If you’ve been following developments, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about Fleabag’s priest and the art of longing. I wallowed a little in the horny joy of seeing two people who really want each other try desperately not to want each other. Today I’m screeching into a whole new lane, thanks to some discussion that’s come up on my Twitter feed: let’s talk about whether the priest is abusive.
The following post contains spoilers for Fleabag, so if you want to watch it check it out on BBC iPlayer before you read on.
Is Fleabag’s priest abusive? In an article for the Church Times, Hannah Malcolm lays out the case for viewing his behaviour as abuse. In it, she raises some interesting questions about his behaviour, specifically in the context of what someone could expect of a member of the clergy, and lays out a case for interpreting his behaviour towards Fleabag as abusive. I disagree.
Fleabag’s priest has the power – or does he?
One of the most common criticisms of Fleabag and the priest relates to his position of power. On a basic level, clergy often hold a position of power over parishioners, so making sure people are aware of the power dynamic at play is a very good idea. However, I don’t think the power dynamic in this situation is quite as simple as ‘priest holds power over parishioner.’
Boring and obvious point – Fleabag is not religious, she is an atheist. So any power the priest might hold over her as a result of the authority given to him by the church is… well… if not ‘null and void’ then at least seriously blunted.
Fleabag isn’t drawn to her priest because of the power he holds over her as a priest – if anything his faith is something she sees as a hot-yet-frustrating character quirk.
“Fuck you calling me ‘Father’ like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.”
In the much-discussed confessional scene, in which he eventually tells her to ‘kneel’ before kissing her, many see that as him using his power to get her to do what he wants. Hannah Malcolm puts it like this:
“The confession-box scene is deeply painful to watch: on the brink of finding a possible path to peace through prayer (she has come to church that evening without the intention of meeting him), he capitalises on her vulnerability (“I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong”) by kissing her. And, in the aftermath, he blames her, telling her not to return to the church when he next sees her.”
I struggle to see that interpretation, to be honest. Firstly I don’t believe she had any intention of ‘finding peace through prayer’ – she went to the church (HIS church! You know, the one that had the guy she fancied working inside it! A church she had shown absolutely no interest in until it contained a man she wanted to bang!) on a prayerful pretext, yet dropped her prayer the second she heard noises that indicated he might be nearby. I know this behaviour. I have done this. As have many other people who have arranged meetings with ex-partners to collect meaningless items after a break-up, or hung out at bars they know are frequented by their forbidden crush.
What of that kiss, though? My take: the kiss in the confessional is less important than what happens before it. Fleabag begs the priest to “tell me what to do.” She ‘confesses’ and spills out her sadness, and then tells him she wants him to command her. She has, in that moment, explicitly and directly asked him to take control. It may be why so many D/s types in my timeline were swooning hard over the confessional scene, and why submissive people like me are a little prickly at the suggestion of manipulation here. Your opinion may differ, but mine is that the power Fleabag’s priest wields in the confessional is given not by God, but by her.
Can she really give up that power, though? Can she truly be capable of consenting to the kiss, given how vulnerable she is? Let’s take a look…
Fleabag’s priest exploits her vulnerability
Fleabag – as we’re told in the final episode – loves too hard, and that’s why it hurts her so much. It makes her vulnerable, and with the priest she is especially so: he can spot her little fourth-wall-breaking moments, and either exploit them for laughs or to use them to drive further conversation. He knows her, he sees her vulnerabilities. So is he exploiting that to get what he wants?
I don’t think so.
The first question I’d ask is: how vulnerable is Fleabag, and to what extent should we centre that vulnerability? She is troubled, sure. She has some serious problems that she’s working through: absolutely. But she is not a child, nor is she incapable of consenting. I worry about using ‘vulnerable’ as a shorthand for ‘incapable of consent’, and I do think some of the takes on whether the priest is abusive walk a fine line between acknowledging Fleabag’s struggles and denying her sexual agency.
In her piece, Hannah Malcolm explains:
“Beyond the spiritual power that he wields over her, he repeatedly demonstrates his control. After they kiss, he blows cold, telling her family he won’t do her father’s wedding after all.”
