Ever since I can remember, I’ve downplayed my pain. As an elementary school student, I’d always tug my skirt over my wound to avoid having to see the nurse whenever I skinned my knee on the playground. In tenth grade, I walked all the way home after spraining my ankle at a basketball game, certain that I didn’t need help. When cramps kicked in during biology class last year, I sat at my desk and willed the pain to go away. I refused to leave class—even when my vision blurred, my stomach somersaulted, and my body ached.
To admit to feeling pain, I decided, was to be weak. Compared to the dramatic representations of pain I saw in movies, my experience with pain was utterly insignificant. How did I have a right to complain about cramps—an unpleasantry 81% percent of women report experiencing—when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant survived in the wilderness for six whole weeks after being manhandled by a bear? Or when war films like Saving Private Ryan and 1917 depict soldiers pushing through their injuries and surviving on pure adrenaline? The media teaches us that any pain that doesn’t involve blood and guts and heroism is irrelevant. I accepted that as the truth. That is, until I watched Fleabag.
Fleabag is an ode to unglamorous pain. Heartbreak, mourning, family drama, substance abuse, periods, miscarriages—creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge highlights these “normal” instances of pain like no show I’ve ever seen before. The show follows flawed characters as they get hurt, recover, and get hurt again. They fall in love with the wrong people, provoke and pay the price, experience loss, and navigate messy relationships. And the recognition of their non-heroic, normal pain is incredibly validating. When I’m popping Advils like M&Ms, or clutching a heating pad like a life preserver, or wallowing in my room after a bad day, Fleabag reminds me that all pain is legitimate.
Take Waller-Bridge’s representation of physical pain, for example. Characters have miscarriages. Characters punch each other. Characters get into fatal accidents. Characters experience—and openly discuss—period pain. Menstruation, and the suffering that accompanies it, is not treated as a punch line or a taboo like it usually is in the media. Instead, it’s examined with insightfulness and sensitivity. “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny—period pains, sore boobs, childbirth,” says character Belinda, who briefly appears in the second season like Waller-Bridge’s messenger angel of feminist wisdom. “We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.”
But although period pain isn’t as exciting as bear maulings or near-death experiences, Waller-Bridge reminds us that it’s equally valid. When “relatable” pain is highlighted on TV, it forces me to take my own suffering seriously. If period cramps are worthy of intelligent discussion on TV, they certainly aren’t mild enough to be brushed off the way I did in biology class. If Fleabag had been around in my childhood, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so averse to recognizing my pain. Perhaps if I’d seen my favorite fictional characters confronting their sufferings like Belinda, the feelings of weakness that accompany admissions of pain would have been dispelled.
Waller-Bridge has a remarkable awareness of emotional pain as well. She zeroes in on the eponymous protagonist’s mental health in a time of turbulence and grief with tremendous care. The first season, for example, follows Fleabag as she comes to terms with the death of her best friend. We watch her as she mourns and self-medicates and eventually comes to terms with the truth, and her struggle feels refreshingly familiar.
And that’s at the heart of why Fleabag appeals to Gen Z so much. Our generation has known little other than pain. We’re the products of a post-9/11 world, and we grew up in a tumultuous, dark time in American history. We watched as senseless wars were waged, gun violence stole lives, the government snatched immigrant children from their parents, and a mismanaged pandemic swept the globe. Our sufferings have felt small in comparison to the tremendous pains being inflicted around the world, and Fleabag is a testament to that type of pain—the kind you aren’t really allowed to complain about because it’s so insignificant. Coexisting alongside their pain, the characters of Fleabag make the most of their shitty situations. Through frequent humor and little bursts of tenderness, Phoebe Waller-Bridge proves to us that our pain is seen, that pain is inevitable, and that pain isn’t all there is to life.
By Sophia Peyser
Illustration by Julia Tabor