The return of Fleabag was hotly anticipated in the wake of Killing Eve’s success, with interest soaring in direct tandem with Waller-Bridge’s rising star.
The sexy priest was undoubtedly the headline, prompting a flurry of memes and even impacting Pornhub search terms.
However, the real story is far less salacious and of altogether greater importance.
It’s relatively rare for advertising to drive culture, more often it reflects and follows it. In defence of the portrayal of women in advertising, what they’ve had to work with has been somewhat lacking.
Not that there haven’t been advancements in terms of eradicating gender stereotypes – evidently strides have been made on that front in both entertainment and advertising – but what Fleabag manages to achieve above and beyond this is an honest portrayal of a woman that has little to do with feminism.
In fact, the idea of the protagonist being a “terrible feminist” (something both men AND women can identify with) is a joke that runs across both series.
What the character is, instead, is flawed, vulnerable, sexually liberated, emotionally astute and in possession of razor-sharp wit. None of which are specifically female characteristics, but are a far more truthful representation of the women we all know and love.
In reality, Waller-Bridge’s character could be male and it would still work, her being female is simply the twist that makes it brilliant. In this way it takes the Bechdel Test – which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man – to the nth degree. Instead asking whether being female is all-important to the character.
Yes Waller-Bridge has said she’s a feminist. In fact she’s said feminism is integral to everything she writes. But what sets her apart is that it’s an end goal, not a starting point.
So as the content that ads sit around levels up, a similar challenge will be posed to advertisers. Namely, how can they better represent women in their ads without making their ads about feminism? (If Gillette taught us anything it’s to avoid that path, unless it’s truly brilliant and on brand a la #LikeAGirl)
Perhaps a good starting point is: would I write this character or dialogue for a man?
Speaking of writing, the success of both of Waller-Bridge’s shows also makes a brilliant case for more female writers.
Last year a study from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) showed that women represent just 16 per cent of working film writers and wrote 28 percent of UK TV episodes. Additionally only 11 per cent of features and 14 percent of prime time TV episodes were predominantly women-written.
This is echoed in the advertising industry where just 12 per cent of UK creative directors are women. It doesn’t really need pointing out that this has to change if we want to put an end to hackneyed stereotypes about gender.
If it’s crucial for advertising to entertain us and hold our attention it stands to reason it should look to what’s arguably a golden age of television for inspiration. Now when it looks there it’ll find new inspiration in the form of our lovely Fleabag, who is simultaneously heart-wrenchingly vulnerable and side-splittingly funny. Just like real women.