Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, was released in June, presumably so that educated mothers might take it with them to the beach. What Fleishman shares with other summer bestsellers trying to appeal to the same readership—Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, Elin Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69, and Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything—is a common subject: American society’s treatment and mistreatment of women. The others are historical fiction of a kind. Gilbert’s is largely set in 1940, Weiner’s mostly in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and Hilderbrand’s at the tail end of the 1960s. They portray a world in which women were told when (and if) they could work outside the home, whom they could date, when they could have sex, and what the consequences would be if they violated the rules. The strictures seem both quaint and horrifying from the perspective of 2019, and so their female characters receive our sympathy without even having to earn it.
This is not so when it comes to the female characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, a comic novel whose searing and very Jewish humor has elicited deserved comparisons to Philip Roth. Brodesser-Akner’s people live in the highest echelons of today’s American elite. They suffer none of the restrictions that limited the ambitions of the protagonists of the other novels. Brodesser-Akner’s characters achieve and achieve. And yet they are miserable. This is why Fleishman Is in Trouble is the book people will be reading years from now to understand the peculiar difficulties of 21st-century marriage—and the fizzling of American feminism.
Most of Fleishman Is in Trouble is told from the point of view of Dr. Toby Fleishman, a neurotic, insecure, oversexed, middle-aged hepatologist living on the Upper East Side of New York. His life is thrown into chaos when his ex-wife, Rachel, no longer returns his calls or cares for their children during the days when she has custody. Toby assumes that Rachel is being vindictive or is working too hard at the talent agency she founded and runs. Then he thinks she might be having a relationship with another man. All are true, it turns out, but the real reason Rachel has disappeared is that she has had a nervous breakdown.
Her life as a working mother was simply too much. Indeed, it has always been too much. Years earlier, Rachel was putting in endless hours at a talent agency only to find (after getting pregnant) that she wasn’t going to be promoted. Then she founded her own agency and was wildly successful—but spent all her time keeping her high-powered clients happy. At home, her husband wanted her attention too, eagerly trying to share tales from his day and wanting to walk to the restaurant when they went out to dinner instead of taking taxis (which would have allowed Rachel more time to answer work email).
At the same time, Rachel felt she had to get her children into the right schools and extracurricular programs. And once they were there, she had to ensure they made the right friends, which meant that she had to make the right mommy friends first. Which, in turn, meant she had to pretend to have the leisure of the stay-at-home wife of an uber-wealthy financier while balancing all her other responsibilities.
To say that Rachel and Toby occupy a rarified world is an understatement. Before their split, they share a roomy apartment on the Upper East Side, send their children to private schools, and own a house in the Hamptons. But Rachel is not satisfied, in part because Toby isn’t successful enough. He makes a few hundred thousand dollars a year, but could make more by becoming a hospital administrator or working for a biotech or health-care company. Alas for Rachel, he doesn’t want to do anything besides see patients.
Why is Rachel so concerned about her husband’s lack of ambition? She says that their financial status quo prevents them from achieving the things she wants for her children in Manhattan. “We could move,” he says, which leads her to think: “Where else could she do what she did? Sure, they could live like kings on his salary in rural Pennsylvania, but he’d be signing her death sentence.”
Never mind that Toby’s somewhat limited career goals have allowed Rachel to pursue the career she wanted without her having to worry about whether someone besides a nanny will be there to give her children dinner or that a parent will be available to pick up the kids if they need to be taken to the doctor. Indeed, Toby’s more flexible job with its shorter hours allows Rachel to leave her kids with him unannounced after the divorce.
Nor does she want to be a stay-at-home mother. As the reader learns from her friend Libby, once a successful writer, being a SAHM is a miserable life. And this is true even though Libby is married to a man who is both happy to support the family and go to every soccer game and give the kids dinner while his wife stays out all hours trying to find herself.
Libby reflects on the complaints she and Rachel share:
When you succeed, when you did out-earn and outpace, when you did exceed all expectations, nothing around you really shifted. You still had to tiptoe around the fragility of a man, which was okay for the women who got to shop and drink martinis all day—this was their compensation; they had done their own negotiations—but was absolutely intolerable for anyone who was out there working and getting respect and becoming the person that others had to tiptoe around.
