Feature: Fleabag Live, and the shifting shape of the strong female lead

From 2013 stage show, to BAFTA-winning series, and back to stage show once more, how has Fleabag changed our perceptions of the ‘Strong Female Lead’?

As individuals and healthcare services alike struggle under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, several celebrities have formed fundraising initiatives in the hopes of supporting those most vulnerable during these uncertain times. One of these good-willed celebrities is none other than Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the deliciously intelligent mind behind Fleabag.

As part of her fundraising initiative, Waller-Bridge has gifted us the original stage-show performance of Fleabag here, in all its single spotlit stool glory. Using a pay-per-view system, Waller-Bridge is splitting donations between several charities, including Acting for Others, which supports the economically vulnerable within the theatre industry, and NHS Charities Together, supporting NHS staff and volunteers alike.

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Akin to an artist’s sketchbook, Waller-Bridge lays bare the beginnings of her artistic explorations of the Fleabag character, presenting a darker, and much more raw form of the highly polished persona we saw in the BBC series. In exploring these humble beginnings on the small stage, and considering the success of Fleabag from its inception, it is undoubtedly this series that has, in part, fuelled changes in the greater trajectory of the ‘Strong Female Lead’.

Fleabag as a character can be defined by her status as a difficult woman, using her brash sexual expression and self-destructive nature to defy submissive female archetypes. From Sex and the City to Succession, difficult women dominate the small screen. We see women who are power-hungry, competitive glory hunters, and who are freely expressive in their sexuality and comedic abilities. Women who, ultimately, represent all the behaviours that TV’s most iconic male characters have been able to display on screen for years prior.

The definition of ‘difficult women’ is now being reclaimed as battle-cry for women who defy these expectations of women as docile, and polite, providing a diverse array of female characterisation. The days of poorly constructed, one-dimensional sit-com women who exist only to fall in love with the male lead, and say something stupid, are fading. Instead, we see women who are intelligent, witty, and provide their own comedy in abundance, rather than being the background furniture to a wider male narrative.

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Another element of the rise of diverse female leads is the evil woman. Older women are paraded out as the evil villain in almost every Disney film, with villains being visibly unattractive, or overweight, or old, a symptom of the societal view that woman’s value seemingly depreciates as we age. Fleabag, among other series, is one which defies this simplified view of women as either pure angels or villainous sirens, and provides a moral continuum in which grief, kindness, regret and remorse roam freely.

In watching the Fleabag stage performance, we see how morality warps and shifts consistently. We witness Fleabag help a drunk woman find her way home, and yet is unable to suppress her sexual desires, even when it culminates in the destruction of both her reputation and self-worth. The name Fleabag itself is symptomatic of the slut-shaming and double standards of female sexuality, having connotations of disgust and shame.

Throughout both the Fleabag stage play, and the series, there is an unwavering, all-in confessional element, which has an unrelenting power to reveal the darkest, and most intimate feelings of a female character. In allowing this platform for confession, Waller-Bridge provides an honest and morally ambiguous consideration of a female lead. The fourth-wall-breaking asides to the anonymous audience reveals a part of our human subconscious that plays to the audience of our own mind.

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In this regard, Fleabag is merely a vocalisation of our internal monologues, using direct, unwavering confrontation to a camera. So much of the show relies on the presence of the audience as a confidante – in viewing Fleabag in all its highs and lows, we come to grieve with her, even when her grief is caused by her own actions. In turn, audience members can understand the female experience in all its multi-faceted ways, so often untouched by male writers.

Many have been quick to label Fleabag as inherently feminist, owing to its focus on women as the key reasoning behind its feminism status. However, it is not its focus on women that makes Fleabag feminist, or, in fact, making any show feminist – it is the show’s ability to tackle issues of gender, and address the hypocrisy of the movement. The show’s ability to create diverse, fully-formed female characters who battle with issues of sex, attraction, and shame is a feminist act in itself.

Throughout the show, Waller-Bridge toys with the hypocrisy of feminism, particularly during a feminist lecture series Fleabag attends. At the lecture, the speaker asks the audience to raise their hands if they would trade 5 years of their life for the ‘perfect body’, with Fleabag’s and Claire’s hands shooting up, and then awkwardly, folding their hands away, confronted by their status as self-proclaimed ‘bad feminists’. In this way, Waller-Bridge presents feminism in its honest form – it is imperfect, and hypocritical, but is still paramount to the creation of interesting, and engaging stories navigating gender, and relationships.

You can stream Fleabag Live in its entirety on the Soho Theatre On Demand page for a small charitable fee.


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Hope Talbot

TV, film and culture writer interested in all things visual. Be it the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, the films of Wes Anderson and Studio Ghibli, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's beautiful face, I'll write about.