Fleabag & the Messy, Hopeful Potential of “Bad Feminism” & Humanism

Fleabag close up of a woman with a bloody nose in a fancy bathroom
Phoebe Waller-Bridge introducing the "love story" of Fleabag's second season (Amazon/Two Brothers Studios)

When Roxane Gay wrote of the “bad feminist,” proudly identifying herself as one, she offered a lexicon for the reluctant feminist to finally come to know herself. She opened a psychic space for women to reveal themselves in all their varied patterns and colors and asked that we stop being bullied into choosing either an essentialized feminism or renouncing feminism altogether. “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist,” she called out. “I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”

With her Amazon series Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge answered that call with something resounding of her own. In Fleabag, a show written by and starring Waller-Bridge in the titular role and based on a one-woman show of the same name, Fleabag is a deeply imperfect, (sexually and interpersonally) messy, feminist antihero. She finds licentious sexual encounters thrilling, turns up her nose at a female-only silent retreat (where she just cannot keep quiet), quarrels incessantly with her only sister, steals from her stepmother and, in the first season’s final climax, is revealed to have slept with her best friend’s boyfriend, a betrayal which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. She breaks all the rules—even the fourth wall. At one point, she admits, “I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.” She’s a “bad feminist” writ large. Case in point: she’s given no other name aside from Fleabag, a name as pesky, irritating, and flawed as she often appears throughout the series.

And yet, for anyone who has seen the second—and final—season, it’s possible you noticed that something slight had changed. It wasn’t anything fundamental in the writing or character development but mostly in your perception of what this show is really all about. For what appears to be a quintessential “bad feminism” in the first season slowly reveals itself, in the second, to also be a flirtation with a profound humanism. In this shift, Fleabag brilliantly bridges the two, conjuring up humanistic questions of meaning and existence while also revealing humanism’s limits, forever distorting it with the “badness” of feminism.

The Problem of Humanism

In the European tradition, the birth of humanism typically begins with that particular “re-birth” of classical Greek thought during the Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, ushering European civilization out of the “Dark Ages” and into modernity. Humanistic inquiry was marked by a renewed interest in the faculties of the human mind, as manifest in scientific study, literature, and the arts. Renaissance humanism and its later variants gradually freed European society from the constraints of theological dogma by considering the autonomous nature of human beings and the manifold ways in which humans create meaning, both individually and together.

Clearly, Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” has quite different ambitions than the European scholars who celebrated the individual, an individual who was undeniably coded male. Gay, by sharp contrast, is speaking as a queer black feminist and fat activist, a far cry even from the thin, white, upper-middle class persona of Fleabag.

So it is perhaps obtuse to draw a parallel between Gay’s “bad feminism” and the ethos of a society that went on to brutally colonize much of the inhabited world. But feminism too, as Gay knows all too well, has a fraught history, having largely neglected the contributions of black feminists in favor of animating the voices of well-off white women. As Gay puts it, feminism is “complex and evolving and flawed” and “has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of others.” Moreover, it is worth noting that the Renaissance was home to many women humanists who utilized the principles of humanism to critique a male-centric world, even as they remained marginalized within it. Early feminists, in short, need not be feminism’s only authors any more than male European scholars carry license to eternally define humanism.

To speak of the humanism of bad feminism then, I hope, does not diminish the particularity of Gay’s feminism nor does it suggest that feminism now be simply replaced by humanism, likely to the delight of many of feminism’s detractors. Rather, I would suggest that “bad feminism” is today’s humanism. “Bad feminism” rescues the pulse of humanism, but adds to it all the necessary messiness and plurality of human experience that humanism’s white forefathers and feminism’s foremothers forgot. Where most early humanists spoke of “universal” categories of man (and with this stroke emphasized only the perspectives of a privileged subsection of society), bad feminists scrub for the inherent complexity and particularity in human experiences so as to speak to intersections of race, class, and gender. Where humanists might emphasize the supreme faculty of rationality as a gateway to knowledge (perhaps best exemplified by René Descartes’ emphasis on the mind over the body), bad feminists insist on continually asking questions, all while accounting for emotions such as love, desire, pain, and anger and how they might move us in our bodies as well as our minds.

While humanism offered a rubric of human living and commonality, it remained largely limited by whom it spoke to and for. Bad feminism takes up these questions of human life in renewed form, including an ever-changing set of interlocutors so as to account for the plurality of human experience in all its multi-faceted forms. Bad feminism revisits, in a way, the ideas of early women humanists like Tullia d’Aragona who questioned the merit of universal, male-centered rationality, instead demanding: “I want you to bow to experience, which I trust by itself far more than all the reasons produced by the whole class of philosophers.”

Additionally, invoking humanism in a discussion of bad feminism, I hope, may convince those critical of feminism—of its name, its process, its aim—that feminism is a profoundly human endeavor, for everybody. (A reminder perhaps all the more relevant in a moment where “call-out culture” has appeared as one of the most prominent forms of social activism.)

Fleabag remains a partial telling of only one human story, one not without its own inflections of the privileges of race and class. Still, the incredibly forgiving yet critical story it tells makes one imagine that it might represent the murmurings of more to come.

