From Fleabag to Persuasion, the Rise of the Mussy-Haired, Self-Hating Sarcasm Machine
Emmeline Clein on “Dissociation Feminism” and the Cold Embrace of Irony
A single woman is drinking alone, crying over a man. She’s probably pining for her lost girlhood, the spotlight glow of youth and the gazes that gravitate to a girl bathing in it. These days, she’s sobbing in a bathtub, wallowing in her romantic regrets. Luckily, she still has her incisive eye and sarcastic tongue. Narrating in voiceover, our heroine begins telling us her romantic history, why she’s crying, and we’re meant to laugh.
This description could apply equally to the opening sequences of 2001’s Bridget Jones’ Diary and Netflix’s Persuasion, the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel by the same name. Like Bridget Jones, Persuasion’s protagonist Anne Elliot is as witty as she is weepy, and just as rife with romantic yearning. But where Bridget Jones’ narration mixes self-loathing with earnest expressions of hope, this iteration of Anne Elliot cuts her self-recriminations with eyerolls, winks, and witticisms, alongside harsh judgments of everyone around her, save the object of her affection—and instead of limiting her audience interactions to voiceover, Anne Elliot makes direct eye contact with us throughout the film, hitting us with saucy stares and raised eyebrows. This artistic approach to telling a woman’s story is more aligned with the ethos of Fleabag than Bridget Jones, a fact the internet picked up on and began picking apart as soon as the film’s trailer was released.
Tweets like “Persuasion is in its Fleabag era and I do not like it” and “did they just…Fleabaged Persuasion?” quickly racked up likes and retweets. Early reviewers concurred, with Mashable’s Kristy Pushko calling Johnson’s Anne Elliot “a fleabagged haughty hottie.” The initial backlash centered on the fact that of all the Austen novels ripe for the Fleabag treatment, Persuasion perhaps makes the least sense. Austen’s final completed novel, published after her death, Persuasion follows its single 28-year-old protagonist as she faces her sorrow and loneliness head on, while exhibiting forbearance, grace, and dignity in front of family, friends, acquaintances, and even her ex-lover.
For the bulk of the book, Anne is a woman in yearning, prone to solitary walks and pessimistic ruminations about her future, but she is also a woman confident in her intelligence and competence, a woman who treats those around her with an almost astonishing level of care and kindness, especially in the face of her own family’s dismissiveness in light of her impending spinster status. What she is not is a judgmental jokester, or a self-hating sarcasm machine.Of all the Austen novels ripe for the Fleabag treatment, Persuasion perhaps makes the least sense.
But the Fleabag-ification of Anne Elliot is more nuanced and insidious than a simple mistranslation of Anne’s personality in her journey from page to screen. When Fleabag breaks the fourth wall in her eponymous television show, she often does so in moments of acute interior distress, addressing the camera in a deadpan tone as she says “I hate myself” or “This is fine” in a situation that is, very deeply, not fine. Fleabag smirks and scoffs at the pain she endures as a woman in the contemporary world engaging in heterosexual romance.
In doing so, Fleabag practices what I’ve elsewhere called “dissociation feminism,” a coping mechanism that allows her to push away her pain—not because she’s transcending it, but because doing so renders her more palatable to her audience. Her snide asides implicate herself in her suffering while absolving the society that molded her and continues to restrict her movements. She gives her audience permission to laugh at her pain, implying that those of us with similar scars should be grinning through it, too.
In one of Persuasion’s early sequences, we see Dakota Johnson in the role of Anne, splayed on her bed, gleaming brunette locks obscuring her face, which is presumably wet with tears. In voiceover, she tells us that this is how she spends most of her time, otherwise known as “thriving,” her tone slick with sarcasm.
She goes on to inform us that her despair is entirely of her own making, a result of being too persuadable, lacking conviction in her beliefs. Despite her adoration for the man she loved in her late teens, she was convinced by her family and godmother, Lady Russell, to reject his offer of marriage because he had neither fortune nor status to offer her. Throughout the film, Anne insults and demeans herself for this decision. In one scene, she says, “I’m angry with myself for being persuaded. For not seeing then what I see now. That I would have been a happier woman in keeping him than I have been in giving him up.” When her godmother replies that “marriage is transactional for women” whose “basic security is on the line,” Anne retorts that “He is rich now,” and Anne should have foreseen that he would end up successful.The Fleabag-ification of Anne Elliot is more nuanced and insidious than a simple mistranslation of Anne’s personality in her journey from page to screen.
While clearly not ecstatic about her society’s misogynistic economic structures, Johnson’s Anne is not blaming them for her predicament either, instead blaming herself for not working them better. In the very next scene she pivots to the camera, cracking jokes about her lovelorn lifestyle, shaking a cowbell as she says, deadpan, that its “sad empty knell best captures my melancholy.” Cue the smirk. Like Fleabag pivoting from giggling to announcing her self-hatred, this Anne Elliot asks her audience to sympathize and chuckle, not to think critically about the world that would breed such self-hatred in a woman like Anne, who is otherwise depicted as a beloved, empathetic friend and competent woman.
While Austen’s Anne was certainly wracked by desperation, loss, and yearning, she was not the self-flagellating character of this film. The Anne of Austen’s novel is not afraid to complain about the demands her society imposes on women, drawing a direct line between her “suffering” and the forced sublimation of her feelings in favor of her family’s fortunes. Throughout the novel, she holds strong to the belief that she made the right moral decision given her circumstances, admitting that it’s brought her great pain without blaming herself.
