2019 was a fairly big year for female television showrunners; with four out of the seven shows nominated for last year’s Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy helmed by womxn. However, none were more celebrated than Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who took home three Emmys for starring, writing and executive producing the tragi-comedy Fleabag, with another nomination in the Drama category for producing the femme spy-thriller Killing Eve to boot. Both shows have been lauded for the complexity of their female characters, and were subsequently included in The Guardian’s ‘100 best TV shows of the 21st century’. Her star power became undeniable when this photo of her sipping a margarita and smoking a cigarette, surrounded by her Emmys, went viral for its being the ultimate ‘boss-bitch’ mood.
The first time I heard about Fleabag was when Amy Schumer posted about it on Instagram and aptly called it “the shit” in 2016, the year its first season was released. I was working as a waitress in my gap year at the time, dealing with handsy and misogynistic male patrons and having to force a smile onto my face despite a pervasive sense of rage. I binge-watched all six episodes of this first season, and its relatability and pathos made me laugh and cry – at times, simultaneously. To me, it felt as though there was finally a femxle character in television who was loveable, chaotic and horrible enough to be called honest. And she was telling me that I had no obligation to smile at misogynists.
For decades, the film and television industry has been creatively stunted by its own prejudice in depicting young, femxle characters as one-dimensional, while simultaneously giving them very little screen time. In the same year as Fleabag’s debut, a study by Dr Lauzen, the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, concluded that, “Female characters were less likely than males to be portrayed as leaders, less likely than men to be seen at work and actually working, and more likely than men to be identified by their marital status.” As such, works like Fleabag and Killing Eve, where femxle characters are often depicted as working high-profile jobs, are still something of an anomaly. And for us as young womxn, studying to achieve goals and cultivate careers, this underrepresentation of ambitious womxn is incredibly destructive.
However, as we can note from the indelible popularity of both Fleabag and Killing Eve, audiences are evidently hungry for complex womxn characters; who transcend submissive stereotypes and the importance of marital status. As such, it is clear that what forms the bedrock of the genius behind Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s characters is, undoubtedly, her ability as a writer to reject traditional stereotypes of femxle docility, subservience and unqualified goodness. This cultivates an honest depiction of what it is to be a young adult womxn- in all its hilarious, confused and angry glory. Fleabag, the character, would do anything for the people she loves- but she is also perpetually the agent of her own emotional destruction. Villanelle from Killing Eve is dangerous and hateful, and yetcapable of extreme devotion and vulnerability. What joins them is their multi-dimensionality and their ability to give a big, fat middle finger to anyone who tells them how they should be defined.
As young womxn ourselves, depictions of characters like this are especially relevant to us as we attempt to carve out a sense of our own identities- when everyone, from politicians to family members and professors, have their own ideas of how we are supposed to be. These characters illustrate that womxn have their own agency and complexities with regard to who they are and what they do, much more so than we have been led to believe by the stereotypes of womxn perpetuated by the film and television industries for decades. So, to end with a Phoebe Waller-Bridge phrase, “I think it’s important to go grab that agency by its nipples.”