Updated: Dec 24, 2020
“Women are born with pain built in. It's our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, we carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.” Dame Kristin Scott Thomas
As soon as I heard the word 'pain' follow the word 'women' I was mesmerised by the scene that unfurled between Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Belinda).
Undoubtedly part of the scenes poignancy was due to its timing, sneaking up on us amidst an otherwise light-hearted episode that saw Fleabag trying (and mostly failing) to help her sister Claire with a business event. Suddenly, we were now watching a successful business woman in her late 50s talk about the pains of youth, and the freedom of the menopause, in gloriously frank detail. Of course, timing is part of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's genius – that she manages to highlight important themes involving women when laughter has already brought down our defences and made us most receptive.
The timing was spot on, as too was the setting – a posh London hotel bar with Martinis on tap – but it was the dialogue that made me inch towards the TV so I could cherish every single word. It was the dialogue that made me clap in front of the screen on my own, because somewhere deep inside I had been waiting to hear these words for a long time.
Although the connection between women and their biology bubbles underneath the surface of many TV shows, there was something about the manner in which Kristin Scott Thomas explained it so rawly and clearly that made me think: 'Yes, that's it!' As she sat there speaking to Fleabag, I felt I was being recognised, that my pain was being recognised and the fact that this description of pain was being watched by millions meant it had become something tangible. When we celebrate these scenes, we should also think hard about why they feel so special. And for this one, I think a large degree of it comes down to the fact that women's pain, menstruation, biology is often ignored, or skirted around, on TV. Frequently our pain revolves around men, family, friends, increasingly careers (which is no bad thing) but not our biology – which forms a big part of our lives. Of course, I don't want women to be defined by pain, but I have always felt strongly that women's pain will not get any better, or our experiences any lighter, if our biological truths don't become more palatable to the mainstream. We should not still be living in a society where women feel they need to hide their sanitary products in public. This particular moment of brilliance from Waller-Bridge can only exist because it filled a void – a void that should already have been filled.
Now a question I have asked myself is: 'Could a man have written this scene?' I do not have the answer to that, but fear not, because I have moved on to another question. Perhaps a more pertinent question is: 'Can a man learn to write women better from watching this scene?' And the answer to that question, in my opinion, is yes. Because if Phoebe Waller-Bridge can write from a 58-year old postmenopausal woman's perspective, then we can all have a go at writing a character outside our direct experience. (Okay, she is an exceptionally good writer, but we must try...)
Writers don't need to go through similar experiences to capture a character accurately, but I do think they need to be educated about who they are writing about. Reading (a lot), watching TV, watching people, talking to people from different worlds, all these things combine to ensure we can capture a character more truthfully. There may be writers out there with a deep instinctual understanding of the human condition, but if this is the case, why does it feel like we have so far to go when it comes to representing women on screen? Why did I jump to attention at Kristin Scott Thomas's words? And why do I feel that so many of my past and present feelings, pains and emotions are still so far away from being given the gravitas and limelight they deserve?