21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Distancing Affect in Fleabag

Denise Wong

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s critically acclaimed series Fleabag has been ubiquitous in recent popular discourse and celebrated for its deft wielding of humour alongside moments of excruciating honesty and vulnerability. Although the antihero of the series is never addressed by name and, curiously, is only ever addressed by other diegetic characters as “you’, she is presumed to be eponymous. This link between the notion of presumed identities and second-person address becomes particularly salient when we consider how Fleabag’s frequent narrative asides and knowing glances at the camera replicate a presumed you-addressee in the viewer. This paper sets out to establish Fleabag as an example of second-person narrative in television by viewing the relationship between Fleabag and the camera as one between fictional narrator and the “implied” audience. I argue that in this communicative model, the narrative’s driving affect – intimacy – is ironically produced by manoeuvring the viewer-as-witness between positions of temporal distance and narrative disclosure. The sense of intimacy elicits a form of audience complicity that crucially exposes itself as problematic and illusory.

Narratological discussions of ‘voice’, or person, typically prioritise textual media over their visual counterparts and predominantly concern narration in works of fiction. Recognition of first, second or third-person narration is often anchored to pronoun usage, though in narratology since Genette, voice is no longer thought of as pronoun dependent but regarded as a quasi-visual point of view, or what Genette terms “focalisation.” David Herman simplifies the distinction between focalisation and narration as one between who sees and who speaks in narrative (191). An enriching example of the importance of this difference in works of second person narration is Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). It begins with a prominent second-person address focalised through a distinctly separate narratorial voice: “Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre” (3). Reminiscent of an omniscient narratorial voice that looms over its storyworld inhabitants, Hamid’s narrating voice stands out as an ironic purveyor of the paradoxical self-help genre. The “you” addressed is rhetorical and impersonal until the narrator maintains shortly after that the text will deliver on the promise established at the outset:

Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things. The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. (Hamid 4).

At this stage the impersonal you-addressee transforms into a storyworld specific you-protagonist who has never seen chocolate and has been infected with hepatitis E. As the narrative continues, centred around this you-protagonist, it nevertheless offers omniscient glimpses into the private lives and thoughts of other characters to which the you-protagonist cannot possibly be privy. This suggests the existence of a latent narratorial-I that is distinct from the you-addressee, which only emerges into view when it declares: “As you create this story and I create this story, I would like to ask you how things were” (Hamid 219-20). This distinction resonates with the figures of an older narrating-I and a younger experiencing-I in first-person narratives, though the framework is modified here to describe a (storyworld external) narrating-I versus a (storyworld internal) experiencing-you. Yet this view is palpably limited, as the narrating-I could also be interpellating a storyworld external referent in the co-creation of the story.

We may find clarification by turning to Herman’s contribution to second-person studies in Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative (2002), which expands upon the work of his predecessors Genette, Prince and Fludernik. Herman distinguishes a generalised or impersonal mode of address from an address to a fictional you-protagonist by reformulating these functions in his own typology as (a) generalised you and (b) fictional reference. However, rather than assuming the two to be mutually exclusive, his framework provides a more nuanced alternative discourse model by incorporating three additional functions:

(c) fictionalised (= horizontal) address

(d) apostrophic (= vertical) address

(e) doubly deictic you. (Herman 345)

Type (c), fictionalised (= horizontal) address occurs in conversation between participants of the same diegesis and there is nothing problematic or overtly transgressive in this structure as it respects the ontological boundary implicitly established between fiction and reality. Type (d), apostrophic (= vertical) address, conversely, “exceeds the frame (or ontological threshold) of a fiction to reach the audience” and constitutes metalepsis (341). Finally, the most useful category in this framework is type (e), the doubly deictic you, which is Herman’s composite for the superimposition of “two or more deictic roles, one internal to the storyworld represented in or through the diegesis and the other(s) external to that storyworld” (342-43).  To return to the example of Hamid, applying the term “experiencing-you” to the second-person acknowledges only type (b), fictional reference. It fails to acknowledge that the you-referent oscillates between (a) generalised you, (b) fictional reference and (d) apostrophic address — in fact, it is often indistinguishably one or the other, making it (e) doubly deictic you in its ability inconclusively to encompass multiple ontological identities.

