The potty-mouthed female stars of TV's Fleabag and Catastrophe expose worrying truths about the unhappy, addictive pornification of modern life, writes LIBBY PURVES
- Nice young women of past generations didn’t talk dirty, says Libby Purves
- Women are talking dirty, the latest in this new wave being Phoebe Waller-Bridge
- Then there’s the success of another female comic writer, Sharon Horgan
Nice young women of past generations didn’t talk dirty. It wasn’t done. They talked of love and romance and handsome men (even my generation used the word ‘swoony’).
They talked of finding Mr Right, though if they were more daring they would admit to quite a few Mr Wrongs along the way.
If the sex itself was ever mentioned in detail, it was whispered between the closest of girlfriends, and often not even then. The first time most young women chatted or wrote openly about the most intimate parts of their bodies was when they gave birth and fed babies.
Women are talking dirty, the latest in this new wave being Phoebe Waller-Bridge (pictured)
But things have changed. Women writers for screen and stage are fearlessly letting it all hang out.
Sex And The City began this trend with startling conversations about those moments when the dream of bedtime embraces becomes a horror story.
Who can forget actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s glum expression during a particularly awkward interlude in one episode of the U.S. TV series, or Kristin Davis as prim Charlotte confessing that her dream man wanted certain things she definitely wasn’t offering?
That show did cling firmly to its liberated belief that women can put themselves about as freely as the most laddish straight men or cruising gay men without ever suffering regret at sharing themselves so widely.
That old word of condemnation — ‘promiscuous’ — has almost fallen out of use. And mainly, that’s a relief, because the insult was rarely thrown at men. It was only women who were bad-mouthed as ‘slutty’, men were ‘Casanovas’, ‘Don Juans’, ‘conquerors’.
Now, a new generation of uninhibited young female writers and comedians are getting so explicit that they make Bridget Jones’s diaries sound like the chronicle of a virgin Victorian milkmaid.
The women are talking dirty, the latest in this new wave being Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
At the age of 30, she wrote and performed a monologue called Fleabag. It is running now — for the second time — at London’s Soho Theatre, having previously won awards and an Olivier nomination, and been reviewed starrily (especially by men) as ‘sucker-punch funny’ and ‘jaw-droppingly filthy’.
Then there’s the success of another female comic writer, Sharon Horgan (pictured)
From the grubby practicalities of intimacy to musings about exotic varieties of porn, it shies away from nothing.
In between outings as a stage solo show, the story became a TV series (first on BBC3 then moving to BBC2) performed by Waller-Bridge this time with a full cast.
Her character, nicknamed Fleabag, is an erratic, highly-sexed modern girl, who co-owns a failing cafe and whose best friend has died in a possible suicide because her boyfriend cheated.
Fleabag’s life is in chaos — and is sometimes immensely funny as she attempts to get a bank loan, steals, resents her stepmother and flits from man to man.
In the latter activity she does not bother with their real names but gives them nicknames too unsuitable to print here.
But the core of the piece is in depicting her unhappiness: the bleak reality of a young woman adrift, unable to feel worthy in any way but sexually, living in a culture defined by the unhappy, addictive pornification of modern life.
We learn gradually that it is grief and remorse which are poisoning Fleabag. The sad truth is that her only way to medicate this misery and feel worth anything is through sex without affection or intimacy.
On paper, Waller-Bridge, now 31, would appear to have little in common with her unhappy, rootless creation. She has spoken of an ‘idyllic’ childhood in leafy West London — her father worked in the City, while her mother was employed at the Ironmongers’ Guild.
After a private education at a girls’ school in Marylebone she turned down a place to read English at Trinity College, Dublin to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
As an actress she has appeared in Broadchurch (as barrister Abby Thompson) and the film The Iron Lady. She is married to director and writer Conor Woodman, and they recently bought a house in North-West London.
On paper, Waller-Bridge, now 31, would appear to have little in common with her unhappy, rootless creation
In interviews, Waller-Bridge has discussed how Fleabag is a show unafraid of exploring female anger.
