Fleabag, TikTok and the revival of cultural feminism

The 21-st century feminist has most likely seen Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Perhaps they have praised it for its unfiltered and incisive examination of the modern-day trials of womanhood. The character of Fleabag – like the rest of us – has a complicated relationship with feminism. Although, in my adoration of the show, I cannot claim to be different from its other devotees; I am acutely aware of its status as scripture of the ‘sad girl’. The ‘sad girl’ that I refer to was forged in the fires of Tumblr, niche memes and now TikTok. She is characterised by a deterministic indulgence in her own suffering, one that stifles any emergent political possibilities. 

There exists a tendency among young women to reify womanhood and, importantly, to attach suffering to this professed womanhood. I am far from the first person to discuss this particularly defeatist revival of cultural feminism amongst Gen Z, driven by social media – particularly TikTok. In Rayne Fisher-Quann’s ‘standing on the shoulders of complex female characters’, she critiques the notion of a feminine essence constituted by suffering: “young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses”. The sad girl espouses a gender essentialism that equates womanhood with pain, ultimately relegating us to the realm of Nature – or the body. 

I think this essentialism is evident in one of Fleabag’s  most notable and purportedly feminist moments – Belinda’s monologue. In this monologue, Waller-Bridge’s writing, whether she means to or not, recalls a kind of ‘difference’ feminism better transcended. It is a feminism which, all too often, reinforces a historic dualism; woman is to nature what man is to culture. Here Waller-Bridge’s presentation of spiritual suffering as contrapuntal to physical, bodily suffering reflects a traditional nature/culture binary:

“Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny – period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They have to invent things like gods and demons… they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other… and we have it all going on in here. Inside, we have pain on a cycle for years.”

My issue with Belinda’s monologue is best expressed by Ursula K. Le Guin when discussing Tenar, the protagonist of her Earthsea series:

“But I didn’t and still don’t like making a cult of women’s knowledge, preening ourselves on knowing things men don’t know, women’s deep irrational wisdom, women’s instinctive knowledge of Nature, and so on. All that all too often merely reinforces the masculinist idea of women as primitive and inferior—women’s knowledge as elementary, primitive, always down below at the dark roots, while men get to cultivate and own the flowers and crops that come up into the light.”

The discourse of Nature/Culture tells us: “Men are Enlightened. They produce and maintain control over the metaphysical, the intellectual, the technological. They invent ‘gods and demons’ and ‘wars’. Everything that isn’t bodily is a result of their production. Men invent; women feel.” This dichotomy is fleetingly implied by Waller-Bridge in her suggestion that women’s suffering is corporeal, stemming from the natural. Contrastingly, men are associated with invention, suffering because of their choice to cultivate cultural forms that exist separately from the body. 

There are two aspects of the sad girl framing of female pain which I want to critique here: its necessity, and its corporeality. I do not want to delegitimize the practically unavoidable pain caused by period pains, childbirth, and sore boobs but to perhaps suggest that the figure of the ‘strong independent’ woman – now derisively referred to as the ‘girlboss’ – has been rejected by some in favour of the similarly one-dimensional sad girl. Proponents of the ‘sad girl’ aesthetic like to appeal to some ‘feminine essence’. This femininity is invariably aligned with pain, suffering and rage (cue the TikToks featuring Pearl, Amy Dunne and the Lisbon sisters). 

My issue with Belinda’s monologue is not the recognition of female pain, but that it is presented as being grounded in the body alone, whilst men’s pain is seen as grounded in the spiritual. Similarly, I enthusiastically support young women expressing the suffering that they have incurred by virtue of being a woman. However, to be a ‘sad girl’ flattens, it is an identity which has suggested that women are constituted by their pain. The task of deconstructing the ‘sad girl’ becomes a task of deconstructing the notion that women are a known thing, that this known ‘thing’ is suffering, and that women are the body and men are the mind. We can then see ourselves as more than our “neuroses” and our ailments. 

Involuntary patron saint of the ‘sad girls’, Mitski, has outwardly rejected her relegation to a realm of perpetual sadness: “The sad girl thing was reductive and tired 10 years ago and still is today. (…) Let’s retire the sad girl shtick. Sad girl is over.” Additionally, the removal of Fiona Apple’s music from TikTok last year was speculated to be her reaction to the co-optation of her music in the service of this narrow conception of womanhood. Like Le Guin’s Tenar, the protagonist who declares she has “lived too long in the dark”, Apple and Mitski shake off the straitjacket which labels them as nothing more than sad. 

Given that the unfounded outrage of ‘gender critical’ feminists presents an increasingly alarming obstacle to the feminist movement, it is vital to continue deconstructing gender essentialism and cultural feminisms. The distinctly racialised figure of the sad girl also proves to be counterproductive in the building of an inclusive feminist movement. 

Why must women stay down in the dark, wedded to the infantilizing notion of our predestination for unending pain? I certainly reject that women are necessarily attached to their suffering, and this should be the starting point for any emancipatory feminist project.

By Soraya Odubeko

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