Focalisation is comparably more discernible in the visual narratives of film and television because everything is filtered through the camera’s lens. It can be shown through a particular character (in Peep Show, for example)or entirely divorced from the subjective perspectives of storyworld participants. What is interesting about focalisation in Fleabag is its objective presence. Unlike How to Get Filthy Rich, we are not afforded omniscient glimpses into other characters’ interiority and the scenes are not filtered through the subjective focalisation of particular characters.The camera’s presence is locatable and fixes its gaze upon Fleabag. This is established within seconds of the opening episode when the implicitly eponymous protagonist played by Waller-Bridge turns to the camera and outlines the lengths she’s gone to in order to prepare for a sexual encounter:

You know that feeling, when a guy you like sends you a text at two o’clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can come and find you and you’ve accidentally made it out like you’ve just got in yourself so you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business, suspender belt, the whole bit — wait by the door ‘til the buzzer goes…

Still from Kirkby, Fleabag, series 1, episode 1 (00:22)

Although focalisation in Fleabag differs from How to Get Filthy Rich, this act of “breaking the fourth wall” performs the same function as the impersonal second-person address that begins Hamid’s novel and it serves three purposes here. First, “[y]ou know that feeling” reaches out towards the audience to assert that the diegesis is not a hermetically sealed storyworld that passively accepts the camera’s voyeuristic gaze. Fleabag knows she is being watched: the camera’s at times unwelcome presence is always acknowledged and signalled with a visual cue. Second, addressing the camera reverses conventional mechanisms of projection from viewers onto the characters occupying the screen. Instead, we as her “implied” audience — a term derived from what is often known as “the narrative communication model”— are objectivised. That is to say, although we are the object of her address, she does not mean us specifically but the camera which stands in for us. Fleabag’s use of second-person address is generalised and impersonal in the sense that who we are as specific individuals seems to matter less than the fact that we are present and observing, yet we intuit that she is speaking directly to us (the viewers). Thus, the address exceeds the frame of the narrative universe and establishes a sense of intimacy.

Third, and perhaps paradoxically, I want to suggest that Fleabag’s you is actually herself. The entire passage above can be read as self-address and its narrative situation would hardly be affected if we were to replace every second-person pronoun with a first-person equivalent: “I know that feeling, when a guy I like sends me a text […] asking if he can come and find me…” and so on. This is corroborated by my earlier observation that Fleabag is never actually named and is only ever addressed by other storyworld participants as “you.” This aligns Fleabag with her somewhat reflexive you-addressee, and if we proceed to apply Herman’s framework to this second-person addresswe will see that its inherent ambiguity enables this conflation. The you is both (a) generalised and (d) apostrophic (=vertical) address but also potentially (b) fictional reference as a result of its self-encompassing inflection. Rather than distinguishably one or the other, its horizontal address to the storyworld-internal camera is impossible to disentangle from its vertical address to the external generalised viewer, thereby qualifying the you as (e) doubly deictic.

To understand why conceptualising Fleabag’s narrative asides as instances of doubly deictic you-narration is useful, we must delve further into the relationship between the camera and the audience as one woven into the fabric of the narrative. In the introduction to the recently published script of Fleabag Waller-Bridge declares her preoccupation with foregrounding audiences in her work:

I knew I wanted to write about a young, sex-obsessed, angry, dry-witted woman, but the main focus of the process was her direct relationship with her audience and how she tries to manipulate and amuse and shock them, moment to moment, until she eventually bares her soul (14).

This statement establishes an implicit link between “camera” and “audience” that suggests the camera represents us as viewers, but more significantly, it encourages us to enquire into the narrative logic that renders this relationship so imperative. In an interview published in The Guardian, Julia Raeside writes that for Waller-Bridge, it was crucial from the outset “to invite audience complicity for her hero’s increasingly bad behaviour.” If our complicity is somehow essential to the narrative and enabled by the camera, then this is inextricably linked to the dynamics of disclosure. The use of second-person address in narrative asides firmly places Fleabag within the remit of the narrative communication model insofar as there is a character communicating something to someone. From the very start of the series, Fleabag performs her candour by sharing intimate details with her addressee. She presents unpleasant facts of her life nonchalantly with a shrug and a raised eyebrow, but as the narrative progresses the camera’s gaze begins to expose what is not being said. We know her best friend Boo semi-accidentally caused her own death after discovering her boyfriend was unfaithful. We do not know Fleabag was the other woman in this affair — that is, until the final episode of the first series.

I have suggested that focalisation is objective in Fleabag; its narrativisation, however, is entirely mediated by its subjective narrator. Fleabag’s constant narrativisation through direct address cultivates the illusion of intimacy characteristic of a private conversation while at the same time withholding something. In addition to disclosure, the impression of intimacy is also generated by narrative manipulation of temporal distance. In the original one-woman stage production that was performed prior to the BBC Three adaptation, Fleabag constituted permanent parabasis (direct address)[1] because there was no stage action to turn away from. Transposing this technique from the medium of drama into serial television, Fleabag’s narrative asides require her actively to turn away from the narrative action to face and directly address the camera. In the theatre, the presence of actual faces heightens the sense of communication and the lack of additional stage action renders parabasis the singular mode. In the television series, Fleabag’s address adopts a more one-directional narrative structure.

