“Women are subtle warriors. Strong at heart, you know. We don’t have to use muscular force to get what we want. We just use our–” This is where Fleabag cuts in. “Tits.” She points at the discussed sculpture of a nude woman’s torso. Fleabag’s godmother maintains her fake smile as she finishes her thought: “Innate femininity.”
I hadn’t lived in the world as a woman when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag was released to immediate acclaim. Based on her play of the same name, Fleabag‘s first season told the story of an unnamed young woman (credited only as Fleabag) who uses sex to distract from the deaths of her mother and best friend. When it first came out I loved the show for its humor, for its raw portrayal of depression and grief, and because, like any rational person, I’m deeply in love with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But it wasn’t until about a year into my transition that the show started consuming my thoughts. Hardly a day has passed since my first summer on hormones that I haven’t thought about the show and while schmoozing in Hollywood circles I’ve even dubbed the pilot I wrote “trans Fleabag.”
Fleabag is about grief. It’s about toxic families, friends, and partners. It’s about the desperate ways we cope. But for me, above all else, Fleabag‘s first season was about the trauma of being a woman.
Before I’d come out to anyone but myself I happened upon Susan’s Place. Like many trans women before me, an incognito Google search led me to the website dubbed “a safe space where transgender people can assist one another.” I’m sure this site has brought comfort to many people since its founding in 1995, but as a non-binary trans woman in the year 2017 it was horrifying. Forum upon forum was filled with outdated information, trans women gripping onto the binary with a step-by-step list of all the things you had to be and all the things you had to do if you wanted to be a proper transgender woman.
The worst thread for me detailed several accounts of trans women who upon taking hormones stopped dating women and started dating men. They shared this information with glee as if heterosexuality confirmed their status as real women. I immediately sank into a panic. I’d have to transition without taking hormones. Except I wanted to take hormones and the site was filled with other threads that marked hormones as one of two defining moments in a transition. I frantically kept scrolling until I found people who countered this narrative of heterosexuality.
The main reason I didn’t want to suddenly be straight was because I loved my girlfriend. But the disgusted panic I felt in my stomach came from something deeper. I didn’t want to date men, because I hated men. They scared me. As a collective group they never liked me and I never liked them. The idea of falling in love and lust with men made transitioning not seem worth it.
On the surface Fleabag does not share my disgust or my homosexuality. The very first scene of the show features one of many sexual encounters she has with a barrage of male creatures. But as a cisgender woman Fleabag has been conditioned to be heterosexual in a way that I never was. She may sleep with them, but it never seems as if she likes any of these men.
Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Harry provides her a respite from loneliness. But when she gets bored or needs her apartment cleaned (Harry cleans post-breakup) she ends it. Arsehole Guy (named as such for two reasons) is undeniably attractive and she enjoys bringing him around as arm candy. But the sex is bad and the conversation is insufferable. And Bus Rodent (they met on a bus, he looks like a rat) is the worst of them all. He’s simply a person to exist when she needs a plus-one and is all out of options.
Because I have a Google alert set for “Phoebe Waller-Bridge + gay” I know that Fleabag will officially be bisexual in season two. But even in season one it’s obvious. She stumbles upon a very drunk woman in episode one who says, “You’re such a lovely man.” Seeing an opportunity, she replies, “Do you want to come home with me?” Then in episode three she flirts with a woman who works in a sex shop. In this brief moment she appears more interested and open than any scene with the men.
I’m not here to speculate about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sexuality but Fleabag (and Killing Eve) have a deeper disdain for men than I’ve ever had. Watching these shows as a lesbian it’s hard not to wonder if the person behind them, or at least the characters, are totally and completely gay. Or maybe this disdain has nothing to do with sexuality. Maybe this is the rational response of any woman, gay, straight, bi, pan, who lives under patriarchy. All that fluctuates is if you still want to fuck them.
That first summer on hormones was divine. I discovered that my lifelong hatred for the season had more to do with discomfort around summer fashion than the sun itself. Now that I was no longer wearing jeans, the extended daylight and crowded streets filled me with joy. Short shorts, tank tops, SUNDRESSES. I felt (relatively) comfortable in my body for the first time in my life. I felt hot for the first time in my life. It all felt so good. On those first June days in New York even the catcalling couldn’t bring me down. By August I was exhausted.
I received three types of harassment. First, there was the basic sexual harassment almost all women deal with. Comments, whistles, hollers. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t initially give me a rush. My feminist brain turned off and my trans brain turned on. These men were treating me like a woman. The second type of harassment was the opposite. Unoriginal shouts of tranny and faggot along with the significantly more painful, “Dude you’re wearing the wrong clothes!” But the third type was most common. This was when the first typed turned into the second type. When I ignored the initial catcall, when I refused them any power over my day, they asserted themselves further. They’d say things like, “Oh no you’re a man!” as if they were seeing me any differently than when they hit on me. I started responding to catcalls to avoid this. A simple smile, or a greeting, or a quick word back. Just enough flirting to keep their ego in check so they wouldn’t turn on me.
