As I sit up in the early hours of Monday morning watching the 2016 TV show, Fleabag, with my laptop on my belly, a melting tub of Ben and Jerry’s (cookie dough of course) in my hands and the duvet tucked under my neck, I think “aah this is the life.” I am so comforted by Fleabag’s endearing clumsiness that I feel inspired by her happy-go-lucky (but usually not so lucky) approach to life and consider scrapping my 9 am class. What is success anyway, eh? I admit to my love of shows in which the female protagonist stumbles through life, into the arms of various men and in and out of the doors of numerous jobs. It is not just Fleabag; it is movies and programmes like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Miranda too. I laugh at Bridget’s lack of tact and Miranda’s goofiness, swaying me to envy their struggles and dramas all the more. It seems cute and fun… until I wonder why I am glorifying the struggles of these women. Why do I laugh as they make fools of themselves?
Miranda and Bridget at least represent the successful woman in society and my laughter at them is directed more at their goof and misfortune. They are excused – for now. As I watch Fleabag, however, I laugh when she tells the camera in her awkward yet attractive way that she needs to ask her sister for money; when I realise that her family is totally dysfunctional; that she uses sex to validate her self-worth; that her only friend accidentally killed herself and that her business – the guinea pig café (not a café for guinea pigs) – is failing. I am not a heartless person with a horribly dark sense of humour. It is funny because Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote Fleabag, (the unnamed protagonist) to be funny: we are supposed to laugh when she blurts out her lines with a cheeky twinkle in her eye that she directs straight into the camera as she breaches the social etiquette we have of such otherwise uncomfortable matters. She does her self-deprecating, avoiding-her-issues, totally-unable-to-function-independently part so humorously.
There is an old theory of comedy, brought about by Plato and Aristotle and developed by a man called Thomas Hobbes that says we laugh when we feel superior to someone. It is why we laugh when someone falls over; our subconscious says pitifully “aw bless”, “what a fool” and “I am glad I am not you”. Maybe we reach out a hand to help but underneath it all we are all heartless and wicked. Apply the Superiority Theory to shows such as Fleabag and we realise we are laughing because she is a failure and we think we are better than her. Another comedy theorist, Henri Bergson, said that we laugh as a way to correct others’ morals. He believed we laugh because we feel we are an accepted part of society and feel fortunate enough to laugh at those who we believe are not. The theories are old and perhaps questionable but they hold up against the modern TV show, Fleabag. Indeed, once Fleabag has allowed us to chuckle at her struggles, she declares, as she shouts at herself (or her friend, Boo, dressed as her) to correct all those things we have been laughing at her for. After this, we watch Fleabag’s bitter descent as her issues nibble away at her until all that remains is a lonely, helpless, distraught version of who she was. We have laughed and we have eaten up her twinkle and spat out the remains.
We are made to laugh at a woman whose bank loan application is rejected thus pushing her business to the brink of collapsing. We are encouraged to laugh at a woman who feels so insecure in herself that she sleeps around with men she does not even find attractive. We are asked to laugh at a woman who has been told that she is “just tipping her prime”, encouraging us to endorse the idea that women have a ticking time bomb strapped to them that can only be decoded, if they are fortunate enough, by a willing man lest they become lonely and unwanted.
In a totally anti-feminist way, so much of today’s entertainment featuring women encourages us to laugh at their struggles, endorse notions of spinsterhood, and set a bar that, when not reached, expels the women from society.
It seems that I am either laughing at their failures or I find myself wishing I too was a bit of a chaotic Bridget or Miranda fool because it is clumsy and cute. I wonder if there is a male equivalent and, when failing to come up with an example, realise that we have decided that it is ok to giggle and shame these unfortunate women. Are women really only funny when they are degraded? Or can we only snigger at their demise and save our less-destructive laughter for the men?