Beginning Friday (Sept. 16), eager binge-watchers have been discovering the pleasure of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s six-part thrill-ride Amazon Prime import “Fleabag” — and its protagonist, who manages to rise so far — or drill so deep into — standard “flawed woman” tropes that she emerges genuinely heroic. In the real world, it’s not a new story. But for television, especially successful, gamechanging television, the trainwreck heroine’s quickly becoming a trend.
It’s no small word: “Heroic” feels both old-fashioned and overused; distorted by superhero and comic-book genre. Perhaps on some level it now connotes superhuman ability — although in the case of Marvel’s sublime Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) on Netflix, we see that supernaturally able and supernaturally messed up are not exclusive traits — although you could argue that triumph is cheaper, or perhaps less earned, in that context.
While the female antiheroine has been on the upswing for the past several years — tracing back and past Showtime’s groundbreaking “Weeds” and its amoral center, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) — it’s only been in recent seasons that we’ve allowed her to exist, tell her story, elevate herself from trainwreck to triumph.
While men’s experience has until now been the measure of a story, and hero’s, universality, the strengths and weakness of the new heroine are uniquely female. So what sets the true trainwreck heroine apart, capturing not only our intellectual appreciation but our hearts, after centuries of perfection? What makes us want to cheer her on, and what makes us not only understand but feel her pain? Past hits can show us a handful of requirements for her to meet before we can fully engage with this new, flawed lead.
#1: The modern heroine faces significant obstacles.
She’s fought some tough — tough — battles in her past. Anyone participating fully in life is familiar with disappointment, from a coffee order gone wrong to ugly online interactions, just as we’ve all experienced trouble with relationships, parents, parenting and career. But the modern heroine’s setbacks send her back past square one, farther back into the primordial ooze of her life’s history, back to where she reverts to being a shapeless lump of clay. She must remold herself from scratch, and figure out who she is all over again.
Her innermost demons are not as simple as existential crisis — the hellspawn setting up camp in her Jungian Shadow are armed, and dangerous. She is staring down stuff like addiction, rape, prison time, mental illness, mortality and death: Trauma, and its aftereffects, in a setting that spares no time or sympathy for that great life’s work. Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) faces drastically raising stakes, over the course of her story: Some of them surprises to the viewer, some calamities she was not expecting, and frequently both.
Jessica Jones, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in “Homeland” and Tig Notaro in “One Mississippi” are all studies in balance, between the outside machinations of their stories, and the inner turbulence that threatens their effectiveness in addressing them. The thing that’s so frustrating — and mesmerizing — about Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) in “UnREAL” is exactly this: Her bloody-minded dedication to hanging back as close as possible to the starting line, terrified of moving past her shadows, because of how that would change everything else in her life.
Where male heroes are often tasked with overcoming their baggage to accomplish the mission at hand and restore the status quo, the new heroine must more often transcend one kind of trouble to address another — and vice versa. Her triumph lies not in steely revolution, but in synthesis and resolution.
#2: She has damn few allies, if she has any at all.
In “Fleabag’s” case, there’s pretty much no one she can count on in her immediate circle when the chips are down — and in fact we meet her at the beginning of a grieving process, as she slowly comes to realize how much she’s relied on her fellow trainwrecks in the past. Kristen Wiig’s Annie, in “Bridesmaids,” is motivated to heights of awkwardness and nastiness by best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph)’s transition into marriage and to a new, less troubled lifestyle.
The problematic heroine is not Carrie Bradshaw, she has no squad goals: She has herself. And at least in part, this is often because she realizes that those around her are carrying burdens as heavy as her own. While a relatable heroine doesn’t see women as the enemy, it is true that she’s often denied meaningful relationships with other women — by the nature of either her setting or where her transformation begins — and she rarely blames her sorry state on her loneliness, because that would be to admit she can change. “Fleabag,” for example, is driven less toward a recognition of any lack in her social safety net, and moves instead toward the truly horrifying realization that she can’t even count on herself.
Down at rock bottom, that’s what life sometimes looks like. When the going gets tough, sometimes the people around you get weak. They might even flee. Trauma is pain, and pain can be ugly: But that’s exactly where, and when, a heroine is made. When not only are the chips down, but the allies are scarce. Jones has Trish, and Luke — but both of them, we see, are fighting some pretty nasty battles on their own time. People are complicated, our feelings about them are complicated — but what sets the modern heroine apart is that survival is, first and foremost, a job we’re tasked with accomplishing on our own.
