Fleabag and Killing Eve

Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America) are two television shows written by the absolutely brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge who also stars in the former. I tweeted:

Image result for fleabagFleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.

Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.

I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.

Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.

Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.

In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.

In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.

FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.

The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.

The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).

In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.

Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.


'What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that?'

Arsenic and Old Lace's elderberry wine?

Hillary Clinton? I mean she scored big when she married Bill.

No wait...

Kamala Harris? Willie Brown's penis wasn't going to suck itself if you know what I mean.


Elizabeth "Runs with Fractions" Warren? Tribal identity is very much like the keys you carry. 99% of the time you carry it around in your pocket until you really really need it.

Mental illness is equally distributed between the sexes.

...but well-known to be higher in politicians. Psychopathic traits have been well-documented among politicians, and especially among those living in D.C.

And moreover, if evenly distributed, why do we hear about 'toxic femininity' far less? Why are shows like this so novel?

There's an elephant in the room regarding half the world's population that no one wants to talk about. From Kautilya to the Koran and the Bible, there are reams of evidence and warning about 'toxic femininity'.

We should start having a conversation about 'toxic femininity' as a society.

'Why are shows like this so novel?'

Because they aren't novel.

'We should start having a conversation about 'toxic femininity' as a society.'

We have, for a long time. Or did you miss that whole 'Eve' reference? Or is it that you missed everything feminism has been saying about toxic femininity since the 60s? You know, such as opposing a degrading feminine obsession with sexual allure as a way to gain wealth and power, for example.

I have to make sure my wife never sees Fleabag. The only thing that stops the complete collapse of civilization is that most women don't truly understand the power that sex gives them over men...

The only thing? If not for 'that,' they wouldn't be worth talking to and there'd be a bounty on them.

Oh, God.

That's what she said.

But young people are having less sex these days.

In the end, sex is just a hobby, a recreational activity. Traditional hobbies and activities are losing market share because there are so many more choices nowadays.

I doubt that most studies ask the right questions. I doubt that among male participants this is true, the opposite I think. They would like to but not for the price of talking to today's women. Maybe that's the lesson of fleabag.

I tried to watch a few episodes of "Killing Eve." Boring. Maybe if anybody in the show actually thought through the process of killing somebody . . .

tell us a little more about your process!

I'd have to shoot myself.

President Captain Bolsonaro has presented an anti-crime package.

did brazilian reality tv just get realer?


It is not that simple. Mr. Souza worked in a faraway Northern state. Anyway, his collegues did expel him from the State Legislature. As you can see, the system works.

I assume the audience for Fleabag is women. It can't be men, since it depicts men as simple-minded (or is it single-minded?) and easily manipulated. Given the number of New Testament passages in which women are instructed to be submissive to men, Fleabag must have a special place in the culture wars.

I did a double-take when I saw that this comment was written by you, rayward. I'll have to start reading your comments more thoughtfully from now on.

I tried that once.

I'm a man, and I quite enjoyed S1. Sure, the picture it paints of men isn't a flattering one, but neither is the picture it paints of women. I like lots of shows and movies where women are flat caricatures used to tell the story of the male protagonist; I don't see why there shouldn't be an equal number of stories about female protagonists where the male characters are similarly flattened.

Girls is a similar project, I think. I thought it was quite good, but like many shows about bad people (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, one a lighter note stuff like The Simpsons or Beavis and Butthead) the fan base turns the anti-hero protagonist into a hero with hilarious/horrifying results. Sadly, the creators of some of these shows end up reacting to the idiotic reactions of the fans in various ways: some condemn the fans (The Sopranos), some end up drinking the kool-aid and believing the fans' batshit adoration is deserved (Girls), others simly stick to their guns and write the ending that they intended all along, resulting in a meltdown among the fan cult (Game of Thrones).

Waller-Bridge seems like a very smart writer. I think she knows exactly what she's doing and the show is very good (Fleabag - haven't seen KE). I'm sure there are women who watch this show and think that Fleabag is some kind of feminist heroine. But these are the same people who named their daughters "Khaleesi" after a power-hungry genocidal egomaniac, which is to say they're a gender-swapped version of the MRAs who think that Walter White is a badass and his wife is a bitch, or who hang posters of Tony Soprano on their dorm rooms walls. You can't judge a show on the basis of what the dumbest people in the world will do with it.

