In August this year, BBC Three aired a six-part TV series called ‘Fleabag’, a sitcom about a helpless, twenty-something middle-class woman failing to be happy in contemporary London. There are several different sides to the show, and it is certainly enjoyable – but there is equally something rather uncomfortable about it that needs to be explored.
It is not necessarily the show itself nor its intentions that are disturbing – rather, it’s the context from which it draws its inspiration. It is very deliberately depressing, and I want to make a quick note about why this is the case.
The main character, Fleabag, is like a lost puppy trying to find its owner on a crowded street; she has no direction, no good relationships and a tendency to fling herself with blind optimism at people who are no good. Her romantic life is a mess of potential nothings, her café is highly unprofitable and she does not get on with her family. The material would be perfect for a tragic drama, but, because it is comedy, it is all presented with a wry smile and a tendency to say ‘oh well’.
The reason it irks is because it is drawing on an abundant reality for an extraordinary number of people in the Western world. Living is unaffordable; it’s impossible to make your politics applicable to your life (especially progressive politics); your relationships suffer in a lonely city. And, more than this, it points to the psychological niceties that define an unpleasant existence – namely, guilt.
Consider how the protagonist takes every opportunity to ‘confide’ in the camera. This breaking the fourth wall is a form of confession, and confession implies the existence of guilt. But what is she guilty about, and why is this significant?
She talks to the camera exclusively about four things: finding another character strange; finding a family member unbearable; sex; and self-hatred. She therefore feels guilty about these things, or at least anxious – which is just another manifestation of guilt. And this guilt and anxiety gets drummed into her by the uncaring, insensitive world around her, such as in the moment she proclaims she is a “morally bankrupt woman” and her father responds, “You get all that from your mother”. What we are shown is a world in which the female in particular gets castigated for being unable to be ‘successful’, and in which everyone in general is haunted with the guilty sense that they are inadequate.
And this is precisely what is so disturbing about ‘Fleabag’: the fact that it is true. It points right at the emotional and financial squalor that most of us are so familiar with, that feeling that you are guilty, that you are inadequate, that you do not belong in a world that so consistently beats you over the head and says, ‘you, you, you – it’s your fault!’
It even suggests the thing that really ruins one’s sense of self, which is the feeling that reality is in actual fact terrible, and everything ‘good’ is just a thin veneer painted over the top. We see this in two particular ways in the show. The first is the way all the characters who aspire to respectability are quickly shown to be flawed. Fleabag’s sister is the prime example of this, consistently being proved to be in a marriage she is not entirely comfortable with amongst other things. The second is the way scatology and deprivation are pointed to as being more important than other aspects of self. The best example of this is again with the sister: during an argument she tries to save her respectability by crying “I have two degrees, a husband and a burberry coat!”, and Fleabag cries back, “You shat in a sink!”. The scatology – the disgusting underlayer of humanity – is taken to be more important than educational, emotional or material attainment.
The point I want to make here is that this show has pointed out how people really feel at the moment, and it is – frankly – miserable. The guilt, the self-loathing, the Fear Of Missing Out, the loneliness, the debauchery, the feeling of senseless utility, the bad relationships, and especially the sense that the ultimate truth is that reality is terrible – all of this adds to a toxic combination of negativity.
At least, I suppose, it is a comedy. The suggestion is that post-industrial life is an arid, nowhere-abyss lacking in meaningful connection to anything, but so long as you wear that wry smile and don’t take it too seriously, everything will be fine. There is certainly something to be said for that. But it still nonetheless bothers me greatly that this is what most people feel the future presents them with: a wasted, existential flash of a consciousness in a world that feels hostile to them at every turn, and from which there is no escape other than through suicide. Even the suicide of Fleabag’s best friend is a semi-intentional accident, a perfect summary of the tragicomic weirdness that haunts the series.
I for my part know that it is possible to change one’s consciousness enough not to be bothered by an environment like the one depicted in ‘Fleabag’. But it is difficult. I still lapse every so often in my pursuit of a more relaxed mind, sometimes for periods of whole months, and it’s only then that I’m reminded of exactly what is I’m trying to escape.
But most people are not taught about improving the life of the mind. Most people are taught to be who they are told to be, to follow the rules of their society, to work at something senseless all their life and to die without realising that anything was wrong. And if depression comes, well, that’s just a hurdle that we all have to deal with now isn’t it?
No. I do not accept that, and neither should you.
‘Fleabag’ is an indictment of the disconnection of modern life, and one which cannot offer a saving grace other than that wry smile. My question is: what happens to the people who don’t know how to keep that smile on their face any more?