In light of today’s feminist media landscape where the strong, brave, capable woman is preferable to the damsel in distress, I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I am a massive scaredy-cat. The hum of a whirring dishwasher or whisper of wind outside my window while I’m nearly asleep is enough to send my eyelids flying wide open and my fight or flight response into overdrive. As a middle school latchkey kid, I’d sit beside my apartment door after school with my algebra homework and the biggest kitchen knife I could find. Naturally, Black Mirror and American Horror Story are off-limits after sundown, lest I have a nervous breakdown and dial 911 after mistaking my sister for a home intruder. But the most unnerving moment of television I’ve watched recently didn’t concern ghosts or vampires or chainsaws. I was most unsettled when a supporting character from the show Fleabag I’d been watching from the comfort of my bed all season seemed to notice me lying there, and yelped.
Fleabag is written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a British actress and comedian who adapted the television series from her one-woman show of the same title. The series follows the life of a sarcastic young Londoner, nicknamed “Fleabag” though her name is never spoken in the show, who must navigate the death of her best friend, changing family dynamics, and a series of men who are interested in her affections. The defining stylistic feature of the series is Fleabag’s constant breaching of the “fourth wall,” a narrative device which allows Waller-Bridge to deliver quips, background information, and emotive expressions directly to the audience. Fleabag’s direct addresses to the viewer allow an intimacy to develop strictly between Waller-Bridge and the audiences who receive her confidences, as no other character in the series can hear Fleabag breaching the fourth wall to share her private thoughts. That is, until the attractive priest who Fleabag develops romantic feelings for in the show’s second season (played by Andrew Scott) can sense that Fleabag is “going somewhere” but cannot hear what exactly is said to the viewer. The effect of this discovery is jarring for protagonist and viewer alike, who had assumed that as a stylistic element of the cinematography, Fleabag’s direct addresses were not negotiable amongst other characters. As the series progresses, Fleabag’s quips thus transition from the medium in which Fleabag communicates to a point of conflict between Fleabag and The Priest, as Fleabag refuses to disclose where she “disappears to” when The Priest inquires.
Fleabag is not simply excellent for its hysterical writing and exquisite acting. The series is extremely innovative in that it marries a cinematic technique — breaching the fourth wall — with an element of Waller-Bridge’s character — the guardedness and performativity that prevents Fleabag from engaging in vulnerable conversations with the other characters in the series. This innovation generates in turn a captivating paradox that pits viewers against the characters they view: Fleabag’s lack of vulnerability with the other filmed characters is heightened by her divulgences in us. Audiences, through the very act of viewing Fleabag in her eponymous TV show, are now implicated in preventing the protagonist from achieving her desires within the series.
But Fleabag’s deadpan confessions to the camera also allow the viewer insight into the female psyche which can increase our intimacy with and empathy towards her. Fleabag refers to the audience as “friends” in the first episode of the second season and acknowledges we are “always there.” Thus, a second paradox emerges: Fleabag is ostensibly sharing her most honest thoughts while confiding in the viewer, but her confidences are delivered in a distinctly performative strategy, making her asides potentially unreliable as the series progresses. Is breaking the fourth wall thus a visual strategy that allows the viewer a greater understanding of a female subject being viewed and greater agency on the part of the female subject, or does direct address permit a female subject to manipulate the viewer while the viewer confuses this manipulation for intimacy?
To approach this question without some context of the history of direct address within filmmaking and theatre would be injudicious. “The fourth wall” is originally a theatrical formulation referring to the collectively imagined partition separating actors who purport to portray realistic narratives from audiences who consume these fictions. The original staged production of Fleabag relied on “breaking the fourth wall,” a tactic in which an actor dissolves the partition by addressing her spectators directly. As Fleabag was originally a one-woman show, direct address is not unexpected as a narrative strategy: since there is no other character onstage that Fleabag could enlist to share her narrative, the audience must be her scene partner.