You can't judge a show on the basis of what the dumbest people in the world will do with it.

Man, this should be printed everywhere until it sinks in and becomes widely accepted wisdom. Not just "judge a show" but "judge art."

You can tell that a fictional story is aimed at women if it depicts a highly desirable man irresistibly, helplessly, simple-mindedly attracted to one and only one woman -- like a switch that's stuck in the "on" position.

A "highly desirable" man is simply someone whose attention lots of women would normally compete for. This fictional figure usually has power, authority, physical attractiveness, money, or all of the above. Yet instead of playing the field like a Tiger Woods or abusing like a Harvey Weinstein, this "prince" has eyes only for one woman, who is usually a plain-jane Mary Sue so that the audience can fantasize themselves into her shoes. No exceptional beauty, talent, genius or skills, just plucky and feisty.

This is the oldest and strongest female fantasy in the world. The "Cinderella" fantasy. "Fifty Shades" was a modern update. The woman is allowed to have hesitations and doubts, after all there would be no story without drama before the happy ending, but never the man. He has no "agency". He is enthralled, and "thrall" is an archaic term for a slave.

This thing sounds like a variation, except the woman is allowed to be exceptional and the men are allowed to be something less than princes and billionaires. And no happy endings. A very red "red pill", except for women. Progress?

There's a trope in film called the "manic pixie dream girl", which is sort of that fantasy, only for men who are lower down the ladder. There's some relatively mediocre guy with a heart of gold, and this girl comes along who is all spunky and cute and just totally falls for him. See "Silver Linings Playbook" for a perfect example. It's never explained why this woman is into him, she's just there to motivate him to better himself and save him from misery. "As Good As it Gets" is kind of the same.

Punch Drunk Love would be a better example than As Good As It Gets, I'd say. You sorta get why Helen Hunt's character didn't have anyone bangin' down her door besides Melvin; she was a single mom with a high maintenance kid who lived with her mother.

C'mon guys. There are way better examples of this. Try Barbara Streisand's character in What's Up, Doc?

I'm under 35 and a heterosexual; how many Barbara Streisand movies do you think I've seen?

Barbra, not Barbara.

YES, probably the only Streisand movie worth seeing (because it isn’t a “Streisand” movie). It’s a brilliant screwball comedy gets better with multiple viewings as there are a number of mumbled lines or little bits of a rant that are hard to catch but downright brilliant.

Nope, her public utterances over the past 30 years have ruined every film she’s in for me.

I don't know, man, but that movie is hilarious and if you haven't seen it, it's to your detriment. It's got an ensemble cast of great comedians and is basically nonstop hilarity. Highly recommended.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys the movie not the book.

Sure, the entertainment industry is all about packing our fantasies and selling them back to us.

But the "magic princely dream guy" trope is much more powerful. No male fantasy can hold a candle to "Fifty Shades" in sheer sales volume.

Good point. Male fantasy is more of the Backdoor Sluts 9 variety.

Yes, Silver Linings Playbook is an example of 'manic pixie dream girl', but that, too, is very much a female fantasy. Girl rescues and rehabilitates a troubled guy (who looks just like Bradley Cooper!) with her love, quirkiness and joie de vivre. It's a variant of the 'love redeems' trope. Except sometimes for the troubled-guy-who-looks-exactly-like-Bradley-Cooper, love isn't quite enough to exorcise his demons...and then you get A Star is Born.

Sort of, but the emblem of "manic pixie dream girl" is that it's from the male perspective and the girl's motivations are not explained. In SLP, she puts up with him shit and keep pursuing him for no obvious reason - he's an unemployed mental patient with violent outbursts who is obviously in love with another woman! She's got her own "issues" supposedly, but they are never really explored.

In real life, a woman who "has issues" would give up way easier than that. She would freak out at his mental instability, and have obvious signs of her own instability that he would have to work through. Instead, she's like an emotional rock, guiding his way, unwavering in her devotion.

Go luck up lists of MPDG movies (there are plenty of such lists to be found). Nearly every movie listed is a romantic comedy intended to appeal primarily to women. The fact that the girl's motivations are underdeveloped may make it that much easier for female audience members to imagine themselves as the protagonist and fill in the blank spaces in the characters' heads. But in any case against countless chick-flicks, about the only film I see with the MPDG trope that could be called a 'men's picture' is Fight Club. And it's hard to say that any characters are well developed there anyway.