The first time I felt truly afraid was at a bus stop. It was around 9pm and I was headed to a friend’s birthday party. I was wearing a little black dress that hugged my torso and left my arms and legs exposed. My headphones were in. A man approached me and I took one headphone out prepared to give a muted reply. He started asking me for directions and I responded. He then pivoted to asking me if I’d been in the neighborhood long. One headphone remained in my ear as the other dangled down. It was dark and there was no bus in sight. He kept asking questions. I was polite but brief in my responses. He moved himself closer and closer to me and I inched away as subtly as possible. He started complimenting me. I said thank you and my eyes demurred to the concrete. I felt myself shrinking. I felt naked in my little black dress. He asked for my number. I could feel his breath on me. I thought about saying no, saying that I had a girlfriend. But I knew how that would go. He’d deny his intention. He’d say he was just being friendly. He wouldn’t be asking out a man in a dress. How dare I accuse him of such a thing? He’d get aggressive. I gave him my real number. He called it immediately. “To make sure you’re not lying,” he said. “Not lying,” I responded with a laugh as I continued to try and move my body away from his. Then the bus arrived. I quickly hopped on and he shouted that he’d call me.
When I got to the bar I told my friends that I’d been hit on, that a creepy guy had asked for my number. The crowd of mostly women rolled their eyes knowingly. I felt initiated. I too am a woman. I too feel unsafe. This is our normal. It was oddly validating. But I never wore that dress alone again.
Fleabag sits on the bus reading a newspaper. There’s an ad with a woman naked, legs open, with the caption: “Thinking of getting a Mortgage?” Above it is the headline: “Has the word ‘feminism’ become dirty?” Bus Rodent is staring at her over his own paper. They lock eyes and Fleabag gives a knowing glance to the audience. She looks back and he reveals his rat-like teeth and an aggressive smile. She turns away in complete disgust.
When she’s close to her stop she stands up. Bus Rodent stands up as well. They exchange glances. Fleabag’s face fluctuates between friendly and uncomfortable. “Wow. Um, this doesn’t happen very often, does it?” Bus Rodent says with a laugh. Fleabag fake laughs and says, “It’s quite rare.” She then turns towards the audience, all laughter ceasing, and bluntly states, “I hate myself.”
It is not rare. Possibly not for Bus Rodent. Definitely not for Fleabag. He sees the possibility of meeting someone on a bus as a unique opportunity. She sees it as just another weekday. He quickly asks for her number and her pause is met with an immediate guess that she has a boyfriend. Fleabag doesn’t pointedly try to end this interaction, but it does seem to just happen to her. When they’re off the bus he asks again if he can have her number and she replies, “Yes. Yeah. I guess that’s a yes.”
The interaction ends with Bus Rodent enthusiastic, Fleabag unmoved. The whole thing makes her late for an important meeting. She didn’t like this man. She didn’t want to interact with this man. But she did. And now she’s late.
She later gets drinks with him where she continues to feel bored and repulsed. And yet her greatest disappointment comes when he wants to continue their date instead of going back to her place for empty sex. She calls him a dick and storms off, leaving him utterly confused. She has broken the social contract. He needs to believe that he likes her as a person in order to enjoy this. But he doesn’t like her. He doesn’t know her. Since they met all he’s done is talk at her, ignore her body language, and keep pushing until he’s convinced himself it’s appropriate to fuck “woman on bus.” Fleabag is bored of this game. She just wants to be fucked.
The summer over and my one year on hormones approaching, my Susan’s Place nightmare came true. I did not magically hate women and daydream about men. But I did want a man to fuck me. I felt deeply depressed and for some reason it seemed like the answer was to get painfully drunk and have rough sex with a disgusting man. Thankfully my monogamous relationship prevented this cruel fate.
I confessed this desire to my therapist. “So you’ve become attracted to men?” she asked. “No,” I clarified. “I’m not attracted to men at all. I hate them more than ever. I just want them to desire me and control me and hurt me and leave me feeling broken.”
We discussed the self-harm aspects of this fantasy before pivoting to my misandry. She noted that I have a lovely relationship with my dad, my closest friend is a cis man, and I have several trans men friends. Yes, this was all true, but the Me Too Movement had confirmed what I’d felt most of my life. I wasn’t crazy. All the stories told to me by family, by friends, by coworkers, things I’d witnessed, things I’d experienced myself. This was all standard. The statistics backed it up. The anecdotes backed it up. Men are people and people are complicated, but as a collective, men are objectively dangerous.
She begrudgingly accepted this response. But then why did I fantasize about having sex with them? I thought about it for another moment before the truth settled in my gut. It just seemed so easy. Like there’d be a peace to giving up, to giving in to the natural order. When we’re reduced every single day to our bodies, to what we have to offer men, it seemed like it might be a relief to say okay. To stop fighting and accept that as my worth.
Midway through the season Fleabag and her sister attend a silent retreat. Waiting at the front door of the grand estate they hear someone shouting “Sluts.” Fleabag turns and shouts back, “Yes?”
The source of the voice turns out to be a neighboring retreat. An all-male very verbal counter to Fleabag’s all female no-talking nightmare. At this all-male retreat, named Better Man, men are given space to express their misogyny. They scream at a blow-up sex doll and share the awful things they might say if a woman was promoted above them.