I disagree that this shows him demonstrating his control over her, or ‘blowing cold.’ In fact, in the show itself it is framed as a marker of Fleabag’s power over him – she and her sister share an incredible moment in which Claire congratulates her, because her affair with the priest is helping prevent the wedding. She literally calls Fleabag ‘my hero.’
What of the rest of his behaviour? Hannah says:
“He demands to know about the place she goes when she breaks the fourth wall, a level of insight into her inner life that no one else has. Then he shows up uninvited, having found out her address without her permission.”
I’m not so sure about this: do we know he’s actually found her address without her permission? Because it felt to me, from earlier in the series, like they were actual friends. I think the breaking of the fourth wall could easily indicate this too – a level of friendship/understanding that she hasn’t had with anyone else. Given this, I don’t think it’s surprising that he knows where she lives – she certainly doesn’t seem surprised by it. Surprised to see him at that moment, but not surprised he’s there at all. Again, I’m wary of assuming that Fleabag has no agency or power, when she has repeatedly demonstrated that she does.
“He tells her that he will do the wedding after all, shouts at her, swears at her, and tells her that they’re going to have sex.”
Let’s chuck ‘swears at her’ in the bin, please, because Fleabag is a very sweary person and is clearly not in any way put out by it. When it comes to shouting, I agree that was pretty uncomfortable. Personally, I hate shouting, and I find it deeply traumatic. But that scene confused me a little, because Fleabag clearly didn’t: she seemed as unbothered by the priest raising his voice as she had by Olivia Colman’s ‘CUUUNT’ earlier in the show.
I’d urge you to rewatch that scene and compare it to the one in the café, where Fleabag is confronted by her sister’s husband. Everything about him in that scene oozes menace – including the fact that he’s literally stroking a guinea pig like a supervillain. A lot of the menace he exudes comes, I think, from the way Fleabag feels about him and therefore the way the audience feels about him. I found that café scene genuinely creepy, and I think the scene in Fleabag’s flat stands out in comparison – mainly because of her behaviour. She stands tall, she seems confident and calm. She is assertive. She is in control.
What’s more, she is the one who tells him that they’re going to have sex.
If we’re exploring power dynamics in Fleabag, I don’t think it’s fair to focus solely on the power the priest wield’s, without taking into account what Fleabag does herself. Or as Anna Leszkiewicz, writing in the New Statesman, says:
“As a priest, consoling a crying parishioner, he may be in a position of power over her. But there are many preceding scenes where she seems to have the upper hand in their relationship – demonstrating her tried and tested skill for breaking the smooth veneer of composure others tirelessly work to present. There are many fizzing, delightful moments of sheer connection, two equal partners standing eye to eye, a mischievous glint in each.”
I accept that Fleabag is vulnerable, and I’m not telling anyone here how to behave or what they should and shouldn’t consider in relationships where one person is expressing vulnerability. It is, of course, important to consider your behaviour and ensure that sexual or romantic interactions aren’t based on coercion or trickery. Equally, though, it’s important not to write off someone’s capacity to consent purely because they’ve shown that they are struggling. I have had mental health problems, and during the worst times I’ve made bad as well as good decisions. Have some of my problems been exacerbated by men I’ve known? Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes by men who were intent on doing bad things, other times by men who did bad things inadvertently, and occasionally by men who were struggling with their own vulnerability.
Which brings me neatly on to my next point…
Isn’t Fleabag’s priest vulnerable too?
Is Fleabag’s priest manipulating her so he can get what he wants? I don’t think so. Mainly because I don’t think he has a clue what he wants. I don’t think he is pushing her towards anything, or thinking more long-term than what is happening inside his head (and in his heart, and below his jazzy vestments). That he is vulnerable doesn’t preclude him from being abusive, of course, but it is worth exploring how we treat his vulnerability when compared to hers.
Before we accuse Fleabag’s priest of being abusive and manipulative, first let’s consider what we expect of men. As a straight woman, I think I hold men in pretty high regard, but I’m also aware of the fact that they are humans who have flaws. And some of them can – and do – do terrible things. I have known men who’ve done good things, and men who’ve done terrible things. I’ve written a lot about the bad things men have done (like the President’s Club horrorshow or other aspects of #MeToo), but equally I’ve been clear that I do not hate men. I expect them to behave morally, and to try and be good people. Broadly, I think this is what the priest is trying to do.
