How “Fleabag” Created a Feminist Anti-Heroine Fit For Modern Times

How “Fleabag” Created a Feminist Anti-Heroine Fit For Modern Times

“I have a horrible feeling I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” says Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character in “Fleabag.”

This prickly confession is burrowed in the Amazon series and its off-Broadway counterpart now enjoying a sold-out run at SoHo Playhouse. When the line is delivered in the TV show, it’s mostly funny. Our drunken anti-heroine is wobbling around the front steps of her father’s lush London home, her wicked stepmother (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) likely eavesdropping upstairs. When it’s delivered in the one-woman play, it’s mostly depressing. Here, our drunken anti-heroine is curling inward on a rickety chair placed in the center of a barren stage. It’s a drastic yet rewarding change, one that trades a sliver of humor for heightened intimacy with a character oft-hailed as a feminist portrait of millennial despair.

Directed by Waller-Bridge’s creative partner Vicky Jones, “Fleabag” in New York sticks closely in plot to “Fleabag” on Amazon and “Fleabag” on stage in London and in Edinburgh, where it won a Fringe Fest Award in 2013. Waller-Bridge’s 20-something character is grieving the deaths of her mother, who succumbed to breast cancer, and her best friend, Boo, who flung herself into traffic in a desperate attempt to make her cheating boyfriend feel guilty. Fleabag, a character seemingly allergic to sexual and social mores, is not coping well with the loss of the two most important women in her life. The guinea pig-themed cafe she founded with Boo is on the verge of closing, aided by her lackluster customer service skills, and she’d prefer lobbing punchlines and watching kinky porn than face her boyfriend’s relentless need for emotional connection.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in “Fleabag.” Photo Joan Marcus.

In an interview, Jones said it’s Fleabag’s inability to confront these snowballing issues that help render her an isolated figure, pushing her further into her own bruising psyche over the course of the play.

“As a character, she’s quite tragic, because she’s unable to ask for help,” Jones told ALL ARTS about the protagonist. “She’s unable to admit her sadness, which I think she sees as a weakness. So she’s perpetually kind of addicted to making jokes and poking fun.”

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Fortunately, Waller-Bridge’s own charm and comedic timing are effective buffers against the character’s more grating qualities. Fleabag’s self-deprecation and quick wit are matched only by her selfishness and insensitivity, yet it’s not a burden to remain in her corner. “It could be very funny and suddenly very tragic, which is Phoebe’s favorite style of drama,” Jones said, laughing. “She really can make people laugh and sucker punch them when they’re not expecting it at all.”

That sharp blend of comedy and poignancy helped make “Fleabag” a hit, though its level of success wasn’t something Waller-Bridge and Jones could have predicted when they first debuted the show in 2013. It was before #MeToo, before Brexit and before the 2016 U.S. election, which makes some lines feel almost prescient in their social commentary. When Fleabag attempts to get a loan to keep her fledgling cafe open, her interactions with an accused workplace harasser feel as if they were made precisely for this cultural moment.

The newfound relevance of the show underscores how important it is to allow women to tell their own stories, noted Jones.

“It was written at a time when feminism was much more in doubt than it is now — although of course it’s always being re-evaluated and reassessed and redefined,” Jones said. “It didn’t feel like people were talking about it as much, and it felt very much like there was less leadership. There weren’t as many peer voices who could own their feminism in this complicated modern world.”

At the time, the pair envisioned a protagonist who had been exposed to contradictory messages about women’s roles in contemporary society. What would happen if an intelligent young woman internalized mixed cues about sex, empowerment, liberation and desirability and grafted them onto her identity? The end result is our anti-heroine, a character who wants better treatment for the women around her but settles for less in her own relationships, including the one she has with herself. (That tension becomes especially clear in Fleabag’s interactions with her sister, who still struggles with what it would mean to choose a dream career over her philandering husband.) She often seeks out sex to stifle those feelings — a coping mechanism that stems from believing sexual availability is her only worthwhile trait, Jones said.

“Phoebe and I talked a lot about porn, actually, and how young women walking around today have grown up with the onset of pornography [being widely available online],” Jones said, when asked about the character’s motivations around sex. “We thought she was a character who had, for some reason, had access to it at a very young age, before her mind was ready for it. It warps her idea of what is important. She sort of becomes convinced that her value lay in sex, and sex that she can provide.”

Fleabag’s dependency on pornography is referenced jokingly several times, but Waller-Bridge and Jones are careful to never explicitly diagnose what causes the character’s dysfunctional relationship with sex, men and self-identity. The approach across all productions has been to allow audiences to decipher the hidden commentaries embedded within each scene or performance. Jones believes the show appeals to people, especially young women, because it trusts them to come to their own conclusions about the character and her ailments. If they’re able to see behind Fleabag’s mask, perhaps it’s because they recognize it’s similar to one they’ve had to wear, or one they’ve encountered in their personal lives.

“That’s always been Phoebe,” Jones said. “Treat your audiences with the maximum amount of emotional intelligence that you can, and they’ll be there. If you don’t give them anything but allow them to feel it, they will stay with you.”

“Fleabag” runs at Soho Playhouse through April 14; “Fleabag” Season 2 premieres May 17 on Amazon.

Top Image: "Fleabag," Amazon Studios