The Neo-Femme Fatale, Cringe Comedy,
and Imperfect Feminism
My thoughts on Fleabag
After the first season’s premiere in July 2016, Fleabag, a British comedy-drama created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, quickly received widespread critical acclaim. The series follows the titular Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) as she navigates life and love in London and tries to heal from the tragic death of her best friend. Fleabag’s dry wit, bravado, and sexual confidence is captivatingly complicated by her grief, anger, and self-destructive tendencies.
Despite coming about after a years-long wave of bad-girl comedy and relatable antiheroes, Fleabag was a marvel among audiences and critics. Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker writes: “You may think you’re weary of septic comedies of human pain, feminist comics working blue, and graphic sex scenes—all prevalent trends. But Fleabag is an original” (2016).
Indeed, Fleabag is a fresh and unique character, but she is also reminiscent of one of media’s most iconic character types: the femme fatale of Noir cinema. Fleabag’s simultaneous embodiment and subversion of this character type explores and critiquing the contradictions of modern feminism and the portrayal of women in television.
Visually, Fleabag is the quintessential 1940s femme fatale (“soot hair, brick lips”). This physical semblance aligns with Katherine Farrimond’s research about the characterization of the classic femme fatale and her shifting cinematic presence over the decades. In The Contemporary Femme Fatale: Gender, Genre, and Film (2017), Farrimond understands the classic femme fatale figure—commonly associated with Film Noir of the 1940s and 50s—as an image of power and agency complicated by the patriarchal gaze, limited ideas of feminist empowerment, and attempts at self-determination. The femme fatale figure “flickers between fantasy and realism, as both hyperbolic and glamorous villains, and as women negotiating lived experiences of gendered power and patriarchal surveillance and expectation” (14). She argues that the figure’s archetypal characteristics from its Film Noir origins—sexual prowess, mystery, and danger—can be re-theorized and negotiated within the contemporary context.
In giving attention to the femme fatale’s consistent visual and narrative markers, such as being “sexually demanding, morally ambiguous, heteronormatively beautiful, and ambitious to improve her status and circumstances” we can see how the femme fatale is not ossified in the Film Noir era and is in fact quite common in contemporary film and television. Like the femme fatale of the forties, the modern femme fatale offers a potent image of power and agency. She also embodies the restrictiveness of femininity.
Fleabag’s image is an updated, everyday version of the classic femme figure that viewers may aspire to look like: she wears a bold red lip, a fashionable coat, and flawless flapper hair. In the first episode of season two, Fleabag dons a risque jumpsuit to her father’s engagement dinner. With a cigarette in hand, sylphlike and leaning against a brick wall in the alley, Fleabag assures viewers that she has it together; she is the object of envy and longing when other women see her on the street.
Woods reminds us that in reality, “this is the story of a young woman who looks like she has it together but doesn’t, and if you get just close enough, you can see it. This is a woman who knows who she is, but still feels the need to perform, who is constantly wrestling with the push and pull of revealing too much and too little” (2019).
Through this tension, Fleabag superficially embodies the archetypal femme fatale figure and simulateously subverts it. She is put-together, confident, and sexual at face value, but as the series progresses the viewer understands how her displays of feminine power are actually symptoms of her emotional weakness, and more than that, cover up her deeper feelings of inadequacy as a feminist. Throughout her story, the audience can pick up on both how important feminism is to Fleabag and how she struggles to have anything more than a toxic relationship with it. Fleabag, by her own description, is so “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, and morally bankrupt” that she “can’t even call herself a feminist” (S1 E1). Feminism seems to be an ideal that Fleabag strives for but continually falls short; being a “bad feminist,” or not one at all, is one of Fleabag’s deep seeded fears as she navigates its tensions. “Am I still a feminist if I watch porn or if I want to change my body to make me feel more sexually attractive?” she asks her audience.
Although she does not fit neatly into the context of feminism as an ‘empowered woman,’ Fleabag is a feminist character in that she “actually resembles a complex and imperfect human being,” which is still rare for women onscreen (Frank, 2016). In foregrounding women’s qualities of imperfection and their open struggle with modern gender pressures, figures like Fleabag push back against the feminist expectation for women to be resilient above all else. Through this imperfect antiheroine protagonist, Fleabag resists television’s archetypal ‘strong and independent woman’ and depicts a feminism that although is less than ideal, is real.