I’m not saying intent is the only thing that matters, of course – it’s more than possible to do and say abusive things even if you do not mean to. But malicious (or deceptive) intent in this case would have answered the question neatly, without me having to think much more about it. The reason I waited until the end of Fleabag season 2 to discuss the ‘abuse’ question is because I thought it was possible the priest would turn out to be deliberately awful. If we learned, for instance, that Fleabag’s priest had slept with multiple people using the whole ‘I can’t! I mustn’t! My vows!’ as a seduction technique, I’d happily shower him in criticism.
So if there is no deliberate manipulation, how do we judge whether someone’s behaviour strays into abusive territory? It’s a trickier question, and one I’m not sure I can properly answer. Instead I just want to ask about our expectations. What do we expect of the priest, and are we asking more of him than we are of Fleabag? Do we expect him to make better moral choices than she does? If so, why? Do we expect him to resist every urge to hang out with Fleabag, talk to her, and – yes – kiss her at the confessional? I don’t. I think expecting the priest to make better decisions than Fleabag ascribes him more agency than her, and ignores his own vulnerabilities.
It sounds almost trivially true to say it but Fleabag’s priest is vulnerable too. He has a drink problem, is lonely and in pain, not to mention that he’s struggling with something much larger than his love of (or lust for) Fleabag: his faith.
In her piece for the Church Times, Hannah takes issue with the type of love that Fleabag’s priest discusses during the wedding homily. Love that he says “makes you selfish, makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do.” She says that this isn’t love but “a description of a desire to control someone else for your own ends … of someone who gains someone else’s affection to learn their vulnerabilities and exploit them.” That may well be the case, although personally I found the homily to be quite a moving overview of love-as-pain and love-as-selfishness and love-as-vulnerability: it spoke to me because it acknowledged that love does much more than just cause happiness, it also causes pain. It is an emotion that is hard to control, and as a result of love we behave in many odd – and sometimes terrible – ways. But even if you don’t like the picture this paints of love, I refer you to Fleabag’s comment at the end of the show, when she realises who he was talking about:
“It’s God, isn’t it?”
This supposedly creepy and destructive love, that gives you a desire to control… he is describing his love for God. Personally, my take is that his love for God is what makes him vulnerable and unhappy. His unhappiness, and to some extent the choices he makes, come not from him loving Fleabag, but from the control that is exercised over his personhood, and freedom, by the arbitrary rules of the church. But then I would say that: I’m an atheist.
Power in Fleabag and the stories we tell ourselves
I make that last point not to be flippant. Much as I’d love to spend another thousand words sticking the boot in to the way religion attempts to control human sexuality in ways that are demonstrably harmful, that’s not really why I’m here today. I’m here because Fleabag moved me, and I loved it, and I enjoy exploring all the questions it raised in my mind, and the feelings it triggered in my otherwise ice-cold heart.
There will be plenty of different interpretations of that relationship, and Hot Takes like this one are by no means definitive. The reason I loved Fleabag isn’t because it gave me a view of the world that I felt was correct, but because it made me feel stuff. Some of those feelings I can neatly package and label – like the love story between Fleabag and Claire, which echoed so much of what I love about my own sister – while others I might struggle to explain without just bursting into tears. But it’s all quite personal to me.
I didn’t want her to fuck the priest, and I definitely didn’t want a ‘happy ever after’. What I wanted from Fleabag was a chance to explore the complexity of these relationships, and an excuse to work out how I felt about some of my own. So I can scream into the void all I like about how interpretations of the priest as ‘abusive’ are frustrating because they imply that Fleabag’s lust and vulnerability make her incapable of exercising her own agency, but really all I’m doing is trying to explain that about myself.
I liked Fleabag because she fucks, and loves, and fucks up, and entangles herself in relationships with other people who do the same. I don’t expect everyone else to take the same things away from it that I did, I’m just grateful for the chance we get to talk about them at all. That this single, incredible story can prompt more of us to share our own.