This is in response to Ellen E. Jones’ article for The Guardian.
Posh, adjective. Meaning to do something in an ‘upper-class’ way, showing the qualities of elegance or smarts. Fleabag is none of these things. I’d end my argument here, but I’ve got a few more points to make.
With a private education, an ancestry in titled nobility, and the way she carries herself in interviews, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s echoes through each character she creates. But it would be naive of us as an audience to assume that every facet of her own personality is found in her characters, or that her characters are only representative of her characteristics. In simpler terms, do not confuse the creator for the character.
I attended a London university for my undergraduate degree, based in West London. So far west in fact it almost wasn’t London at all. Within that subsection of London, you have beautifully posh and expensive places such as Richmond. And right next door you have Hounslow. I’d been there less than a week when one of my classmates told me that Folkestone, my home town, must be ‘really posh’ because of the way I spoke. Over the years, Folkestone has done everything it can to be the artistic hub of the south east. But Folkestone is not posh. Folkestone, I pointed out to my classmates, had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and chlamydia in Kent. The poshest of all sexually transmitted infections.
Fleabag is well spoken. That does not mean Fleabag is posh. Let me compare Fleabag with and without her family. In the very first episode she’s reading a newspaper alone on the bus. The series is set in London, so arguably this is a newspaper Fleabag found rather than purchased. But the headlines are very telling. They read, ‘Private School Head Assaults Pupil in Class’ ‘Has the word Feminism become dirty?’ ‘Bank Chiefs face House of Commons Enquiry’ – and in the corner there is an ad for a mortgage company with a fully naked girl, legs spread and pelvis up. Clearly this is a riff on other Heralds and their focus on the scandalous, but it’s all anti-establishment. Props help shape the world characters live in, and this seedy working-class newspaper is no different from the radiator headboard with clothes drying on it in Fleabag’s home, the fact she has an Argos clothing rail rather than a wardrobe, or the fact that Harry says he’s going to take ‘the posh shampoo’.
Compare this with her behaviour around her ‘uptight’, ‘beautiful’, ‘super rich’, ‘high powered’ sister whose ‘clothes look awesome on’. She hides away from them, barricading herself behind smart remarks and jokes. She attends feminist lectures, awkward spa retreats and family dinners to make her family happy. Even the lighting betrays the pretence she puts on, so her family remain unaware to her unhappiness. When Fleabag is surrounded by her family it’s often soft, warm lighting whilst she stands in the darker, colder areas. When she’s on her own, it’s harsher. Often grey. She’s not putting on a pretence for the audience (which we greatly appreciate) so we see her in the raw colours of her life. When her heart is broken by her family’s betrayals, we, as an audience, might scream ‘relatable!’ but the truth is, we empathise. We understand and sympathise with her struggle. No matter our own background, we can recognise a spiral that hasn’t hit bottom yet. Her father’s house might be huge, but the flat Fleabag lives in isn’t. Her God-mother might be a high-end artist, but Fleabag is close to liquidising her business. The prestige of her family makes her grief more poignant, but it doesn’t make Fleabag posh.
Waller-Bridge has carefully constructed a barrier between her character Fleabag and the audience, a wall which only empathy can bring down. She breaks the fourth wall not to relate to us, but to invite us in on her perspective of all the events. Whether this is done through commentary, a sharp look, or finishing someone’s sentence for us.
We never hear Fleabag’s given name. Characters only speak to her directly or, in the case of her God-mother, a click of the fingers, and therefore we associate the name Fleabag and the connotations of that with the main character. Even Boo, who could be the originator of the nickname, only ever speaks to Fleabag directly. They share an improvised song about ‘lunch break abortions’ and being ‘modern women’, which is a far cry from the lifestyle ‘two degrees, a husband and a Burberry coat’ gives her sister.
Fleabag isn’t posh, though she’s surrounded by a world that is. A world that does not sympathise or empathise with her, so we as an audience must. If the story was just for posh girls, it wouldn’t be so heart breaking.