This is a Love Story: When Women Look Back at Us

Fleabag | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

She stubs out a cigarette, turns back to her computer, and writes the final, killer line of her paragraph. Then she looks up and gazes right into our soul: “How the hell did we get into this mess?” 

This is our introduction to Carrie Bradshaw—sex columnist, modern woman, and completely over love. She and her friends will soon vow to start “having sex like men” (radical!) and TV as we know it will never be the same. Based on the book of the same name by Candice Bushnell, Sex and the City invited viewers into life behind the curtain and the column, to see how the sausage gets made, who makes it, and how it’s written about. And to get the dishy tone of a sex columnist exactly right, the creators of Sex and the City opted to have Carrie talk directly to us. 

Of course, this wouldn’t last long. By season two episode four, Carrie’s mix of narration and direct address would slide completely into voice-over. It was a move welcomed by most fans, considered a necessary jettisoning of the “one majorly jarring element” and “early stylistic quirks” that mirrored the “rhythms of a reported dispatch.” Even in the frank, unfiltered world of a sex columnist, people didn’t like a woman talking directly at them.  

She seemed to cement a new pattern, at least for most of the women who would look straight into the camera: If they were breaking the fourth wall, it meant they had no other avenue for their thoughts. There’s always a reason she has to talk to us—she’s a precocious young adult (Clarissa Explains It All, Chewing Gum), a sex worker leading a double life (Secret Diary of a Call Girl), a gangly, awkward 35-year-old misfit (Miranda). She is almost always struggling, and pretty much universally white. While breaking the fourth wall for men is frequently about power—over their domain, their audience, their own narrative structure—the direct address for women has been a power grab as well, albeit in a much different key. Often it’s a desperate grab, one made distinctly at the cost of some other love in their lives. 

This is true of Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, who conducts her affairs boldly but still learns to fold her flaunts within the boundaries of public scrutiny, and it’s true for the titular Fleabag, whose intimacy with the audience is actually a wall she’s built around her heart. 

The moments when these characters turn to us for support are still powerful and effective, yes, but they’re also performative; they’re steering with a steady hand that quakes when it isn’t gripping the wheel. Although these women demand that all eyes be on them, demand our audienceship, they can’t, in fact, have it all. 

*

The prototypical Carrie Bradshaw was Mary MacLane, who addressed the camera head-on in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me, based on an article written in 1910 (and later expanded into a 1917 book). In the movie, she re-enacts six of her great affairs, each one showing how she emerged dominant over a man dubbed only by his archetype: “the bank clerk,” “the husband of another,” “the literary man.”1 Mary charms, smokes, pouts, lies in repose—she costs her man “six useful friends merely by sheer wanton recklessness!” She smugly stares into the camera, letting us know how she “quietly and triumphantly” broke off one relationship. 

More than 100 years later, we are familiar with this sort of shrug towards the audience regarding the men in a lady’s life. Carrie Bradshaw turns to us when she first meets her major paradigm shift, Big. Social media allows us to turn towards our own faceless audience when we subtweet archetypes of those we’ve loved—sharing selective, titillating details from our lives. 

In many ways, MacLane’s direct disclosures feel ahead of their time; the way she toys with the gesture feels more assertive than those that would come after her. Due to the nature of silent film, she had to ham it up for the camera, confidently carrying us between intertitles and recreations of her affairs. Without any cinematic forebears to guide her, she had to create an intimacy that didn’t immediately highlight the distance between her and viewers she couldn’t see. 

MacLane’s breaking of the fourth wall is widely seen as the start of something in cinema, one of the first films to do so with intention; the first time in film a star, writer, narrator, and subject were all one and the same. The gesture itself wasn’t necessarily new, but it served to upend the audience’s expectations. MacLane kicked off a new tradition for women on film: addressing an audience directly meant speaking for yourself, loudly and proudly. 

And the move largely cost her—despite being highly anticipated, Men Who Have Made Love to Me didn’t fare well with the public and received a mixed reception from critics. Mae Tinee of the Chicago Daily Tribune stated that MacLane “looks and acts like a headache.” Hazel Naylor of Motion Picture Magazine felt it flitted somewhere between autobiography and drama, without either being wholly interesting. “Call it a visualized diary, a catalog of hearts, a Hooverized love-feast, a cardiac cannery, and you may arrive at a definition,” Naylor wrote. “Thru the course of her disjointed love-affairs, Mary MacLane displays a fine assortment of mannerisms but no manner at all.” Despite what advertisements of the time read, people were not packing theaters to see the “woman of mystery and many loves,” in “a picture that bares her very soul.”