Early in the novel, she explains that “She did not blame Lady Russell, and she did not blame herself for having been guided by her,” despite the fact that she knew “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement than she had been in the sacrifice of it.” But for Anne, happiness would have been curdled by the “suffering of the conscience” she would have endured for ignoring her familial duty, itself enforced by the larger society’s gender roles. Even at the end of the novel, when she’s reunited with her lover, she insists that she does not resent her younger self for her decision and in fact respects its morality, saying “when I yielded, I thought it was to duty.”
In one scene in the film, caught crying by her sister, Anne quickly pulls herself together, casts a conspiratorial glance at the camera, and tells her sister she was simply recalling poetry. Elsewhere, she gazes out the window with tortured adoration at the man she loves, before calling his name and quickly ducking to hide, causing a bottle of wine to spill on her head. She allows herself a sigh and a momentary expression of pure pain, before looking askance at the camera with a tilt of her lips, as if to convey humiliation at her own over-emotiveness. Of course expressing her yearning led to such a mess—she should have stuck to the quips.
The point of Anne Elliot wasn’t that she’s not like other single women, but that she was.
This Anne’s ability to quickly rein in her emotions is also a departure from the book, which is pocked with examples of Anne overcome by her sadness that “required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover” from. This aspect of the Fleabagification of Anne Elliot can’t be separated (and in fact feels like a reaction to) another Austen character’s filmic transformation: the Bridget Jones-ification of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett. As a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, 2001’s Bridget Jones’ Diary brought earnest sadness, self-consciousness, and a desperate desire to find her dream career, her dream man, and her dream body to the character of Elizabeth Bennett, a treatment in keeping with the early-aughts feminism of self-improvement and individual choice.
Two decades later, our heroines seem to have noticed the searing ridicule faced by their predecessors and chosen the cold embrace of irony over the abject catharsis of complaining, or (god forbid) the embarrassment of trying too hard. From Fleabag to Russian Doll to Sally Rooney books and television shows, the culture seems to be elevating the messy, mussy-haired woman who prizes self-awareness above all, who knows she’s oppressed and sees no way out, and has decided to have a drink and let you laugh at her, because at least then you’re looking.
The dissociation that seems part and parcel of the messy millennial hot girls’ lifestyle might be tied to a desire for control, an impulse to self-narrativize, to typecast themselves before the world does it for them. By rolling her eyes at the camera when someone insults her appearance, sharing a sidelong glance with it when someone comments on her lack of a future without a man, making a joke to it at her own expense through tears, and winking at it when she finally ends up in her lover’s arms, this film’s Anne seems to be trying to tell us that she’s not like other spinsters. Austen, who never married, and the literary version of Anne both understood the desire to publicly proclaim one’s own narrative and reject the role society is shoving you into.
But the point of Anne Elliot wasn’t that she’s not like other single women, but that she was, and that her experience was painful in the world she walked through. By honestly depicting the inner turmoil of a woman who was kept from marrying the man she loved and then a woman alone, Austen revealed the cruelty of her era’s social structures. By weaving a comedic narrative out of a tragic one, the film undercuts Austen’s goal: I think she wanted us to cry, not laugh.By weaving a comedic narrative out of a tragic one, the film undercuts Austen’s goal: I think she wanted us to cry, not laugh.
In one of the book’s climactic scenes, Anne and a man argue about the difference between male and female nature, and the man attempts to prove Anne wrong by citing literature rife with examples of women behaving differently: “all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse.” Anne implores him to engage in their argument with “no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” By pointing out the paucity of literary narratives that exist for women, she subtly reveals the dearth of options for their real-life counterparts, highlighting how few roles women are allowed to play in either books or real life.
It’s impossible to talk about these heroines, whether they’re Austen updates, television characters, or contemporary literature-to-screen characters like Rooney’s heroines, without addressing their whiteness and their thinness, and the role their physical forms play in the roles they choose to embody or avoid. After all, if you are choosing to accept your oppression with a chagrined chuckle, you are laughing at everyone beneath you in the hierarchy, women whose cages are likely less gilded.
The writer Jamie Hood recently wrote about the rise of “the anti-woke cool girl,” a girl who is balancing atop the horseshoe of the far left and far right, acknowledging the structures created by misogyny and bending over backwards to fit into them, but with a wink that tells us she thinks they’re dumb. The film’s Anne does exactly this when her sister insists that marriage is the greatest fulfillment a woman can achieve in life, and Anne sneaks a meaningful glance at the camera, one eyebrow raised, before ending the film in a white dress, limbs tangled with her lover’s, casting a final wink at the audience.
Anna Leszkiewicz at The New Statesman offers one hypothetical explanation for how this film might have ended up so far from its author’s intentions: “If all the rom-coms, period dramas and chaotic-cool-girl Fleabag rip-offs were fed to a script-writing bot, this might be the kind of film it would produce.”
Bots work with the data they’ve been fed, and the problem with the existing data set––the western canon, much of 20th-century pop culture, our prevailing narratives around gender––is exactly the one Austen laid out in Persuasion: that “songs and proverbs…were all written by men.” Persuasion is a novel in which Austen, nearing the end of her unmarried life, pointed out the narrowness of our existing literary perspectives, begging the question of what stories could be told, and what lives could be lived, if more people were allowed to write stories, not to mention direct their own lives. Streaming on our televisions in an era when the New York Times questions whether feminism is dead and domestic abuse victims are recast in the public consciousness as villains, this film seems to laugh at Austen’s naivete, roll its eyes and tell her she should be happy her story is still being told at all.