Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Waller-Bridge’s protagonist is our guide to the world of Fleabag: We’re privy to her self-deprecating asides (“I hate myself”) and raised-eyebrow glances at the camera, commentary that goes unnoticed by others. As the series goes on, though, it’s clear that she’s hiding something from us. Flashbacks show happier times between her and her best friend, who recently died under circumstances that remain unclear until the final episode. “At the beginning she kind of wants the audience to be there,” Waller-Bridge explained. By the end, when we learn more about her and Boo’s history, she doesn’t appear too pleased to have the audience watching her every move.
Fleabag is not based on Waller-Bridge’s own life, but she describes the series as “very personal,” remarking that her character “is informed by the pressure that I felt as a woman in my twenties to be sexy all the time, and failing all the time.” In the first episode, the protagonist and her sister attend — and giggle throughout — an earnest feminist lecture. When the speaker asks the audience who among them would trade a year of her life for the perfect body, Fleabag’s hero and her sister are the only ones to raise their hands without hesitation.
Waller-Bridge felt the scene, which she originally wrote as a short play, was “the quickest, most succinct way” to illustrate the confusion and exhaustion that many young women feel when confronted with the shifting standards of feminism and femininity. Fleabag’s protagonist doesn’t always say or do the right thing, but she’s unapologetically, relentlessly candid with the viewer — particularly when it comes to sex.
“I wanted to talk about the power of somebody seeming totally sexually confident,” Waller-Bridge said. “In the play I think that was one of the main driving forces — she’s just talking about the sex she has and making jokes the whole time about how outrageous and how confident she is and how voracious she is. [My goal] was trying to find that kind of arresting moment in the audience when they’re like, ‘Whoa, she’s more confident than other female characters talking about sex.’ I wanted to take her on a journey when she reveals what’s actually at the heart of that.”
That Fleabag’s sex scenes are played for comedic and not erotic effect might make some male viewers squirm. “I knew there would be some scenes that would kind of make guys a little bit nervous,” Waller-Bridge admitted with a smile. In one scene, the protagonist masturbates to a Barack Obama speech on her laptop while her boyfriend snoozes beside her; in another, she pushes him off her during sex so she can finish the job herself.
While filming the latter scene, Waller-Bridge said, “It was one of those moments when I was like, ‘Why have I written this for myself?’ And then afterwards, our first [assistant director] came up to me and she just said, ‘So true. So true.’”
Fleabag is available to stream on Amazon Prime on Friday, Sept. 16.