The ‘realness’ of feminism and Fleabag’s character is in part conveyed through her intimate and brutally honest relationship with her audience. Denise Wong (2019) argues that the narrative’s driving affect—intimacy—is produced by guiding the viewer-as-witness between “positions of temporal distance and narrative disclosure.” This sense of intimacy creates audience complicity. Even though we know her behavior is bad, Fleabag’s relationship with us on the screen compels us to treat her as a broken antiheroine in need of our sympathy. In the introduction to the published script of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge mentions how it was crucial for her to foreground audiences in her work and invite this audience complicity for her hero’s increasingly terrible actions: “I knew I wanted to write about a young, sex-obsessed, angry, dry-witted woman, but the main focus of the process was her direct relationship with her audience and how she tries to manipulate and amuse and shock them, moment to moment, until she eventually bares her soul.” This direct address intensifies bodily affect and the intimate access to interiority found in ‘precarious girl comedy.’ Direct address binds audiences to the singular perspective of Fleabag and her bawdy social encounters, which creates moments of comic and emotional repulsion.
These moments of discomfort are connected to the “cringe” aesthetics that are characteristic of female-centered dramedies. Cringe dominates the work of comedians such as Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David, and Dave Chappelle and long-running television shows such as Seinfeld and The Office, which tend to narrate troubled masculinities through over-sexualized humor.
The female-centered dramedy distinguishes itself from these male-centered cringe veterans through its more ambiguous cringe aesthetics and ambiguous audience responses—its female-centeredness uniquely enables a “hybrid management of laughter and disgust, empathy and frustration” (Havas and Sulimma, 2016). This use of cringe makes dramedies both hilarious and capable of investigating more serious and perhaps political themes.
In foregrounding women’s qualities of imperfection and their open struggle with modern gender pressures, figures like Fleabag push back against the feminist expectation for women to be resilient above all else.
Through this imperfect antiheroine protagonist, Fleabag resists television’s archetypal ‘strong and independent woman’ and depicts a feminism that although is less than ideal, is real.
These female-centered cringe dramedies, like Fleabag, often depict a millennial female protagonist who frequently violates social taboos in embarrassing situations, fails at communication, and exhibits unawareness of expected social behaviors. Fleabag delights in and thrives on awkwardness in any social encounter, for example, unlike her high-strung sister, who suffers through awkward family conversations with a tense expression on her face. While her sister and her future step-mother endure hostile conversational silences at her deceased mother’s memorial lunch, Fleabag shares the moment with her audience: “this is my favorite bit,” she says, smiling directly at the camera (S1 E5). By delivering this commentary through direct address, viewers cringing at the social awkwardness are compelled to find amusement in the situation along with Fleabag, and further, identify more with her. Fleabag’s invitation for viewers to partake in her enjoyment of cringe is key to the show’s navigation of humorous, political, and painful themes. Moreover, Fleabag’s caustic commentary on awkward social situations probes Fleabag’s character and aligns the viewers with her moral ambiguity.
This “morally ambiguous complex character” that emerges is what Havas and Sulimma contend attaches a heightened prestige to cringe that is well distinguished from ‘simple cringe’ in shows like The Office. Faye Woods calls this the “affective pull of the confessional comic woman” (2019). As the series progresses, moments of comic and emotional repulsion draw audiences uncomfortably close to Fleabag. From the very start of the series, Fleabag shares intimate details and awkward moments with her audience, turning the viewer into her co-conspirator and new best friend. More than that, the audience is granted access into her journey through grief in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, one in which she is heavily implicated but also one in which the audience is unaware. She presents unpleasant facts of her life matter-of-factly with a shrug and a raised eyebrow, but as the narrative progresses the camera’s gaze begins to expose what is not being said. Cracks emerge beneath her sarcastic exterior; while her asides exhibit confidence and nonchalance, the camera’s gaze divulges her weaknesses, expressing a “vulnerability [that is] is often so raw that it is painful to witness” (Wong, 2016).
Although Fleabag performs candor and invites us into her perspective, over time we realize that she doesn’t truly know herself. Direct address exposes her self-deception, arrested development, and inability to make emotional connections necessary for a healthy adult life. Even when people close to her try to break down her emotional walls, like her ex-boyfriend or her sister, Fleabag recoils and deflects with humor. Although, she confesses to us, she struggles to connect with or confide in her family or partners. In combination with her increasingly bad behavior throughout the series, the exposure of Fleabag’s deeper flaws provokes both discomfort and sympathy, which is exactly the kind of emotional negotiation Havas and Sulimma argue is central to the female-centered dramedy.
