This article contains spoilers for Fleabag, Miranda and Chewing Gum
We meet Fleabag in the trenches of a one-night stand. The camera is trained on her as she waits with bated breath for the doorbell to buzz. The audience sits in anticipation, wondering what is happening.
But we’re caught in our curiosity as Fleabag looks down at the camera, catches our eye, and begins to talk.
The fourth wall is an unspoken rule that the characters in our stories never acknowledge the audience. So, when this line is crossed, it is called ‘breaking the fourth wall’.
This technique is not a modern invention. It originates in the theatre with Greek audiences and can be seen in Shakespeare plays as a way for us to get an insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings.
And for the most part, it hasn’t strayed far from its classical beginnings. One key difference however is that it is now largely used for comedic purposes.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), and Deadpool (2016), all invite the audience into the joke by sharing our confidence.
Fleabag has its share of hilarious moments across its two seasons. Its star and creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, can make viewers laugh with only a glance at the lens.
But Fleabag’s fourth-wall-breaking extends beyond comedy. Waller-Bridge is not just looking at us when peering into the camera. She sees us. And we see her.
With the loss of her best friend, a failing cafe to worry about and a family that doubts her at every turn, we as the audience are the only thing in Fleabag’s life that listen to her.
Each time that the fourth wall is broken we get a glimpse into the real Fleabag, not just the front that she puts up for everyone else.
It is here that the fourth wall becomes more than just a narrative technique. It is a way for the protagonist to be herself without the fear of getting hurt.
Waller-Bridge isn’t the first writer to find meaning in the fourth wall. The 2009 BBC sitcom Miranda shares a shocking number of traits with Fleabag.
Both feature an upper-middle-class, single, 30-something woman juggling a failing business with criticism from friends and family alike.
But while Fleabag feels like 25 minutes of pure chaos. Miranda is instead a light-hearted farce akin to British classics like HI-de-HI! and Morecombe and Wise with an appetite for slapstick humour and end credit dancing.
Written by Miranda Hart, it is true that this is a very typical comedy. Yet just like its darker counterpart, when Miranda acknowledges us, it can feel like she is seeking comfort from life’s knocks.
Miranda’s titular character is known for stretching the truth in an attempt to make herself cooler than her awkwardness allows. But in the rare moments where she is honest with herself, she usually looks at us.
The same can be said about Michaela Cole’s sitcom Chewing Gum. First airing on Channel 4 in 2015, it follows 24-year-old Tracey on a quest to lose her virginity while living with her deeply religious mother.
The difference here is that Waller-Bridge’s protagonist sits in a relatively privileged position with a family that could help her but chooses not to.
Creator and writer, Michaela Cole stars as Tracey, who is a working-class black woman living in a housing estate in London.
Tracey is ridiculed for her looks, her sexual history and her heritage. Not just by her loved ones but by complete strangers as well.
In one scene she is mistaken for a drug dealer simply because of where she lives. In another, she is called a racial slur after another attempt at losing her virginity.
When Tracey speaks to us, it is not solely about us seeing her. She is trying to get back some power that she desperately lacks in her own life.
By speaking directly to the audience, she is in charge of her own story and can choose how she is perceived.
Cole herself has often been compared with Waller-Bridge in real life as they both created and stared in comedies where their characters spoke directly to the camera, despite Cole doing it a year before.
When asked by the Hollywood Reporter whether comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge felt demeaning, Cole responded by highlighting how white feminism controls most of the conversation:
“I can’t say it grates. I think because it isn’t surprising.”
All three of these characters don’t fit in the boxes designed for them. So, they turn to us for comfort, for a sense of fulfilment.
But that’s the problem with audiences, we give the performers what they want as long as they keep entertaining us. At some point, we’re just not enough anymore, and that’s when they have to say goodbye.
Each one of these characters has to let go of the act that they put on. They do this by breaking the fourth wall one last time, therefore smashing whatever it is that stops them from expressing themselves to their loved ones.
Miranda ends with a simple “thank you for being the most amazing friends” after marrying her long-time love interest, Gary.
Tracey blesses us after finally getting rid of her virginity.
And Fleabag? She motions us to leave her behind after she learns another life lesson and we somehow know she is going to be ok, without her having to tell us.
Featured Image Credit: Created with Canva