Fleabag, Bad Feminists, and the Femme Incomprise

Katie Heggs

There’s a line in Fleabag where she stands up in church and says that sometimes she thinks she would be a worse feminist if she had bigger boobs. I think we can all relate to that line – even people without boobs. This is because a critical analysis of that line, beyond being rather funny, reveals a lot about femininity, sexuality, and their repercussions. It appears trivial, but it helped me understand being a misunderstood woman.

When reading Marie Stope’s infamous marriage guide ‘Married Love’ for my second-year coursework this week, I stumbled across the concept of the ‘Femme incomprise’. I looked it up, as my French is essentially non-existent, and instantly felt a pang of understanding. The Femme incomprise is a misunderstood or underappreciated woman (the term’s literal translation is ‘misunderstood woman’). On the ‘wiktionary’ site I used, the phrase was contextualised in the work of Rudyard Kipling, in which he laments: ‘He posed as the horror of horrors – a misunderstood man. Heaven knows the femme incomprise is sad enough and bad enough – but the other thing![i]

For me, the misunderstood woman is less of a horror and more of a state of being. As I move into my twenties and navigate love and loss and friendship and jealousy and hatred, I not only feel perceived by others as a Femme incomprise, but I feel the dawning realisation that I may be misunderstanding myself. This is tricky. Feeling misunderstood whilst simultaneously not understanding yourself is quite the double-edged sword.

Who I am, who I want to be and who I should be, particularly in the confines of Cambridge University and its slightly Machiavellian student politics scene, seem to be frequently at odds with my femininity. I have many questions, and there doesn’t seem to be a handbook on womanhood to answer them. When is it appropriate to wear red lipstick? How many female friends is the right number of female friends? Why can’t I talk about periods like people talk about the flu or a cold? Will I ever be able to fit into the archetype of dominant man and subservient woman when I spend so much of my time arguing very loudly with people about the benefits of New Labour? Why can I not seem to shake the confines of patriarchal expectations? How do you exist in the world as a shouty woman without being seen as a bitch?

I can’t keep rewatching Fleabag (I have far too much reading), but as my twenties approach, it frequently feels like my only outlet of becoming an understood woman rather than a misunderstood one. Fleabag knows how it feels to be a bad feminist – it’s hard to be a good one, sometimes. She dates awful men, she has sex with even worse ones, she loves too hard, and she is misunderstood by every single character except a priest. 

Maybe this is a sign for me to go back to church.

If Fleabag had bigger boobs, if she were seen by the male gaze as more of an object, more fuckable, useable, wife-able, she thinks she would struggle to be a good feminist. This is important to me, because if you tried to explain this concept to your average heterosexual man, I would argue he would have quite a difficult time understanding it. But really, it surmises it all perfectly: the pull and push of the male gaze, of trying to be the right amount of feminist without pushing said heterosexual men away, the knowledge that if you had more innate sexuality, God, you would use it, and the endless struggle of being the Femme incomprise. Saying something controversial or untoward, and feeling like you’re standing up in church and saying that you sometimes think you would be a worse feminist if you had bigger boobs. Even if your boobs are quite big anyway. Because there’s always that sense you could be sexier, nicer, prettier, more approachable, more rounded woman, less of a bitch, less controversial, less domineering. More understood.

I don’t think I will ever escape the femme incomprise. I think it’s a part and parcel of being a 20-year-old woman on the other side of the country from her family, in an extremely pressurised academic environment and trying (and failing) to find her way. But I am not sure I would change it either. There’s nothing quite as special as finding a medium that encapsulates that feeling; Moon Song by Phoebe Bridgers, Marianne in Normal People, the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Karma by Taylor Swift, stupid Tiktoks, gossiping, Fleabag wanting bigger boobs. Femme incomprise is part of growing up. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it makes me feel that little bit more understood.

Feature image credits: Twitter @biglttlefleabag

[i] 1888, Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Second-rate Woman’, Under the Deodars, Folio Society 2005, p. 51

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