It’s the phrase that had people up and down the country simultaneously biting their lip and muttering “forgive me father, for I have sinned”. Fleabag fever has taken over, and I could not be more thrilled. The genius of Phoebe Waller-Bridge has delivered us another glorious season of exploits that men have described to me as “unrealistic”, to which I have responded with a wry look to camera.
Kristin Scott Thomas monologuing about the menopause, Hugh Dennis in an apron, Olivia Colman screaming “CUNT”. It literally has everything. For once we are being shown the tear-stained, hilarious, awful, brilliant world of a thirty-something woman simply trying to wade through a horribly familiar swamp of shame and existential dread. And it’s wonderful. But you know what makes it more wonderful? The sexy priest.
Yep, Moriarty is here, and this time he is in robes.
There has been a Twitter debate raging over whether that scene was the confession box erotica we all didn’t know we needed, or the exploitation of a vulnerable woman. I would argue it’s a bit of both, but that you are not a bad feminist for thirsting after the Father.
I am not denying that the scene is wholly problematic. The monologue delivered by Fleabag from inside the confession box gripped me by the throat and reduced me to tears. Her exposed desperation and fear were gut-wrenching, and a good man would have offered guidance and support, and perhaps, at a stretch, a rule-bending hug.
But here is the problem, women often fantasise about bad men.
It has been revealed in multiple studies of sexual desire that rape, blurred consent, and being taken advantage of come up time and time again as a fantasy for many women. Why? Whilst some blame the engrained notion of rape culture, others simply cite the element of taboo in taking pleasure in something objectively dreadful, which feels exciting and risky. It’s also important to note that in a fantasy, consent is a given because the entire scenario exists in your head. Any power imbalance is unimportant because inside your own fantasy, you are always the one ultimately in control. The entire point of a fantasy is that it exists outside of a reality.
Similarly, books, television and film offer us a portal into another life; one without Brexit and where Bowie might still be alive. When watching a scene on TV, we know nothing bad is really happening because we downloaded it from the beeb and are watching it whilst eating mashed potatoes and painting our toenails. So, whilst if you were watching an actual priest take advantage of a vulnerable young woman in a confession box you would be morally obligated to step in and 1) explain why you were hiding in the shadows, and 2) report the priest in question to the relevant authorities, watching it on TV is a safe enough distance for it to fall firmly into the fantasy category.
Let’s not forget, that this is a world where a woman lives alone in a decent flat in London supported only by the income of, what appears to be, a fairly unpopular guinea-pig themed café. A world where men as hot as Andrew Scott become priests. A world where Olivia Colman isn’t the queen of literally everything. For all its gritty reality, Fleabag is fiction.
This is nothing new either, there is a whole host of book and film characters who are objectively awful but also kind of hot. Stanley in Streetcar? Kind of hot. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Kind of hot. Hugh Grant in most films? Kind of hot. I am sure there is a deeper analysis to be done as to why women seem to have so many problematic faves, but labelling everybody who wouldn’t mind a bit of Mr Rochester, or enjoys a James Bond movie as a Bad Feminist isn’t helping anything. Because whether it’s something that stems from the culture we have been raised in, or just an innate fascination with the distasteful and forbidden, the last thing we need is something else on the list of things that make us Bad Feminists.
On the other hand, worrying about whether your feminism is ‘good enough’ is textbook Fleabag, so maybe I will go and tell a priest about it…