The election of Barack Obama did not, in spite of it all, cure America of its inherent, deep-seated racism. Wanton killings of black people by law enforcement are addressed nowhere but in social media hashtags, the GOP presidential candidate has the full and enthusiastic endorsement of the KKK, and my stepfather, a California native who has only seen black people in the limited context of transporting basketballs and footballs to and fro on his 60-inch flat screen TV refers to them, in the Year of our Lord 2016, as "niggers." With a hard r.
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The (presumed—and hoped-for, as the only alternative is nuclear winter) election of Hillary Clinton will, in much the same regard, do nothing to cure America of its inherent, deep-seated misogyny. The Equal Rights Amendment shows no sign of passing any time soon. Pussy grabbing is viewed, by a small yet vocal consortium, as acceptable behavior. Women, a group that comprises 51% of the American population, remain semi-sentient (yet still ineluctably grabbable) pussies.
We currently get paid $0.80 to a man's dollar. That doesn't, however, mean we get 80% of televised airtime—just the opposite, actually. In the last year, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, "79% of... broadcast, cable and streaming programs... featured casts with more male than female characters." When we do see female characters, they are often cyphers, blank slates on which male protagonists can project their own fears and insecurities, or one-dimensional "bad girls," who fuck and smoke pot and behave as sociopathically as their male counterparts. The latter is presented as a victory for “us.” Acting as poorly as men do, as men have throughout history, is now considered a form of female empowerment. Degeneracy has become a form of equality.
Let me state for the record, as a panty-sniffing, dick-sucking, degenerate myself: This is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that these wondrous advances are rarely well-executed or convincing. Even in this so-called second golden age, the archetype of the supposedly-empowered TV female still registers primarily as a creation designed to tempt and flatter the male gaze.
Fleabag, however, does it perfectly. The show's protagonist (and namesake) is a human stain—a raw nerve, repugnant and complex. Yes, she is fucked up but for a reason that is bigger and more human than the standard issue TV effort to sell feminine frustration short for the purpose of acquiring cultural capital. She has experienced and caused pain and is responding accordingly. She is cruel. She is sardonic. She is nuanced. She is human.
Fleabag resembles women I know, women you never see on television, women who, on account of their imperfect existence, relate to her. And after years of failing and refusing to relate to any of the “Yaas, queen”-ing, simulacra of female agency our TVs offer us, this is exciting. She is, in a word, a revelation. In two words, a fucking revelation.
Hillary may not cure sexism, but Fleabag might cure television.
She, and the show, are not American, because of course they aren’t. America, after all, is a country in which phantom emails on the private server of a woman who has devoted decades to public service could possibly make her appear less fit to lead than a pathological liar who only ran for president because he wanted his reality show to be picked up for another season. We Yanks still need to outsource our empowerment.
Fleabag is a British program, the first (and thus far only) season of which was released via Amazon Prime in September. You may very well not be aware of its existence. I don’t judge you for this. I do, however, judge America’s entertainment industry for being too cowardly to produce our own iteration of it.
As played by the show’s writer/creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag is a liar and a thief and a horndog and an unreliable narrator. She, unlike other women you see on American television in the context of a leading role, is not necessarily proud of these traits. She doesn’t revel in them. Her cheeky, in-camera asides may imply she does, but really they exist solely to draw you closer to her and her world-weary, “is this all there is?” ethos.
Fleabag fucks, yes—the argument could be made (she makes it herself), that she exists solely to be fucked. The pursuit of sex appears to be the sole purpose of her beleaguered existence, yet she fucks herself more than she fucks random men she meets on buses. She fucks herself while she's fucking them. She knows they are incapable of pleasing her, because nothing pleases her.
Her career is going nowhere. Her life is going nowhere. Her life is little more than a series of tedious and debasing exercises in frustration. She is haunted by the mistakes of her past, and preemptively terrified of the mistakes she’s on the verge of making in the present. Yet she can’t stop making them. Does anyone not feel the same? Powerless over your personhood? Your body? Trapped in a prison of your own design? No? In that case, Fleabag might not be for you.
"Sometimes I wish that I didn't even know fucking existed,” she laments to a man who, like all men, gazes upon her with equal parts fear and lust, in the series’ last episode. “And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and that when that gets old and unfuckable, I may as well just kill it. As if somehow there isn't anything worse than someone who doesn't want to fuck me.”
"Everyone feels like this,” she continues, “and they're just not talking about it. Or I am completely fucking alone?"
She is not alone. Nor am I, nor you. We, nasty women of an American empire in decline, are just not given the platform to talk about it. Soon, perhaps, we will. Until then, I remain glad that ours is not the only declining empire in the business of making television.