Being a millennial feels like being stuck in a permanent state of on-the-cusp adolescence. Sulky, prickly, and painfully hyper-visible, our every movement is tracked by a set of watchful guardians eager to land the next rage-inducing viral headline.i We don’t like napkins says Business Insider; we like tiny houses, declares CNN. Goldman Sachs notes that more of us are “choosing” to live with our parents, while an opinion piece in the Guardian asks why we’re not trying to have children. No wonder we purportedly all have anxiety disorders and an insatiable love for killing heritage industries. One of the few things associated with millennials to have received a positive public reception is a particular form of millennial art. This art revolves around an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not. The term masks the uncomfortable truth that she is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier. She’s often wealthy, but doesn’t think too much about it. Her life is fraught with so much drama, self-loathing and downwardly mobile financial precarity, that she forgets about it, just as we are meant to. Her friends, if she has any, are incorrigible narcissists, and the men in her life are disappointing and terrible. Try as she might, her protest against the world always re-routes into a melancholic self-destruction.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag confirmed my suspicion that that we no longer watch television so much as we participate in it. Mass cultural objects have become the glue of a certain form of public life. I had never heard, read, or seen so much about a television show I had yet to watch. The Guardian deemed it “the most electrifying, devastating TV in years”; the Telegraph called it a “near perfect work of art”. The Financial Times led with an unverifiable fact that at least felt true: “Was Fleabag the greatest show on television? Much of Twitter seems to think so.” When I finally watched the show, it was fine. I laughed, I cried, I felt for her, and was annoyed by her. The show picks apart toxic familial dynamics, the self-loathing spectacle of dating, and what it means to confront your own traumas when deflective irony is much easier. It was good. But what stayed in my mind afterwards was not so much the show itself, but rather the predictable, frenzied public discourse it underwent. A hyperbole-drenched marketing cycle fetes shows like this through the language of relatable identification, and this sets them up perfectly for the inevitable backlash. Not everything is going to be loved by everyone, especially when this everyone has been told they have to on the basis that they’ll find reflections of themselves there. It’s happened to Lena Dunham and Girls, Sally Rooney and Normal People, Kristen Roupenian and Cat Person. Although these young women’s projects are distinct from each other, the ways in which they have been marketed all appear to follow this script. It has happened before and it will happen again. While this promotional approach isn’t misogynistic per se, it is a form of public speech that concedes to it. It’s an approach that hopes to pre-empt those sceptical of the value of the young female voice by framing this voice as an incredible, transformative feat of generational genius. Most people are not geniuses. You don’t have to be one to make a good work of art – a quick look at a laundry list of celebrated male auteurs will tell you that.
Rather than ask whether these works of art deserve such praise, it may be more interesting to ask why the popular reception of them – even when positive – is so often bad. Headlines often praise how Girls and Fleabag have had the courage to break new ground in feminism, as if the history of western feminism itself hasn’t been marked by the elevation of upper middle class white voices to the level of unearned universalism. (This is not a criticism of the shows themselves, but of the dazzlingly self-defeating heights to which they are elevated by the literary and media class, who could use more self-awareness). Politics is treated thinly, sidelined for headline-friendly patronising buzzwords on ‘generational issues’. Sally Rooney is a “millennial writer” of the “Snapchat generation”, whose Marxist commitments hang awkwardly, and slip away in the far easier branding of her a Promising Young Woman ready to be taken up by the glossy, politically toothless world of high literary society. “I just die for her” says a quote on a poster for the paperback edition of Normal People, signed @lenadenham. And if there is a politics, it’s one where self-affirmation is bold praxis, a revolutionary act in and of itself – a monologue in Fleabag on female pain delivers powerful feminist truths on the condition of womanhood; Girls reshapes the way we see woman. However well-intentioned, this is also a burden. We should not expect television shows to carry the weight of our confused, messy politics, nor be so eager to tack on the language of revolutionary emancipation onto disclosures of how we simply live. To think otherwise is to live in denial about our impotence.