Whenever Fleabag addresses the camera mid-narrative, the flow of narrative action does not pause: the frame does not freeze on screen when she responds to another character while looking at the camera or makes a quick snarky comment. Her asides are commentaries but not retrospective representations of or responses to the event; analyses are embedded in the present happening of the narrative action and consequently collapse sequence into simultaneity. This is at variance with the notion that narration, commentary and analysis are discursive forms that explore events after the fact. Instead, Fleabag’s internal processing of what happens and its external happening are shown alongside one another to minimise mediation, thereby producing a sense of immediacy that translates to intimacy in negotiating the narrative distance between narrator and narrated. To put this “in the moment-ness” into narratological terms, although the experiencing-I and the narrating-I are typically distinguishable as a consequence of temporal sequencing, they are conflated here.

It is no coincidence the revelation that Fleabag has withheld crucial information brings the first series to an end, because our very unknowing seems to be what necessitates our “existence” in the narrative. The audience is granted access into her narrative universe in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, one in which she is heavily implicated but also one of which we, unlike the other occupants of this narrative realm, are unaware. Her relationship with the camera interpellates others as witnesses to whom she is without the mark of what she has done; this witnessing is “incomplete” in the first series and is simultaneously what renders it possible and necessary, although misleading. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s rereading of J.L. Austin’s classic example of performative utterances, the marriage, seems helpful here, as Fleabag turns away from those who speak towards the legitimising function of the present but silent witness:

It’s the constitution of a community of witness that makes the marriage; the silence of witness […] that permits it; the bare, negative, potent but undiscretionary speech act of one’s physical presence—maybe even especially the presence of those people whom the institution of marriage defines itself by excluding—that ratifies and recruits the legitimacy of its privilege. (Sedgwick 72)

The silent community of witnesses excluded in the wedding of two people plays an active role in the legitimisation of the union itself. In a similar sense, the audience interpellated by Fleabag’s enacting of second-person address (and the pronoun is not essential when there are such clear visual cues) through the presence of the camera that also silences us, realises the event of shame in the act of telling.

Or perhaps what Fleabag draws attention to is the impossibility of actual witnessing. In the first episode of its second series, Fleabag once again faces us as she summarises the events that have passed since we last saw her, like old friends catching up. Here, the camera suddenly shows us an apparent “flashback” of Fleabag and Claire standing in a cemetery to suggest her father’s passing before Fleabag quips: “Just kidding.” Flashback, typically used to reveal, is instead employed here to obscure. What it ultimately reveals is the inadvertent perversion of witnessing and how even seemingly objective forms of focalisation are mediated through narrative. The façade of candour, in discourse and focalisation—cultivates an illusion of intimacy. Yet, the dynamics of narrative disclosure are precisely what expose this narrative as nonetheless highly mediated.

Still from Bradbeer, Fleabag, series 2, episode 1 (02:45)


Denise Wong, “Distancing Affect in Fleabag” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 5 (2019): n. pag. Web. 15 December 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.5.05

About the Author

Denise Wong is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London. Her doctoral research explores temporality and affect in contemporary second-person narratives.

Works Cited

“Episode 1.” Directed by Tim Kirkby, performance by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Fleabag, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, series 1, episode 1, BBC Three, 21 July 2016. BBC iPlayer, www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer

“Episode 1.” Directed by Harry Bradbeer, performance by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Fleabag, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, series 2, episode 1, BBC Three, 4 March 2019. BBC iPlayer, www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983.

Hamid, Mohsin. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. London: Penguin Books2013.

Herman, David. Basic Elements of Narrative. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Herman, David. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Jusdanis, Gregory. Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Raeside, Julia. ““Am I Still a Feminist If I Watch Porn?” Meet Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British Lena Dunham.” The Guardian. 8 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jul/08/phoebe-waller-bridge-fleabag-britains-lena-dunham. Accessed 30 October 2019.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Waller-Bridge, Phoebe. Fleabag: The Special Edition. London: Nick Hern Books, 2019.


[1] Traditionally, the moment in Athenian Old Comedy when members of the chorus signal a temporary exit from the dramatic action by removing their theatre attire before addressing the audience directly (Jusdanis 71).

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