However, direct address can still occur when there are multiple characters onstage or on screen. Shakespeare utilized the tactic when his characters make “asides” to the audience, and the fourth wall was noticeably absent in vaudeville theatre. In his book “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” scholar Tom Brown notes that early motion pictures were “frequently more concerned with what might be called a ‘vaudevillian’ engagement with its audience than with a more rigorous creation of a unified fictional world” — early cinema screens, which were placed in vaudeville theaters, projected characters who joked, flirted, or threatened with the viewer by way of the camera. Film scholar Jane Feur posits that direct address in cinema is thus not “inherently subversive or radical” — Feur claims direct address can signify (though I’d argue, simulate) the “intimacy of live entertainment.” In the early decades of the 20th century, however, both film and high theatre transitioned towards a “realism” which positioned viewers as passive observers of narrative screen fictions. Fearing that this passivity could allow actors to manipulate audience emotions, German playwright Bertolt Brecht radicalized direct address in the 1930s as a tactic of his Verfremdungseffekt, or “defamiliarization effect,” in which actors were encouraged to remind viewers that a play was but a representation of reality rather than an actual occurrence. While Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt was specific to the social theatre practice he sought to develop, the basic concept of unmanning a spectator of narrative fiction is clearly applicable in feminist film interventions in the later 20th century and beyond.
In her oft-cited 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that the passive spectator of illusionistic cinema might actually be an agent perpetuating patriarchal control. In making the camera’s look invisible to the viewer, and seemingly invisible to the actors it confronts, narrative cinema allows voyeuristic viewers to project themselves into the action of the screen:
There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience . . . (Mulvey, 843).
The minimization of psychological distance between screen and viewer allows the feminine subject to be uniquely fetishized as the spectator takes pleasure in the act of looking unseen — meaning if the framework were reversed, and the separation of looker and looked-at were exposed, the resulting art would have revolutionary feminist potential. The revolutionary potential of disrupting the illusion of narrative immersion had already interested Brecht, who viewed direct address as a tactic through which to achieve this disruption. Mulvey’s addition was the implication that direct address by women could be a tactic to overturn or unnerve the traditional masculine gaze.
Enough male protagonists have broken the fourth wall in mainstream cinema for the practice to seem “gimmicky” (see: Fight Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wayne’s World, and so on). But if critics reread direct address as an attempt on behalf of male characters to control their portrayal and thus assert control over the audience’s interpretation of the narrative (by gaining their sympathy and identification), then the “gimmick” might actually be subtly referencing its own ideological power. The television drama House of Cards, and an incident occurring after its lead actor Kevin Spacey was fired from the show amidst sexual assault allegations, demonstrates this principle unnervingly.
In House of Cards, Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a politician scheming his way into powerful government positions. Underwood frequently addresses the viewer in House of Cards to deliver political advice, ask rhetorical questions, and make statements about the nature of leadership, in the style of a government official offering a televised address. While Brecht conceived of direct address as exposing the manipulations of narrative fictions, once direct address is normalized as a stylistic component of a show, characters might actually weaponize direct address to manipulate viewers into a certain version of that narrative fiction. When Spacey was fired from the show, the writers behind House of Cards made the decision to kill Frank Underwood and thus sever his addresses to the viewer. A year after the allegations surfaced, in his first public appearance since his termination from the show, however, Spacey filmed one last direct address “as” Frank Underwood: a three minute monologue posted to his YouTube channel titled “Let Me Be Frank.” In “Let Me Be Frank,” Spacey blurs the line between himself and his character by subtextually addressing his sexual assault allegations while still “in character.” “Oh sure, they may have tried to separate us, but what we have is too strong, it’s too powerful,” says Spacey/Underwood. “I mean, after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest darkest secrets… And you trusted me, even though you knew you shouldn’t.”
Audiences accustomed to hearing from Underwood via direct address might read this video as another instance of Underwood breaking the fourth wall, although Underwood’s words clearly reference actions attributed to Spacey. When you think about it, this is rather extraordinary: though Underwood’s character had by then been written out of House of Cards, Spacey liberates the character of Underwood from his own narrative by utilizing the same stylistic device as Underwood to deliver a coded message about his real life. To put it another way, Spacey is still breaking the fourth wall even though none of the other three are still standing for him. The pun of “Let Me Be Frank” — concurrently an admission of total honesty and a plea from Spacey for his role back — shows how Spacey can now only credibly communicate “honestly” with the outside world through an Underwood-esque direct address. Direct address, which once signaled a departure from illusionistic narrative to communicate with reality, now is constituting hyperreality. The tactic is unnerving, and garnered Spacey 11 million views.
