Updated: Mar 6, 2020
I just watched Fleabag on Amazon Prime and upon reflection my thoughts led me to elephants and boats.
Fleabag is a 12 episode British TV show about a 33 year old woman, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, dealing with grief, family trauma, sex and love in modern London. The main character is known only as Fleabag to us. One’s thoughts don’t go to flowing rivers and quaint woodland creatures with that word. It is an informal word meaning a “shabby and unpleasant person.”
She certainly is. At least at first. She is cruel, uncaring, harsh, mean, vindictive, petty and self-destructive. Traits of most modern feminists, of which she is one. At one point in season 2 she stands up during a meeting and says “I sometimes worry I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.” This causes a priest to laugh.
Whether her statement is true or not is irrelevant. In humor is always a kernel of truth. At its core, the story is about a modern feminist who discovers an essential need of human life—romantic love.
There are various relationships in her life. Each representing a different aspect of love and friendship. There is the sister/sister relationship. Here Fleabag and her sister, Claire, played by Olivia Colman, both hate the other and yet are willing to do absolutely anything to protect one another. Fleabag is constantly frustrating her sister, and Claire is constantly belittling Fleabag. She is jealous of Claire’s success throughout the show. It turns out, however, that Claire is actually more shabby on the inside than Fleabag. Season two opens with Fleabag’s bloody nose, which she got in a confrontation with Martin, played by Bret Gelman. Martin is her sleazy brother-in-law. Fleabag will do whatever it takes to make sure Claire is safe, even if it brings the ire of the rest of the family.
There is the father/daughter relationship, where fleabag makes her father quite uncomfortable with her presence. Yet, he will always cover for her eccentricities. As he points out, fathers are just as damaged by their daughters as the reverse. In the closing episode of the show, he tells her he loves her, but doesn’t really like her all the time. This will be an important theme we will return to.
There are the sexual relationships. Fleabag is a nymphomaniac. She uses sex as a way to avoid true intimacy and connection. For her the physical does not add to the emotional, it is a stand-in for the physical. It is pointed out to her, correctly, that she will sleep with anything. This lack of standards wreaks havoc on her soul—thus fleabag. Despite what we may tell ourselves, there is no such thing as a meaningless sexual encounter. We are by nature beings of mind and body. Fleabag portrays this in her many moments of breaking the fourth wall, as she talks to the audience directly. She is constantly reading and occasionally misreading the events going on in her life as she talks to the audience about what is occurring in real time. This intellectual exercise gives her the illusion that she is completely in control until this illusion is shattered at the end of season one.
The show begins with a sexual encounter with “the hot guy.” At first, she tells herself it is a fun romp and nothing more. Then he becomes a man she can show off to her family. She is crushed when she discovers the truth. During a sexual encounter he loses his erection. Breaking the fourth wall, she tells us that this usually means a man is falling in love with a woman, as the blood rushes from the penis to the heart. Later she learns he was falling in love. But not with her. There is no physical without the spiritual—for men or women.
There is the stepmother/daughter relationship. Here it is best represented by stolen femininity. Fleabag steals a statue from her stepmother's room. It is a bust of a headless, limbless woman, and it represents femininity. We see that fleabag has stolen this piece when she pulls it up from the front of her pants.
One can track the myriad adventures this statue goes on as a way to understand the changing dynamics of the story. Fleabag steals femininity from her stepmother in a moment of frustration over her own lost femininity. We discover later that the statue is a bust of fleabag’s deceased mother. Then fleabag tries to sell femininity to Martin (her brother-in-law). Martin and his wife are not having sex and he goes to Fleabag for help. Rather than sell the statue, he gives it to Claire on her birthday. Then he attempts to kiss fleabag. Claire then makes fleabag return it to her stepmom. Later after a particularly cruel remark by stepmother, Claire steals it back (stealing and returning happens a few times). Then fleabag gives it as a reward for women in business. The woman is post-menapausal and returns it. But not before imploring to Fleabag not to give up on people and to go out there and flirt.
Femininity should be enjoyed, cherished and loved. Yet it is tossed around like hot potato. This is one of the deepest lessons the protagonist must learn. When she does, she is finally ready for true love.