As cinema slowly began cementing its language and techniques in the coming years, breaking the fourth wall became less and less appreciated as a narrative device. Mary MacLane died in utter obscurity at age 48.

*

Television, on the other hand, has never quite been as hermetically sealed as cinema. Often eager to invite the audience in on the fun, TV never scorned the fourth wall the way film did, constantly pulling back the curtain, calling attention to the apparatus in order to explain it. 

And yet even when women were speaking directly to the camera on TV—which they often did, thanks to the vaudevillian roots of many of the performers and attempts to sneak advertisement within the bounds of the narrative—it still feels like they’re half-apologizing for our time. You can watch Faye Emerson or Molly Goldberg sheepishly pedaling products as if they’re friends, assuring us that they’d like nothing better than to tell us how much they appreciate these consumerist goods. And though they say they love these things, these women can’t seem to shake the pervading mood that they are pulling one over on someone, just by getting to talk to us like this—directly and as a woman. 

Which isn’t not what was happening: daytime television, in particular, was often created with the (white) woman spectator in mind. It was part and parcel of the lure of a commodity designed to sell suburban domesticity, to help trade professional labor done during WWII for unpaid labor around the home. Studies have shown that none of these appliances really saved women any time with their housework—but the role of daytime television was to promote the idea of being a (white) housewife, to help women think about how they could run their home more effectively. So to have women directly addressing you, sharing their success stories after you feel as if you’ve been brought into their homes and their lives, was a helluva proposition. It was like somebody new had burst into your little world. Suddenly you were seen. 

*

When Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister turns to us, it feels like a proposition of a different sort. Suranne Jones’ performance is so self-assured and full of swagger that, from her first glance our way, it feels as if we’re being blessed by a crush’s gaze. Anne almost immediately acknowledges our presence with a pithy aside, and throughout the pilot her focus continues to turn erratically, lazily, in our direction. 

Most of these early asides are along a similar line: Anne Lister is badass and unapologetic, and we’re along for the ride; she enjoys moments to herself, but brings us along to witness them. Whether in voiceover or direct address, her lines seem to play like stray thoughts crossing her mind—the way you plan dinner as you commute, or think “we’re going to break each other’s hearts” on a first date. 

In many ways her control over our attention mirrors the way the camera mimics her gaze. We see her scenes with Miss Ann Walker the way she does, studying Miss Walker’s every inch with her eyes, lingering, leading. The camera holds close in on them in the parlor, not swirling around but certainly woozy with adoration. It allows Anne a moment to linger and blink, soaking in as much of Miss Walker’s delicate charms as she can. When Anne proposes marriage, the camera holds steady until it can finally relax, practically collapsing upon the release of tension into a close up of the two of them kissing. Even when she isn’t in a scene the camera moves with her watchful eye, slowly zooming in on Miss Walker’s aunt as she confesses who all she’s told about their romance. When Anne is embarrassed or overwhelmed she squeezes her eyes shut, covering her forehead with her hand to briefly block out the world—not unlike when she ends an emotional scene with a gaze at us and a walk off. Gentleman Jack wants us to understand that Anne’s gaze, her attention, is one of her many powers. 

Which makes it all the more significant that the device was born out of necessity. We only know so much about the real Anne Lister’s life because of the prolific diaries she kept in code that were, through no small grace, found and kept safe by her descendants. Across more than four million words, she covered everything from the price of her coal to her bitter relationship with sister Marian (“cock of dunghill,” according to one entry).

The fourth wall breaks in Gentleman Jack were vital to the show, precisely because they conoted an intimacy and a disclosure that Anne couldn’t have had in her own time. “When you read the journals and you’re looking at the page,” show creator Sally Wainwright said, “you realize that you might be the first person to read this besides Lister because so much of it hasn’t been transcribed.” 

Indeed, the real Lister was dutiful about keeping her diaries private; Wainwright has stated that some parts of her notebooks were still being decrypted from Lister’s code during filming. Within the show itself, we see the limits of how her loved ones accepted her life—with the “legitimacy” of her relationships being a real breaking point. “It’s an emotional experience, and cinematically, [the fourth-wall break] was the only way I could conceive of creating that sensation,” Wainwright said. “Thus, it’s organic to the source material.”

But to really twist the knife on the personal, Wainwright and crew had to acknowledge the human being behind the diaries. Though Lister may loom larger than life, she is still a person, both vulnerable and volatile in equal measure. The distance between her impenetrable exterior and the gushy inside suddenly grows wider. She thaws, but neither particularly slowly nor in any kind of rush. Rather, it’s the natural spread of the crack in her veneer. 

