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2 October 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 3:06pm

Stop comparing all women’s art to Fleabag

When one woman’s cultural output becomes the media’s kneejerk benchmark, the art of other women starts to fade into the background.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

After the writer, actor and director Phoebe Waller-Bridge won multiple Emmys last week, a post-awards do photograph circulated online. In it, Waller-Bridge is resplendent in a Monique Lhuillier ballgown, sitting next to a table stacked with her trophies, as she drags on a cigarette and holds a filled martini glass. She looks, as well she should, triumphantly cool. As social media users fawned over this photo, it occurred to me how perfectly it captures a contemporary mode of aspirational success: a young, beautiful, cool woman, at the top of her game, surrounded by the fruits of her success, smoking a fag and drinking a cocktail just as any girl on any Saturday night anywhere in the Western world might. Because she’s one of us.

Except she isn’t one of us. Neither is Sally Rooney. Nor was Lena Dunham. These women might make women feel so seen, but their individual creative output is theirs alone. One of the things that I have learned, now that I am a novelist, is that writers who are competitive with other, often more successful writers are wasting their energy. For only that person’s singular brain could have beamed the work they have created into existence – the envious onlooker couldn’t have made it, no matter how hard they tried. So what’s the point in wasting the energy that could be used to make art preoccupied by the successes of others? The same is true of any artform. Jealous of Tracey Emin? Want her success? Then you’ll also be needing her particular collection of life experiences and her particular facility for making resonant art from those experiences. It’s a hopeless project: you can never be Tracey Emin.

The difficulty comes when the media jumps on the successes of women like Waller-Bridge and blanket bombs the public with coverage, relating everything back to their cultural output. A recent example is an Independent article which attempted to sum up the Booker-shortlisted novel Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. “Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, it is built around one woman’s monologue, but not such a funny one,” the article states, eliding the entire history of modernism from Dorothy Richardson to Virginia Woolf and beyond – not to mention feminist theatre – in one fell swoop. It was lazy and reductive, but it wasn’t a new approach to art created by women by any means.

It’s particularly true of Fleabag – the magazine Private Eye has a running joke about articles which shoehorn in photos of Waller-Bridge. “Is this article justified in using a photo of Fleabag?” the spoof headline reads. “We hope you don’t mind us using a photo of the hit 33-year-old whose award-winning series has revolutionised comedy for ever, transformed the televisual landscape, and scorched the earth of confessional one-woman comedies with a disarmingly frank examination of how sexy and frank posh women have been franking sexily and with poshness until (continued for five years until the next Fleabag comes along).”

I feel obliged here to say that I loved Fleabag, have seen it twice on stage, and have met and interviewed Waller-Bridge. It is positive that women are rejoicing in her success by sharing the photo of her. One young woman’s success should (though sadly often doesn’t) increase the likelihood of success for other young women. None of this really has anything to do with Waller-Bridge herself, and therein lies the problem. When a young woman’s cultural output becomes critically admired and held up as representative of other, maybe all, young women, she becomes a shorthand for contemporary femininity, and the diversity and innovation of the art of other women starts to fade into the background (then people get angry with the woman, whose work becomes similarly flattened). This was frequently the criticism with Lena Dunham. The media were largely responsible, but the backlash had its role, too. If you want to stop making it all about her, you have to stop making it all about her, starting with your own keyboard. But I’ve been a writer long enough to know that universal adulation irritates readers. It makes a vicious kickback all the more likely, which in turn can be extremely hard to bear for the successful woman who has had the temerity to make art that people love.

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I’ll admit that I am tired of being sent proofs which say “for fans of Dolly Alderton and Sally Rooney”. Publishing is trend-led, but these books are rarely anything like the work of Alderton or Rooney (nor does the writing of Rooney resemble Alderton’s). But they are millennial women. Like Kristen Roupenian, Waller Bridge, and Lena Dunham they are hailed as representative of a generation. These women are all, in some ways, like one another: white, educated, to varying extents privileged. As Rebecca Lui put so brilliantly in her piece for the feminist film magazine Another Gaze, The Making of A Millennial Woman, “What does it tell us that ‘we’ are meant to be drawn to women who live in elite social worlds, whose lifestyles many cannot afford, and whose rebellions against the world are always a little doomed and not that unconventional, even if we’re meant to think otherwise? Why are we so eager to graft relatability onto them?” Not only is it likely to place a disturbing amount of pressure on the creator, but as an endeavor for much of an audience comprised of individuals it is doomed to fail. We are not, nor never can be, that other woman. Difference is erased.

Another symptom of what Lui calls “a hyperbole-drenched marketing cycle” is that criticism is buried in a sort of groupthink omerta. Didn’t think Roupenian’s viral story Cat Person was all that? There is no place for you here. An article – admittedly a very poorly argued one – which accused Sally Rooney’s novels of fetishising thinness was loudly torn down recently. Yet the writer had the whispering of a point. I felt it was there in both the novels. I also found the sexual dynamics in both Rooney’s writing and in the work of Roupenian predictable and psychologically reductive, and a bit derivative of Mary Gaitskill. I also recognise that both are talented. Is that so uncollegiate?

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The critic Ellen E Jones wrote in the Guardian of Fleabag’s privately-educated, rich London privilege that “Fleabag is not ‘women’; she’s just that particular subsection who already make up the majority of women in public life, anyway,” and was angrily lambasted. But these dissenting voices are important. Constructive criticism is interesting. Room must be made for it lest it transform into bitterness in a climate of universal fawning, just as room must be made for other voices.  Otherwise our cultural landscape becomes tired and flat, and an innovative work of art such as Ducks, Newburyport gets reduced down to “like Fleabag, but not funny.” I love Fleabag, but I don’t want to read another Fleabag. I want fresh meat, and I don’t want to see it torn to pieces.