Rom Coms are meant to appeal to men too, they are "date movies". Films intended to appeal to primarily women would be "Beaches" or "Girl, Interrupted".

(Now let's argue about whether men are allowed to enjoy rom coms!)

This is like arguing that "ladies night" at the local bar is meant to appeal to men. As with ladies night, men will show up to romantic comedies and even possibly enjoy themselves; but the purchase decision is not being made by the man in either scenario.

The best romcoms are not toxic to men: When Harry Met Sally, Bull Durham, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, Some Like It Hot, Barefoot In The Park, Four Weddings and a Funeral, 40 Year Old Virgin, Annie Hall, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Philadelphia Story....

It's actually a pretty long list

No, they're not toxic, but I have a hard time imagining (straight) guys going out to see any of these as a group of friends. Maybe Bull Durham because of the sports angle (but certainly not because of Susan Sarandon). And those movies you can imagine groups of guys going to see without dates? No manic pixie dream girls to be found.

*shrug* I've seen every one of them before about 1990--so no Bridesmaids and no Train Wreck--with male groups and mixed groups, some (When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall) many times over. I've no idea what your issue with Susan Sarandon is in Bull Durham, she was at the peak of her babeliciousness then.

My nerdy, neurotic, mostly male peer group didn't get many dates, so we were reduced to seeing movies in which the male protagonists--Billy Crystal and Woody Allen, for instance--were sufficiently nerdy and neurotic we could identify.

Then again, this was the 70s and 80s, when relations between the sexes hadn't been reduced to mutual accusations of toxicity. About the worst I ever heard about women was when one of our group of regulars--a woman, incidentally--was trying to cheer up one of the guys and said, "You need to consider whether the screwing you're getting is worth the screwing you're getting." Seemed quite clever to me! :-)

I'm not opposed to arguing from personal anecdote, but your case would be a lot stronger if you didn't openly state that you're a cultural outlier. Otherwise, you're merely articulating the exception that proves the rule.

I didn't say anything about rom coms' being toxic. They're fine. I'm unusual in that I like them probably better than the average guy does. But when was the last time you were home alone for the evening, kids already asleep, your wife/girlfriend made other plans, so you've got Netflix to yourself for once... when was the last time you took that opportunity to put on a rom com? I'd be surprised if the number was non-zero.

And again, I'm a little different because my wife like Jason Statham movies and stuff, so that's what we watch on date night. But when we do see rom coms, it's been her choice, not mine.

I've seen 'em all a bunch but if they are on when I'm channel flipping I'd watch them all again.

I'm in the fortunate situation that my wife and I have pretty closely aligned viewing tastes (unlike the poor guys I know whose wives insist on watching things like "The Bachelor" and "Dancing with the Stars" -- oy). Anyway, when she's not home, I tend to watch documentaries or things that are a little too grim for her -- most recently Chernobyl or, in the past, Boardwalk Empire (though she loves Babylon, Berlin so go figure)

"You can tell that a fictional story is aimed at women if it depicts a highly desirable man irresistibly, helplessly, simple-mindedly attracted to one and only one woman -- like a switch that's stuck in the "on" position."

Even more so when there are two highly desirable men irresistibly in love with the protagonist and -- HOW WILL SHE EVER CHOOSE!?

Both Fleabag and Villanelle have a detachment from their actions, and there is a comical element to events that occur. Are both series sociopathic comedies?

sounds a lot like that tv show "the view"

I disagree very strongly with the reading here. Fleabag herself is ultimately a sympathetic character, but complex, she's very out of touch with her more difficult emotions, grief most noticeably. This is characteristically English. Im English myself and recognise this very clearly. Think about the relationship with her sister, and the amount that goes unsaid.
Shes not meant to be "nice" (the death knell of every interesting female character) and does things that are stupid, impulsive and morally compromised. But don't we all, in lesser ways? And the idea that she's kind of sociopath is utterly - she's haunted by guilt (for her role in her friends death) throughout both series. She just doesn't do the predictable guilt-realisation-redemption arc characteristic of most TV drama. But that's (one of many reasons) why the show is great.

