Since 2017 there has been a new way of dividing time. Others have come before it; geological era, religious calendars, or Hegelian progressions. But, for those of us engaging with contemporary media culture, there is a new system. BPW-B, and PPW-B. Before-Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Post-Phoebe Waller Bridge. I am just the most recent in a long, apparently endless progression of people lining up to shower praise over this most current of modern darlings. She is an undeniable fantastic writer, a genius of screen and stage, bringing depth, honesty, and hilarity to all she touches. It has taken some time for her projects to achieve the recognition they deserve, but they have found their moment, and we are grateful for every project.
Fleabag brought us incredibly moving scenes and characters, relatable as much for their extremes as for their subtle humanity, alongside a smutty, outrageous humour, leaving us equal parts amused and heartbroken. Her work with some else’s original characters on Killing Eve has shown that her deftness still stands beyond the realism of Flebag, and into more dramatic and fantastical territory.
But as much as her actual works are a joy, and are rightly acclaimed, perhaps Waller-Bridge’s true legacy will be in what her success means for the industry as a whole. Her work has proven beyond all question that film and television about women is riotously popular. We have long seen content featuring women derided as unsuccessful, ‘it doesn’t sell’, we’re told (with such films as the women-led Ghostbusters film being cited as examples – as if there were no other reasons this film failed!). Alongside this is the relatively successful and sickeningly stereotyped content designed ‘for women’ (and almost exclusively about white women). These dominate the market, and convince executives and audiences alike that women are some sort of niche – they need special content just for them, which won’t appeal to the ‘mainstream audience’, which, statistically inexplicably, is always framed as male (and white). The fight against the patriachy is as much about having to convince men that women are real people too, with inner lives just like them, as it is about full legislative equality. Until women are recognised as fully formed people by their male counterparts, political change will be impossible. This is why Waller-Bridge’s success is so important – it slices through the fiction of ‘women’s content’, and reveals the universality of female experience. This isn’t to say that her work doesn’t speak to explicitly (in both ways) female experiences, but it treats them as human, not ‘women’s’. The astonishing success of these works has opened up a whole realm of opportunities for other writers, and, we hope, opened the eyes of those in charge of the media world.
Waller-Bridge has faced criticism for the middle-class milieu she writes about: Fleabag featured predominantly white characters in the relatively well-off London upper-middle class: it was only pride that stopped her asking for the financial support she needed, not that she did not have access to it. Sandra Oh’s superb performance as Eve Polastri in Killing Eve puts paid to the idea that Waller-Bridge only writes well for white women (although arguably Eve’s ethnicity is not particularly explored). But I think it would be more uncomfortable if Waller-Bridge tried to write to experiences she hasn’t had, if she tried to write ‘on behalf of’ women of colour. Instead, we might see her as using her white privilege to improve the general situation – she casts women of colour in her projects, writes about universal female experiences, and is broadening the playing field. Where she has, perhaps inadvertently, led the way, others will be able to follow. As a white, middle-class (whether I like it or not) woman, I have to admit I am not best placed to write about where race intersects with Waller-Bridges work, so I hope that this fairly optimistic view on it is not miss-placed.
Perhaps nothing speaks more directly of the post-Phoebe Waller-Bridge than her recently announced role in writing the new James Bond film. New Bond has struggled to come to terms with a fundamentally misogynistic character, and bring him into the modern age and its rightly updated standards. This is something they have catastrophically failed to do, arriving at an equally unpleasant character surrounded by other characters who do nothing to question or confront him, simply falling into dated tropes. Bond in many ways is an aspirational character, reflective of the social norms that he is created in. If Waller-Bridge can challenge these, putting across a new set of ideas rather than simply tacitly endorsing existing ones, the Bond franchise can become something totally unexpected: a force for good.
So in some ways it doesn’t really matter whether Waller-Bridge succeeds in her future endeavours. Her work will be remembered, critiqued, and adored for years to come, but there will be pressure on her to follow one hit with an even bigger one. But what we really have to thank her for is having shattered through the glass web of lies that people don’t want or care for stories about women, and their fundamentally human lives. Thank you to her not only for her own works, but all the work by talented creators and writers which we hope will follow.
What do you think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work? I’m planning piece on Killing Eve‘s handling of specifically female experience, and on the failure of the Bond franchise to adapt to the modern age, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. She’s such a great writer, her work is so clever and controlled, I think she deserves every bit of credit she gets. What is your favourite of her creations?