the reality of what it’s like being a modern woman: of struggling to be a good feminist, of knowing how much emotion to show in a society obsessed with the angry woman. Of what it means to be alive, to feel pain and to suffer, but also to laugh and love. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s women may be sluts, but aren’t we all?
by Shelby Cooke