Fleabag’s second season opens in the midst of chaos. Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), our titular character—the fourth-wall-breaking, hypersexual, self-destructor extraordinaire—bleeds from her nose in a posh restaurant bathroom while a mystery man bangs on the door, reassuring her that everyone else is already gone, and that he can help her if she needs. After brushing him off and handing a towel to another bleeding woman on the floor, Fleabag turns to us, in her first direct address of the season. “This is a love story,” she smirks.
A love story about who, exactly, is unclear. Maybe it’s about Fleabag and the memory of her best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who accidentally died in an attempt to hurt herself and win the sympathy of her boyfriend after he cheated with someone else. This someone else, it is revealed in the first season, was Fleabag. Or maybe it’s about Fleabag’s tryst with “The Priest” (Andrew Scott), which shifts in her perception from a slightly more challenging practice in seduction to an actual, brief, blistering experience of love—and a bittersweet, but spiritually profound, lesson in loss. Or, as I see it—and as many have pointed out before me—the love story in Fleabag’s second season can be found in the reconciliation between Fleabag and her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), after a rather brutal falling out.
Fleabag is a love story. A love story found in Fleabag and Claire holding each other as they sleep at a silent meditation retreat after years of not being able to even hug; a love story found in constantly asking each other “Are you okay?” and responding with a “Yeah, I’m fine” that only ever earns a skeptical look1; a love story found in their ability to make one another laugh with such ferocity—even in moments of rage and sadness—that each feels angry at the other for knowing them so well.
If Fleabag can be seen as a love story about sisterhood—that magical, ephemeral, deeply intimate, sometimes painful, and impossible to describe relationship—then may this essay be a love letter to my own sister.
Her name is Madeline, but between my brother and I, she goes by Madge. The nickname evokes images of some older woman chain-smoking in curlers, which makes her actual self—nineteen, beautiful, whip smart, matter-of-fact—all the more delightful. Madge is the funniest person I’ve ever known. She is shockingly aware of the world around her, noticing shifts in the minutia of day-to-day life that would breeze by my daydreamy demeanor without a spark of recognition. She suffers no fools, she loves fiercely, and I am utterly enthralled by her.
When Fleabag splashed into the zeitgeist—first in 2016 and then again, with increasing fervor, in 2019—it was not only praised by critics, but at times credited with marking a kind of cultural shift. Emmeline Clein coined the phrase “dissociative feminism,” which marked a “curdling of the hyperoptimistic, #girlboss, “Run the World (Girls)” feminism” and replaced it with practices of “interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance.” Fleabag was the concept’s fictional poster child, her mascara-smeared face often plastered alongside this specific brand of feminism discourse.
Women, if they so desired, could claim they were in their “Fleabag Era” as they self-destructed chemically, emotionally, and sexually under the crushing weight of modern womanhood. And the seemingly-fresh phenomenon of women vocally identifying with such a messy character was ripe for a cultural parsing apart. Identifying with Fleabag was gauche, or awesome, or problematic, or revolutionary, or silly, depending on which week of the online discourse we were in.
And yet, as landmark as Fleabag was in capturing a certain modern, exhausted, sexually-motivated experience in the wake of third wave feminism, I don’t see the series standing alone as a product of our specific modern time. In particular, I see the fingerprints of Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) all over Fleabag.
Both stories are ones of respective modern sexuality. Streetcar and Fleabag are concerned with the impossible question of what it means to be a woman, to perform your gender and sexuality constantly (whether or not you realize you are playing into it), and to have reputations and sexual practices define your ability to be believed and respected. But Streetcar did it first. Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh)—sneaking booze, purring at men, flirting with her sister’s husband, faking phone calls with millionaires, rolling her eyes when a man acts as if he’s the first to ever attempt to plant a ravishing kiss on her—was in her “Fleabag era” (albeit slightly more coquettishly) long before Fleabag was ever gazing directly at us and announcing her compulsive need to be validated2.
But I don’t want to lose myself in the drawings of parallels. I am here to speak of sisters. This essay is a love letter.
Streetcar, too, is a love story. A love story found in Blanche and her little sister, Stella, sprawled out in bed and laughing so loud about some dirty gossip that people scream for them to shut up; a love story found in the two of them speaking desperate, painful truths after Blanche first sees Stella’s husband hit her; a love story found in communicating through almost telepathic stares, noses so close in their embrace that they almost brush together.
After months of living in a grim one-and-a-half roomed apartment with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella’s husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando), Blanche is starting to fray at the seams. Her delusions are being picked apart, her plans of finally finding a husband so she can stop pushing to survive are ruined by her brother-in-law, and the rumors about her sexually checkered past have followed her all the way from her now-defunct familial Southern estate to her sister’s messy dining room.
Blanche’s suitor, Mitch (Karl Malden), accuses her of lying about who she is. He is enraged by the way Blanche has made herself seem younger, prettier, and classier (read: less damaged and used) than she really is. “You don’t mean to be insulting,” Blanche whimpers. “No, just realistic,” Mitch snaps in return.
