Flipping gender stereotypes rather than challenging them?

Fleabag is surprising, empowering and also yanks the female experience of sex out of the closet and into the daylight in a way that even Lena Dunham’s Girls did not achieve. Of course, it’s only one perspective, that of the sex-obsessed, amoral woman, but it’s also one that is historically underrepresented.

Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag is both inspiring for its portrayal of a liberated woman and frightening for its depiction of an atomised existence. The main character seems fragmented and cut off from other people and also very real and raw, begging the question of whether other female on-screen characters are typically portrayed in a reductive and uncomplicated way.

In a society that is both heteronormative and rigidly binary in its approach to gender, the ’male’ stereotype tends to exist in a context of maximum sexual gratification, combined with minimal emotional commitment, while the ’female’ one tends to be associated with maximum emotional connection, combined with sexual interactions that make the woman feel loved, valued and wanted. I believe that Fleabag situates itself within this binary system to tackle those associated stereotypes.

The opening sequence is twice brilliant. Firstly, there are Waller-Bridge’s asides to camera that frankly, knocks Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards performance out of the park. And secondly, there is the way it reverses gender stereotypes in terms of how women and men experience casual sex.

The protagonist is, in many ways, following the time-worn script of the woman at the beck and call of male sexual desire

We open with shots of a hallway, to the sound of heavy breathing which is emanating from what turns out to be a cherry-lipped woman wearing a black mac open at the neck in a way that hints at the over-sexed flasher trope. Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) then turns to camera and not only invites the audience to share her experience, but assumes they already have: “You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at two o’clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can come and ‘find’ you…” she begins, “…and you’ve accidentally made it out like you’ve just got in yourself. So, you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business … and then wait by the door until the buzzer goes?” (It duly does.) She takes a second to compose herself. “And then you open the door to him like you’ve almost forgotten that he’s coming over.”

Up to this point, the protagonist is, in many ways, following the time-worn script of the woman at the beck and call of male sexual desire. Indeed, she proceeds to somewhat unenthusiastically allow him to have anal sex with her, because, as she explains: “You’re drunk and he made the effort to come all the way here.” However, Waller-Bridge’s commentary the following morning flips this on its head. She wakes to find him sitting on the edge of her bed, staring at her. She is nonchalant; he is tender. He declares that “last night was incredible”, which she thinks is “an overstatement”. He touches her hair and thanks her “with a genuine earnest… It’s sort of moving.” He then kisses her gently and leaves.

This scene doubly subverts the romantic cliché: first by layering Fleabag’s sardonic commentary over the top of her lover’s romantic gestures and, second, by framing her ability to receive him anally as the catalyst for his tenderness. It turns out he’s always wanted to do it “up the bum” but, ostensibly due to his large penis, has never found someone with whom to share the experience (leading her, incidentally, to spend the day wondering whether she has a “massive arsehole”). Her habit of ruthlessly reducing sexual interactions to the physical persists throughout.

I think that the series challenges stereotypically ’male’ and ’female’ models of sexuality and romantic attachment, ultimately showing that women and men are more similar romantically and sexually than societal gender stereotypes allow, also illustrating that these stereotypes are deeply flawed, not only as representations of reality, but also as models for fulfilled relationships. It does this through one central technique: Fleabag adopts an exaggerated form of what society often labels stereotypically ’male’ sexual behaviour, which plays out in her relationships with men in different ways.

The series presents a straightforward role reversal in Fleabag’s on-off, live-in relationship with the apparently emotionally available, sensitive and more typically ’female’ Harry (Hugh Skinner). More complex scenarios play out with men who exhibit varying degrees of typically ’male’ behaviour, ranging from Fleabag’s brother-in-law to the man from the opening sequence (“arsehole guy”).

Fleabag wishes Harry would “…just fuck me”, adding “All he wants to do is make love” and “He’s wasting me.” During one of their tender make-up lovemaking sessions, Fleabag pushes Harry off her as she becomes bored and instead masturbates, declining his offer to join in. Harry would like “us” (i.e. her) to masturbate less, focus on each other more and “try and save our touches for each other”. When he suggests they surprise each other once a day to keep their relationship fresh, he prepares a romantic candlelit dinner; meanwhile, she forgets to organise anything and therefore decides to dress up like a ninja and creep up on him with a knife in the shower, causing him to break down in tears: “Oh my god, my heart…I’m shaking so much…Oh my god”, he cries.

By mimicking ’male’ sexuality yet remaining a woman, Fleabag ‘gets away with’ creating comedy out of behaviour that would be perceived as simply cruel in men

When they finally break up (for the last time, really), Harry regales Fleabag with an ignominious list of her porn-related search history from that day. She responds to his assertion of: “Don’t make me hate you; loving you is painful enough” by suggesting he write the words down as song lyrics. Even when she’s not talking to the audience, Fleabag’s life often seems like a public performance, an aspect that rings strangely true in an age of social media. And in this case, by mimicking ’male’ sexuality yet remaining a woman, Fleabag ‘gets away with’ creating comedy out of behaviour that would be perceived as simply cruel in men.