For a while she was just as eager to flirt with us as she was with Miss Walker, raising her eyebrows or sneaking a quick look towards the audience to allow game to see game, beckoning us up to her house and monologuing the whole way about how well she was slipping through Miss Walker’s defenses. Before too long our relationship to Anne has shifted: suddenly she is acknowledging the audience while on a tirade, as she bemoans or breathlessly and discreetly expresses her anxiety about the whole affair. “Whenever I see the girl…she always manages to unhinge me,” she says, voice cracking, strolling away before allowing us to witness any more vulnerability. 

*

If Anne’s hyper-awareness of the prying eyes of polite society is what drives her to us, then Fleabag’s use of direct address stems from the lack of attention to herself. 

Fresh from the recent death of her mother and her best friend Boo, Fleabag in season one is almost feverish in her excitement at our presence. Throughout the first six episodes, she turns to us the way you would if you were hamming it up with a bestie in front of a grocery store clerk. She’s here to narrate—her decisions, her backstory, her jokes—and invites us into her world under the guise of exposing an inner monologue, with shocking frankness and vulgarity. 

And yet, quickly we realize there’s more going on than that: In the pilot, when her sister Claire asks her if she’s OK, she nervously glances at us to see how seriously we took her, and if we clocked the genuine concern Claire was giving off. Often she refuses to acknowledge our presence when she’s uncomfortable—in the loan meeting, or when she finally, drunkenly tells her cab driver about how Boo died. At times, flashbacks flicker across the screen before she can fend them off. Often these memories of Boo give way to a new scene, a new hour, a new distraction from her thoughts. 

Quickly our place in her life shows the fraying world she’s built for herself. The camera is often placed in between those she’s talking to—which furthers the feeling of being addressed by her, but also exposes her power over the narrative; she looks almost directly at us, but Claire (and everyone else) looks just past us. At the same time, it also neatly illustrates what we are to Fleabag: a buffer between her and the real world. Between her and herself. On the one hand, no one is listening to Fleabag, so she manufactures her own audience; no one takes her seriously, instead allowing her to exist as a “naughty,” quirky envelope-pusher. On the other hand, she is patently avoiding spending time with herself or listening to her own thoughts, choosing instead to drown them out in an endless conversational tap dance.

When we see her past life in flashbacks, she never glances at us. We’re led to think she didn’t need to. Even at her mother’s funeral, as she cried over not knowing “where to put” all the love she has for her, she had Boo, who, without a moment’s pause, replied “I’ll take it. No, I’m serious, it sounds lovely. I’ll have it; you have to give it to me. It’s got to go somewhere.”  

So it’s no surprise that the show can’t go on forever. As she begins to crack under the pressure, her projected intimacy falters, and eventually shatters: When we find out the truth about Boo’s death, she looks at us like she can’t control the memories washing over her, crashing down like a wave. She can’t escape us. We’re there behind her, we’re in her face. Claire’s there. We’re there. She falls back, the memory comes. She leaves, we follow. She’s smiling as she’s kissing Boo’s boyfriend. Boo’s looking at us, crying and announcing her plan. Earlier, Fleabag said she wanted to cry all the time and now, finally, woozily, she does. 

We don’t see it. 

*

Ann Lister and Fleabag share something else in common, too: Both are, ultimately, caught in the act. 

For Anne it comes early on. Following a bemused glance at the camera after lying to Miss Walker, Miss Walker gets confused. “What’re you looking at?” she wonders, craning around to see. “Nothing,” Anne reassures her with a forehead kiss, eyes widening at the camera. Together, “we” seem to have pulled one over on Miss Walker. But it is Anne who’s been trapped, even if she doesn’t know it yet—Anne has finally been seen in a way she’s not accustomed to. 

And after being caught by Miss Walker, she’s much more careful: she often turns to us only when she’s on her own, on emotional walks between homes or picking herself up after a fight. 

Which is more than can be said for Fleabag, who continues to turn to us throughout the second season with vigor. This time, however, her thoughts are a bit more collected: Where season one saw her gasping for air, struggling to catch up to what we already know about her, season two has her on the run—we’re still there as witnesses, to be the tssh to her badum. She still turns to us often, but she stops making time for us as she makes room for the Priest. 