We are now supposedly in the era of the ‘unlikeable woman’, which means that we celebrate that women too can be dirty, repulsive, mean, cruel, and flawed. Fleabag lives fast and loose and leaves behind a trail of broken hearts; one of the major revelations around Cat Person concerns the protagonist’s deep ambivalence, even pity, for her middling one-night stand. “How dare she!?” some said, which was funny because it showed that some people don’t understand women, or know how to read fiction. I understand that the rise of the ‘unlikeable woman’ is a victory. The one-dimensional figures of the past – who could only either to be adored or reviled by men – have been replaced by ‘complex female characters’ who are able to unapologetically reject polite sociality. This can be powerful. But the praise that surrounds such figures also risks producing a premature celebration, a divestment of power that leaves us happy to pick at scraps and inoculate ourselves against the harder, messier mission of getting to a point where ‘unlikability’ is no longer a one-note punchline. It is rarely asked to whom these women are cruel, what engineered this cruelty, and what ends this cruelty serves. To do so might chip away at the unitary image of ‘womanhood’ that so many discussions of the ‘millennial woman’ prop up uncritically. The ability to present the fact that women themselves can be imperfect, flawed, and cruel as a powerful, blanket revelation unto itself privileges a certain standpoint. Womanhood, after all, is a deeply variegated class with its own histories of exclusions, violence, and domination. For some, the systemic cruelty of other women is not so much a neutral revelation, but a fact of life. I have spent as much time navigating terrible men as I have the subtle cruelty of upper middle class white women, whether that involved proto-Regina Georges deeming me cool for an Asian in middle school, or as an adult, feeling undermined by other women quick to deem me cute and sweet. That this truth of my terrible, awkward, self-hating adolescence – women can be cruel, shitty, and narcissistic – has now been rebranded as a means of emancipating us ‘all’ under a common banner of womanhood, feels perverse, if not a stunning indictment on how parochial the current mainstream discourse on women’s emancipation really is. For every celebration of a rich white woman as carelessly destructive with her life as her privileged male counterparts, we should ask what it is that gives her the ability to be so brazen, and who is sidelined as collateral. Neurosis, often framed as a sign of powerlessness, can also be a sign of the opposite. To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power. But who gets to be an individual to the Western public? Who gets to be complex?
Some psyches are only allowed to be one-dimensional tales of suffering and triumph – others are punchlines. I have lost count of the times I have read a press release about a book from a non-white author, in which their race is quietly but visibly grafted in predictable terms – immigrant, pain, trauma, survival, belonging. Their stories are not so much offered up so you can ‘relate’ to them, but rather so you can tiptoe around as a visitor to their worlds. Then there is the question of whose subversion counts. In a piece for MTV, critic Meaghan Garvey observes the hypocrisy in criticisms of Black Chicago rapper CupcakKe’s rules-flouting self-affirmation (in one of her hit singles, the rapper announces an intention to “Make the dick come faster than Jimmy John’s / I’ll suck a fart out your ass”). Garvey observes that the ‘unlikeable’ acts of CupcakKe’s privileged counterparts’ are cited as eminently interesting works of art while “a CupcakKe video gets treated like a meme.”ii Vulgarity disqualifies some women from public life, or, at the very best, makes them one-note fringe figures; it also admits others to its very centre as ground-breaking, philosophical and relatable women artists. The problem extends beyond race, of course. Novelist Jeanette Winterson, reflecting on the reception to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, said “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.”iii Only certain authors are freed from the demand that they offer up their pre-packaged trauma for the one-sided absolution of their readers, left alone to play about in the relatively free space of the yet-to-be-signified and be recognised as eminently interesting individuals with new things to say. Women don’t – to be clear – enjoy full command of the neutral I, still seen within the terms of their gender, but this aside, only a few women seem to be able to assume the mantle of relatable womanhood. In the past, discussions of this have been maligned as unnecessarily divisive, even anti-feminist.iv But we should be asking ourselves on whose terms unity is made, and in whose interests these fissures are kept hidden. Relatability as a critical tool leads only to dead ends, endlessly wielding a ‘we’ without asking who ‘we’ really are, or why ‘we’ are drawn to some stories more than others. What does it tell us that ‘we’ are meant to be drawn to women who live in elite social worlds, whose lifestyles many cannot afford, and whose rebellions against the world are always a little doomed and not that unconventional, even if we’re meant to think otherwise? Why are we so eager to graft relatability onto them? The irony of the ‘unlikeable woman’ is that their ‘abjection’ is likeable, even admirable, to us: they are sharper, wittier, and more beautiful than anyone we know, ideals taken to be ‘real’-life characters. Does celebrating relatability involve engaging with the lives of others, or taking flight from one’s own?
