Tuca & Bertie, Fleabag and the depiction of trauma as an everyday phenomenon in women's lives
In both Fleabag and Tuca & Bertie, it seems as though pain is often waiting for the protagonists at the corner of the street, if not at the doorstep of their own homes. This is how trauma plays out in most women’s lives, not as plot points but rather as everyday phenomena that are impossible to shrug off or forget.
“Tuca & Bertie = BoJack Horseman + Fleabag,” is one of the first thoughts that came to my mind when I finished watching three episodes of Lisa Hanawalt’s animated series. In that moment, I’d thought that Tuca & Bertie shared the female gaze and sheer honesty of Fleabag, and the oft-casual-sometimes-heart-breaking existential angst of BoJack.
My mathematical analysis may not have been too accurate, in retrospect. Having watched Fleabag and Tuca & Bertie in entirety now, I see them as companion pieces of pop culture, not just because they are so deeply rooted in women’s lives, but because of the view they present of the omnipresence of pain and trauma.
For the uninitiated, Fleabag is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show about a 30-something woman in London, mourning the loss of her best friend who committed suicide, navigating the strained relationships she shares with her sister and father (who has lost his wife and is now romantically interested in the girls’ godmother), and using sex as an escape from dealing with her emotions. Tuca & Bertie uses the familiar trope of best friends with contrasting personalities, building a life in the big city, juggling jobs, relationships and families. It adds a refreshing twist to this trope by meditating on what co-dependence and emotional support can mean in healthy friendships.
The perspective in Fleabag is inherently female without giving into hackneyed depictions of 'sisterhood' or female friendships. In which other show have you heard a character deliver a monologue on how hair can be life-defining for a woman, without the self-indulgence of Sex and the City or the shouty, tragic tone of Indian shampoo ads? Or watched a sibling expertly predict when her sister is on her period, in a manner that's far different from PMS jokes?
Simultaneously, its meditations on love and life are universal. When Andrew Scott's character says, "Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is when you find somebody that you love it feels like hope," he speaks for all of us. This is a quality the show shares with Tuca & Bertie. Tuca, who has lost her mother, dreads phone calls from her siblings during the holidays. When they don't call one holiday season, she's filled with a sense of abandonment and loneliness, endlessly checking her phone for that one message, one missed call, which is a sign that they tried to contact her.
The plots of both shows are driven forward by life experiences which include, but are not limited to, asking a boss for a promotion; witnessing your father fall in love with your condescending, insufferable godmother; dealing with quitting alcohol; and lying about having a miscarriage so that your sister doesn’t have to reveal that she just went through one.
And then there are those life experiences that are marked by pain.
It’s not often that one sees a show – an animated one at that – depicting a story of child sex abuse. Tuca & Bertie does it with the kind of sensitivity that makes you want to take Bertie’s hand in yours and tell her that you’re sorry, that you hope she’s healing. The series also traces the impact this early experience has had on Bertie, and her inability to commit to long-term relationships.
There’s another scene in the show where Bertie is sexually harassed by a colleague who makes an inappropriate comment about her body. She makes a trip to HR, only to find a woman employee offer that all-too-familiar explanation: “He probably meant it as a compliment”. One of her boobs, which is the target of said inappropriate comment, has a very different reaction to the incident. She drops right out of Bertie’s chest, says she has had enough of such behaviour, and walks off – to get a drink.
Fleabag’s protagonist is haunted by the deaths of two people she loved – her mother and her best friend, Boo. In the latter’s death, she is thought to have played a part, and the guilt often causes her to freeze and break down. Subtly, we are told that Fleabag doesn’t have friends to call her own. The breaking of the fourth wall – deliciously and effectively executed – makes the viewer, and only the viewer, actually privy to the thoughts she wants to share. Because she has no one else she can tell these stories to.
Boo’s death feels personal for the viewer. At her mother’s funeral, Fleabag asks Boo what she should do with all the love she has for her mum now that she’s gone; Boo’s instantaneous response is that she can give it to her.
In both shows, it seems as though pain is often waiting for the protagonists at the corner of the street, if not at the doorstep of their own homes. This is how trauma plays out in most women’s lives, not as “plot points” but rather as everyday phenomena that are impossible to shrug off or forget. As a character in Fleabag poignantly put it: “…Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.” As with physical pain, so with the emotional kind.
If watching some of your own life experiences on the screen is cathartic, watching someone triumph over them is even more so. This happens to an extent in both shows. Bertie and Tuca organise a sexual harassment awareness session at the workplace, where Bertie’s harasser is outed. Bertie is also able to cope better with her childhood trauma by overcoming it in a symbolic manner, changing her very memory of the place where she was assaulted by someone she trusted.
After Boo’s death, Fleabag is left with a café they opened together. For the longest time it has an unsuccessful run, but as she begins to take more ownership (while still coping with Boo’s death), the café is soon filled with customers. She’s able to break through the wall her sister has built around herself and give her emotional support, even prompting her to quit her failing marriage. Fleabag also finds love – in the unlikeliest of places – and finds that this love is reciprocated. She doesn’t see this romantic equation as an escape, but rather a safe space where she can have honest conversations.
Also read on Firstpost — Tuca & Bertie review: Netflix animated comedy combines best of BoJack Horseman and Broad City
The genius of both shows lies in how the way women are socialised to be can cause characters to wrestle with feminism itself, often making them less-than-ideal feminists.
It’s in Fleabag’s sister-duo honestly raising their hands at a feminist lecture where they’re asked if they’d trade some years of their life for the perfect body.
It’s in Bertie’s realisation that she was harassed by a baker-boss who she looked up to, and that she didn’t protest when the baker tried harassing one of her colleagues in the same manner.
It’s in Fleabag’s admission/contemplation that she wouldn’t be “such a feminist” if she had bigger breasts. It’s also in her sister Claire’s tacit denial that her husband would try to kiss Fleabag – on Claire’s own birthday – despite knowing deep down that Fleabag is likely telling the truth about her husband.
And the best part? Neither show judges them for it.
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