The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Last Friday night, I watched the series finale of Fleabag from the comfort of my twin-sized bunk bed. Lying corpse-like on my back with my iPad hanging hands-free from the slats above me, I felt like I was back in middle school. Then again, I was watching Fleabag, so feeling vulnerable and childlike was already a given.
Last summer, TikTok users popularized the term “Fleabag era” to proclaim their identification with Fleabag’s brazen and messy lifestyle. To be in your Fleabag era is to be unashamedly sexual and sardonically self-aware. According to Urban Dictionary, a woman in her Fleabag era is “ready to ruin peoples’ lives in order to get their hot girl fantasy to come true.” The Fleabag era emerged from the same online spaces as the “the feminine urge” trend and every other “era” named for a self-destructive antiheroine (think: “last week I was in my Unnamed Protagonist from ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ Era”). It’s too bad that using “Fleabag era” in this way strips Fleabag of its most important nuances.
Fleabag follows its titular character as she comes to terms with the recent deaths of her mother and her best friend, Boo. Fleabag is a mess. She is insufferably judgmental but also painfully self-critical. She cracks inappropriate jokes but has no friends to share them with. She won’t stop hurting the people she loves, yet she can’t admit that she doesn’t want to lose them.
For all of her mocking of people who turn to religion, politics or professionalism for guidance, Fleabag is just as desperate for meaning as the rest of us.
With all of Fleabag’s internal contradictions, it’s clear why the Internet’s idea of a “Fleabag era” doesn’t actually match her character. Fleabag is beloved online for her dripping sarcasm and shameless rule-breaking, but when she breaks down in a confession booth in S2E4, she tells the (hot) priest that she’s the opposite of shameless. “I’m ashamed… I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong,” she says, voice breaking. “Even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing that I do makes any difference in the end, anyway, I’m still scared.” Despite TikTok making her the face of nihilistic feminism, Fleabag admits here that her nihilism does nothing to assuage her grief and confusion. For all of her mocking of people who turn to religion, politics or professionalism for guidance, Fleabag is just as desperate for meaning as the rest of us.
The confession scene unravels the delusion of a self-aware Fleabag. Fleabag is known for calling out all forms of social performance, from performative feminism to pretentious awards ceremonies. But Fleabag’s existential confusion exposes that her critical eye isn’t some superior sense of self-awareness, but an extension of her own confused insecurity. She feels out of place amongst people who “pretend” to care, not because she sees through their pretenses, but because she fears she might be the only one actually pretending.
I entered my Fleabag era in the TikTok sense: I became a self-described nihilist who rolled her eyes at how everybody cared so much.
My own experience with grief was also defined by confusion and contradiction. In my senior year of high school, I lost a close friend to suicide in the same weekend that my mother was hospitalized for a stroke. The one-two punch of a double tragedy affected me like how it affected Fleabag: I felt an unbridgeable gap open up between myself and the rest of the world, then deepened it with each passing day. Everything felt so unreal— so unbelievably, incomprehensibly serious— that I could no longer take anything seriously. I entered my Fleabag era in the TikTok sense: I became a self-described nihilist who rolled her eyes at how everybody cared so much. Why should I worry about our next in-class essay when my friend was gone and my mom couldn’t even say my name? I skipped classes and collected truancy letters, all the while thinking to myself, “the world is going to explode one day, anyway, so none of this matters.” I understand why Fleabag turned to pessimism and isolation in her grief, because it was easier to distance myself from the enormity of my emotions and the immense pressure to grieve “correctly” than to admit that I had no idea how to process anything at all.
I have survived my grief so far, but not everybody who romanticizes a “Fleabag era” is ready to face the true consequences of self-imposed isolation. The most important message of Fleabag, and what’s lost in the shallow social media trend, is that Fleabag’s coping mechanisms were her own undoing. Fleabag uses irony and pessimism to distance herself from her emotions, but we see that this doesn’t get her very far when Claire confronts her with the tragedy of Boo’s death at the finale of Season 1. Fleabag is so overwhelmed that she can’t dissociate from the moment. Her eyes flit back and forth from the camera, unable to break the fourth wall. Her memories flood the screen and she overflows with guilt and shame over Boo’s death. Evidently, none of Fleabag’s dissociation actually helped her process her loss.
Some TikTok users make it past the Urban Dictionary definition to recognize the downsides of the Fleabag era. “Romanticizing being in your fleabag era is all fun and games but no one talks about the huge burnout… glamorizing my self imposed downfall feels good in the moment but am I actually okay???” Wrote ryliejouett on TikTok. One commenter replied “girl I was in that era all fall and now I’m trying to recover from the trauma I caused myself.” While it’s a good thing that more people on social media are talking about the consequences of self-destructive behaviors, many of these same responses reflect Fleabag’s irony-laden and overly self-aware tone. Emmeline Clein points to this phenomenon in her article “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating.” “We now seem to be interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance,” she writes. I agree, because when I spent a year intellectualizing my pain and believing I had my feelings all figured out, I was really just isolating myself from my own emotions and refusing input from the people who could truly help me.
Eventually, what pulls Fleabag out of her isolation is her vulnerability.
What pulls Fleabag out of her isolation is her own vulnerability. After the priest encourages her to avoid dissociation and truly “confess” her emotions, we watch her begin to reconnect with her family and process her grief. Only then is she able to move past her impulse to judge and disconnect from others. At the series finale, Fleabag takes one last look at the camera before leaving it behind at the bus station, finally willing to give up her self-destructive coping mechanism.
I know from personal experience how safe it feels to hold your feelings close and the world at a distance. Abandoning that safety is not as easy as walking away from a metaphorical camera. All I know is that, if I continued to roll my eyes at the world, I would have never reconnected with the relationships that made my life feel real again.
Last Friday night, I cried while watching Fleabag’s monologue in the confession booth. I think I might actually be in my Fleabag era, because I’m still learning how to process grief without distancing myself from the scariest parts.