Libby and Rachel have it all. And it’s not enough. Or maybe it’s too much. Libby continues: “How could I find my way back to a moment where my life wasn’t a flood of obligations but an endless series of choices, each one designed to teach me something about existence and the world as opposed to marring me for life?”
Reviewers have swooned over Fleishman Is in Trouble. “Brodesser-Akner demonstrates how women get suckered into acquiescing to misogyny by suckering both narrator and reader—and then showing us what she’s done,” wrote Lily Myer, a critic for NPR. The book concludes with Rachel’s side of the story, a narrative move that is designed to reverse reader expectations. Myer professed herself “floored,” and why? “I had let myself—a woman! A female writer!—get taken in by a man’s story about his poor, put-upon, misunderstood self.”
Ron Charles, the Washington Post reviewer, tells us that “Toby is not the long-suffering saint he imagines himself to be.” No, it’s Rachel we should support, Rachel who is “ripped apart by the old demands of full-time motherhood and the new requirements of full-time work and the sheer exhaustion of having to flatter and reassure and soothe all the fragile men in her life.”
Really? Really? Is this what feminism has become? Is this fourth-wave feminism? An assault on supposed male fragility?
The “first wave of feminism” began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and was focused mostly on getting women the right to vote. Pioneering feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and their comrades also wanted women to be able to own property and to have greater opportunities for education and employment. Needless to say, such aims have been achieved. And with women graduating college at higher rates than men, one might even say that women have transcended those antiquated goals.
The second wave of feminism, launched in the early 1960s, sought equal pay for equal work and fought for the right for both married and unmarried women to have access to birth control and abortion. Though feminists today still point to what they believe is a gender pay gap, this largely disappears when you control for the careers women choose and the time they decide to take off to raise families.1
Birth control is universally available and all but free. And abortion, while restricted more in some states than others, is not difficult to procure. In a recent review of books about the experience of abortion decades ago, Caitlin Flanagan (a staunch supporter of legal abortion) has offered a useful reminder to those who are worried about the current environment:
The women described in their pages are travelers from an antique land, reporting about an America that is at once fairly recent and utterly unfamiliar. Bearing a child out of wedlock is so accepted today that some of the most respected professional-class women I know have done so intentionally. Today, no young woman can be thrown out of college, or fired from her job, or cast out of “society” for becoming pregnant. Nor is adoption the horror that it was a generation ago: No birth mother needs to feel that her child is lost in the woods; she can decide to pursue an open adoption, she can change her mind about relinquishment, days—and in some states, months—after giving up the baby.
Even if abortion access in some states were more restricted, Flanagan notes, between home pregnancy tests and pharmaceutically induced abortion, it is hard to imagine ever going back.
Thus, the goals of the second wave have also been largely achieved.
The third wave of feminism began with a fight against sexual harassment in the workplace—its beginnings are often tied to the 1991 Anita Hill hearings. Those efforts were stopped in their tracks when liberals felt the need to defend Bill Clinton against his own workplace harassments. The #Metoo corrective has brought that subject back to the fore with a vengeance.But the third wave also stood for the idea that women should occupy more positions of power in the workplace. And despite the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s bathrobe and Matt Lauer’s door-locking button, women in the vast majority of American workplaces are given more opportunities and treated infinitely better than they were a few decades ago.
So feminism’s fourth wave now comes at a time when the two centuries of effort to ensure equal treatment under the law and equal rights under the law for women have been fulfilled. Women in America in 2019 have the right to vote, own property, get an equal education (with equal access to sports teams), the same jobs as men, and at the same rate of pay (when controlling for time on the job). Male violence against women is no longer tolerated, whether by strangers, boyfriends, husbands, or fathers. Men have undergone profound psychic changes to help reorganize society to accommodate the needs of women.
