Fleabag‘s protagonist looks towards the camera and says, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt, woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
Right then, I felt like we could have been lifelong friends. The breaking of the fourth wall, a common technique in film production, brings the audience even closer to the protagonist. It is a powerful tool – and if used effectively, as in Fleabag‘s case, it can give the viewer a feeling of friendship with the character, and an insight into her inner-most personal thoughts.
Fleabag, both the show and Waller-Bridge’s unnamed protagonist, present female sexual agency openly and proudly. Waller-Bridge creates a character who is chaotic, dysfunctional – and who frequently admits to being unable to stop think about sex – a trope which is relatively new as more womxn join the writing rooms.
The use of the fourth wall gives Fleabag‘s protagonist a distinctly feminine agency, allowing her to express herself outside of patriarchal constraints. It allows Phoebe Waller-Bridge to create her protagonist’s narrative outside of her relation to other characters, including her various male partners. The separation of the protagonist from all other characters is powerful. When she is talking to the viewer, she is not creating herself through other people; she is speaking for herself and it feels deeply personal.
This offers the potential for a relationship between the protagonist and the audience. Waller-Bridge’s character speaks directly to whoever is watching (or to the camera) as a close friend. This offers an exchange of agency and emotions between the character and the viewer. While Fleabag‘s protagonist is a fictional character, who would not exist without an audience, the construction of a woman with sexual agency navigating her own troubled world (relationships, sex, money, family and grief) offers a reassuring and powerful view of ownership to female viewers of their own emotions and sexuality.
This can be complicated depending on who is viewing. The vunerability the protagonist shares with the audience is clearly intended for a specific viewer (a womxn) as the direct communication speaks to a shared lived experience. The constructed relationship relies on a gendered lived experience that can be found in the real world, thereby crossing boundaries between what is real and what exists within Waller-Bridge’s fiction.
The breaking of the fourth wall also offers a revolutionary space for Fleabag‘s protagonist outside of her performed feminine nature. The protagonist often breaks the fourth wall when talking to cisgendered men to comment on something they have said or done. This becomes a spectrum from a jovial raised eyebrow, a sarcastic one-liner to something really accusatory.
This reflects the reality of performativity that womxn who live in patriarchal societies generally and historically have had to engage with. This is often in contrast to the thoughts we may have in our heads, which many wish we could express so outwardly as Waller-Bridge’s character does in Fleabag. Therefore, the breaking of the fourth wall in Fleabag offers a safe space from the male gaze.
Fleabag has risen to widespread popularity among some because the protagonist is so relatable; she is funny, her life is often messy and sometimes, she’s a bit of a dick. The fourth wall is a powerful tool for female agency; it offers a platform for the honest expression of female sexuality, friendship and an escape from feminine performativity.
We could all learn something from Fleabag. We can act on our desires for the occasional eye roll or ‘off camera’ judgemental gaze. Breaking the fourth wall in our off-screen lives is also a tool for empowerment. In Fleabag, womxn are encouraged to reject performativity. In the words of Waller Bridge’s protagonist, “Being proper and sweet and nice and pleasing is a fucking nightmare. It’s exhausting.”
Photo courtesy of Markus Winkler