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Lithium “Fleabag,” fourth walls, and the flaws of first-person writing

Jul. 31, 2019
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Illustration by Amber Cottell

Pop quiz: it’s thesis season and you (who has slept a grand total of five hours in three days) and your laptop (in all its 2.36-kilogram glory) had just fallen down the stairs. You now find yourself in the bottommost step (both literally and figuratively), and you start crying. First for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. Falling on your ass is already so, so painful, but remembering you’re not even halfway through your literature review makes it even more so. Do you: A. get up and carry on, you know, like a normal person; B. get up and ask for help, you know, like an even better person; or C. you take out your phone and you tweet about it, because get it? This thesis will be your cause of death, initially metaphorically but now literally! 

Of course you choose C, and even though you downscale the bleakness of it with a seemingly self-aware follow-up tweet saying, “i fell down the stairs and had a breakdown immediately afterwards and my first instinct was to tweet about it ksjdks i hate being gen z,” it still bothers you a bit, how you haven’t even gotten up from the floor before your fingernails start click-clacking on the glass screen.

But can you really blame yourself? Bo Burnham did say social media is the market’s answer to this generation’s demand to perform. “Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason,” he preached. Your mere existence on the internet deems you a performer—oh dear performer, what’s on your mind? What’s happening? How can you not oblige?

Maybe it’s because you’re a child of the world wide web, but you actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing your life on the internet. Thinking the internet is quantifiably lesser than real life is naive, and frankly, a little old-timey. And it’s not like young people are the only ones susceptible to divulging—didn’t your mom just write an extensive Facebook post about your teenage cousin’s pregnancy? “When we're looking at the screen we're not face-to-face with someone who can immediately respond to us, so it's easier to let it all out. It’s almost like we’re invisible,” says Russell W. Belk, author of Extended Self in a Digital World. Like a sinner whispering through the wooden lattice of a confessional, you are comforted by the existence of the phone screen, the filter disabling you from looking your priest in the eye.

You’re reading this essay and you think, alright. We get it. We live in a society. But as you just read, there’s nothing wrong with sharing your life on the internet. Right now having an audience is just as natural as being the audience. Oh, and you’re a writer, and isn’t every writer’s first piece always in first person? You weren’t writing analytical essays on your Totally Spies lockable journal at nine years old. You weren’t writing them on your Blogspot at 14, and you sure as hell are not writing them now, at 19, because you’re a personal essayist, as you like to call yourself. And what is the personal essay if not the glorified diary entry; what are you if not a serial diarist?

Then again, can you really blame yourself? Laura Bennett, in a piece for Slate, called first person the internet’s native voice, and once you’ve realized that, you have a hard time not seeing everything as a glorified diary entry, regardless of whether it was published online or not. You see the patterns in a filmmaker’s body of work or an author’s box set; Xavier Dolan can’t stop making movies about mothers and homosexuality in the same way Donna Tartt can’t stop writing about social class and aesthetic. You believe every artist’s piece of work is autobiographical to some small degree—surely, as an artist, you love what you create, and you are what you love; you write what you know, etc. etc.

Imagine your gratification when you decide to watch Fleabag and the titular fleabag looks into the camera and speaks directly to you. You like to think that this show, created and written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who you are now convinced is your soulmate), is Fleabag’s diary. She tells the audience her thoughts and reactions in real time, her running play-by-play a cause for your inevitable attachment to her. Fourth wall-breaking isn’t new, but in the hands of Waller-Bridge it never feels old. You half-expect this narrative device to play like a gimmick, done for comedic effect a la Deadpool’s mid-punch quips; but while it is hilarious, it’s done pre-punch—Waller-Bridge has a habit of sneaking dramatic resonance in the laughter breaks, moments a comedian usually reserves for relishing in the success of a joke. “When you laugh, you’re really vulnerable, and what she does [is] she gets you just as you’re laughing. It comes out of nowhere,” producer Sarah Hammond says of the show creator’s writing. 

Of course it’s not only the when that makes the fourth wall breaks rich and relevant. Coming back to the Deadpool example, fourth wall breaks serve no purpose in the films aside from witty commentary, since there are still the Very Evil Scientists whose only functions are to Be Evil and Provide Exposition. In Fleabag, the breaks are not snarky. At first it’s full sentences—you’ve only just met her, after all—but as the show progresses the breaks progress as well, until it only takes Fleabag a half-second snare at the camera for you to know what she’s thinking. 

Waller-Bridge sees this narrative device not as a tool to help the plot but as the plot. She has said repeatedly that the main relationship of the show is between Fleabag and the audience, calling the latter Fleabag’s “secret camera friend.” Many have marvelled at their all-knowing position as the viewer, so maybe the audience is God—which doesn’t seem far-fetched considering the second season’s themes of faith and attractive priestliness. But are you really Fleabag’s capital-G God if you don’t know anything about her? When she positioned herself in the priest’s confessional, protruding like a sore thumb with a glass of alcohol in hand, did you know what she was going to say? You thought you did, especially with her lead-up—calling upon things she’s revealed in previous episodes—but this is just another case of Waller-Bridge sneaking up on you when you’re vulnerable. You don’t know anything about Fleabag. You know her every private thought, but not really, because suppression is still her first instinct; she can hide things from you, and she does. “She invites them in. She goes, ‘Come into my life. I promise you it’s going to be a riot. I’ll show you I’m sexy and funny and my world’s kind of crazy,’” reveals Waller-Bridge on the titular character’s intentions. In Fleabag’s world, she is God.