Blanche snarls back: “I don’t want realism. I want magic.” To accept the way things are is simply too much for her to bear. To live, as Blanche describes, in “what ought to be the truth” — a daydreamy misinterpretation of reality — is the only way to survive.
Blanche is magic-seeking personified. She enters both the play and the film dressed all in dainty and pristine white, with a skittish, uncertain manner that Tennessee Williams compares to a moth. She brings with her coveted love letters from a dead boy, a worn out rhinestone tiara, a hunger for hot baths and cold drinks for her nerves, and delusions of being swept up by some rich man in Miami or Dallas. When she wants to make her sister’s place something it’s not, she puts up a paper lantern to soften the light. Reality—her sister’s plain life, Blanche’s own increasing age and growing lack of options—is far too bright a light to bear.
Stella, on the other hand—with her small house and the baby growing within her and her husband sketched to absolute dominant, virile, violent, masculine perfection—is fine with the way things are in real life. She’s happy tending to her husband or her nervy sister, hauling cheap meat home, watching her Stanley bowl, and occasionally going out to a movie.
Between realism and magic sits the divide of these three pairs of sisters—Stella and Blanche, Fleabag and Claire, Madge and myself.
Claire, as described by Fleabag, is “uptight and beautiful and probably anorexic.” When Fleabag makes fun of Claire for once shitting in a sink3, Claire snaps back that she also has “two degrees, a husband, and a Burberry coat”. No magic-seeking; only the tangible evidence of having lived a real life.
Madge is far from uptight, but she is certainly the more pragmatic of the two of us. On matters of death, she declares we are worm food. When a bad mood hits, she processes in private. She does things like go to the gym five times a week, and eat chicken and vegetables for lunch. Madge does not like talking about emotions (we both laugh knowingly at Claire’s hysterical announcement in the opening of season two that lately she “takes all the negative feelings and just bottles them and buries them”), and chooses instead to just get on with things.
Stella and Claire and Madge may not always be gleeful about it, but they are willing to accept realism, to live life here on this earth without a fuss.
Blanche and Fleabag and I, on the other hand, can live off our feelings for full days, skyrocketing far from any hold on reality. We have to go on long walks and cry mascara down our faces, and after that there’s the scalding hot bath to be had. Stiff drinks to be finished, shirts to be taken off, no money to be made—only memories to ruminate about or daydreams to be had or self-destructive nastiness to give into.
Currently, for a web of reasons (that can be summed neatly into a little too much magic-seeking, probably), I live up on the very top floor of my family home—a little attic-type room where it felt like a Victorian ghost may reside, until I painted it all bubblegum pink and loaded it with trinkets.
Madge gently scoffs at my morning meditation and affirmations, my scented candles, the little tchotchkes I adorn my room with and infuse sentimental value upon—all my paper lanterns.
But she is also always there for me.
The realistic sister, it seems, often ends up as the caretaker to their more neurotic, daydreamy sister. Stella brings Blanche a Coke with chipped ice from the store and soothingly calls her “honey” while Blanche screams over non-existent stains on her skirt. Claire explains in a fit of rage at a family lunch that she cannot move to her dream job in Finland, as she is too beholden to London, her husband, and her “broken sister.” My sister talks to me about waking up early and heading to the gym in a call that began with me four glasses of wine deep and crying about a problem I created in my head regarding people I no longer speak to.
The realistic sister is self-sustaining, and the magical sister is often collapsing in a heap at her feet and begging to be heard.
At this point in all of our stories, this trio of sisters are walking in step. For each duo there is one magic-seeker and one realistic one—loving each other in the ways only sisters know how to love.
But at the crisis point of each of these sisterly love stories is where our experiences diverge.
Claire’s lecherous husband, Martin (Brett Gelman) kisses Fleabag. Claire doesn’t believe her. “After what you did to Boo?” she asks, accusatory. Stanley rapes Blanche, and Stella chooses Stanely’s side. “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley,” Stella famously weeps.
In my early twenties, I tried to tell people about something bad that someone did to me. Or, more accurately, a collection of somethings by a collection of someones—these things tend to add up and then burst forth all at once. I lost about a dozen people, including my partner, in the process. They couldn’t believe me. Not after what I’d done to my respective Boos, not if they wanted to keep on living with their respective Stanleys.
Perhaps they would squirm some time in the future with an inkling that my story was true, but their Stanleys and their Martins offered stability that I could not. They would pick the occasional discomfort of someone mentioning my name in exchange for stability with the men who hurt me. I could only offer instability in my tendency to scream and shout and self-destruct, to be fine one minute and enraged and distraught the next.