Fleabag, ever-curious, spies on this retreat and spots the bank manager who denied her a loan. During their meeting he dismissed her and ended it by calling her a slut. But here he seems to be the most advanced of the men. He is the first to volunteer when the group leader asks for an alternate response to the female coworker. “Well done, Patricia,” he softly says to the blow-up doll.
Later Fleabag and the bank manager share a moment. She has once again wandered from her own retreat to be with the men. Fleabag, taking her silence seriously for the first time, prompts the manager to speak to her. He confesses that he isn’t at the retreat by choice. He groped a colleague and was sent there as punishment. “They keep asking me. What do you want from this workshop?” the manager says. “I want to move back home. I want to hug my wife. Protect my children. Protect my daughter. I want to move on.”
Fleabag finally speaks. “I just want to cry. All the time.”
The manager returns in the last scene of the season. Fleabag is about to throw herself into traffic when his car pulls up. He takes her back to the café she owns, the café that’s closing soon, the café he denied a loan. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t even know that fucking existed,” she tells him. “And that I know that my body as it is now really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it.”
After she concludes this speech, there’s a moment where it feels like she and the handsy bank manager might consummate their new friendship. Instead he leaves. It seems like maybe he has grown and learned when to remove himself from a situation. But then he comes back, clipboard in hand, and tells her they should redo their loan meeting. “People make mistakes,” he tells her. It’s a step too far.
Neither this moment nor the moment at the retreat ring true. Dramatically they work great. They’re well-written and well-acted and are artistically sound. But they feel orchestrated in a way most of the show does not. The world of Fleabag fades and Phoebe Waller-Bridge the storyteller fills the screen. She tells us all that this man, this man who called a stranger a slut and assaulted his coworker, even this man can be redeemed. Or maybe she’s not telling us that. Maybe she’s just telling herself that.
And it’s a helpful message. It is crushing to live in the reality of patriarchy. It is crushing to think about rape statistics. It is crushing to live in your trauma and the trauma of those around you. I’m not sure if seeing the best in men, the possibility in men, has been earned. But it might be the only way to make it through the day.
I recently moved to LA, trading the dysfunctional but thorough New York subway system for the efficient but limited LA metro. Everyone insists you need a car in LA, but cars are expensive, parking is a hassle, and if you’re drinking or smoking you can’t drive anyway. I’m making it work with a crafty combination of busses, trains, and Lyfts.
A few weeks ago I was leaving an event in Hollywood. It was a queer event. And like a lot of queer events I’ve attended in Los Angeles, I was the only trans woman. That night it had bothered me more than usual. Maybe it was because of a few cringe-worthy comments from some cis queers or because there were straight people there or simply because it’s taxing to regularly feel tokenized in spaces that are supposedly for you. I was wearing tight pants and a red and black striped crop top. The outfit was chosen to attract people at this event, but it did a much better job attracting stares from strangers on the street.
By the time I got on the metro I felt lonely and unwanted. I listened to music and stared out the window into the underground nothingness. One stop in a man wearing a Dodgers jersey sauntered onto the train and sat right next to me. His eyes were glazed over with drunk. My music was loud but I could tell he was talking to me. I took one earbud out. “Is this going to North Hollywood?” he asked. I told him it was and put my headphone back in.
He kept talking. I once again removed the earbud. “Do you take the subway a lot? It’s my first time.” He told me he recently got a DUI and was trying to figure out how to get around. He’d been at the Dodgers game tonight and his buddies were drunk so he couldn’t ask them to drive out of their way. I never turned fully towards him. I never took my other earbud out. But he kept talking to me. He asked me questions. At first I kept it to one word answers, but then I found myself talking. I even made a joke at some point, but I don’t remember what it was. Then he said, “You’re really attractive, you know?” My eyes sank to the floor as I said thank you.
He checked his phone and I glanced around. There was a young woman on the other side of the train car and I thought about excusing myself and pretending I knew her. But I was unsure how she’d feel about a trans woman approaching her. I couldn’t bear the thought of her being afraid of me the way I was afraid of this man. I also considered getting off the train and waiting for the next one. But after 9pm the trains arrive every 20 minutes and I wanted to get home.
The man started talking to me again. It wasn’t that he was unattractive. In fact, for a drunk Dodgers fan he was pretty cute. And he was just making conversation on a long commute. I didn’t need to be afraid of him. I didn’t need to frame it that way. I ignored his earlier comment and tried to just talk to him like a human being. I tried to be friendly but not flirty. Then I wondered if that was even possible. I wondered if it was normal how close he was sitting to me.
When the train finally pulled up to the last stop I felt relieved. We got off and I started briskly walking away. “Wait a minute!” he shouted after me. “Do you want to get a drink somewhere?”
I stopped and turned towards him. I thought about it. I thought about the validation, about the companionship, the release, the experience, how easy it would be to stop asserting my wants, my humanity, to accept this man’s attention as confirmation of my worth. I thought about how easy it would be to just give in. I smiled. “Sorry, I’m a lesbian,” I said. And I pranced off into the night.