I haven't seen the show and don't plan on watching it, but "she's very out of touch with her more difficult emotions" and "does things that are stupid, impulsive and morally compromised" are pathological to sociopaths.

The way you'd really be able to tell whether your interpretation is right or Alex's is is by analyzing the notion that "she's haunted by guilt." A normal person would be haunted by guilt. A sociopath is unable to feel guilt, but she could feel a great deal of shame. So, if it's guilt, then you're correct. If it's shame, then Alex is.

I think guilt and shame exist alongside each other, in her character tbh. There are two "cathartic" moments, one in each series, where we do see clearly her emotional depths, which renders the sociopath reading void. The first is when she talks about being desired and how there's nothing more upsetting than being rejected. I read this as a powerfully feminist piece of scriptwriting - she's showing us the trap of desirability from a female insiders perspective. It's incredible writing. To read her as a sociopath is doing her a disservice IMO.

"she talks about being desired and how there's nothing more upsetting than being rejected"

^^^ That's exactly how narcissists feel. Rejection is worse than than anything, because it's cause for shame. All they want is adoration, to be thought of, to be regarded.

+1 To read her as a sociopath is to do the wonderful writing a huge disservice. Tabarrok's reading seems like a classic, albeit extreme, case of taking from a work what you brought to it.

That was intended to be +1 to Dan Lowe's original comment.

I agree. My take was similar.

+1. Fleabag is not written as a sociopath, but a modern neurotic mess battling with internalized toxic femininity. Feeling inappropriate emotion (joy at a funeral) and having empty sex for validation are normal and relatable for young adults today, not hallmarks of sociopaths.

Agree with this take. What FB does for her sister in S2:1 would never be done be done by a sociopath. Her sister's husband claiming she is making it "all about her" clearly underlines the self-sacrifice. And later her sister thanks her for it. I don't see how the sociopath reading can survive that very obvious plot point.

Does the Wife of Bath get a credit?

And walking off contentedly?! C'mon, she's heartbroken! Think about her long diatribe in the confession booth, where she wanted the priest to save her. It's just, in the final scene. her distress is choked down, unacknowledged, like most of her difficult emotional life.
You have this very wrong I'm afraid. Not convinced by "toxic femininity" at all. It's emotional complexity and repression that's being shown.

I don't object to the "toxic femininity" framing, but the pathos does come from Fleabag's self-awareness.

I assume that sociopathic leaning, men who instantiate "toxic masculinity," may have moments of similar self-awareness.

I was struck with awe by Season Two, Episode One, of Fleabag. Without going into the sociology of it, simply amazing television (and if I recall correctly an amazing long single shot sequence). Great cinematography and superb acting.

Thanks for the review. I might have to try Fleabag again. I watched a couple of episodes when it came out, then I quit. It seems that the show isn't what I thought it was going to be.

This is a very interesting take, but hands down Fleabag Season 2 is the best television this year. I liked it way more than the first season. The writing is brilliant. Adding Andrew Scott adds a much needed new dynamic to the show.

Plus its only 6 episodes at 20 min each. In an alternative world this could have been edited into a film.

This post told me why Fleabag and Villanelle are not great people, but it did not tell me much about why they are examples of a toxic form of femininity except for possibly the brief section about Fleabag manipulating people with her body. Ceding that perhaps leverage of sexual attraction is more of a stereotypically female strategy than a male strategy, surely there is far more to unpack?

Maybe not, the entertainment industry is pretty shallow.

The main evidence people seem to offer for Fleabag being repressed is that if she weren’t repressed she would be a....sociopath.

Ignored both these progammes in Britain due to BBC's relentless self propaganda of its brilliance in producing them, and the impression that they're some grey eminence's salvo in some kind of Culture War - which in general pervades every BBC drama or comedy that's not by Jed Mercurio* these days (most openly those by the now terrible Russell T Davies!), and almost all of the history or culture documentaries pitched at a broad audience (the stuff that's intended for smart people to take it seriously is a bit better of course).

It's entirely possible that PW-B *is* all she's hyped up to be; I doubt I can assess her fairly enough to bother with her work though.
Perhaps, like Black Panther, I'll catch them in ten years when the Culture War is settled one way or another and I can cease having to care about how whoever made them commissioned them as some sort of weapon to influence me.

