Dissociative Feminism in Fleabag


Image via The Harvard Crimson

Hazel Smith, Writer

Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag is a heartbreaking and gorgeous story about what it means to be human. We follow our main character, Fleabag, played by Waller-Bridge, as she goes through the trials and tribulations of being a woman in her 20s. She is vulgar, beautiful, hilarious, and most importantly, human. Fleabag deals with many struggles, such as her complicated relationship with her family, the seeming impossibility of finding a long-term partner, the death of her best friend Boo, and the ownership of a failing business. Instead of facing these issues, Fleabag finds it best to disassociate and goes beyond the “4th wall,” in which she looks at the camera and her audience. We watch as Fleabag walks through life this way in a dream-like state, failing to take her life and decisions seriously. 

In order to understand how dissociative feminism is displayed in Fleabag, it is essential to understand what dissociative feminism is as a concept. The term was presented by Emmeline Clein in her 2019 article “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating,” in which she defines it as taking on a “darkly comic, deadpan tone” when discussing one’s feminism. Clein describes this approach further as “[presenting] overtly horrifying facts about uniquely feminine struggles and [delivering] them flatly, dripping with sarcasm.” As feminists take on this approach, they perhaps do so in defiance of the overly positive “girlboss feminist” that seems to be often associated with the feminist movement. So, why is it that dissociative feminism has recently surged? To put it simply, women seem to be losing hope that we will ever achieve true gender equality. It is understandable to feel separated from a society that doesn’t have your best interest in mind. After years of fighting, perhaps many women feel it is time to give up and develop a somewhat nihilistic view. Clein and many others who discuss this form of feminism make references to Fleabag.

Fleabag uses dissociation to cope with uncomfortable situations. Dissociation has been defined as “[feeling] detached from your environment, the people around you, or your body.”  Although anyone can experience this, it is more common in women, and also can be developed after a traumatic event. Because women are often objectified and mistreated in our society, dissociation may be developed as a coping mechanism. During Fleabag’s uncomfortable experiences, she turns to us, the audience, often making a sarcastic comment or giving a snarky look. She seems to be distanced from her emotions on painful topics. 

Fleabag is a complex and morally grey character. She drinks excessively, gets in fights often with her friends and family, and shows little guilt for it. However, over the course of the show, we watch her evolve into a changed woman. She meets a priest, who she quickly sparks up an intimate relationship with. The priest presents Fleabag with a new look at life and forces her to face her decisions and guilt. Fleabag is also stunned when she realizes that the priest can notice when she is dissociating or going beyond the “4th wall.” He will often ask her, “where’d you go?” when Fleabag turns to the camera. After meeting the priest, Fleabag realizes that human connection can help her work through her pain. This poignant and beautiful character progression shows us how this can be related back to feminism, and why perhaps dissociative feminism is not the best approach to take.

Although it is completely valid to be angry at the patriarchal system that we live under, or about the decline of hope for women’s rights, it is also important to remember that we are all in this together. We learn through Fleabag’s story and many others that human connection is the most important way to overcome pain and hardships. 




2 https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Dissociative-Disorders#:~:text=Women%20are%20more%20likely%20than,keep%20those%20memories%20under%20control.