Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the undisputed queen of Fleabag, a small British jewel released on the BBC in 2016 and will have its second season next 2019. In it, Weller puts herself in the shoes of a thirty-something woman who tries to put her live back together after the death of her best friend Boo. His peculiar way of relating to the world makes the comedy a paradigm of the new ‘post-human woman’, as defined by Paula Rabinowitz. Far from victimizing women, Fleabag is an statement that endows them with weapons in order to claim their freedom and feminine empowerment.
Paula Rabinowitz asks herself in Soft Fiction. Políticas visuales de la emocionalidad y el deseo if there really is a “post-human woman”. If these bodies, the post-human ones, contain genres, stories or sexualities. It is well known that to be “post-human” is to go beyond and before time and manner, to be outside the spatial limits, chronological and generics that have sustained humanity for centuries. As Virginia Woolf found in her research through the files of the British Museum, once-erudite men could ask the woman if she had genre, history or sex. If they were truly human, as if the term meant something to them. According to Foucault’s theories, the rise of the human sciences closely follows that of female self-formation. However, is it true to admit that the demand for a space for the post-human erase (again) the life and stories of women?
When women expressed their discomfort in the awareness groups of the 60s and 70s, their ‘humanity’ remained a taboo topic. The feminists of the time wanted to portray the struggle of women to be heard in any social sector, in poetry courses or awareness groups. In the basis of these groups was the tacit premise that each woman spoke the truth. But what if it really was not like that and they were lying? Well, maybe not lying but weaving a fable from occasional encounters with the world. Feminism needed sincerity so that women could show their experiences as genuinely human.
The house of a friend can be a safe place in which to take off the mask because a friend will never betray a secret, although at some point there could be a camera or a microphone and someone can hear you. At the end of the day when you tell a secret unconsciously, you expect it to spread, that is the essence of gossip. The secrets of middle-class girls are disseminated, according to Rabinowitz, through sinks, telephone lines, and eminently private female spaces. But what happens if there are hidden micros or cameras? Are these secrets still secret? Are these stories true? Unconsciously we still want to believe that it is so, although we already know for sure that they are public now. In Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2016) we know the intimacy of its protagonist or what she wants to tell us. Amazon Prime’s British comedy becomes the paradigm of the post-human woman who shares her story, her gender and her sex with the public through an interesting mechanism that dynamits the fourth wall.
It is especially interesting to compare Waller-Bridge’s ambition to document fantasy and female sexual liberation with Chick Strand‘s work, Soft Fiction (1979), in which cliches about women’s erotic and sexual fantasies are circulated. The women in Strand’s film overflow the picture and they stare at the camera to share their most intimate portraits, what they don’t dare to keep for themselves. One of them claims to have fantasized about becoming the curved railing of the Pasadena Art Museum. The way of speaking slowly and intelligent use of the concepts invites us to think about on the terms of representation that objectify the bodies of women, as Rabinowitz states. Fleabag does the same after breaking up with her boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner). In an inherently feminine space such as the bathroom, she confesses to the camera that she constantly thinks about sex. She likes the performance, the drama and the weirdness of the act. It seems exciting to be aware that someone wants your body. This sexual drive is inversely proportional to the emotional misery to which Fleabag feels engaged after intercourse.
Precisely sex is shown as a recurring tool of female empowerment in the works of Waller-Bridge and Strand. In Soft Fiction, a woman reads a letter to Strand in which she tells a story of a photographer who went to take pictures at a rodeo and ended up making blowjobs to several anonymous cowboys. Both the story of this woman and the multiple sexual encounters of Fleabag, seem inevitable. In the case of the British series, the sexual act becomes a kind of escape route before the inability of its protagonist to communicate his emotions. Let’s remember the aggression to his sister when she tried to give her a hug at their way out fo a feminist talk. The dialogue she so abhors with Harry and the Bus Rodent (Jamie Demetriou), becomes a sexual drive that rushes her into the arms of the attractive Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldridge). In every episode of the season one of Fleabag, sex is present, whether it is a sexual intercourse between a man and a woman or masturbation. This last act of sexual freedom that woman practices in her privacy is also stigmatized by Harry, who attributes it to his failure as a couple. “We must preserve the body for us”, he says during breakfast after their recent reconciliation. Fleabag is not so sure. She does not need a man to satisfy herself yet she can not do without him either.
Women are victims of men, but they are also victims of women’s empowerment. If not more, what is the need for Waller-Bridge to create a spiritual retreat so they can understand what it really means to “be a good man”? Not insulting a woman or recriminating her gender status because of a professional rise seems evident in the 21st century, but not in the hetero(patriarchal) society created by Fleabag. There, men have control to grant credits, stop the meteoric career of their wives or decide from where will they penetrate them. The women in Fleabag, unlike those in Soft Fiction, think they have control but that is not the case. They lie handcuffed under the sexual impulse of man, actually, they can’t be without them. This is the case of Claire (Sian Clifford) who returns with her husband Martin after her sister confessed that he tried to kiss her. In the early 70s, Strand reflected on how female pleasures are represented in the patriarchal culture and now, almost fifty years later, Fleabag questions the validity of this female sexual freedom. «You would fuck anything, right?» Martin snaps at Fleabag. In that brief margin left by the anguished thirties is where Fleabag tries unsuccessfully to fit, again and again. In Soft Fiction, the power of the genre is staged through its clichés, while in the British comedy these clichés are expanded towards the absurd. With that final plot twist that the viewer could predict as the series goes on, Waller-Bridge questions whether his speech is really honest. If during all this time she has been sincere with us and first of all, with herself. After all, it is not always easy to be a post-human woman.