Then there is non-sexual female friendship. This plays an important role in Fleabag’s life represented in the emotion of guilt. She feels responsible for destroying her best friend, Boo, played by Jenny Rainsford. After Fleabag sleeps with Boo’s boyfriend, Boo steps into a bicycle lane of traffic but accidentally gets run over by a car. She is only a memory in the show, but has left behind a cafe, now owned solely by Fleabag.
The story shows women as constantly hurting one another emotionally. It would seem the only way for women to support each other is by going to a silent retreat and cleaning. This is in opposition to the men who go to a nearby retreat and shout “SLUT!” at a female doll. Where women (according to the show) are essentially unsupportive vindictive and competition for men—their male counterparts are simply sexually repressed nincompoops. Although Boo and Fleabag are supportive of one another, we must keep in mind this is a memory. Boo is dead. And while the cause is her own destruction. It didn't help that her boyfriend cheated on her.
Then there is romantic love. This is the love between the Catholic Priest and Fleabag. And it must be earned.
It must be earned from beginning to end. All the love relationships in the show must be fought for, in a sense, but only romantic Love must be created and won from its first moment to its last. It is a conscious decision. Sisters are born that way, sexual partners fall into laps, stepmothers force their way into lives, fathers are begetters, but romantic partners must be chosen and the journey to love is a brutal one.
Its brutality is shown in Fleabag’s love for a “taken” man. Not a sleazy married guy like Martin, but a Good man struggling with his convictions. He struggles as he says, because he is in love. That’s what love is. Throughout season two Fleabag uses everything she can to get him to sleep with her, but fails. Until, that is, she is willing to reveal her deepest thoughts and emotions. Love and self-revelation, she learns, are synonymous. It is like wood and fire. One can stand in front of one’s fireplace all day yelling “I’ll give you wood when you give me fire.” But it doesn’t work that way. It is during her confessional that the two kiss for the first time.
Love and friendship are shown to be two categorically different things. “I’m your sister, not your friend,” Claire says. This is true, most especially of romantic love. An important lesson here is that love lasts forever but friendships can end.
The Loan Officer is a good example here. At first, he is rude and dismissive of Fleabag. He’s dealing with the aftermath of a sexual scandal at work and is on edge about any potential misperceived encounters with women. So when Fleabag accidently lifts her top to reveal her bra, he kicks her out of the room. She needed that loan to keep her cafe afloat. Later in season one, he is discovered to be at the male retreat. They bond over their unhappiness. By the finale of season one, he prevents Fleabag’s suicide by offering her another chance at an interview for a bank loan. They have become friends.
In season two he helps her close up the cafe during an emergency, no questions asked. As any good friend would. Then he tells her he has gotten a promotion and will be leaving London. We can tell that he will never see Fleabag again. That is friendship. It can be essential to life, and also fleeting.
Love and Romantic Love are built on stronger stuff than that. While the show does not really explore what that “stuff” is, it does reveal at least that there is a difference.
We’ve all heard it a million times. Be friends first. Friendship leads to romance. My wife is my best friend. Friendship has similarities to Romantic Love, no doubt, but I have come to believe that Love is to friendship what boats are to elephants.
They both are physical objects. We can even ride atop an elephant. We can ride in a boat too. But don’t ever try to ride an elephant across a body of water. Elephants can be wonderful, loyal and useful creatures, but humans and society could flourish without them. Not without boats.
Boats are of course categorically different than elephants, just like friendship to love. Love is made and maintained by our constant effort. Leave a boat out on the water unmaintained and it rots. Boats help us grow, explore, adventure, and experience the world. When you’re on a boat with someone you’re there for the duration. Choose wisely! Sometimes you may not want to maintain the boat, but you do it anyways because you love the experiences that can only be achieved by sea. Humans are born for land but strive for the seas.
Fleabag has flaws. It does not do a great job in differentiating between familial love and romantic love. It does, however, provide us with a character and her struggles worthy of contemplation. And in 12 short episodes gives us a great illustration that Love is NOT for the weak.