There’s a SHE in the toilet. She’s once again in the bathroom. My goodness, how often is this woman going to have to pee?
The much-hyped BBC3 show written, directed and starring the versatile Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You, ensures that we get acquainted with the protagonist Arabella by taking us into this private space right from the start. It feels shocking, gimmicky, fresh and exhausting all at once.
But soon, a multi-layered, recurring theme becomes the routine scene of Arabella in a cubicle with her underwear on her ankles. When she needs to escape work pressures, we see her hiding in the restroom, which is presented as a type of cute joke.
In front of her best friend, we see her using the toilet, which emphasizes the intimacy of their relationship. When she is examined after her sexual assault, we see her in the same position in the hospital. We see her gossiping with a buddy in the bathroom as a teenage student, while a classmate who picks up on the recurring pose of Arabella in the bathroom expresses her own trauma.
The series’ central incident, Arabella’s rape, occurs in a toilet stall. It is also the location where she acts out revenge fantasies.
She just needs to pee badly sometimes.
In Phoebe Waller-“Fleabag.” Bridge’s a similar story recently played out. Fleabag on the Toilet, monologuing to her audience. Fleabag, prosaically snapping nude photographs for an admirer in the work restroom. In the middle of a tense family dinner, Fleabag’s sister Claire miscarries in the restaurant restroom.
I remember seeing a woman on the bathroom screen for the first time: Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. I remember it was so shocking to us adolescents that my friend gasped and squirmed in her seat uncomfortably. Twenty years and a long time later, it’s still a sight that gives us a break.
Listen, I have a long-standing problem with the kidney – it’s always the toilets that catch my eye, and somewhere there’s an essay that a student of film and television could write about the role of the bathroom in modern contemporary culture if it wasn’t already written.
There are limits to our cultural understanding and acceptance of femininity, and when one sees a female figure on the toilet, they are challenged. It’s a sign to the viewer that a woman who is not like the others, a woman who is a bit more ragged and finished, is about to become acquainted with one another.
Bad girls have been around for a long time in popular culture, but with the realism of their black humor and visceral truth about Millennial femininity, Fleabag and Arabella reached new heights. Reviews were uncritical and breathless, as if everyone was afraid to suggest in such modern masterpieces any room for improvement.
How fresh and bold and groundbreaking these two shows are was a common comment. A way of saying that these female characters are unlikeable, cliched, swear freely, and talk about periods without decency is some of this talk of courage. I would like to think we would move on quickly from the rejection of that last point, but unfortunately we still live in an age where, after complaints of “excessive detail.” the latest Tampax ad had to be pulled in Ireland.
In a piece on Newstalk FM, the doctor, newspaper columnist and radio host Ciara Kelly railed against it beautifully. She said, “It’s about shame,” and she was right.
It is a residual shame about the bodies of women, the behavior of women, and the expectations of women that lead us to worship fictional characters who, without batting an eye, bare themselves. Men have been portrayed as gross and fierce for a long time, of course, but women need to be neat and in control.
They also need to be sympathetic, and part of Fleabag and Bella’s enjoyable shock is that they are not only shameless about the unpleasant mechanics of their bodies, but they are also not very pleasant people.
Before her trauma sends her into a tailspin, Bella, to be fair, starts out as lazy and self-centered but largely likable. It’s a nightmare, Fleabag. A wretched girlfriend, a wretched daughter, a wretched sister, a wretched friend. She doesn’t know when to break up, and everybody is suffering around her.
Such grotesqueness from a man is standard, but all new from a woman.
Fleabag and I May Destroy You are in many respects groundbreaking: in their complex narrative structures or in their complex narrative structures.