Not God of her life—the whole premise of Fleabag is her losing control of it, after all—but God of you, of what you see. By speaking to you, her dear secret camera friend, she distances herself from the actual people in her life. It’s an “escape hatch,” according to Kathryn VanArendonk’s review of the show’s second season for Vulture. “She dissociates from her own life whenever things get to be too much, turning away from what’s right in front of her so she can have a moment to breathe,” VanArendonk writes. Controlling what you see makes Fleabag feel she is controlling her life, so she continues. You don’t go through the experiences with her; she presents them to you, repackaged, so the tension isn’t really tension and the trauma isn’t really trauma, but stories. Like anecdotes you sprinkle with funny comments at family reunions, or personal problems you find funny when you’re older—except she skips the passing of time and the healing it brings, and impatiently fast forwards to the part where she can just laugh about it. By turning her experiences into stories and telling them to an audience, she gives them a life of their own. What she’s going though is not hers anymore, but yours. Not her problem anymore.

This idea of storytellers losing ownership of their work is not a new thing. You’re reminded of John Green, who said something about the reading of a book being a collaboration between the author and the reader. Once something is published—or rather, publicized—as much as you say you created it and you copyrighted it and will protect it, it’s not yours anymore. You can’t control how your work is received and interpreted. That’s true for John Green books and Fleabag and every other book and film and show and song and everything, even non-fiction—especially non-fiction. 

In her stand-up special Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby looked back at one of her earlier routines, which centered on her coming out-story and how it’s affected her almost a decade later. “Comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence. The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes,” she reveals. “I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and I sealed it off into jokes. The story became a routine, and through repetition, the joke version fused with my actual memory of what happened; but unfortunately that joke version was not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality.” To include your life in your art is to trivialize it. As a personal essayist, you tend to look at your personal experiences from a distance—not objectively, per se, but as if they are not happening to you. You put on your writer hat and suddenly it’s not your life but a pitch, a story, an email, a blog post. And suddenly you’re thinking about flow and building tension and relatability, and suddenly your life is a product. And locking your life up as a product gives you the illusion that it’s done, you don’t have to deal with it anymore.  Like Fleabag’s repackaging of her life, you distance yourself from your life by seeing it as something you do for others to consume. Your audience is a cop-out. 

Gadsby was also right in saying you edit a memory everytime you revisit it, even more so when you revisit it with the intention of actually revising it. Personal essays only work if they produce resonance, and that is only achieved through universality. You purposely choose an angle that clicks with the most; the fictionalizing of the non-fiction, because you want the essay to work, and to work well. Bennett says this is inevitable in today’s first-person essay boom: “[There’s a] push to ensure that every story, no matter how narrow, will find an ardent audience of cheerleaders (or hate-readers) and a corresponding number of clicks.”

In the clamor for universality and clicks, Jia Tolentino, features editor for Jezebel, said that “writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them,” which is true. You make a lot of jokes along the lines of “now which childhood trauma should I pitch next?” and it’s funny because it’s true. It seems the only way to create impact through the personal essay is through shock value or controversy, so you look for those in your life. This reminds you of every artist who’s very personal in their work, but especially those who don’t succumb to subtext or ambiguity. You remember Taylor Swift half-subtly hiding who her songs are about through capitalization in her lyric booklets. You remember Conan Gray, who sings songs of love and crushes and heartbreak, half-asleep in his 26th vlog. “No one ever tells you this when you’re going into the music industry, but writing music is a painful experience.” he muses. He’s very open about almost all his songs being about this one person he liked in high school. “It’s my actual life, and there’s stuff that I sometimes wish I didn’t have to remember every single day.”

When your art is rooted in the personal, it takes a toll on you. You have to delve deep into your experiences, and it takes a lot of emotional energy. While it’s good to reflect on your life, it’s counterproductive if the introspection comes from an artist’s perspective and not your perspective. In a conversation with Bennett, Alana Massey, who has written about body image and her eating disorders for xoJane, Buzzfeed, and Medium, said, “Writing about my interior life for the internet has disfigured my relationship to it. The minute I have an interesting idea or turn of phrase or experience now, I’m like, OK, who do I send this to? How fast can I monetize it?” A scene from last year’s Vox Lux plays in your head: Natalie Portman’s Celeste, a washed-up superstar nearing the dusk of her career, is screaming. “I am sick of everybody treating me like I’m not a person!” You find this hilarious, because if you could crack yourself open you’re sure you’d find a smaller Celeste inside; a part of you who’s tired of your tendency to only see yourself and your life from the outside. 

You don’t grow from exploiting yourself. You don’t learn from distancing yourself from your life. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” Gadsby proclaims in Nanette. Your life is not a string of jokes, or a listicle, or a first-person account. It’s your life. Yours. Yours. Yours.

You believe artists who are unafraid of baring their whole life are what make the world a better place. You think they’re the most human of all humans. But as Gadsby said, stories need three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end; you don’t tell a story with no ending. Writing heals, this you know, but time does as well. Writing is nothing without perspective and hindsight; things only time can bring you. In Fleabag’s finale, our titular fleabag, beloved but broken, is looking into the camera and shaking her head. The camera is doggedly stationary as she offers a sheepish wave goodbye and leaves. The screen turns black, and you see yourself reflected on it. She gave you her life and you lived it, unknowingly succumbing to the same distancing mechanism she has. But now she’s walking away, partly because she knows she can survive without you, but also because you can survive without her too.