For critics, journalists, and other writers in the West – overwhelmingly white and middle class themselves – these depictions of rarefied social worlds lend themselves to affirmations of universal relatability. You are less likely to other-ise the thing, after all, if you are the thing (or, as my Chinese friend jokes every year “time to sit down with my family and partake in our annual tradition of eating Chinese food at Christmas! Or as we call it – food.”). But to see universality where there is none is to close down avenues of useful interrogation. Heralding the descendants of the English aristocracy (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) or its American creative class equivalent (Lena Dunham) as the new everywoman of our age (they’re not, and that’s fine), and Fleabag and Girls as universal tales of dysfunction and healing (they’re also not, and that’s also fine), ignores the very particular things they have to offer. There are themes that are open to us all – lessons of happiness deferred, families broken, and relationships full of uncomfortable lies and mind-bending disappointments – but there are other things, too. By leaning on the flattening, deceptively homogenising framework of relatability, what do you miss? The curious case of how these particular women, ostensibly furnished with all the social trappings to take over the world – white, wealthy, pretty, ever-amenable to men in spite of their worst efforts – prefer to turn their gaze inward to hate themselves, their bodies, their thighs, the tone of their speech, the other women in their lives, their fathers. Why are the very women who, in theory, hold the most social power so interested in divesting themselves of it? Fleabag’s desperate plea to her therapist looms large – “I just want someone to tell me what to do”. The world-weary malaise of the privileged has always had a sort of narcissism to it, as frenetic in its neurotic energy as it is useless to literally everyone else. You miss the irony in how these supposedly seminal generational works of art – stories of anxiety-ridden glorious dirtbags – are crafted by the very same generation who grew up in the aftermath of second-wave feminism, relentlessly bombarded with the message that women can do anything and be anything, and especially women like them. In the minutely drawn-out, intricate and painful social worlds of Dunham and Waller-Bridge, we do not stand on the shoulders of our 20th century feminist foremothers but dance on their graves, in a lethargic, helpless manner.
This is not meant as an indictment of these works, or a suggestion that there is something ‘wrong’ with the characters. We shouldn’t demand art to portray the world that we would like to see. After all, the optimistic lean-in attitude of liberal feminism has its own serious failings. The problem is that so many of us want to see narratives of radical self-emancipation where there are none. For all of the chatter about how revolutionary, powerful and important these fictional lives are, the Millennial Woman par excellence is a deeply disempowered human being. Fleabag has no friends, cannot talk about her trauma, and admits to relying on sex as a way to sustain her rapidly deteriorating sense of self-worth. In Girls, Hannah’s self-obsession masks the fact that she is a lonely, self-hating person: “So any mean thing anyone can think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour.” Marianne of Rooney’s Normal People struggles to take ownership of her own body during sex, to come to terms with the fact that she may be liked, even loved, and it’s suggested that she suffers from an eating disorder that is somehow normalised. These women are not so much avatars for the emancipatory possibilities of womanhood as they are signs of a colossal social failure to provide substantive avenues of flourishing, care, and communal generosity. That they are taken up in the press as symbols for a generation is an additional, final statement on how being pedestaled can be as extractive as it is empowering. Something of this is at play in the enduring fascination with the rebellious, badass, nasty woman, a brazen archetype that’s different from the one in question, but similarly adored. The British Film Institute’s program on ‘Bitches’ – whose name but not content was modified after criticism to ‘Playing the Bitch’ – seeks to celebrate a series of “fearless females”,who nevertheless remain overwhelmingly white, through the lens of exclusively male directors. It seems suspect that we are so invested in the narrative of individual women raising hell at an unkind and ungenerous world, and so disinterested in what it means to collectively come to a point where such pyrrhic, painful victories would cease to be necessary.
All the chatter about their unfiltered unlikability obscures the most powerful emotive thread binding together the Archetypical Millennial Woman – they desperately, so desperately, want to be liked, even loved. This always seems to incur concessions to the male gaze. Fleabag performatively hides her extra-large tampons in front of attractive men (the real joke, it seems to me, is her assuming they would be willing to look at a feminine hygiene product long enough to notice) and wonders whether she would be still a feminist if she had “bigger tits”. In an early interview in 2013, Vicky Jones, director of Waller-Bridge’s original Fleabag play, discussed a moment that served as key inspiration for them: a lecture of feminism, shown in the play, where a group of girls were asked whether they’d take five years off their lives for the perfect body. Jones notes that she and Waller-Bridge secretly whispered that they would. “We’re all part of this culture,” she continues, “so we wanted to write a character who’s a product of the world that we see now, as opposed to a leading light of feminism”.v It is a statement that elides as much as it clarifies. Not every woman is in a position to be able to negotiate their degree of pliability when met with patriarchal demands – some of us are excluded from this possibility from the very start, already condemned to some form of ‘abjection’ by dint of our race, sexuality, gender identity, class, or lack of normative beauty. Some also refuse to concede to these ideas, creating forms of self-affirmation that – because they may be less obviously intelligible or palatable to the mainstream public – do not get the same level of attention. One might even say that is the mark of genuine, unrepentant unlikability. This, again, is not a problem with Fleabag per se, but rather the impossible representative heights to which it has been elevated. Not all feminisms involve a wink-and-nod capitulation