A piece by Melanie Phillips in today’s Times:
After Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV series Fleabag landed no fewer than four Emmy awards this week, its writer and star said how much it meant to her that a “dirty, pervy, angry, messed-up woman can make it to the Emmys”.
It was a great throwaway line: unsparing, wry and unsettling. Just like her dramatic creations.
At this moment of multiple triumph came a whiff of something not usually heard among the self-righteous banalities of Tinseltown.
Self-loathing, perhaps? Certainly profound self-doubt. She told one interviewer that the fact that so many people connected with her work made her feel “I’m not crazy”.
It’s the darker elements of human nature, the creation of characters living on the edge of a personal volcano, that give her work its fascinating appeal. That in itself is disturbing.
As I wrote here earlier this year, I hated the hit TV series she created, Killing Eve (whose star, Jodie Comer, also won an Emmy). The central character was a psychopathic female paid assassin, Villanelle. The key characteristic of this series was its celebration of extreme violence and sadism by a mesmerically attractive woman. This was psychopathy given an artful, post-modern and above all feminist makeover.
Its casual savagery was made more repellent by the way it dwelt upon Villanelle’s total absence of conscience or compassion. It all felt cruel, voyeuristic and sick. The degree to which this was lionised, particularly by feminists, was more than a little troubling.
Fleabag, however, for which Waller-Bridge won awards for best comedy series and for writing and acting, was different.
This was in essence the story of a young woman in mental pain, using sex unsuccessfully to staunch her psychological wounds. These, we gradually learnt, were caused not just by guilt over the death of her best friend but also by her family, which had failed to nurture her and whose members also heaved with unspoken distress. The scripts were clever, original, sparkling and extremely funny. They were also, however, deeply sad because they were fundamentally about grief, loss and people who can’t or won’t give or receive love. Fleabag’s sexual excesses were all a desperate attempt to be desired and loved.
I get all that. I was moved, entertained and hooked. Yet I was troubled by the show’s ultimate self-obsession.
The clever narrative device of Fleabag’s knowing asides to the camera, making the audience party to her hidden thought processes, had a strong flavour of the confessional.
The artifice was to make us sympathise with behaviour from which we might be expected to recoil. Not just to sympathise with Fleabag, moreover, but, as had been clear from the solo stage show from which the TV series was derived, with Waller-Bridge herself. Fleabag/Waller-Bridge required our absolution for her behaviour.
What’s striking is that so many identify with this level of dysfunctionality. On the red carpet in Los Angeles, one gushing interviewer told Waller-Bridge that Americans were “obsessed” with Fleabag.
Indeed, the genius of the show is that it taps into widespread insecurities about worthlessness and failing to make it in a world seemingly populated by the glittering and the successful.
It’s an attitude with which many millennial women in particular are said to identify, expressed through resentment at the manifold unfairnesses of the world such as inequalities in pay or promotion, the burdens of childcare, too much unwanted sex or too little of the wanted kind.
That’s because modern feminism is indeed self-absorbed. Not so much Me Too as Me First.
This type of mass solipsistic dysfunctionality first became apparent with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when thousands who knew nothing of her other than her media image grieved for the loss of someone they felt spoke directly to their own personal pain. As with Diana, Waller-Bridge offers the illusion that damaged lives can be redeemed through a kind of fairytale. As with Diana, the genius of Fleabag is to make her audience project their own anxieties, frustrations and miseries on to her, and then feel she is reflecting their own lives.
Waller-Bridge deals in guilt and grief, anger and loss. There are those whose reaction is to switch off in irritation, saying for heaven’s sake just get over yourself.
Others, though, for whom such emotions are similarly unresolved, are drawn to her creations in their droves. The fact that there are so many who feel such hurt is surely in itself something that should alarm us. What Waller-Bridge is telling them, though, is also troubling.
She found it “liberating” to create her psychopathic character Villanelle as a woman with no guilt to whom “our laws and moral codes don’t apply”. Seeing a violent woman was “something instantly refreshing and oddly empowering”.
Fleabag, meanwhile, sends out the message that acting out your demons in wild behaviour is fine because – well, because we’re all flawed. So it winks at crudeness, sex addiction, pornography and anal sex. For millennial women, the rules that others feel constrained to follow don’t apply. This is feminism?
Waller-Bridge deserves her Emmys. Fleabag is an astonishing achievement. The fact that she’s held a mirror up to the modern condition so brilliantly, however, doesn’t make the reflection any more acceptable.
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