How the British comedienne has created a new archetype for women in media.
Breaking a creator’s work down to its basic, central components can reveal a lot about said person. After all, we tend to write what we know. Edgar Wright certainly knows how to do visual comedy. Wes Anderson seems to have a fascination with father figures. Woody Allen definitely has an obsession with himself. Across a writer or director’s projects, it is easy to trace ideas and themes, track how they progress. In the case of actress-writer-director Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is interested in watching people try and fail to connect and she knows women, very well.
In just two years, Waller-Bridge has created three television shows with wildly disparate premises, all anchored by her impeccable humor. Not satisfied as simply creating the different worlds in which the shows exist—all showcasing a different side of London—she starred in two and wrote for all three. The farcical Crashing (not the HBO show starring Pete Holmes), the dramatic character study Fleabag, and the new BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve have solidified her as one of the great writers and showrunners currently working. Her characters are almost unbearably human. A loaded back-and-forth between long-time friends in Crashing about possible deeper feelings for each other is skin-crawling and frustrating in a way that feels real. Her sense of humor is childish yet incredibly smart. Her heroine in Fleabag can be used to dispense perverted jokes about pencils and guinea pig body parts or to stumble upon a realistic trap of modern feminism in which she and her sister are the only two women at a lecture to choose losing five years off their life to have the “perfect” body. However, her greatest strength lies in how she writes women.
Some may call these women rascals. Others have called them anti-heroines. However, they feel like characters wholly deserving of their own category. The Waller-Bridgeian woman, a mouthful if there ever was one. Across the three shows, Waller-Bridge has excelled at creating these flawed lead women who are charming and infuriating at the same time. The protagonist of Fleabag—unnamed, but referred to by most viewers as “Fleabag”—perhaps exemplifies the Waller-Bridgeian type best. Aided by the use of fourth wall breaks that miraculously never tire, Fleabag is able to be completely open with the audience, sharing her thoughts or cracking jokes during conversations with other characters. Through this device, the audience is privy to more of her; we share the connection she can’t find with anyone else following the death of her best friend.
An inability to connect with others, to discuss their emotions and thoughts, is a crucial component of a Waller-Bridgeian woman. They’re a bit stunted, all adults with a distinctly immature streak. When we meet Eve of Killing Eve, she is screaming and crying in bed while her concerned husband hurries to wake her from what one imagines is a horrible night terror. In reality, she had simply fallen asleep on both her arms and was proportionally expressing the agony at hand. Alison Willmore concisely described the leads of Crashing and Fleabag as possessing a “dirty-joking, random hookup-having, earthy unfetteredness.” While we have yet to truly explore Eve’s relationship with sex, her relationship with her husband is noticeably lacking from the first episode. All three women are flighty and wily, driven largely by their impulses which can have disastrous effects on the people around them.
Like the Hawksian woman before her, a Waller-Bridgeian woman is self-possessed and completely frank, often to a fault. Named after the director Howard Hawks, a Hawksian woman is fast-talking, excellent at banter, and rarely prone to hysterics. This archetype of a woman is largely relational to the male protagonist. Smart enough to fit in with the men, but not too intelligent as to make them feel insecure or inferior. Always beautiful, but never distractingly so and often wearing very tailored suits and dresses. These women—the most famous incarnations being through Lauren Bacall—must take on masculine qualities in order to properly interact in the male-dominated films. This is very different from the particularly female-populated worlds of the Waller-Bridgean women.
Being a Hawksian woman elevated the character and the actress, but required her “to shed their conventional gender identities as passive, domestic, and feminine.” While Waller-Bridgeian women are often unladylike, they are still distinctly female and feminine. They may appreciate sex and curse more than a Scorsese movie, but it’s never in an attempt to separate from the more stereotypical tendencies of their gender. Rather, these characters, untethered as their lives may be, have a pretty strong balance of their masculine and feminine qualities. One of the most memorably funny scenes from the six-episode Fleabag is a solo sex session featuring former president Barack Obama. Some of their most feminine attributes are where Fleabag and Crashing lead Lulu are able to exert the most control in their lives and find strength. Always dressed well and properly made up, their womanhood is crucial to the characters, though it can also be harnessed and used in destructive ways. How Fleabag uses sex or her body is not particularly healthy, but a coping mechanism nonetheless.
In an age where being sympathetic or pleasant can unduly decide the support for a character, especially for female characters, Waller-Bridge has succeeded at creating messy protagonists who walk the line between likable and unlikable with a tantalizing ease. There is a distinct sense that no matter where this writer will lead you and the characters, you will always remain squarely on their side. Because regardless of how realistic they seem or how progressive they may be, a Waller-Bridgean woman is always incredibly funny and will win you back in an instant. At first, it may seem that it is simply the performer as Lulu and Fleabag are both played by the charm machine, Waller-Bridge, herself. However, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, Eve and Villanelle of Killing Eve, prove that this archetype can stand alone with Waller-Bridge’s solely off-screen.
The next challenge the talented writer has seemingly set for herself: how would two of these women interact with each other? Waller-Bridge is gifted at granting even minor characters with depth and humanity. In Crashing, the third point of the central love triangle, Kate, could have simply been the boring alternative to Lulu that she initially presented. However, she loosens up as the series progresses, becoming a source of comfort and making you doubt any interest you had in Lulu breaking Kate and Anthony up. While Kate is an entertaining character, she is by no means a Waller-Bridgean woman. In Killing Eve, we may finally have two. As the cat-and-mouse game is set up between an MI5 agent and the assassin she will likely have to track down, we’re first introduced to their separates lives. Both have the signature warped sense of humor, an inability to connect, and endless charm we’ve come to expect of the writer’s heroines. Who knows what will happen when they come face-to-face, finally knowing who the other truly is. But with Waller-Bridge running the show, it will no doubt be entertaining and revealing in equal measure.