Given the power of direct address as a tool to dismantle fetishization which can (at least in Spacey’s case) blur the lines between fictive and real and manipulate audiences, it is understandable that if filmmaking is indeed as patriarchal as Mulvey believes, there are far fewer examples of women breaking the fourth wall within filmed narratives. And when they do, their observations are often readable as meta-commentary about the camera’s gaze as it pertains to women. In the film Amelie, the moviegoing protagonist says frankly to the camera, “I like looking back at people’s faces in the dark.” The moment is almost confrontational, until the camera pans to the cheerful lit faces of the moviegoers behind her, our mirror image; we are effectively let off the hook (Amelie is a twee comedy, after all). But House of Cards does not spare the viewer scrutiny when a woman finally addresses the camera. In Season 5, Episode 11 of House of Cards, Frank Underwood’s wife, Claire, addresses the viewer only previously communicated with by her husband Frank. “Just to be clear,” she says gazing intently into the camera. “It’s not that I haven’t always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions.”
Claire Underwood’s distrust of the camera’s gaze stands in stark contrast with Fleabag’s total embrace of the camera as friend and confidante. The first season of Fleabag follows the plot outlined in the staged production — it makes sense, then, that Fleabag’s direct addresses are not questioned thoroughly in the first season, as these asides are intentional emotive vestiges of the show’s transition from stage to screen, “signifying the intimacy of live entertainment” as Feur put it. But in the second season, as The Priest notices Fleabag confiding in the viewer, Fleabag’s asides become self conscious.
It is relevant that a priest is the only character who can witness Fleabag’s communications with the viewer. In Catholicism, priests are the conduit between laypeople and God, the interpreters of the message. Similarly, Fleabag’s asides to the camera are a conduit between the action of the illusionistic narrative and the spectators of that narrative. If these two roles are intentionally juxtaposed, then Fleabag is comparing the destruction of the fourth wall with communications to God, putting the audience in the role of the omnipotent. The Priest is perhaps the only person to notice Fleabag’s direct addresses because they resemble direct communication with the divine. Both The Priest and Fleabag are thus inaccessible to each other because they are first and foremost in communication with forces beyond what can be represented in the narrative — The Priest with God, and Fleabag with the audience. However, while Fleabag views the priesthood as noble, The Priest views Fleabag’s quips to the viewer as cripplingly performative. In the season finale of Fleabag, the ill-fated pair parts forever, and when the camera attempts to follow Fleabag walking away, she shakes her head “No.” One way of reading this scene is that Fleabag’s refusal to allow the camera to follow her onwards confirms that her direct addresses were hindering her own subjecthood, and to be more vulnerable in her life (as a character), she must abandon the crutch of speaking to the camera rather than to her fellow scene partners. Alternately, this moment can be read pessimistically as Waller-Bridge the screenwriter giving up on the hope that direct address might be a radical feminist tool — Fleabag, after all, is seduced by the possibility of a love story within the illusionistic narrative, and notably does not make asides to the camera while fully invested in those scenes. But Fleabag the character is in a clear Catch-22 — having begun the series with a constant acknowledgement of the camera, Fleabag cannot now pretend not to notice the camera’s gaze and absorb herself fully into the story. The camera has thus trapped Fleabag and women in film generally in a frustrating binary: if a woman does not break the fourth wall, she is succumbing to patriarchal voyeurism, and when she does break the fourth wall, that action may be subject to scrutiny by her male scene partner. Waller-Bridge thus proceeds with the only fathomable solution: ending the series entirely, denying the camera any further looking at all. Without any looks to make her aware of her objecthood, Fleabag reaches the ultimate subjecthood (or so says Sartre). The choice to end the series this way was frustrating to many who crave another season of Fleabag’s witty woman-centric storytelling. But until filmmaking can find a way to tell stories about women which do not fetishize them nor deny them the agency gained by looking back, Waller-Bridge might just be preserving Fleabag’s dignity by keeping her from prying eyes.
Amélie. 2001. France: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Brown, Tom. Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address in Cinema. (Edinburgh: Edingburgh University Press), 2012.
Feur, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 1993, 39.
Fleabag. 2016-2019. United Kingdom: Harry Bradbeer.
House of Cards. 2013-2018. Multiple directors.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999).
Spacey, Kevin. “Let Me Be Frank.” December 24, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZveA-NAIDI