to what men want, but looking at our headlines today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is the case. Capitulate – and as so long as you express some self-ironicising psychic anguish about it, you remain vaguely within the remit of feminism. Again, the issue here is not the show itself – even the traumas of the bourgeoisie deserve a public airing – or women who cope with the world by assuming this position, but rather why our media loves these depictions of conventional impotence so much, and is so desperate to give them a revolutionary gloss. Making popular culture the site of revolution is an easy way to offer the appearance of doing emancipatory politics, while actually changing little. It seems as though we have been treating the ‘flawed feminist’ as a groundbreaking archetype for the past ten years. Despite the lofty rhetoric that surrounds it, the world of the archetypical Young Millennial Woman conceives of politics as both starting and stopping at anguished individual feelings. There is a noticeable lack of feminism produced by and arrived at through active, collaborative world-building. As observed by culture theorist Lauren Berlant, praxis has become the stuff of psychological experiences. Her famous question on feeling and politics now serves as both an insight and a warning: “[W]hat does it mean for the struggle to shape collective life when a politics of true feeling organises analysis, discussion, fantasy and policy? When feeling, the most subjective thing, the thing that makes persons public and marks their location, takes the temperature of power; mediates personhood, experience, and history; takes over the space of ethics and truth?”vi
Perhaps this is the death rattle of the millennial, whose own horizons in the ‘real world’ have been so narrowed (we can’t own houses or engage with a public beyond our employer-friendly mediated selves, and are engaged in a losing battle with late capitalism) that we cope by consistently expanding the boundaries of what internal affect can accomplish in wink-and-nod bad faith, although I’ve already listed my problems with this uncomplicated ‘we’. Politics has increasingly been shuffled into the media-centric realm of the representational, replete as it is with artists, writers, and journalists who are not political organisers, not activists, and are certainly not the vanguard of any revolution. Nor do most of them seem particularly interested in being one. Locked in the terrifying prison of one’s neuroses, where the increasingly narrowing paths to liberation always seem to invoke the language of individual healing, flourishing or self-improvement (therapy is wonderful, but it’s strange that a private, commodified exchange seems to have become synonymous with practising a public ethics of care), the millennial of the culture industry faces a dilemma. Either find your own way out of the rat race by maniacally courting the approval of your industry’s gatekeepers (good luck with that) or go out and forge your own paths to flourishing, which – if you can afford it – requires both getting over yourself and perhaps finding genuinely useful applications for your largely inert leftism. Many seem to choose the first. For a novel about quasi-Marxists, it’s ironic that the triumphant climax of Normal People, as Madeleine Schwartz noted in the New York Review of Books, involves one of male protagonists being accepted into an MFA writing programme in New York. The question of what he will do after successfully climbing the ladder hangs there, conveniently unanswered. When the enemy is as insuperable as late-capitalism, imagining the future is a pointless exercise. Will you emerge on the other side to occupy the seat of power? As many thinkers have noted, it’s likelier that the world will end first. The many socioeconomic divisions that mark our generation are flattened beneath the vague language of collective burnout and mutual suffering that comes with living under the boot of capital. The ‘we’ so often used in discussions of millennials that are ultimately just discussions of upper-middle class creatives functions not so much as a unifying call to arms but a convenient erasure of difference. It allows the most powerful among us to divest themselves of the idea that the world is something that they can actually build, not just endure.
The privileged few millennials who can soldier on do so, anxiously piecing together what they can with what they have been given. In the closing half of Fleabag, our long-suffering protagonist successfully holds one of the first vaguely sincere conversations with her emotionally constipated father in – we suspect – her life. He tells her that she loves too much. It’s both what makes her special, and what makes her so susceptible to a range of terrible emotions she would rather not experience and spends so much time trying to repress. In their exchange, we see a glimmer of growth, a shift that may seem small but which holds a world of personal significance, as most individual triumphs tend to do. The series ends with a confession – one that is no longer followed by her characteristically quick-witted deflective jokes. “I love you,” she tells Andrew Scott’s priest, which serves not so much a climactic beatific confession as a tragic death knell to their doomed relationship. He tries to interrupt but she stays firm – “No, no, let’s just leave that out there for a second on its own.” Though Fleabag is talking to the priest, this is also a plea to the public. Sit with my story as it is; let me have my pain. We should honour this, while remaining aware of the conditions that have made them the individuals par excellence of this small slice of the world.
Rebecca Liu is digital assistant at Prospect and one of Another Gaze‘s staff writers.
i c/f Bret Stephens, ‘Opinion | Dear Millennials: The Feeling Is Mutual’, the New York Times; Bret Easton Ellis’s late career ii Meaghan Garvey, “The True, Freaky Originality of CupcakKe”, MTV News iii Jeanette Winterson, ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ online Q&A. iv “When Women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are “creating a mood of hopelessness,” “preventing white women from getting past guilt,” or “standing in the way of trusting communication and action… Oppressed peoples are always being asked to stretch a little more, to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity.” Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, 1981. v Vicky Jones in an interview with Billy Barrett, “Is ‘Fleabag’ a feminist action? Absolutely”, A Younger Theatre. vi Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics” in Left Legalism/Left Critique, pp. 111-112.