Written By: Michaela Flaherty
Back sensually arched, breaths haltingly gasped. Brilliantly rehearsed. “She watched a lot of porn,” reads the Euphoria narration over a prolonged shot of Maddy Perez, a teenage character in the hit HBO television show, imitating the acts of pornographic actors alone in her bedroom. “Not because it turned her on or anything, it didn’t. But if you analyzed it really closely, there were a ton of really good secrets. Sometimes during sex, she would imagine she was a ventriloquist controlling her body. She wanted [her boyfriend] to feel good about the way he fucked. Because if you make a guy feel confident and powerful… Well, they’ll do anything” (Morrison).
Though I can’t say I’ve consumed rave drugs served at carnival stands or covered up multiple felonies—just the typical Euphoria high school experience—I have been Maddy: willing to do almost anything to not only feel desired, but also powerful, in a heteronormative romantic relationship.
I’d consider myself a feminist, though of what type, I’m not so sure. On one hand, fourth-wave feminism is hyperoptimistic, championing “that gender equality [is] just past the horizon line” with “swaggering confidence” (Clein). And it’s nice to think that donning a pussy hat and electing a female president can break the glass ceiling.
But that doesn’t sit quite right with me. (Rebellion co-opted by capitalism leaves a sour taste in the mouth [Aron].) Instead, I find myself drawn to television characters like Maddy, Fleabag from Fleabag, and Marianne Sheridan from Normal People, who champion a new, nihilistic brand of postfeminist empowerment: dissociation feminism.
Coined by Buzzfeed contributor Emmeline Clein in her essay “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating,” dissociation feminism encourages (typically white) women to “[interiorize] our existential aches and angst, [smirk] knowingly at them, and [numb] ourselves to maintain our nonchalance” (Clein). Here, anger is directed internally as opposed to outward at the patriarchy by detaching the “consciousness from the immediate bodily and emotional experience” (Peyser). Where a fourth-wave feminist might fight back, a dissociation feminist merely submits to their pain, exhausted by attending pro-choice rallies and not feeling any different (Peyser).
Unfortunately, however darkly fun and emotionally freeing it may be to participate in the “Fleabag Era” TikTok trend, bragging about feminine messiness and self-destruction, dissociation feminism becomes dangerous when it veers into the realm of intimacy. Like Maddy, a dissociation feminist sees heteronormative sex as a performance rewarded with thunderous applause, the audience hurling floral desire and thorny power at the prima ballerina assoluta. This performance can quickly devolve into a twisted, addicting act of validation. The titular Fleabag realizes as much when she breaks down to a near stranger, admitting, “I know that my body…really is the only thing I have left…Somehow there isn’t anything worse that someone who doesn’t want to fuck me…Either everyone feels like this a little bit… Or I am completely fucking alone” (Bradbeer).
Luckily for Fleabag, she is certainly not alone in her anguish. In 2017, writer Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was published by The New Yorker. “Cat Person” follows the romantic adventures of a female college student named Margot who, in an unsettling encounter, dissociates while having unenthusiastic sex with an older man. Invoking Maddy’s trademark sexual ventriloquy, Margot “[imagines] herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her…she felt like a doll…flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head” (Roupenian). Though Margot undeniably feels used, she takes grim derision in using her partner back, basking in desire she will never return, subsequently exerting power over the man despite her apparent submission.
“Cat Person” immediately went viral, thousands of “women of all ages” flocking to Twitter to proclaim “that they have had this sex” (Clein). Evidently, fourth-wave feminist calls for patriarchy-toppling sexual empowerment are falling flat. Dissociation is in.
Is this fleeting high of fuckability and control worth the psychological damage of offering one’s body up to men as a tribute to a jaded, exhausted postfeminist push? Normal People argues no. When she enrolls in college, Marianne, traumatized by years of bullying at the hands of male classmates, engages in several sexual relationships wherein her partners tie her up and hit her. The audience is quickly made aware this is not a healthy BDSM power dynamic, as the camera frequently pans to her expressionless face and deadened eyes mid-act (Abrahamson and Macdonald). Marianne’s mind is elsewhere. She, like Margot, is just a doll, and we must witness her feeble attempt at regaining control—namely, over men.
Marianne does not emerge from this pattern unscathed. Though she ultimately reunites with a high school boyfriend-turned-soulmate, upon his refusal to hit her in bed, she leaves his house in tears (Abrahamson and Macdonald). Real love, she realizes, is something fearsome, raw, and real. No ventriloquism, no ballet solo, no performance. Marianne must accept that dissociation feminism has no place for healthy sexual relationships, not to mention real love.
Though this truth might send already-nihilistic dissociation feminists further spiraling, Fleabag provides a light at the end of the tunnel. Following in Marianne’s footsteps, Fleabag falls in love and rejects her mantra of “fuck or get fucked.” Dissociation feminism, she discovers, is not worth the psychological torment. In a memorable final scene, Fleabag waves away the camera as she walks home, refusing to continue breaking the fourth wall and confessing her inner thoughts to the viewer—her iconic method of dissociation (Bradbeer). “[Weaponizing…sexuality…and [becoming] endless pits of anger and pain” is not what it means to be a liberated woman (Peyser). We must do and accept better.
I’m still figuring out what exactly “better” is. Can I still make jokes about female hysteria? Do I have to take people seriously when they self-identify as a #girlboss? And what type of feminist am I? Definitely a white, privileged one, and probably a bad one at that. But as I write this before tuning in for tonight’s new episode of Euphoria, I can genuinely say I hope Maddy abandons her passivity and chooses “better” for herself. And I think that’s a good first step.
Abrahamson, Lenny and Hettie Macdonald, directors. Season 1 Episode 9. Normal People. Hulu, 29 Apr. 2020, https://www.hulu.com/watch/64d27e1b-313a-481f-9555-d56bdaaf7f06.
Aron, Nina Renata. “Things Are Getting a Little Out of Hand.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 13 Dec. 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/156950/things-are-getting-a-little-out-of-hand.
Bradbeer, Harry, director. Season 1 Episode 6. Fleabag, Amazon Studios, 15 Sept. 2016, https://www.amazon.com/Fleabag-Season-1/dp/B0875K9Q4P.
Bradbeer, Harry, director. Season 2 Episode 6. Fleabag, Amazon Studios, 17 May. 2019, .https://www.amazon.com/Fleabag-Season-2/dp/B0875W9DJ2.
Clein, Emmeline. “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating.” Buzzfeed, Buzzfeed News, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmelineclein/dissociation-feminism-women-fleabag-twitter.
Morrison, Jennifer, director. ‘03 Bonnie and Clyde. Euphoria, HBO, 14 July 2019. HBO, https://play.hbomax.com/episode/urn:hbo:episode:GXNRG0guDj563mgEAAAJz.
Peyser, Sophia. “The ‘Fleabag’ Era of Dissociative Feminism Must End.” Lithium Magazine, 19 Jan. 2022, https://lithiumagazine.com/2022/01/19/the-fleabag-era-of-dissociative-feminism-must-end/
Roupenian, Kristen. “Cat Person.” The New Yorker, 4 Dec. 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person. Accessed 23 Jan. 2022.