She said: ‘I didn’t know how to articulate it because I was living this great, privileged life. But I think it was a mixture of hormones, media pressure to be perfect, along with having to find out who you want to be and what you want to do.’
These days, we hear a lot about how the porn culture has a disastrous effect on boys, so it was about time that a clever piece like this pointed out that young women — likeable, intelligent, educated ones like Fleabag — also suffer from adopting the role of objects and playthings.
Validated only by hook-ups, ruining their health and work in mindless sex and self-gratification, the Fleabags of today are, simply, lost.
Overall, it is a revealing, sorrowful human comedy and, because of its popularity, a welcome shift in perception of modern women’s lives and feelings.
Then there’s the success of another female comic writer, Sharon Horgan. Most recently, she has been the co‑writer and star of the equally fearless, frank TV comedy series Catastrophe, broadcast first last year on Channel 4.
Horgan was born in Hackney, East London, where her Irish mother and New Zealander father ran a pub, before they moved to Ireland to run a turkey farm and sent her to convent school.
She returned to England to study English at Brunel University then embarked on a career as an actress, notably in the BBC sitcom Pulling about three thirtysomething singletons, which she also co-wrote.
In Catastrophe, she plays an Irish schoolteacher (also called Sharon) in her late-30s, who has a brief meaningless fling with an American stranger, Rob (co-writer Rob Delaney), then finds she is pregnant.
It’s done in a spirit less unhappy than Fleabag’s, but just as casual.
Horgan, 46, has talked of the semi-autobiographical element: she and her now husband, entrepreneur Jeremy Rainbird, had an unplanned pregnancy six months into their relationship. They now have two daughters.
‘That is what happened to me,’ she’s said, ‘so it made sense to write about it.’
Horgan, 46, has talked of the semi-autobiographical element: she and her now husband, entrepreneur Jeremy Rainbird, had an unplanned pregnancy six months into their relationship
In Catastrophe, the American returns to Britain and is prepared to marry Sharon, much to his mother’s horror. The ensuing episodes cover their crises: sexual, emotional and eventually parental.
Horgan’s character never goes out of her way to be traditionally, nurturingly feminine. She behaves, quite often, like a complete cow, allowing the sympathy to slide across to poor Rob — who, in turn, gets things wrong.
But the point is that an event which began as a bit of passing lust is forced by the pregnancy to turn into something serious.
There is commitment (though shaky at times), parenthood (including fear for the baby’s health before it is born) and all the compromises, bad behaviour and messy everyday difficulties which need to be overcome if you are to build any kind of grown-up life and family.
There are, of course, novels which show this; and on stage, other women have written frankly about the way that sex can never really be just a refreshing recreational activity like tennis or squash.
But these shows, being popular and funny, represent a healthy phenomenon. We need reminding that even casual sex — risking trust and intimacy at the most vulnerable naked moments — sets up something serious between any couple. It may be love and a long-term bond, or it may be resentment and an ache of loss.
A recent survey across three countries asked people about negative feelings after one-night stands, such as worthlessness, rejection, shame, pity and frustration. Eighty-four per cent of women had felt them, and nearly as many men.
Sex is not just sport, whatever the porn industry pretends. It is not old-fashioned to affirm that it touches deep feelings.
Betrayals — there is a dreadful one in Fleabag — are painful, and if a new life is kindled and a baby born, as in Catastrophe, something immense takes hold of you both for life.
So while I would not have been comfortable watching either of these shows with my parents (shudder at the thought — poor Dad!), the frankness of such writing is useful.
Done with heart, it is the opposite of the plasticised, brutalised, fictionalised explicitness of the porn which teens — and even primary school children — see online.
Pornography treats bodies as playthings; women as disposable. Eroticism, its gentler sister, has its problems, too, offering an image of smooth unrealistic beauty and improbable ecstasies, with none of the affectionate laughter, anticlimax or failure which make life real.
So when a good comedy tells it like it is, the very rudery is refreshing.
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