This use of cringe in female-centered dramedies also foregrounds political commentary. While dramedies like Fleabag are rarely interested in “capital P” political statements, their cringeworthy moments expose the flaws of central characters or the conditions of their social environments as political issues. In comedies like Girls, Sex and the City, and Fleabag, cringe aesthetics centralize female subjectivities related to politics of the body and sexuality, which functions in part to satirize feminism. As these comedies break social and emotional taboos surrounding femininity and sexual experience, they produce the intimacy and emotional rawness that resonates with its female audience and spotlights the complexities of feminism.
One of the ideas that Fleabag plays with is the performance of emotional control and performative femininity. We see this immediately in the show’s opening scene, in which Fleabag walks us plainly through her late-night booty call. She describes in detail the labor of beautification that takes place—and must appear as effortless—prior to having impromptu casual sex. Although she clearly put effort into an image of sexiness, that effort could not be revealed to her partner; instead she exhibits the most casual attitude possible, even accepting anal sex with ambivalence.
Throughout the series, Fleabag draws her audience uncomfortably close to her sexual escapades, seemingly taking pleasure in the shock value of her blend of sexual voraciousness and emotional detachment. With a raise of her eyebrow she recalls how she masturbated to a Barack Obama speech next to her sleeping boyfriend and how youthful and desirable she felt when she had sex with a repulsive old man. Later in the episode, while suffering through particularly unsatisfying sex, Fleabag comments to us: “Surprisingly bony…it’s like having sex with a protractor” (S1 E3). Through these recurring cringeworthy scenes, the show thematizes female ambivalence toward social expectations regarding sex, which serves as a sort of commentary within the current cultural moment. Fleabag’s depiction of sex complicates “notions of gender, genre, and especially viewer affect” (Havas and Sulimma, 2016) to communicate ‘complex’ femininity and a ‘real’ feminism.
In the current moment of ‘Peak TV,’ considered to be a golden age for female-driven and female-focused content, Fleabag is one of many shows that contend with feminism in novel ways. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, women such as Lena Dunham (Girls), Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar), and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Broad City) are heralded as visionary creators who have shifted the profile of women’s television by foregrounding unlikability, vulnerability, precarity, and general imperfection in their female characters. In Fleabag, Waller-Bridge aims to show us how complicated and confusing a realistic relationship with feminism in our current moment can be. In one of her more emotional moments, Fleabag says through tears, “Somehow, there isn’t anything worse than someone who doesn’t want to fuck me.” Is this sentiment feminist? Arguably not; we, as feminists, are not supposed to invest our self-worth in our bodies. But is telling a woman that she shouldn’t feel that way feminist? Moments like these expose the contradictions of feminism and invite viewers to commiserate over its absurdity. As Fleabag and other imperfect women reflect, subvert, and challenge feminism, audiences are offered a common space to contend with the realities of a movement that, at times, feels exhausting, irrelevant, hypocritical, contradictory, alienating, performative, and high-pressure. This view of feminism, although not ideal, is real.
Farrimond, K. (2018). The contemporary femme fatale: gender, genre and American cinema. New York, NY: Routledge.
Frank, P. (2016, October 5). TV’s Darkest New Show Depicts An Imperfect Feminism, And That’s A Good Thing. Huffington Post.
Havas, J., & Sulimma, M. (2018). Through the Gaps of My Fingers: Genre, Femininity, and Cringe Aesthetics in Dramedy Television. Television & New Media, 21(1), 75–94.
Nussbaum, Emily. (2016). “Fleabag: An Original Bad-Girl Comedy.” The New Yorker, September 26. (accessed April 1, 2020).
Perkins, C. & Schreiber, M. (2019). Independent women: from film to television. Feminist Media Studies, 19:7, 919-927.
Piotrowska, A. (2020). The nasty woman and the neo femme fatale in contemporary cinema. London: Routledge.
Waller-Bridge, P. (2019). Fleabag: The Scriptures. London: Ballantine Books.
Wong, D. (2019). Distancing Affect in Fleabag. Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 5.
Woods, F. (2019). Too close for comfort: Direct address and the affective pull of the confessional comic woman in Chewing Gum and Fleabag. Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 12, Issue 2, Pages 194–212.