(For the record, here, and to deny any petty creeps any sensuality or power, I would like to say that I have known many more Martins than I have Stanleys. Very few men who have fucked with me have what Tennessee Williams describes as that “complete and satisfying center” that Stanley has sexually and spiritually. I have not been struck by any masculine force of a person who would see Blanche’s or my mothy uncertainty and have the urge to clap us between their hands and absently wipe what’s left on their pant leg. In fact, I am frequently struck by the way the men who have hurt me are tied together by their shared deep insecurity, their total lack of sense of self. Those that smear their mouths on my unwilling one, or brush their fingers over my then-teenaged midriff with their girl in the other room, or corner me in a bar to ask things that scare me, are taking, as Waller-Bridge describes of Martin, “pathetic” wild guesses that these actions will make them feel powerful. And if they’re wrong, my moth-like uncertainty and my flea-ridden reputation will save them the bother of having to explain themselves. I won’t tell, or I’ll laugh, or I’ll be easy to persuade people away from my side. But that does not make them sensual or powerful in any sense).
The sisterly betrayals in Fleabag and Streetcar are perhaps the ultimate ones. The thought of your own sister, who knows you so well sometimes it almost hurts, choosing not to see your truth is heartbreaking. It makes me sick to watch Fleabag stagger back as if Claire has hit her when she denies her truth. I look away as Blanche is dragged from the house and toward the sanatorium as Stella sobs—one can only imagine—in partial regret. You know when your sister is telling the truth.
But my love story with my sister has no bitter edge. When many disbelieved me, Madge was actually the first to hear my truth without a shadow of doubt, without interest in being doubtful. Where others suggested if I just composed myself differently, then maybe less would go awry, Madge chose to tug off my beer-soaked jeans (which she would note, with a sigh, were actually her jeans) and feed me a Dramamine for my spins.
Most beautifully, when others suggest forgiveness and empathy, that I should move on, if anything, for myself (though with an added bonus: wouldn’t it be nice for them to hang out with those men guilt-free if I chose to let it go?), Madge chooses rage. “I hate them every day,” she’ll announce with ease if any of my Martins or Stanleys come up. If someone questions her feelings, she doubles down, almost gleeful in announcing her hatred.
Her rage is for me, and me only. This is her gift to me. She is not necessarily showy with affections or emotions—there are no paper lanterns adorning her love. But she doesn’t just believe me, she hates for me. She chooses me, every time, like she couldn’t choose anyone else.
In season two, Fleabag and Claire reconcile. This is a love story, after all. All indiscretions, failings, and betrayals pale in comparison to the love of your one true soulmate. Evil, lecherous Martin is discarded and Claire is ready to take the promotion in Finland—and maybe even go after the man she really loves.
When Fleabag tries to coax Claire to find the man she’s been having an affair with before he gets on his flight, Claire scoffs. “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you,” Claire says, as if it’s a thought so bland and pedestrian that it’s annoying to share.
“I feel exactly like that with you,” my sister offers next to me on the couch as we watch. She says it in the same tone as Claire, like it’s the least interesting and most obvious thing to say. Like I should know that she feels that way, like it’s showy to say it aloud. I tear up next to her and pretend like I’m not; she’ll tease me for the display.
Madge is not one for theatrics. She’s not unaffectionate by any means—she tells me every day that she loves me, she hugs me in greeting and in goodbye when she visits. But there are no flowery cries of adoration. Instead, her love for me is apparent in the way Madge automatically chooses, believes, and sides with me. It’s apparent in the way she even hates for me. As natural as running through the airport for me, when I needed it most she told me I was right, that what happened was terrible, and that I need not beg for people to understand. There was no alternative response, not even if she tried.
I, magic-seeker that I am, fall at my sister’s feet. Where Stella and Claire scoff and squirm and step over their sisters into the arms of brutal but stable men, Madge chooses to look down at me and asks who needs beating up on my behalf. She is realistic—this is what must be done for people you love. Hate and defend and trust. In return, I write her love stories and sometimes buy her a paper lantern-esque trinket to spruce up her otherwise sparse bedroom that she doesn’t really care about (“What is this, a paperweight?” Claire asks of a small but expensive statue she is gifted), and on Thanksgiving she says—with a sigh and an eye roll—that she’s grateful for me “because sometimes I encourage her to feel her emotions”.
On the other hand, I am one for theatrics. Less quiet acts of love, more screaming into the night. So this is a love letter—one of many—about one of my most beloved love stories. It’s a love story when I write poems in secret about the freckles under Madge’s right eye. It’s a love story when I realize I love seeing her when she first wakes up in the morning because it’s the only time she’s unaware enough to give me a tight and earnest hug. It’s a love story when we sleep in the same bed, and I laugh so hard late into the night that I sometimes have to sit upright in the pitch dark to gasp for breath.
This is a love story. I pity anyone who has to look anywhere else, who doesn’t bask in the pragmatic, vicious, beautiful love automatically gifted when you are a sister to Madge.
- You can’t lie to your sister about being fine. She might let it go, but she knows you’re lying, and you know she knows.
- And, to further push against the notion that identifying strongly with a messy character—“she’s just like me for real”—is a modern phenomenon, one only has to look to what Arthur Miller wrote of his first time seeing a production of Streetcar: “When [Blanche] exited on the arm of the Doctor everyone went with her” attesting to a special sort of “identification” occurring with Blanche amongst the audience.
- Who among us does not store our sister’s worst moments for the occasional quick and forceful dose of humility?