For a long time I’ve been thinking about abject feminism. My working definition is that it is what happens when white cishet bourgeois women decide to refuse the limited sovereignty the world offers them and instead dig deeper into their own debasement, a gesture of ethical disengagement that ends up (re)producing harm—not least to those whose abjection is mandated by the construction of white cis womanhood itself. As an aesthetic project abject feminism thrived in the 2010s, a steady stream of depictions of the bleak, disgusting, wretched debasement that apparently is/was being a young cishet white woman in the US during this era. In this post I want to think about a recent iteration of abject feminism in the UK: the TV show Fleabag.
I was ready to dislike Fleabag because I’d seen the version Phoebe Waller-Bridge originally performed as a one-woman show at Soho Theatre in 2014 and truly hated it, but like many others I ended up being captivated by the TV adaptation. In any case, the point of my consideration of the show isn’t its aesthetic merit but its function as a kind of abject autotheory. This framing is hardly a novel one; the protagonist of the show herself confesses: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” I think of this line as something of a knowing wink to critics, who obediently rushed to the task of pointing out that, actually, the representation of these abject qualities in a (white bourgeois cishet) woman is a feminist gesture! This familiar claim is the central tenet of abject feminism: if your show depicts white cishet bourgeois women as abject, then congratulations, your show is feminist.
Both seasons of Fleabag featured many of the tropes of abject feminist cultural production: self-destructive straight sex; the degraded, “gross” and suffering female body; substance abuse; the abdication of responsibility for cruelty via trauma and self-harm. Anal sex is a perennial motif and it is with this act that Fleabag begins. A handsome man shows up at the protagonist’s apartment and—in spite of his handsomeness and sweetness—her decision to have anal sex with him is meant to signal her abjection. In this heteronegative set piece, the dissociative anesthetic provided by the protagonist’s confessional dynamic with the camera numbs her to the pain of anal penetration but also the pleasure of it, too. Compare this setup to the climactic sexual encounter in the second season, when she has loving, missionary, presumably vaginal sex with the Hot Priest but blocks the camera’s access to the scene. It is in this latter moment that the protagonist is redeemed from abjection and restored to a feminine ideal, someone for whom sexual pleasure is so completely private and internalized that no one can know for sure if it’s even happening.
Returning to the first episode, the punchline that concludes the scene and triggers the comic momentum of the series consists of the protagonist turning toward the camera and asking: “Have I got a massive arsehole?” This is the tightrope walked by abject feminism: blunt in its depiction of anal sex without relinquishing the prudish sentiment that anality is degrading and scandalous. What makes this position possible is the underlying logic that—despite what TERFs would have you believe—abjection is not integral to white cishet women but to other forms of womanhood and femininity. The categories of women likely to be disproportionately associated with anal sex and subjected to derogatory jokes about loosened assholes are, after all, trans women and sex workers. Similarly, the echo of anti-blackness in the joke of a “massive arsehole” or the racialized aspect of this abjection-via-anality should not be overlooked. Drawing on work by Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman and Kathryn Bond Stockton, Jennifer C. Nash has made a case for the “synonymity” of blackness and anality, a connection that illuminates “how black sexuality, for example, is imagined as dirty (and here, I mean not just metaphorically but literally); how black sexuality is posited as a formation akin to the ghetto: toxic, filthy, and nonreproductive; and how black sexuality is imagined as wasteful.” In other words, anality becomes another route through which blackness and black sexuality are constituted as abject.
This is not, of course, to posit blackness or anality as necessarily abject (or to refuse the possibility of “counter-intuitive power” within abjection) but rather to be clear about how these ideas function in the social order of racialized gender. When a white cishet woman having anal sex is so clearly presented as a marker of her abjection—as it is in the first episode of Fleabag—we ought to think critically about how such women play with abjection in a way that is too commonly read as a devastating feminist commentary on women’s subjugation when it actually confirms white bourgeois women’s detachability from the abject. Here’s another example: later in the first episode (I’m sticking to this one because there are actually too many examples to pick from the series as a whole), the protagonist ruminates on her financial woes and possible solutions to them, one of which is letting “a banker com[e] on my arse.” (The ass again! God forbid someone should come on it.) She continues: “I don’t want to justify the banker man with a proper mention so I’m not going to talk about him or how I do sometimes wish I could admit to not having morals and let him come on my arse for ten thousand pounds but apparently we’re not supposed to do that. So I won’t. Even though I could.”
Here the protagonist oscillates chaotically, initially distancing herself from what she perceives as the degrading, morally bankrupt act of exchanging money for sex before parading her scandalous proximity to it—only to then reaffirm the initial distance while emphasizing that she “could” inhabit this abject position if she wanted to. This donning and shedding of abjection like a sweater on a weird weather day betrays a false, appropriative affiliation with actual sex workers that simultaneously degrades/distances them by implying that exchanging sex for money equates to “not having morals.” The commonly-voiced idea that heterosexuality is barely distinguishable from sex work has resulted in a lot of civilian straight women getting very cosy with the idea that they “could” exchange sex for money even if they “won’t.” When toying with abjection in this capacity is framed as a heroic gesture of feminist relatability, it becomes clear how dangerous the canon of abject feminism can be for those women whose actual subjugation enables white bourgeois cishet women’s continual enshrinement.
All this matters if, following Kay Gabriel’s brilliant proposition, we view gender as an accumulation strategy and reorient the object of feminist/queer/trans liberation away from the abolition of gender signification and toward the abolition of gendered abjection. With such a goal in sight, it becomes obvious that playfully exaggerating, appropriating, and otherwise toying with categories of abject experience deliberately obscures the real social order of racialized gender. (And I really think it is deliberate—I was going to have a whole section reading Fleabag’s abject feminism alongside the currently and continually resurgent problem of UK transphobic feminism, but this post is already too long.) “Women are born with pain built in,” Kristin Scott Thomas’s extremely hot but misguided lesbian character tells Fleabag in Season 2. In reality women are not born with anything “built in” nor do we all have the same type of relationship to powerlessness, wretchedness, and pain. Some of us are more “abjectors” than debased, a fact that abject feminism cannot help but inadvertently convey even as it dwells in the spectacle of white women’s suffering and falsely renders us ethical nonactors in the process.
(This is a work in progress, sketches for a part of my heterosexuality project that deals with abject feminism. I have a lot more to read and think about and would welcome any suggestions, ideas, disagreements, etc. ❤ PS thanks to Maxi JD Caspar Julian and others with whom I have lately been Deep in the Discourse.)