While the modern heroine rarely has a husband, the story never tells us that only single women can be heroes, any more than it tells us the solution will be found in romance. This may be the greatest upshot of the archetype, in fact: These stories’ insistence on the wisdom and pain inherent in the fact that we don’t need other people to complete us, but we’ll never be complete without other people.
Many people are more alone in than out of relationships, because lots of relationships aren’t that healthy: A woman can most certainly learn to become her own hero in such a circumstance. But in terms of story mechanics, a stable partner in life provides a foundation that our favorite heroines don’t often have. Even Piper (Taylor Schilling) was married, on “Orange Is the New Black,” and say what you will about her heroism but that doesn’t save her — any more than her rocky relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon) can on the inside.
Heroines learn, and can teach us, that nobody is coming to the rescue. Some things, you should know you can handle on your own.
#3: A modern heroine doesn’t have a lot of assets.
No trust fund. No cushy, stable career that’s always there for her, no matter how bad life gets. Often no significant other to help lighten her load. No Batcave full of toys, and no comfortable sanctuary to return to once the day’s battle is fought.
“Fleabag” contends with money woes and the margins of the wage gap throughout her story; Carrie Mathison gets herself lost and/or “burned” and/or goes rogue without her passport — or her medication — at least a few times a season. Rachel Goldberg spent the first season of “UnREAL” in literal financial servitude, unable to take care of herself and sleeping rough onset.
And while Jessica Jones has the superpowers, and she’s got physical safety down to such an art that she doesn’t even need a door on her apartment, she’s also rocking some severe alcoholism, a hefty does of PTSD, a career that seems more theoretical than a grounding or grounded reality and the most horrifying nemesis with which any superhero’s ever had to contend. Retaining swagger and grit in such circumstances takes heroic effort, even if she can bench press a car.
We can joke around all day on Twitter about being broke, or lazy, or a slob, but underneath those jokes is a real fear — about the job market, our finances, the world we’ve inherited, and the financial impact of living in America while female. It’s not in code, and it’s not part of swagger or ego achievement, which is what both sets her apart and makes her universal:
The modern heroine — from Nancy Botwin to non-trainwreck Jane the Virgin (Gina Rodriguez) — is absolutely motivated by money, just like everybody else. But uniquely, in the television universe with its high-rollers and billionaire boy-men, it’s never about greed. It is about survival, without backup.
#4: A modern heroine faces uncommonly high stakes.
In the era of Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), a true heroine is not looking for self-discovery. “Fleabag’s” business is teetering on the brink, Jessica Jones is fighting a psychopath with the powers of a god and Carrie is singlehandedly saving the country, both in her head and in reality. But the stakes don’t have to be so cosmically high, for the modern heroine: A single mother supporting a child alone is heroic, period. Any woman who can shoulder her trauma and keep moving is heroic, period.
The criteria here is that the modern heroine fights something larger than angst, self-image, father and mother issues, self-sabotage, or anything else Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ever saw fit to stare bleakly into space about: Her survival depends on the fight, and she’s fighting at that gritty level for others, beyond the self.
If anything, the silly fights this last decade over “boy toys” and “girl toys,” which are still ongoing, demonstrate that we have arrived at a point where we can finally talk about what “relatable” really means, for people other than the very tiny minority — straight white men — it’s always described. Nothing is being taken away, it’s not a zero sum game, but it’s still been a lengthy and arduous process, getting our culture to a place where boys and men can acknowledge the bad-assery of “Jessica Jones,” the self-annihilating glory of “Fleabag,” the wartime tactical mind of Princess Leia and so forth. It can feel like losing.
But for most men alive today, the question does seem silly: Of course a female lead can be relatable, women are people, people are relatable, Q.E.D. Yet we still keep asking it, as if testing just in case whether that simple goodness might be just a nice dream we need to wake up from. But when anyone shows strength in the fact of that adversity — when she shows heart, and grit; when she keeps fighting no matter what happens or how bad it gets — it’s more than worth considering exactly the specifics that went into forming her, what parts of her story lie outside our personal experience, and how that changes things.
A classic male hero looks past his scars and into the distance, keeping his pain to himself, so we won’t know how vulnerable he is. He doubles down on wickedness like Walter White (Bryan Cranston), or he drinks it down with his whiskey like Don Draper, or he wheezes himself into nightmares and panic attacks, like Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini): Of all the ways the classic hero is brave, there is at least one in which he is not.
The modern heroine has a million problems, and the solutions are hard-won. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t identify with her at all. But the difference, and we cannot underestimate the importance of this — for our own conversation, and for decades to come — is that her scars are a story.
And that it’s one she’ll proudly tell you, if you ask.
“Fleabag” and Season 1 of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” are currently available on Netflix US.