Fleabag and the Shift to Humanism

The most commented upon difference between the first and second season of Fleabag is when the object of Fleabag’s affections—a priest, no less!—catches her breaking the fourth wall. A narrative strategy so integral to the first season is suddenly defamiliarized when she is interrupted. The Priest calls her out, “What was that? Where’d you just go?” And we all gasp. Rather than happening on some other plane of reality, it is revealed that these broken asides are happening in real life—it’s just that no one else in her life ever noticed. Fleabag was never a truly reliable narrator, but we took up a pact with her, a pact that now, with this revelation, is partially broken—and we couldn’t be happier. Finally someone sees her in the way that we have all come to see her. Messy and flawed and perfectly human. Our sympathies with her, we find, were not misplaced, her “badness” not merely some comedic aberration.

The love story that ensues in the second season between Fleabag and her priest (who is also given no other name than The Priest) is perhaps one of the deepest, most human loves to meet the screen, at least in my recent memory. And it is also, of course, one of her most prohibited encounters. But her relationship with The Priest is not the only expression of love we find in the minutes of these episodes. And for fear of dampening the sweetness of that particular unfolding here, I’ll turn towards another story of love and human life woven into the narrative.

Halfway through the season, Fleabag entangles herself in quite a mess. Ultimately it leads to an encounter with a woman, Belinda (Kristin-Scott Thomas), who has just won a “Best Woman in Business” award. Over drinks, after she berates the very existence of the award as “infantilizing bollocks,” Belinda delivers a moving monologue on gender, menopause and women’s pain, one so potent, nuanced, and meandering that it quite nearly must be reproduced in its entirety:

“Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny — period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby. We have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes and it is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no one cares, but then you’re free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person. In business.

“I was told it was horrendous,” Fleabag quips.

“It is,” Belinda responds, “but then it’s magnificent.”

It’s political allegory and human history told through a stroke of phenomenological mythology. It is as much a celebration of the freedom menopause grants a woman from reproductive demands as it is a distaste for a cultural milieu that celebrates women only once they no longer offer anything to society, save for how well they fit into and advance pre-existing institutions—like business—institutions typically molded by and reserved for the successes of men.

Yet while Fleabag laments this world and the people in it, Belinda reminds her, that in the end, “People are all we’ve got.” Belinda’s monologue is an insightful and inciting treatise on the nature of humanity and the ever-erased, ever-omitted stories of women and their pain (the “naturalness” of a woman’s pain used to downplay her symptoms). But it is also a kind of humanistic instruction on how it is that we might be able to live together. So there, punctuating the season at its center, is this meta-story of human love. A story of human loving that finds a way to accept pain as a preamble for eventual “magnificence,” a loving that prepares itself to live amongst a world never suited for it—and, in spite of the poor-fit, a loving that fights for itself to be made visible, in every encounter possible. This is a humanism (or, humanitas: benevolence towards other human beings) fit for the modern day.

And there are yet still other textures of human love and caring Fleabag explores in the show’s second season. She accepts compassion from and ultimately finds forgiveness for a man who, in season one, was her harasser. Fleabag thereby complicates and blows up any simple MeToo narrative, but without denouncing it either. She helps guide her sister Claire through the shame and grief of a miscarriage. While in the first season, it was Fleabag who needed to be saved by her sister, it is now Fleabag who stands to protect her in an emotionally manipulative marriage. In the final episode of the season, Fleabag ushers Claire into a new love before considering her own.

Upon rewatching (which I’d forever recommend), I discovered that the opening scene of the show quite nearly contains the entirety of the season to come. In it, we meet Fleabag a year after the first season ended, standing in dimly lit restaurant bathroom. She’s dressed well and washing her hands, seemingly unaffected, until we see her face the mirror, blood flooding from her nose and across her lips. She uses a towel to wipe it off, in some level of pain from whatever had previously ensued. There’s a knock at the door and a man’s voice, “Can I do anything?”

“No thank you,” she calls back calmly, now cleaning her teeth. The camera spins down to the ground and we see a woman on the tiled floor of the bathroom, her face also covered in blood. Fleabag hands her a cloth. “Thank you,” the woman smiles.

Fleabag turns back to the mirror to fix her hair, then towards the camera for the first breaking of the fourth wall. “This is a love story,” she tells us, complete with her signature look of sly irreverence. At this moment, we do not yet how she got here nor who the woman on the floor or the man at the door are.

It is a love story, but not because, as we will come to find out, the object of Fleabag’s affections is the man at the door. It is a love story because it is in this fancy bathroom, amidst the bloody messiness of life, out of the lips of the smile of a bad bad feminist, that the very human story of love is gifted us. In fact, this story is revealed precisely because the desired object(s) of this love is/are not yet known. Rather, it’s a more everyday, nearly mundane, but deeply human love that fills this initial space and permeates throughout the entirety of the season, a love that finds many expressions, constantly splitting each one open so it can seep out further. And so it is fitting that with the simple gesture of handing a woman a cloth to wipe her face, the love story actually begins.

In the final episode of the season, Fleabag’s father’s words sum it up: “I think you know how to love better than any of us. That’s why you find it all so painful.” She’s a “bad feminist,” she’s a “fleabag,” because she is all too human.

In a moment rife with feminist commentary, Gay’s “bad feminist” archetype helps guard against any finalized, utopian vision of what feminism is or should be. Waller-Bridge writes this bad feminist into the present moment, revealing her quotidian struggles to be merely the grasping for human belonging and the questioning of how it is that we might live together. To think humanism alongside feminism is to allow for a critical, provocative politics that is also redemptive, steeped in questions of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

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Justine Parkin is a writer and PhD student based in California She writes and thinks on political theory, philosophy and literature, and feminist science studies.