Fourth-wave feminism has occupied itself with making men’s and women’s experiences—both the personal and the professional—the same. Today’s feminists are worried about the “unconscious bias” that affects women starting from a very young age. Even if they acknowledge that part of the pay gap comes from women entering lower-paid professions, they believe that girls were somehow indoctrinated by the patriarchy into choosing those professions. And fourth-wavers are preoccupied with the question of why women tend to do more childcare than men.
They are concerned about “mansplaining,” or the way that men regularly talk down to or interrupt women in meetings or other public settings. They demand protection from “microaggressions,” the insensitive statements made by college professors or other men in positions of power, and the way they experience certain kinds of sexual pressure (even if it is not explicit) from men with whom they are or are not romantically involved.
Many of the fourth-wave battles are taking place online with women calling out men for treating them condescendingly. There are plenty of squabbles among these fourth-wave feminists over questions of intersectionality (are the experiences of black women being properly represented in the movement?) and economics (should we be pushing for better pay or should we just throw capitalism overboard?).
Though the chatter of radical feminists seems to be growing—because the Internet makes all things radical seem larger than they are—this wave does not seem to have the same hold on the imaginations of ordinary women that previous waves did. The day-to-day lives of women and men do seem more equal than ever. Get married, stay single, live with a partner or partners. Have kids young or wait till you’re 45 or don’t have them at all. Work longer hours or stay home. Go back to school. Take time off. Travel the world. Whatever.
These fourth-wave feminists even have men who are willing to support any choice they make. And, frankly, it’s driving women crazy.
Like Rachel of Fleishman Is in Trouble, fourth-wave feminists have found themselves with the freedom and the obligation to make choices that women before them did not have to make in the same way—choices about how much money they need to earn and what that will mean about how much time they spend with their children, where they can afford to live, what kind of childcare they can afford. In a home with multiple careers and multiple children, there is so much to be done that it’s hard not to keep a running tally of how much you did compared with what your partner has done.
Feminists today lament all the “hidden” work that women have to do to make a family run. Even if they have full-time jobs, American wives are still more likely to be the ones responsible for making dentist appointments and getting end-of-year gifts for teachers and making playdates and finding the right schools and making friends with the mommies. (Unmentioned, of course, is that men tend to have their own hidden responsibilities related to other kinds of household management.)
In an update of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, former Washington Post staffer Brigid Schulte complains that women never get time to themselves the way men do. “Women’s time has been interrupted and fragmented throughout history, the rhythms of their days circumscribed by the Sisyphean tasks of housework, childcare and kin work,” Schulte writes. “If what it takes to create are long stretches of uninterrupted, concentrated time, time you can choose to do with as you will, time that you can control, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect.” There is something peculiar in this portrait, since Schulte assumes that busy men are blissfully finding hours of uninterrupted time in this age of distraction and the inescapable demands of work coming through every phone.
Schulte wonders: “What if we really did do the work to create a world where the sisters of Shakespeare and Mozart, or any woman, really, could thrive? What would happen if we decided women deserved the time [to themselves]?” Well, for one thing, many women would simply decide that they preferred to spend it with their families, friends, and communities. It is possible that they don’t want to spend long chunks of uninterrupted hours at their keyboards waiting for genius to strike.
Moreover, though feminists are loath to admit it, women tend to care more about whether their children are enrolled in the right gymnastics classes and invited to certain playdates. Is it nature or nurture that causes this? Who knows? What is clear is that some of this hidden work is necessary and some of it…not so much. In Allison Pearson’s 2009 novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, the lead character feels the need to make her store-bought dessert for the school bake sale look homemade and beats it up late at night. A man in her position might reasonably wonder why it matters. Rachel thinks that her kids will suffer if they do not attend the right sleepovers. Toby is not as concerned.
The oppressive “hidden work” narrative is everywhere. It starts even before the kids are born, as demonstrated in a recent article in Fast Company titled “I thought we had an equal partnership—until I planned our wedding.”
