Fleabag Versus Fight Club: Decoding the Cinematic Gaze

Fleabag Versus Fight Club: Decoding the Cinematic Gaze

“I have a horrible feeling I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”-Fleabag

Fleabag is us. We, the women of the 21st century, are Fleabag. Fleabag (2016-19), a BBC comedy-drama television series,  follows the life of a woman in her twenties, tackling her mental health issues, dysfunctional relationships, loneliness, and a pathetic capitalist system with her sole coping mechanism:  her sarcastic, unfiltered, and dry-witted humour. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also plays the leading part of Fleabag, her description of herself is honest, funny, and at the same time hard-hitting. This series depicts a new form of feminism with beautiful candor, while negotiating with the preexisting problems of patriarchy. 

Now, before we move ahead with Fleabag, let’s take a moment and focus on David Fincher’s movie Fight Club (1997), based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk.  This crazy thriller is about a man, Jack, an insomniac narrator who is drifting through the events of his day as a spectator of his own life. He feels detached and empty deep inside. He does not feel happy or content in his job or the materialistic possessions it provides him with.   He encounters Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), a soap salesman, and together, they start an underground fight club, a violent outlet for men who want to express their suppressed masculine aggression and frustration by beating each other. Jack’s psyche as a narrator, therefore, appears to be radically different from most other narrators in other films.  A perennial theme of Fight Club exposes itself in such a way that it makes us bite our tongues until the very last moment, negotiating between the objective of dream and reality. What is remarkable about this narrative film is that the unreliability of the narrator in this focalizes, filters the story, through those characters whose version we are following. For example, when following Tyler Durden's character, we see the film in a different light, while Jack, who seems to be the protagonist, and the original narrator, has a different version altogether. 

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Both the narrators, Fleabag and Jack, seem to be diametrically opposite to each other, yet they fight the same problems, negotiating through their direct engagement with the audience. Then why are we comparing them?

Hello, Audience!”
The Breaking Of the Fourth Wall

Fleabag Versus Fight Club: Decoding the Cinematic Gaze
Jack (Edward Norton) breaks the fourth wall in Fight Club while Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is looking away. 

The breaking of the fourth wall, in this web series and film, helps us to understand what our dearest Brecht would call the distance between the audience and the artist in epic theatre alienation effect. In the movie Fight Club, this is, hands down, exhibited brilliantly. Edward Norton, the narrator, ruptures the fourth wall to describe to his audience who Tyler Durden (the other character which exists in his head) is. There is an apparent disjuncture whenever the narrator speaks to the audience to reveal himself. This fourth wall break is both abrupt and thoughtful, allowing us a glimpse deeper into the mysterious life of Tyler, and letting the viewer understand more about the enigmatic character. Nevertheless, characters breaking the fourth wall need not necessarily be unanticipated, and fractures like Fight Club

A case in point could be that of Fleabag, wherein the audience seems to know about her significantly well, but not all at once. Almost every conversation in the show is interrupted by this device. However, her breaking of the fourth wall is not sudden, but instead moves with the audience as we begin to unravel her characters slowly, episode after episode. A humdrum will tell you: It’s two different genres! We won’t pay attention to them. They are boring. Fleabag interacts directly with her audience without anyone noticing. It is almost as if her closeness to us is because she distances herself from other characters in the show. However, everything changes once the Priest is introduced to us. (Oh god, we are already dying). He is someone Fleabag feels a sexual tension with, even though as per the norms binding on the society, it is almost impossible. We notice that up until this moment, it was only us, the audience, who knew of her little secret. Now, with the priest’s presence in the scene with Fleabag, there’s a discord. Every time Fleabag speaks to her audience, the priest notices that she is doing something unnatural.

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Fleabag Versus Fight Club: Decoding the Cinematic Gaze
Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) breaking the fourth wall, in the presence of the Priest (Andrew Scott) (Credits: BBC/Amazon Prime Video)

But I See you!”
The Narrator’s Gaze

Speaking of the gaze of the narrator, we again come across a distinctly opposite view of both the narrator (Edward Norton) and Fleabag. It is here that we notice the difference in gender, glaringly visible while they (narrators) deal with the object in their view. In Fight Club, we come across visuals wherein there is a predominant undercutting of images of women, body parts that are sexualised, and also scenes of the enactment of male power. For example, the introductory violent sex scene, and the bloody fight at the support group Jack visits. It is apparent that these visual aspects, narrative looks, and exchanges of gaze between characters in the film points to what Laura Mulvey, the famous film theorist, has noted as the ‘male gaze’. Laura Mulvey has spoken about the male gaze in cinema, where more often than not, it is the gaze of the male characters through which the movie progresses. Mulvey, in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", argues that a woman is portrayed as the object of the male gaze in the frames of a film narrative, whereby she is just a passive character. Amidst this process, the object of viewing, that is the woman, exists without any agency of her own, while the male eye remains the active spectator of this pleasure-seeking condition. Mulvey’s description of the male gaze serves well to characterise the affect of the unnamed narrator’s account of sexual acts involving Marla Singer, in Fight Club

In Fleabag, however, we are happily surprised with a subversion of this gaze. It is interesting how the camera now works for the female narrator, Waller-Bridge’s gaze, while she happens to glance at the Priest. It is a male body that is the object of desire in this situation. And the narrator doesn’t even play innocent all the while she is peeking at him for the audience. In Fight Club, the male gaze seems to only be limited to the female body, and it’s appearance alone. There’s a certain discomfort too, unlike that of Fleabag. Perhaps the existing violence in the movie which we as the audience view from the narrator’s gaze adds to this uneasiness. On the contrary, when it comes to Fleabag, we notice that there is more to the frame than that of the physically attractive body of the Priest. We notice there are trees, beautiful roads, and even a scenic setup. Every time Fleabag looks at us, while crushing on the Priest, we drool. Yes, there. We said it!

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All in all, the comparative framework of looking at visual content happens to be in a sorry state of dealing with the scopic gaze. This is regrettably believed to be gendered because of the attitude prevalent in the society. It’s not just the lens of the critic who reads through this gaze, but also the fact that the male gaze has existed in a privileged position in cinema. The female body is merely treated as an object of pleasure, which is apparent in films such as  Fight Club. But don’t lose heart fellas, series like Fleabag are challenging that dominant gaze in an observantly humorous manner. It is destabilising the status quo in a poignant way by chucking away the obtrusive male gaze, and fingers crossed, it will remain that way for a long, long time.

Author’s Biographical Note: Lipi is a dedicated procrastinator who also happens to like writing and managing teams. A master's student at Ambedkar University Delhi who in an alternate universe, body-doubles Superwoman and grumpy seven-year-olds. Traveling around the world with the bare minimum is her dream. Being a self-proclaimed food enthusiast, she always chooses eateries before anything else.

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