By the time he first asks her about where she goes when she turns to us, she’s either missed the signs or stopped communicating them to us. Though she still turns to us to emote when he touches her arm, more and more frequently she is willing to let the silence between them linger as long as their eyes will. In their scenes together we are often out of eye-line for her and the Priest, sometimes at a distance. The camera constantly makes sure to hold them together in the frame, even if it’s just in an over-the-shoulder shot. When they’re together, she only breaks the fourth wall to corroborate her feelings. Even then it’s sheepish, when the Priest isn’t looking or has stepped away. 

What Fleabag doesn’t notice is that she is being watched right back. The Priest watches her face as she takes in Claire’s absence at the engagement dinner, refills her wine glass without request. Already he is throwing off her rhythm—swearing, drinking, interrupting her thoughts when “no one’s asked her a question in 45 minutes,” gazing, oh the gazing. He’s got her number, and she doesn’t even know it. 

*

Season two of Fleabag opens in a way that will no doubt go down in television history as “iconic.” Fleabag is looking at herself (not the door, not a partner, not us) in the mirror, while the music swoons about “the one I want to be close to.” She dabs the blood from her nose. She slowly takes a deep breath as if she now, finally, understands the weight of our eyes; as if she’s psyching herself up to go out on the stage again. Then, suddenly, she looks our way: “This is a love story.” 

Which is a perfectly elegant way to cut right to the heart of the issue, isn’t it? Fleabag and Anne Lister are strong women, they know their shit, they are empowered (whatever the hell that means). But every woman I’ve ever known to be called “strong” wishes she could afford to be soft. 

So much of their lives are about scurrying around gazes, whether it’s Fleabag gussying herself up for compliments or wishing she knew how to tell people she loves them. Or Anne, stopping short of kissing Miss Walker to quietly and quickly close the shutters, or glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one will overhear the invitation to spend the night. By bringing us in, they each create an outlet to work through the notion of being infallible, of being seen. The same yearning that led these women to believe they could withstand our gaze leads them to find some solace away from it as well. 

And so they find themselves opened up to love in ways they didn’t expect: By running away from Miss Walker (and a little bit from us), Anne Lister learns to stop running, to stand firmly and resolutely where she is. Even as she edges towards squirreliness in her triumphantly classical reconnection with Miss Walker, she course corrects: letting a declaration of love slip out before she realizes, walking it back, then deciding to say it with intention. And then Ann Walker moves towards her, looks at her, sees her. A perfect scene. 

Anne Lister acknowledges us one last time before she walks off into the sunset with her wife(!). Walking into the York church where she will take the sacrament with Miss Walker, Anne eyes her up and down, and then smoothly catches our eye. Can you believe how lucky I got? she seems to ask us, before turning her attention back to the matter at hand. 

But it’s not all luck really, is it? To be in love, to be loved, is to be seen, to glance and be glanced at. 

Fleabag knows that intimately, after her time with the Priest. She has already looped herself around trying to make sense of what she’s feeling, fallen back on old habits. Once again she stands in front of her door, asking if we “know that feeling” about a hookup she’s expecting. Only this time, she’s interrupted by the Priest. As they dance around each other in the living room—him, trying to politely let her down, her trying to squirm out of this anyway she can—she once again turns to find solace in us. And he, dramatically, calls her out on it.

In the final episode, Fleabag has three moments alone with the Priest, and not once does she look at us. When they finally meet at the bus stop he can barely bring himself to look at her, but she can’t seem to look away from him. She knows what’s coming. Once it’s spoken it almost seems like she’s going to play it off—until she turns back: “You know the worst thing is…I fucking love you. I love you.” And she encourages him to just let that hang in the air, on its own. When he walks away by noting that he loves her too, we see them both cry. 

It takes a full minute for Fleabag to turn her attention back to us. By that time, she’s brought the statue—inspired by her mother—and held it close. With a smile and a small shake of her head, she lets us know that where she’s going now, we can’t follow. Sometimes the love has to go back to yourself. 

Her actions feel deeply vulnerable, whether or not this is the last of Fleabag. To cater to an audience is to invite upheaval, challenges, and growth. There is power in a woman seeing herself; sometimes that requires recognition of others, but often it feels as if it’s just another way to take control of a shitty situation. Or, as Margaret Atwood once put it: 

Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.

Womanhood, in all its forms, often feels like a congenital invitation for people’s thoughts of you. There’s solace in that, but also danger; women frequently have to confront the idea of performance, to decide when to kick the blanket off before it gets too hot. Sometimes, the only thing a woman can do is let herself be seen on her own terms. It’s looking at yourself in the mirror, deciding that it feels nice to know it’s going to be alright, and beginning to chart your own love story.