The “Fleabag Era” and identity clubs on TikTok


Photo courtesy of @ecargb on TikTok, BBC/Two Brothers Pictures Ltd. and @amava on TikTok. Graphic created by Anna Devine ’24

Anna Devine, Contributing Writer

If you frequent the same side of TikTok as I do, you may have seen viral videos created by young women captioned with phrases such as “men will never understand what it’s like to be in your Fleabag era” and “the feminine urge“ to engage in various destructive behaviors. Comments and responses from other users such as “this is so real“ and “the girls who get it, get it” typically appear under these videos.

So what is Fleabag and why are people identifying with it? 

“Fleabag” is a dark comedy series starring and created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The series follows a young woman (known simply as Fleabag) in London as she navigates her love life and trauma. She is a complicated and sometimes difficult character, dealing with her pain by wallowing in it, pushing away anyone who tries to help her or making a self-deprecating joke. In the past year or so, “Fleabag” seems to have developed a cult following among Gen-Z viewers.

One formation of this cult following is through TikTok. TikTok users, particularly young women, self-identify with Fleabag’s character by making content proclaiming themselves as “just like her,” signaling relatability to her destructive behaviors as a young person coping with trauma. Through these signals and their repetition in user content, the “Fleabag era” has become an identity club: a group of users following a trend, using social cues and codes to demonstrate that they fit in.

Participating in any trend is a ritual, an indicator of fitting in and understanding the current cultural references part of that trend. Every time a user engages with these videos, they are producing their identity through a set of social cues. Even just liking one of the videos adds to one’s online identity, especially on TikTok’s highly-algorithmic platform. Liking a video about the “Fleabag era” ensures there will be similar videos on your feed in the future. These interactions are identifiers that situate users in the ritual of a trend. Through trend participation, a user automatically confirms their position in the identity club, signaling that they are part of this cultural reference. 

Aparajita Bhandari of Cornell University and Sara Bimo of York University suggest that people produce online identities “by engaging with (through varied and multidimensional practices such as identification, indexicality, etc.) the visual media objects created and posted by others in their network”. 

Think of your social media platform of choice. Do you have a self-curated profile page? What media do you choose to display for others to see, and why? Is it to show your appreciation for a friend or significant other? To signal that you went to the Mitski concert to other Mitski fans? Who do you follow on this platform — friends, family, what about celebrities or organizations? What kind of content pops up on your “explore” page, and how did it come to be in that category? Likely through the algorithm that feeds on your engagement with similar content. Every decision we make on our social media engagement builds our online identity.

Emmeline Clein from BuzzFeed News suggests that this new trend of nihilistic, Fleabag-style “dissociative feminism” may be emerging as a counter-response to the flashy, “girlboss feminism” of the early 2010s. The “Fleabag era” identity club becomes more exclusive because of the trend’s roots in femininity or female-associated behaviors reflected in “Fleabag.”  Repeated phrases in these videos include “men will never understand” and it’s “for the girls only.” According to Rayne Fisher-Quann, there is a growing prevalence of young women online “express[ing] their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume … these roundups of cultural trends … often implicitly serve to chicly signal one’s mental illnesses to the public.” “Fleabag” is an example of a list item people use to signal their niche interests and connect with users who hold the same identities. Ironically enough, categorizing yourself and your interests as “niche” is the goal as it brings you into this identity club. 

A TikTok video posted by user @beezlebubbas is a spot-on example of using the keyword “Fleabag era” as a cultural cue to signal one’s emotional state and create a platform for relatability. The video features one user pretending to be two different people in conversation (to explain the video, I will refer to the ‘different people’ as Person A and Person B). The first clip shows Person A talking to offscreen Person B. The on-screen text reads, “im struggling to find my footing in the world. im self destructive, impulsive, and just overall spiraling trying to keep it together.” In the second clip, we see Person B on the other side of the conversation looking puzzled with the on-screen caption “?????”. In the next clip, Person A rephrases their previous statement, saying “im in my fleabag era”. Person B then nods in understanding in the next clip, signaling that they know what Person A means now that they used the social cue of the “Fleabag era.” Showing that one understands the reference central to the trend allows one to position themself in the identity club.

What does it mean to join a growing group of people who self-identify through their “niche” interests? Generally, the production and validation of identity online is not a bad thing, but simply part of how we engage with each other on any social media platform. Sometimes these identity clubs can be good, as they allow users to find online friends with common interests. Relatability can be a positive social connector for someone who finds themselves engaging in self-destructive behaviors or is having a tough time mentally. It can be refreshing and nice to see they’re not alone.

However, an identity club like this holds the power to become destructive when situated as a trend. Self-identifying with Fleabag can make the nonchalance of destructive behaviors seem cool and desirable. Others may pick up these behaviors to engage with the rituals of the trend and show they are part of the identity club, but these behaviors are unhealthy. In short, those who weren’t experiencing a “Fleabag era” to begin with might pick it up because it’s trending.

As TikTok trends continue to develop, it’s important to be conscious of how identity clubs function and their positive or negative impact on users’ lives outside the app.

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