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standing on the shoulders of complex female characters
am i in my fleabag era or is my fleabag era in me?
i had a dream, recently. i was living in a wonderful house in Italy with many beautiful, famous women, and we showered outside and ate fruits from the vine and held lavish parties with our beautiful and famous friends, and every night a man would break into our house and try to kill me. he would chase me around the house grabbing at my hair and ripping off my clothes while i sobbed and sobbed and screamed for help. and here’s the crux of the dream: i would call 911 every night, but each time i called, a slick-talking Hollywood television producer would answer the phone instead. i kept calling the wrong number. i would scream into the phone anyway, desperate for an answer — i would say, help! i’m living in a house in Italy with many beautiful and famous women, and a man keeps breaking in and trying to kill me! and the woman on the phone would say, wow, you’ve really got an eye for a great pitch. we’d like to option this for a six-episode run.
and i would say, i’m not trying to entertain people, i’m trying to tell you there’s something wrong, i’m trying to tell you i need help, and she would say, well then why do you keep calling this number?
read into that what you will.
as i have become increasingly unwell and increasingly visible in equal measure, i’ve been forced to confront my relationship with my own sickness. it’s easy, as a woman, to compactify illness into a consumable package — to whittle at the edges of pathology until it becomes little more than smudged eyeliner and wild sex. childhood trauma becomes daddy issues, suicidal depression becomes mystique. selling your pain is easier than living with it.
this month, i found myself caught in the throes of a prodigious depressive episode — the kind that straps weights to your ankles and makes time swirl around you like soup. i spent most of my days sitting on the mattress on the floor of my tiny bedroom, staring at the ceiling and trying to eavesdrop on my upstairs neighbours’ parties through the walls. i often found it difficult to distinguish when i was dreaming and when i was awake.
i am in my hysterical 20th-century woman era, i would think, unlikeably. i am sleeping at erratic hours, i am sobbing, i am writing and never publishing, i am seeing shapes in my wallpaper. i am never washing my face, i am eating lavishly, i am ruining my reputation. i am making sure to eat a square of dark chocolate during my depressive episodes so they’ll sound sexy in my memoirs. even when i am ostensibly at my lowest, i am still filtering my experiences through the eyes of a consumer; the desire to editorialize our own experiences (to romanticize the unseen, to live for our biographies) has become an autonomic facet of womanhood as unavoidable as breathing.
like the great mad women before me, i am spiralling into manic-depressive chaos in a way that i will inevitably romanticize regardless of its material consequences, and self-mythologizing until i can make that feel like a good thing. i’m not unwell or self-destructive or entirely unbearable — i’m in my fleabag era! we rationalize our own suffering through the romanticization of those who have suffered before us and, in turn, we provide a blueprint for the hot-girl suffering of those after. we commodify that rationalization through the era-appropriate medium (for dorothy parker, this was print media, and for me it’s tiktok. sometimes i am tempted to be bitter about this but then i remember that i am no dorothy parker). this is a cycle, apparently, that never ends.
it’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume — and because young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses, these roundups of cultural trends and authors du jour often implicitly serve to chicly signal one’s mental illnesses to the public. one girl on your tiktok feed might be a self-described joan didion/eve babitz/marlboro reds/straight-cut levis/fleabag girl (this means she has depression). another will call herself a babydoll dress/sylvia plath/red scare/miu miu/lana del rey girl (eating disorder), or a green juice/claw clip/emma chamberlain/yoga mat/podcast girl (different eating disorder). the aesthetics of consumption have, in turn, become a conduit to make the self more easily consumable: your existence as a Type of Girl has almost nothing to do with whether you actually read joan didion or wear miu miu, and everything to do with whether you want to be seen as the type of person who would.
and i understand the appeal. at first, relying on complex female characters (or the real women that we adopt as de-facto fiction) to blueprint my neuroses was liberating; eventually, though, it began to feel like a trap. if i can compare myself to just the right amount of things — place myself at the nexus of enough edgy, vaguely feminist media properties — will that eventually start to feel like actualization? i wonder what romantic love would feel like if i’d never seen a romantic comedy, if i’d been allowed to figure it out before a commodified version was fed to me. i wonder what my own illness would feel like. now, as i put on mascara before crying so i’ll look the right kind of sad when i see myself in the mirror, i think about how nothing feels real at all if it doesn’t look like the movies.
but, oh, it feels so good to be understood, even when it’s only as a caricature. this feeling is real because i have something to compare it to. i am in my fleabag era. i am in my yellow wallpaper era. i am in my phoebe bridgers era. i am fiona apple, i am eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, do you get it now, do you get it now. try as i might, i can only seem to understand myself through the fictions of the more actualized — and, just as i reassure myself that i am drawn to this media because of some predetermined, inherent sense of self, i wonder if it is creating me, too. who would i be if i stopped consuming things? what would there be left to feel?
we consume so much, now, that perhaps we don’t know what it means to exist as something unsellable. i had to give up journalling because i couldn’t stop writing for the people who would read it after i was dead.
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p.s. thank you to my dear friend Harper, who introduced me to the Sleater-Kinney song at the head of this essay. you were right — i did like it.