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Lithium The “Fleabag” era of dissociative feminism must end

Jan. 21, 2022
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Gone are the days of fighting for women’s rights, saying #MeToo, and girlbossing to the top. Women have entered a new era of performative nihilism in which instead of throwing a fit, they are approaching pain passively. Rather than complaining about their oppression or taking action to stop it, the young, contrarian women of TikTok have decided to align themselves with their favorite female heroines and simply exist as pained beings. Instead of clawing our way to the top, we are interiorizing our existential aches. We’re numb. According to the article “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating” by writer Emmeline Clein, our apathy can be likened to a psychiatric condition: dissociation. 

Dissociation is the detachment of consciousness from the immediate bodily and emotional experience. As defined by the American Psychiatric Association, it’s an unconscious coping mechanism that usually develops in response to trauma, and it leaves sufferers feeling disconnected from the world. While psychologists believe that everybody dissociates to a certain extent, there’s a difference between a psychiatrically diagnosed dissociative disorder like dissociative identity disorder (DID) and “non-pathological dissociation.” The latter includes everyday sensations like runner’s high and highway hypnosis, wherein the subject’s brain briefly goes on autopilot and detaches from bodily pain.

Dissociative feminism, a term coined by Clein in her article, does not refer to medically diagnosed occurrences of dissociation like DID. It’s more accurately characterized as a state of existence championed by women on TikTok and inspired by fictional heroines. Encapsulating a nihilistic attitude toward feminine progress and toward existence in general, dissociative feminism is prevalent in TikToks referencing the Fleabag era or the “feminine urge” trend. In these videos, women describe a desire to wallow in their sorrow, continue harmful relationships, drastically change their appearance to feel pretty again, or put the desires of a man before their own—all of which involve women ceasing fighting back and instead submitting to their pain, à la Clein’s theory of dissociative feminism. This strain of feminism can be detected in novels by Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh, and in their aching, submissive heroines. It’s a romanticization of heterosexual female despair and an excuse to let pain consume you. It’s when Fleabag, the titular protagonist of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s critically acclaimed series, looks at the camera during climactic moments, removing herself from her physical body and speaking directly to the viewer. It’s a cinematic extension of the mind-body separation that occurs during actual dissociation, and it’s being used to describe a coping mechanism used by many young women today. 

Videos on TikTok describe the dissociative “Fleabag era” as the epitome of feminine messiness. One user characterized a dissociative feminist as one who sleeps “in drugstore mascara” and feels “prettiest right after [crying].” When the Fleabag woman is hurt—by society, by men, whomever—she responds by sinking deeper into that pain. Fleabag—and the real-life women on TikTok who identify with her suffering—medicates through sex, alcohol, and inflicting pain on others. Falling under the dissociative woman umbrella, the unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation responds to post-collegiate despair by embarking on a drug-addled quest to literally sleep away an entire year. Frances, the detached heroine of Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends, feels pressure to act perpetually unphased as she engages in an affair that inflicts emotional damage on everybody involved. 

The “Fleabag era” trend, as it romanticizes self-destruction, is inherently dangerous both to the Fleabag woman and to the other people implicated in her destructive quest. It’s a harmful pattern I’ve observed on the internet and in my own social circle. When my friends and I are hurt (usually by men, because that’s what happens in college), we respond by making “feminine rage” playlists. We take a page from the books of our favorite fictional angry women and we look to inflict damage. Our response to emotional pain is to become full-fledged female manipulators, who use romantic partners like they use us. We accept that being hurt is part of being a woman, and we use that hurt as ammunition. Because what better way to get over heartbreak than to weaponize our sexuality, engage in substance abuse, and become endless pits of anger and pain? 

Our instinct to inflict pain is concerning, and it’s only perpetuated by internet trends that romanticize seeking vengeance for fun and being women with innate pain. We forget that Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sally Rooney’s heroines aren’t role models; they’re complicated, sometimes unlikable women meant to add dimension to the previously one-dimensional portrayal of women in the media. They certainly shouldn’t be looked at as promoters of healthy coping mechanisms. 

Really, the nihilism, passivity, and destruction inherent to the “Fleabag era” and dissociative feminism are damaging to the entire feminist movement. Fleabag doesn’t direct her anger toward the patriarchy; she directs it toward herself. When she dissociates and addresses the viewer, she’s usually doing it to cope with unpleasant situations. In the second season, for example, she repeatedly turns to the viewer to crack jokes during an extremely uncomfortable family dinner. She’s usually making fun of herself during these painful moments; in one opening scene, she wipes blood off her face and looks at the camera to ironically quip, “This is a love story.” Fleabag’s repeated laughing at herself during times of woe perpetuates the idea that pain experienced by a woman is at the fault of the woman herself; that she can laugh at herself and remedy the situation. This philosophy puts the burden entirely on women to explain and deal with their pain, and removes accountability from the societal systems that actually oppress women. At the family dinner, for example, her father and brother-in-law are the cause of many awkward silences—yet when Fleabag turns to the camera, she’s taking responsibility.

The theme that ties all these dissociating women together is passivity. They all possess a desire to sit back and wallow in their hardship; to cope with it instead of fix it. Passivity is a tenet of white feminism. To be able to approach feminism in a nihilistic way is to be incredibly privileged. Only wealthy white women can put aside their lives to sleep away a year like Moshfegh’s heroine, embark on a sex-and-alcohol binge like Fleabag, or galvant around Dublin having affairs Sally Rooney-style. Dissociative feminism, and its accompanying passivity, revolves around women with the world at their feet—women who are cis, white, pretty, and wealthy. These women are tortured and unpleasant yet interesting; they have the resources to remove themselves from oppression and thus feel no need to fight for the rights of women without said resources. 

However contradictory it may sound, the way for women to break free of the “Fleabag era” of destruction and passivity is to follow Fleabag as she evolves as a character. Waller-Bridge’s heroine spends the second season of Fleabag on a journey of self-improvement. She supports her sister as she navigates an abusive relationship. She develops a deep emotional bond with a celibate priest, who notices her dissociation and teaches her that human connection is the answer to pain. She learns that love between humans is what makes life bearable, and that dissociation is not necessary. She stops addressing the audience. Selfishness and anger, she realizes, are not productive responses to grief. We’d do better to follow this developed version of Fleabag, and heal ourselves and others through companionship rather than drown in the romantic despair of our white, wealthy, pretty privilege.