Brow Beat

On Fleabag, Hair Really Is Everything

Sian Clifford as Claire and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag in Fleabag.
Sian Clifford as Claire and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag in Fleabag.
Steve Schofield/Amazon

Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a thing about hair. It’s a fixation that achieves full volume during Fleabag’s second season, when Waller-Bridge, the show’s creator and star, delivers what may be the single most impassioned monologue about hair ever to appear on a TV show, henceforth known as the “Hair is everything” speech. But this obsession with hair also pops up elsewhere in Fleabag, a persistent cowlick that, once you notice, you can’t stop noticing: Fleabag’s ex commenting on her new “fringe”; Fleabag’s godmother insisting that she’s not wearing a hat but a hair scarf; the portrait of Fleabag that shows only the back of her head so that she’s all hair. The same preoccupation permeates Waller-Bridge’s non-Fleabag oeuvre, too: When asked to summarize her other buzzy show, Killing Eve, for a Vogue video, Waller-Bridge said mischievously, “Murder, murder, hair.” Villanelle, that show’s villain, is obsessed with hero Eve’s dark, thick mane of waves.

What is it with Waller-Bridge and hair? It’s obvious in her work that she recognizes the power hair can have, especially for women, as it governs our days and influences our moods more than we often acknowledge. That’s what “Hair is everything” means in a speech that occurs in the fifth episode of Fleabag’s second season. Fleabag has stormed into a hair salon, indignant on behalf of her sister, Claire, who just received a haircut that makes her look “like a pencil.” “Don’t blame me for your bad choices,” the hairdresser protests to the sisters. “Hair isn’t everything.” That’s when Fleabag unleashes the following:

Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything.

It’s a withering, triumphant speech, one that sounds unassailable as it comes out of Waller-Bridge’s mouth—until the show undercuts it a moment later. Claire calls for someone to find the picture she’d brought in as a reference, which she thinks will prove once and for all that the hairdresser went rogue. Instead, a salon employee produces a page torn out of a magazine in which a model’s hair is styled exactly like Claire’s new cut. The hairdresser is vindicated. “If you want to change your life, change your life,” he says, tired, presumably, of all the women who have come to him thinking a new haircut will reinvent them.

Symbolic hair transformations—long to short, curly to smooth, chemically straightened to natural—are a pop-culture mainstay, but throughout two seasons of ups and downs, Fleabag’s hair has stayed more or less the same. Yes, there’s Harry’s aforementioned comment about her new fringe, but it’s such a subtle difference between seasons that without the show calling attention to it, you might not have given the change in style a second thought. Even when Fleabag thinks she looks inconveniently beautiful on the day of her mother’s funeral, her appearance is basically unchanged. “No matter what I do with my hair, it just keeps falling in this really chic way,” she frets. Again, she looks the same as usual, but Claire and everyone else at the funeral comment on her exceptional appearance. It’s as though in the world envisioned by Fleabag, everyone is as obsessed with and attuned to hair as she is.

It’s through Claire, not Fleabag, that the show gets to play with the trope of a life-changing haircut. Though the hairdresser entertainingly shoots down the sisters’ and the viewer’s expectation of a transformational, climactic makeover, Claire’s life does change after she changes her ’do. Waller-Bridge seems to be acknowledging the truth in both viewpoints: Hair is both a superficial thing we’re not supposed to care about and something that matters deeply and toward which many women dedicate countless hours of thought and effort. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, since Claire’s haircut didn’t magically change her life, but the fact remains that she did finally change her life after changing her hair. At the very least, the show has given us a hell of a signpost to pay attention to hair in the rest of the show.

Hair is fundamental to what is perhaps Fleabag’s most significant relationship, the bond between Claire and Fleabag, who both care a lot about their looks in general, despite the apparent feminist contradiction of that stance. Fleabag has a habit of complimenting Claire’s hair, but it’s usually unclear whether she’s genuinely trying to be nice, passive-aggressively pushing her sister’s buttons, or some combination of the two. The first time this happens, in the show’s very first episode, Claire responds, “Oh, fuck off.” But when it happens again in the next episode, Claire says quietly, almost whimpering, “It’s better.” Claire hates to be vulnerable, and her hair is a constant vulnerability that Fleabag uses both as a way to needle her sister and a secret message to be decoded. “Plaits,” she observes aloud to the camera in a Season 1 episode when she encounters her sister in braids. “Either she’s got her period or some serious shit’s gone down.” Fleabag goes on to explain that Claire tries to reinvent herself as a way to get through menstrual pain, yet another vulnerability Claire doesn’t want to own up to.

The Fleabag-Claire bond is also what eventually brings on the “Hair is everything” speech. The two harbor long-standing resentments against each other, and their relationship often hovers somewhere between strained and estranged. When Claire has a miscarriage early on in Season 2, she repeatedly refuses Fleabag’s help and pleas for her to go to the hospital because she doesn’t want anyone to know what she’s going through or to show any weakness.

This makes it all the more hilarious that later in the season, Claire calls Fleabag crying and claiming an emergency, and she turns out to be calling about her haircut. To be fair, it’s quite a haircut: It consists of blunt-cut, thick bangs paired with something like a slightly longer version of a bowl cut, except asymmetrical, so it’s longer on one side. It makes Claire look at once severe, overly done-up, and out of touch. Fleabag is the only person Claire trusts to help her deal with it, and even though Claire demands the truth, Fleabag knows that, after admitting the haircut is “horrendous,” it’s her job to try to make Claire feel better. Claire shoots down Fleabag’s suggestions that maybe they can re-position the haircut as actually cool or edgy, but Fleabag’s offer that “It’s French!” seems to provide some measure of comfort. That’s when Fleabag heads into the salon to raise hell.

Out of context, the “Hair is everything” speech asks the audience to consider the significance of hair, but within the show, it also marks a crucial turn in Claire and Fleabag’s relationship: Claire has finally admitted that she needs help and allows Fleabag to show up for her. And it’s fitting that when she does, it’s about her hair. Later, at the wedding, the hair emergency has mostly been defused when it turns out that Claire’s Finnish colleague, whom she has a crush on, likes her hair, and she’s able to attach a hairpiece to it to make it look a little more presentable, if still fragile. Like Fleabag and Claire’s relationship, it’s awkward, but it basically works.

Sian Clifford touches her hand to her hair, an asymmetrical bowl cut.
The pencil haircut
BBC Three/Giphy

Fleabag ends with a wedding, that of Fleabag’s father and godmother, which provides the opportunity to sneak in one last hair reference in the priest’s homily. “Love is awful,” he begins, and goes on to say that one of the terrible things love does is that it “makes you obsessed with your hair.” He’s talking about romantic love, but it’s also true in a way of sisterly love, or at least the love between Fleabag and Claire. For them, obsessing over their hair becomes a way to express their love for each other when doing so outright feels impossible. That brings us back to Waller-Bridge’s thing about hair: In this case, it’s really a thing about love.