SHE'S on the loo. She's on the loo again. Crikey, how often does this woman have to pee?

Early on, I May Destroy You, the much feted, much vaunted BBC3 show written, directed by and starring the multi-talented Michaela Coel, immediately ensures our intimacy with its protagonist Arabella by taking us into that private space. It feels all at once shocking, gimmicky, fresh and try hard.

But very soon the routine scene of Arabella in a cubicle with her undies at her ankles becomes a multi-layered recurring theme. We see her hiding in the toilet when she needs to escape from work pressures, this presented as a kind of cutesy lark.

We see her use the toilet in front of her best girlfriend, marking the intimacy of their relationship. We see her in the same position at the hospital when being checked over following her sexual assault. We see her as a teenage schoolgirl gossiping in the loos with a pal while a classmate, taking up Arabella's recurring pose on the lavatory, expresses her own trauma.

The pivotal incident of the series, Arabella's rape, takes place in a toilet cubicle. It is also where she runs through fantasies of revenge.

Sometimes she just really needs a pee.

More recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag did similar: Fleabag on the toilet, monologuing to her audience. Fleabag hiding in the work toilets, prosaically snapping naked pictures for a beau. Fleabag's sister Claire miscarrying in a restaurant toilet in the middle of a fraught family dinner.

I can recall the first time seeing a woman on screen on the loo: 1999, Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. I remember it as so shocking to our teenaged selves that my friend gasped and did a discomforted squirm in their seat. A long 21 years later and it's still a sight to give pause.

Listen, I have long term kidney problems - it's always the toilets that stand out to me and there's an essay to be written by a film and TV student somewhere on the role of the bathroom in contemporary modern culture, if it hasn't been written already.

There are limits on our cultural understanding and acceptance of femininity, and these are challenged by watching a female character on the toilet. It's a signifier to the viewer that you're about to make the acquaintance of a woman who's not like the others, a woman who's a bit more ragged and ready.

There's been a long build of bad girls in popular culture but Fleabag and Arabella reached new heights with the realism of their black humour and visceral truth about millennial womanhood. Reviews were uncritically breathless, as though all were afraid to suggest any room for improvement in such modern masterpieces.

A common commentary was how fresh and brave and groundbreaking both these shows are. Some of this talk of bravery is way of saying these female characters are unlikeable, clatty, swear freely and talk about periods without decency. I'd like to think we'd move on apace from balking at that last but, sadly, we're still living in an age where the latest Tampax advert had to be pulled in Ireland following complaints of it carrying "excessive detail".

Doctor, newspaper columnist and radio presenter Ciara Kelly raged quite beautifully against this in a segment on Newstalk FM. "It's about shame," she said, and she was right.

It's residual shame of women's bodies, women's behaviour and expectations of women that make us worship fictional characters who lay themselves bare with barely a blink. Men, of course, have long been portrayed as gross and grim but women must be neat and contained.

They must also be likeable and part of the delighted shock of Fleabag and Bella is that, not only are they unabashed at the unpleasant mechanics of their bodies, they're also not very pleasant people.

Bella, to be fair to her, begins as lazy and self-centred but largely loveable before her trauma sends her spinning. Fleabag is a nightmare. An awful friend, an awful daughter, an awful sister, an awful girlfriend. She does not know when to say when and all those around her suffer as a result.

Such grotesquerie from a man is standard but from a woman, all new.

There are many ways in which Fleabag and I May Destroy You are groundbreaking: in their complex narrative structures or in their nuanced, new response to consent and trauma. They are groundbreaking, too, in their levels of creative control for their women writer/performers.

This last is something the playwright Lucy Prebble spoke of this week in an interview about her new Sky Atlantic drama, I Hate Suzie, co-written with the actress Billie Piper.

There has, she said, been a marked change in attitudes towards female artists working in television with Fleabag and I May Destroy You leading the way for women to have control of their own stories, putting women in positions of power. For young writers like Waller-Bridge and Coel, this can be a cursed blessing - even precocious talent needs nurture.

Creative power for female writers, though, is the way to ensure we have dirty, messy women and we should be glad of that. I think of the female characters who marked my 20s and they were aspirational, not truthful. We were presented with the sweet and anodyne Bridget Jones or the women of Friends. Even in our racy Sex and the City Carrie was unpleasant but in a mild, bitchy, clean way. Samantha was dirty but in a refined, soft focus way.

Piper, speaking of her role in I Hate Suzie, said, "One joy of the new show is that it features a lead character who is unashamedly flawed and messy."

Calling the character "unlikeable" she said, "She’s quite often monstrous and hysterical and tightly wound. I find it incredibly frustrating when I watch anything and I’m not getting that from the female character. It pisses me off.”

Amen to that. It's not that unlikeable bad girls on TV are uncommon. But that this very raw, deliberate unlikeability is still perceived as refreshing. It shouldn't be. Cleaning up female characters, making them palatable is also about shame and come on, we should be past that by now.

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