In a world overwhelmed by praise and adoration for characters such as Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and those in the Sally Rooney literary universe, it can be difficult to distinguish redeemable, commendable behaviour from the not-so. Written so eloquently and with such realistic qualities, myself and others, particularly female, audiences and readers have found it refreshing to gravitate towards such characters, identifying with their flaws and feeling the weight slowly slip off our shoulders.
In a world overwhelmed by praise and adoration for characters such as Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and those in the Sally Rooney literary universe, it can be difficult to distinguish redeemable, commendable behaviour from the not-so. Written so eloquently and with such realistic qualities, myself and others, particularly female, audiences and readers have found it refreshing to gravitate towards such characters, identifying with their flaws and feeling the weight slowly slip off our shoulders when we see a female lead (finally) get things wrong.
We’re so drawn into these carefully curated narrative worlds, and we get to know their fictional characters so intimately that their actions feel justifiable. So, it’s no wonder that we identify with these women. It gives us proximity to that same justification.
But what happens when this identification results in a lack of accountability? When we start forgiving, and perhaps ignoring, our own wrongdoings and lack of growth as a way of painting ourselves as a similarly flawed main character in our own lives?
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t initially see an issue with relating to these flawed female characters. I felt seen and heard in ways I hadn’t before and was enlivened by women on screen who simply did not have their lives together; women who fell in love with the wrong people; women who didn’t have the mental strength to take care of themselves in the ways they need; women who just wanted to be loved, even if this ‘love’ wasn’t good for them.
We see these women struggle, and quite often fail, to create a so-called perfect life for themselves. They stumble through their teens, twenties and thirties, unsure what to do next and unsure at what point exactly they’ll finally ‘figure it out.’
Thus, the Lady Bird to Fleabag pipeline is born. This is the idea that the messiness of our teenage years will follow us into adulthood, that we will continue to mess up and that this doesn’t make us void of self-growth or accountability, but rather it makes us fun and nuanced. This pipeline allows us to perceive our lives and our actions as those of film or television characters rather than ones that have genuine repercussions for those around us. In doing so, we glamorise aspects of our lives that are troubling as a way of seeming, dare I say, more interesting. We create a personality for ourselves based on the fact that our tights our ripped, we engage in harmful imitate relationships, and we only have $3 to our name. Online, these traits are misconstrued as being fun rather than concerning, things we should laugh about and celebrate because the female characters before us have done the same.
But I believe more can be said for both Lady Bird and Fleabag, as women who act poorly and ultimately wish to redeem themselves. Greta Gerwig writes Lady Bird’s teen failings as genuine rather than ‘quirky’ or ‘trendy.’ She’s an adolescent female navigating concerns of money, sex and friendship in a desperate attempt to find her place in the world and live the life she dreams, however naïve her perception of the world may be. She’s authentic, and she’s real. She’s indicative of the complications that come with adolescence and the many ways in which we contort and reconfigure ourselves to make ourselves more likeable. Sure, she’s immensely solipsistic at times, but she’s also eighteen. She’s still developing the awareness needed to recognise the hardships of those around her and how her actions impact them. Through the film’s ending, we see such growth through the simple act of her calling her mother. This small act does not exonerate her of her wrongdoing. Still, it shows tremendous accountability in that Lady Bird has matured beyond her youthful selfishness and has come to consider the reality that her actions have repercussions beyond herself.
In this way, the pipeline is shallow and flawed. To presume that Lady Bird should navigate her twenties and thirties in a way similar to that of Fleabag or any of Sally Rooney’s protagonists is to take the easy way out; it’s to rob Lady Bird (and thus ourselves) of the growth she has finally realised she needs.
In a similar way, Fleabag is not fully exonerated of her actions, nor is she demonised. She’s portrayed as a complex female engaged in a difficult balancing act of harmful sexual relationships, self-worth and mental illness. Through the show’s other characters, most notably Fleabag’s sister Claire, Fleabag is held accountable. She is reminded of her many screw-ups and forced to recognise that in most circumstances she is, in fact, not the victim. Whilst she powders her dialogue with wit and a carefree feminism, we see in Fleabag a character who is deeply aware of her flaws and longs to lead a life greater than the one she’s currently living. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in no way glamorises this lifestyle; rather, she depicts Fleabag’s wellbeing in a mostly performative way, gesturing to a deeper sense of pain bubbling beneath her nonchalant façade.
However, we see that such denial is unsustainable through rare moments of truth and insight. Lines such as these shatter the notion that Fleabag’s life is one we should reduce to a trend, as we are shown a genuine depiction of a woman crying out for help, stuck in a certain life not because this makes her interesting, but because she doesn’t know how else to live.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning.
I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate,
what to rage about, what to listen to, what bands to like,
what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about.
I want someone to tell me what to believe in…I want someone to
tell me how to live my life because so far [Father]
I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”
Thus, Fleabag in no way celebrates these qualities within herself. Instead, she notes that she “has a horrible feeling that she’s a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
Because of this, I believe we’ve gotten these characters, and how we relate to them, so very wrong. These are not women who stumble through life carefree, engaging in whatever they please as feminist acts of defiance. These women want to be better, and every time we say we’re in our ‘Fleabag era’ for messing things up a little, we’re denying them of that right.
These are women who I’m proud to identify with, women who are an excellent depiction of the ebbs and flows of womanhood, but for so much more than the reasons we’ve made them out to be.