Dayna Sharp, LCSW
Have you seen the tv show "Fleabag"? Everyone seems to be talking about it lately, promoting it as one of the best new shows of the season. Like most everyone else, I enjoy a
good story, so I gave it a whirl.
And I hated it.
I hated the first episode, the second, the third and the fourth. "Why does everyone like this show so much?", I wondered. I googled the show, and came up with the definition of "Fleabag": "a shabby or unpleasant person or thing". At least they came up with an appropriate title for the show, I thought, agreeing that the show and particularly the main character, was very unpleasant.
I guess there weren't many other appealing options, or maybe I like to understand why other people would like the show so much, or maybe I'm a bit masochistic myself...whatever the reason, I kept watching. And I started to love the show. Let me tell you why.
The main character of Fleabag, isn't given a name. She treats her boyfriend like trash, she engages in meaningless sex with men who treat her like trash, she flirts with her repulsive brother in law, she acts childlike in her relationship with her sister, she seems even to treat the customers of her cafe poorly--serving them a frozen tv dinner from a microwave. In short, she's a character who doesn't know who she is, and who acts out a combination of attempting to please people and pushing them away. She can't relate. And nor could I.
But then something happens. We get to know Fleabag. We meet her family. We see that her best friend died by suicide. We learn that her mother died. We see that Fleabag's sister is caught up in her own trouble relating, that her father has completely submitted himself to a woman who dismisses and intrudes upon Fleabag, and we feel her suffering. We start to realize that Fleabag blames herself for the death of her friend, that she carries a load of guilt and shame. We feel her pain when she is dumped carelessly and cruelly--in the spirit that she is an object to be used.
"Because it doesn't matter"
We start to see Fleabag as a smart, funny, caring and loyal part of a severely dysfunctional family. A family in which there is absolutely no room for Fleabag's human needs to be met. At one point, when Fleabag is asked why she's not acting out, "making everything about you", she says simply "because it doesn't matter". She begins to realize that no matter how much she wants and needs to be loved, supported by her family, she's simply not going to get it.
We start to see that Fleabag carries the shame for the whole family, that she has, in fact, been nameless. She, as a real person, simply hasn't been allowed to exist. She acts out, and when she does, all of the family's difficulties are hidden. There's only one problem, and its Fleabag. But when Fleabag no longer holds the shame, we see even more deeply the troubles of the family. Brother in law's alcoholism and sexual acting out, sister's denial of her own needs and care, father's preoccupation with his wife and inability to meet the needs of his adult children, and father's wife's self indulgence and competitiveness/aggressiveness with Fleabag. No matter whether Fleabag is drunk, throwing things, showing up to a family event with different boyfriends...no matter what kind of acting out Fleabag turns on, it won't matter, because they can't see her. They can't relate to her, to how she feels. She's been alone with her helpless and rage. Nameless. And when she realizes this...that it's their shame to carry, she can finally begin to exist.
One of the best things about the show is the way that it presents memory. At first, the flashbacks seemed kind of jarring. I wasn't sure what they were about, and truthfully, they felt rather annoying. "What are you trying to tell me already!". But as we get to know Fleabag, and perhaps as she gets to know herself, her memories become more meaningful. We know what she's remembering. And what strikes me most is how alone she is with her memories. Whether she's out shopping for shoes with her brother in law, or in her therapist's office, when the memories come, she keeps them to herself. And as the viewer, I can relate to that. And through our shared aloneness, I feel right there with her.
One of the most annoying things about the show was the way Fleabag turns and talks to the viewers. I struggled with this throughout the show. I couldn't verbalize what felt so irritating about it. But then the Priest became involved with Fleabag, and he not only noticed it, but called Fleabag out on it. He was irritated too! Then I realized how ingenious the writers really are! Of course the turning away is upsetting...it interrupts the flow of the show, and also interrupts any chance of connection between Fleabag and the other characters, in service of creating a false connection with the viewers, who, again are nameless. She doesn't even know us! And I don't need a narrator--I want to be with you in the story!
Then I realized that this is just another way that Fleabag protects herself from the shame, self hate and vulnerability that comes along with namelessness...another way to block real connection...to remove herself from her relationships, from fully living her life and instead stopping to narrate what's happening, free from emotion. By turning to the viewer, was Fleabag "Depersonalizing"?--defined by Google, creating "a state in which one's thoughts and feelings seem unreal or not to belong to oneself, or in which one loses all sense of identity". Was depersonalization a way that Fleabag separated herself from her thoughts and feelings? A safe escape? I think so.
A Happy Ending?
In one of the last scenes, Fleabag is walking away from us, and waves goodbye to us, the viewers. It's true, the season was over. A goodbye might be appropriate just for concrete reasons. But I'm hoping that really, on a deeper level, she is saying goodbye to depersonalization, to disconnection. That while she walks away from us, she walks toward herself. I'm hoping that next season, she has a name. That she's no longer Fleabag, the shabby or unpleasant person or thing. Because she isn't a thing, she is a person...A good, caring person. And I think ultimately what we witnessed, as the viewers, was Fleabag finding her real self. Fleabag is a show about the messiness of life and relationships, how hard it is to balance protecting ourselves and being ourselves, and making sense of who we are in this sometimes scary, cruel or just plain whacky world. And I think that's a show worth watching!