The role reversal in the case of Fleabag’s brother-in-law, Martin (Brett Gelman), is more interesting, with Fleabag treating him as a sparring partner, effectively issuing challenges to step up and be more stereotypically ’male’. In one scene, he abruptly closes his laptop and she assumes he must have been watching porn; when she finds he was in fact searching for a necklace for her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), her verdict is “disappointing”. Later, when talking to Martin about his relationship with the sexually-frustrated and uptight Claire (the family’s main breadwinner), Fleabag says, “Just screw her.” and ”A little marital poke isn’t going to kill you.” Unlike Harry, Martin is sufficiently aware of both what she is doing and the complexities of the societal struggle around gender roles to challenge her stereotyping by turning it around on her, asking whether it would “kill [Claire] to take me out to dinner. You girls, Jesus, anyone said that to her, they’d be hung”.

She copes with her strong sex drive, a historically under-explored aspect of the female experience, and one that yields few role models, by imagining that this is how (all) men feel

In short, Fleabag taunts Martin for failing to fulfil the stereotype of masculinity: the very behaviour she is aping. She suggests that if he doesn’t want to have sex with Claire, it must be because he’s having an affair. He responds with derision and cuttingly offers to pay her back a financial debt in sexual favours. She appears genuinely hurt by this.

The reason Fleabag acts in this way is not made explicit in the show, but I think it is fair to assume that she copes with her strong sex drive, a historically under-explored aspect of the female experience, and one that yields few role models, by imagining that this is how (all) men feel. She even projects her sexual intentions onto the doctor performing her breast exam, who curtly corrects her.

Fleabag admits she can’t stop thinking about sex: “The performance of it, the awkwardness of it, the drama of it. The moment you realise someone wants your body. Not so much the feeling of it.” Her distress at not knowing how to manage this becomes apparent in the final episode, when she blurts out: “Either everyone feels like this just a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone, which isn’t fucking funny.”

Whatever the reasons behind her behaviour, her reductionist interpretation of gender roles does her no favours. By expecting her male partners to view her only through a physical lens, she effectively creates the very paradigm she fears, preventing any emotional relationship from developing. The man from the opening scene (“arsehole guy”) is the best example of this. Fleabag sees him several times, either for sex or dates and, when he admits he doesn’t usually “connect with women”, she responds: “That’s what I like about you.” They maintain a casual relationship and she invites him to a couple of family functions (principally, it seems, to defy her family’s impression of her as romantically unsuccessful).

After sharing an (emotionally fraught) meal with Fleabag’s family, “arsehole guy” cups her face with his hand and asks her to stay with him tonight. Her performance to the camera appears more chuffed than touched, as if proud of her conquest. (He is indeed “very good looking”, as her stepmother (Olivia Colman) keeps remarking.) As she waits for him to get his motorbike and her sister asks to be reminded of his name, she identifies him as “fucked-me-up-the-arse”. The character’s name is never revealed; he is even referred to in the credits as “arsehole guy”, compounding the sense of emotional distance.

While Fleabag’s persistent refusal to interpret interactions through a romantic lens seems to successfully protect her from disappointment, it simultaneously prevents the possibility of any deeper connection from developing. That night, when they are having sex, arsehole guy loses his erection. She interprets this as him falling in love with her, an experience she describes as: “They get confused, they panic, the stakes get too high. The blood rushes from their dick to their heart, and everything is fucked.”

Over the course of the day, however, we see her not only (somewhat gleefully) assume this is what is happening, but also start to enjoy the thought of it. However, she has read the situation wrong, and is evidently thrown when she is snubbed. Arsehole guy seems keen not to hurt Fleabag with the news about why he actually lost his erection (he carefully plans the right time to tell her) but outwardly, she acts uncaring. He pauses to read her reaction then responds, relieved: “I knew you wouldn’t give a shit.” There is an ambiguity here, however, about whether this course of events was inevitable. When having sex with Fleabag, arsehole guy realised he was in love with someone else, but if Fleabag been emotionally available, might he have fallen for her instead?

In simply flipping gender binary stereotypes of sexual relationships, Fleabag offers a highly dysfunctional model of adulthood

Fleabag expresses her malaise poignantly in the final scene of the last episode. She effectively confesses that she sees her worth as physical to such an extent that once her body grows old and “unfuckable,” adding, “I may as well just kill it and somehow there isn’t anything worse than somebody who doesn’t want to fuck me,” she blurts out through tears of desperation.

As a depiction of a millennial drifter, Fleabag is believable. As an exploration of female sexual emancipation, it’s fresh. As a think piece, it’s confused, but perhaps only as confused as contemporary Western society itself.

In simply flipping gender binary stereotypes of sexual relationships, Fleabag offers a highly dysfunctional model of adulthood. However, the raw honesty of her desperate, fruitless search for meaning in an emotional and moral void, should give pause for thought.

If all genders are to be equal, what does that mean for sex, for love, for commitment? If we admit that women, like men, come with the full range of sexual desires, how does (and should) society treat a woman who manifests sexually predatory behaviour?

Until binary gender roles are challenged more widely in society and on screen, there will always be a paucity of role models for liberated, sexually confident women; emotionally available, strong men; and anyone who identifies as neither. In this sense, Fleabag raises way more questions than it answers, but it also opens the door for moving forward in our understanding of gender and the way current perceived norms restrict us all.

You can watch Fleabag on BBC iPlayer

Image description: Fleabag title card, with white capital letters on a black background. By BBC, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w