Posted on February 21 2021
SOMETIMES OUR FAVORITE SHOWS AND MOVIEW ARE THE ONES THAT AREN'T EASY TO WATCH. THEY COME AT US WITH SUCH HONESTY AND BLUNTNESS THAT AT TIMES IT FEELS HARD TO STAND. BUT IF THEY'RE SO TOUGH TO SWALLOW, WHY DO WE KEEP COMING BACK TO THEM?
By Alex A. Bensi
We all know the feeling: you’re watching something on TV and suddenly the story starts going in a direction that feels awkward in a way that’s hard to explain, maybe the situation at hand is hitting too close to home or it feels too real, but the key is really in how it's executed. The way everyone on screen seems to talk about it seems weirdly blunt and honest, like it’s part of a normal everyday conversation. The forthrightness of it all can become too much, we may start to cringe at it to the point that it becomes genuinely uncomfortable and we need to pause for a minute and take a mental break. Still, once we’ve taken a breather we sit down and hit play again. Why do we do that? What about it is rewarding enough, emotionally, that we willingly put ourselves through the discomfort of experiencing it?
Although everyone experiences cringing differently, we are all somewhat familiar with the feeling. By definition, it’s a very specific type of embarrassment that comes along with realizing that you just overstepped some kind of social boundary, often times an implicit one. It’s the sudden understanding that you just did something wrong or awkward without meaning to and getting involuntarily thrusted into a strong state of self-awareness about how your actions are perceived by others. Understanding how our actions may be judged by those around us gives way to a wave of embarrassment, discomfort and regret.
1. We can also feel this for others of course; In a way it’s a form of empathy, we understand that they’re doing something out of place and we feel the shame we think they would (or should) feel. It’s a form of vicarious embarrassment. However, by putting ourselves in someone else’s place, we are also accepting that what they’re going through is something that we could go through as well. After all, we´ve all said and done the wrong things, and the mistakes that make us cringe the most are the ones that stay with us the longest. This can be especially true with actions that ended up having unexpected harmful consequences, like accidentally hurting the feelings of a loved one. In a way, we could say that seeing others make awkward or bad choices and compassionately cringing for them is something that can create a sense of humbling comradery. We see our imperfections reflected in others and, although it can be uncomfortable or even upsetting, it’s a good reminder that we as humans are all fragile and fallible in one way or another.
This emphasizing with others can create a bit of relief within the whole discomfort of the situation. It can even bring into light how some social norms and expectations are kind of ridiculous or arbitrary. This becomes a useful tool for media that tries to work with the limits of these “rules” and use them for comedy. The use of cringe and discomfort as a form of humor isn’t new, but it has become key in the success of some recent shows like Bojack Horseman, Atlanta, Letterkenny and Russian Doll. These all feature characters that navigate a special kind of discomfort that feels oddly familiar and yet a bit surreal, as we see them state often plainly the reality of their worlds, their feelings and the systems at place that lead them there. This kind of in-your-face honesty is very effective at both being relatable and also generating some of the more cringe-like feelings that come with knowing that it’s not considered socially acceptable to speak in such an unfiltered way. There’s also an added thrill though, that comes with seeing someone putting into loud, clear words something we may feel but that’s not usually so easily transmitted. This all creates a context where the nuances of social interaction seem shifted somewhat and it’s both dreadful and fascinating.
2. These types of feelings become integral to the experience of watching BBC`s two-season show Fleabag, which expertly blends witty, fast-paced comedy with honest and heartfelt drama. We follow a young woman, the titular Fleabag, as she navigates her complicated relationships, messy sex life, awkward family dynamics and a guinea pig themed café which she seems to be barely able to manage. Fleabag presents herself as an open and bold woman, never afraid of being straightforward with what’s going on in her life regardless of how others may react. More interestingly though, her main confidant is us, the audience to whom she talks constantly with a wink and a nod towards the camera, opening herself up in brutal honesty that dwindles between the serious and the comedic.
When Fleabag seems to endlessly boast about her dysfunctional way of life it can always come with some degree of discomfort. Even in her “private” confidence towards us we know she’s not supposed to be behaving this way, because we know generally we aren’t supposed to either. But it’s also deeply appealing to see her be so open about the issues that plague her daily life and that sometimes plague our daily lives as well. It all works towards making her feel like a more grounded and relatable character, even if the things we do relate to are the ones that we might usually feel embarrassed about.
But there’s also something else to her honesty. The comedy in the show centers itself always around a type of dark humor, which according to its creator and main actress, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is the best kind. So when Fleabag look straight at us and casually states things like “Dads way of coping with two motherless daughters was to buy us tickets to feminist lectures, start fucking our godmother and eventually stop calling” We have very little time to pause and consider if she’s okay or how all of this may be affecting her. The delivery, tone and fast pacedness of it all drags it into the realm of comedy and we can’t help but laugh and move on to the next joke, albeit with some concern.