*Mercurio producing works that fairly saliently have a few obvious bits of casting and characterization that are generally not the BBC's sort of message, but who appears to be far too much the goose that lays the golden egg (actually popular programming, not by Attenborough... on the BBC!) for them to cancel.

If I wanted to watch fiction on the telly I'd watch the BBC News.

Alex smells of MGTOW...

Killing Eve was terrible. Sure, the first episode was great, but it’s steadily downhill from there on. The Russian stuff is so ridiculous it was unbearable.

This really reads like a parody of an alt-right misreading. I guess it just is an alt-right misreading.

The main character of the Fleabag is obviously someone coping with past emotional trauma, leading to the development of a sex addiction. The drama of the first season is gradually learning exactly what her problems are. The drama of the second is watching her eventually find a way to stop dissociating from her life and, very sincerely, love herself.

Its not like this is some kind of puzzlebox, where people can have radically different readings about the moral, like the ending of the Sopranos, you've just clearly missed the point of what was on the screen in an attempt to score the cheapest of political points.

That is an utterly banal reading that shows you lack insight. Of course, Fleabag is a puzzle box, filled with metaphor and allusion, which is what makes it interesting and novel.

I wrote my comment in the heat of my annoyance, otherwise I would have been more careful with my language.

Obviously, it is fine to discover many complex themes and carefully ballanced messages in a decent work of fiction. It is not worthwhile, however, to read into it something that is completely contrary to what is presented, in a way that reduces that complexity.

Its just obvious to anyone who watches the show that the character is anything but a seductress. She sleeps with a lot of men, because she's attractive and willing, but rarely has the upper hand. Its not that they're abusive, mostly, but one of the subtle observations is that the men she's involved with usually have a bit more of the power due to gender dynamics of our society. Her primary lover the first season spends most of his screentime talking about her small breasts. In a hilarious scene in the second season a lawyer she sleeps with tries to tell her what to eat. She quickly rebuffs him in a way that gives the scene it's comedy, but the message is clear.

The majority of her relationships, especially with her family, are coated with some kind of abuse and an unwillingness to always stand up for herself.

Of course she sabotages the one unambiguous love she has with her friend in the first season, unintentionally helping a man to destroy her, but that's the tragedy.

The second season is primarily a discussion of love, where to find it and how to accept it.

She confesses that after her mother died she couldn't find a place to put all the love she had for her. Hence, its easy to read, her sex addiction.

So she falls for a man who's life is filled with a love for God, which draws her in because it hints at an an alternative, but ultimately makes him unattainable.

By the end he chooses God over her, because she can't compete with that kind of abundance, an infinite place to put your love. His own realization has helped her, however, realize that she is right to feel this need herself, and so she rejects the dissociation we realize her breaking the third wall has been representing, and faces life again.

She also helps her sister realize she doesn't have to be trapped in a loveless marriage, to a man who took advantage of her, partly through patriarchal assumptions.

That's only just skimming the surface of all the dynamics at play.

It's fine to have different readings, but op's was so contrary to the spirit of what was on screen, and so deadening of it's deeper complexities, that it's just tedious.

Maybe there's a good Strausian reading of Fleabag, there's certainly a lot there to explore in its religious themes, but to make the main character out to be some kind of female destroyer is to indulge in the very kind of misogyny it subverts.

It could be read as a critique where in S01 the focus is on the relationship with her friend. The friend is closer to classically feminine (likes cuddly critters, and pines after love lost), while the liberated Fleabag has destroyed that, and is lost/undone in the doing.

S02 needs a redemptively catastrophic S03 -- what are the hard questions being asked in S02? Without an S03 that reframes S02, this feels like what you get when you ask a writer for more of a character that has been finished; she gets resurrected.

That’s not a banal take; it’s the core narrative of the show - a woman processing her trauma and guilt. That it can have layers of meaning and metaphor, as you say, marks the depth of the writing and characterisation, like other great telly of the past decade or so. But that richness doesn’t obviate the show’s core themes, which may seem obvious to you (hence “banal”) but needed to be stated to correct Alex’s interpretation, which ignores core (and obvious) elements of the characterisation in favour of an over-theorised Culture War hot take.

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