Fleabag seems to be one of the only open characters in a roster defined by façades, where people are always saying something other than what they’re feeling or thinking because of the social pressures and expectations around them. All around there’s an endless cycle of people not communicating their true feelings and hurting themselves and others in the process, as Waller-Bridge puts it “they always say the wrong thing because they feel like if they say the truth they might explode”. This is particularly noticeable in the character of Fleabag´s sister, Claire, who is an uptight, successful middleclass businesswoman who, despite her perceived stability, is clearly dissatisfied with her life. It doesn’t take too long to understand that something is plaguing Fleabag herself, it’s clear that the problems in her life are exerting a rapidly increasing amount of pressure on her as time goes on and the bold in-your-face honesty that seems to characterize her starts feeling more and more like a façade itself. As the writer has also said in an interview “The pressure of the camera is that she had a secret and she felt like she was going to crack […] and she was just going, 'I’m just hilarious! Come into my hilarious life. There’s nothing wrong with me'.”
Of course, no discussion about Fleabag can be complete without talking about how the shows deals with feminist topics. Fleabags misery doesn’t only come from her personal tragedies but also from a common place of female suffering in the modern world. We see this as she tries to navigate through different environments with more or less feminist inclinations while never feeling like she truly has much place to stand in any of them. It’s not certain if any of the other women around her have much of a place to stand in as well, or if their role in these spaces is as much of a performance as anything else. Fleabag herself defines herself more than once as a bad feminist, but by whose standards is defined as “bad” is never really made clear.
The show as it actually is started out as a 10-minute monologue that a friend of Waller-Bridge challenged her to write, it then evolved into a successful full length play and eventually transformed into what we see today. However, throughout all of this the plot and characters don’t seem to have changed much, which only indicates how clear the themes and ideas that Phoebe had in mind were when she started the whole process. She has stated that when writing Fleabag, she wanted to talk about someone that she could relate to. She was inspired at the
3. time by the cynicism she was feeling in her twenties, “with a touch of female rage” as she says. An anger that’s uncontrollable and violent but still finding itself under the veil of social norms. The show focuses a lot on how women grow up being taught to fit into certain roles and categories, while being expected to be happy and functional enough in these limited boxes while also being able to jump out and thrive beyond them (always within the patriarchal expectations of course). So it all seems to become some kind of contest for who can be the “best at being women” while not really being able to talk honestly about the pain this system is causing them.
In relation to this façade game, Waller-Bridge said “People are always trying to be on top. And not always with a macabre agenda, but I think that people are desperately trying to remain in control, rather than being honest.” The character of Fleabag (as well as others) consistently uses her loud, sarcastic personality to talk carelessly about the tragedies in her life. She has no issue with mentioning the death of her mother or her best friend, her loneliness, her issues with feminism or any other thing that marks her as vulnerable, but this is not the same as being vulnerable. Her short, witty comments on these things are just a tool so she can deflect from the pain she’s feeling, her “honesty” on all of this is another kind of façade that saves her from being truly honest. Fleabag isn’t really clashing with the social norms around her in the way we may think she is, she's just playing the game differently by creating a conflictive persona to show publicly, one that won’t have to deal with the discomfort of being truthful about herself.
This creates a new way in which we can empathize with what’s going on with Fleabag. Instead of being presented as a quirky character that can just deal with her problems with a quippy one-liner, she becomes a more deeply emotional and complex person, who, like us, isn’t always best equipped to handle her own life.
Her duality as a character was best expressed by Phoebe herself when she described her as a loving, hopeless romantic but also someone who just “lives to make you laugh”. As the character progresses she becomes more and more able to speak honestly about her issues and with this we find new ways in which to relate to her. Her real openness gives way to a new dynamic in the relationship we have with Fleabag as an audience, as her confidant. Seeing her being truly vulnerable is what allows us to join her as an equal and not a weight, and start really feeling with her.
As a show, Fleabag bases its dynamics around the very real discomfort created in the limits between honesty and social acceptability. This allows to generate a raw yet deeply complex form of empathy, not only towards the female experience but also to a more broadly human experience. Its messy and mean characters allow us through their mistakes and their flaws to feel closer to them as people and in doing that it allows us to understand that, like them, we can learn to be honest with ourselves and figure out a way to feel okay. After all, if these broken and awkward people are able to find love and happiness in their own strange ways, why can’t we?
Alex A. Bensi is a trans writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he studied film and scriptwriting, with minors in literature, academic and creative writing. His work focuses mainly on the perspective of Queer and Feminist Theory in a contemporary context, aiming to create an open and honest discussion about how film and literature interject with these topics. He has worked in several independent short films, documentaries, a miniseries and is currently developing the script for his first feature film.