“For many brides, the wedding process feels like yet another way women are saddled with the lion’s share of unpaid labor,” the article explains. As one woman tells the reporter: Her husband does laundry and chores around the house, but when it comes to taking calls from wedding vendors at the office, well, he is falling down on the job. Another complains, “There were so many decisions to be made. Just help me make some of them—care a little about the flowers!”
If “care a little about the flowers” is the rallying cry of fourth-wave feminism, the movement is in more trouble than Fleishman. The idea that men don’t have to think about the things women think about—but should!—is at the heart of feminism’s complaints today. It is at once a silly and impossible demand. It requires that we not only reorient society to accommodate all of women’s desires but that we rewire men’s brains to share all of women’s concerns.
This is a game men cannot win. Having been twisted into pretzels to be supportive and thoughtful and to limit their ambitions to make room for those of their wives, men in the American elite are now being publicly blamed for the fact that their wives cannot turn off their consciences, their sense of obligation to their children, and the nagging sense that maybe making money and having things aren’t the most rewarding things to do with your life.
It’s not that Toby is the perfect man, mind you. Since his divorce, he has been doing his share of “Internet dating,” which basically consists of quick assignations with desperate middle-aged women. But he still manages to do his job (even compassionately), take walks with his children, cook them dinner, notice the drama going on their lives, fire the nanny when he realizes that she has not been properly supervising the kids, and take off all the time he can from work to handle the fallout. In other words, he’s doing more than most. And among the other things about Toby of which Rachel seems most jealous—though it is what initially attracts her to him—is his strong connection to his own family.
Toby is not as rare as you might think. Among middle-class couples, plenty of men are perfectly willing to support the careers of their wives, if that’s what their wives want. In survey after survey, though, mothers consistently say that they prefer to work part-time when they have school-age children. The fact that many highly-educated women decide to drop out of the workforce while their children are young is not an indication of patriarchal oppression but rather a sign that their husbands’ salaries have allowed them to make the choice.
Then there are the husbands who are happy to support their wife’s professional ambitions. Take the Democratic presidential candidates, for instance. For all the chatter about whether our country will be able to swallow its sexist attitudes and vote for Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, their own husbands are hardly passive cheerleaders, let alone Neanderthals resentful of women’s success.
After separating from her first husband, Elizabeth Warren was teaching in New Jersey and caring for her two children. Her second husband, Bruce Mann, commuted back and forth from his job as a lawyer in Connecticut, coming to coach his stepchildren’s soccer games and attend parent-teacher conferences. Warren told the Boston Globe: “He did it all. Bruce flew back and forth and back and forth.” Kamala Harris, too, finds herself married to a man with a high-powered career as a partner at a law firm but who also seems willing to follow her around the country to campaign events and pose for adorable selfies with Pete Buttigieg’s better half.
Or take the most powerful woman in Washington, Nancy Pelosi. Her husband, Paul, father of their five children, told the Los Angeles Times why he has tried to maintain a low profile professionally. “I understand, of course, that since a woman has had such a phenomenal success [people wonder], ‘Who is this guy she’s married to for 47 years and has five kids?’ … I understand the curiosity about that. But it’s her celebrity. It’s her career. It’s her responsibility. I’m enormously supportive and proud about it but I see absolutely no percentage in trying to share the limelight.”
According to Pew, fathers made up 17 percent of all stay-at-home parents in 2016, up from 10 percent in 1989—a 70 percent increase over three decades. And the time that all fathers devote to childcare has grown significantly. “In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of eight hours a week on child care—about triple the time they provided in 1965,” according to a Pew Research report. “And fathers put in about 10 hours a week on household chores in 2016, up from four hours in 1965. By comparison, mothers spent an average of about 14 hours a week on child care and 18 hours a week on housework in 2016.”
These facts do not earn men any credit because these hours are still not distributed equally. Today’s father gets no respect; he might as well be passing out cigars in a hospital waiting room or expecting well-behaved children to fetch his slippers while his wife puts a home-cooked dinner on the table each night.
Even when they go out of their way to recognize the difficulties women face in trying to balance the different aspects of their lives and honor the work women do, men are thrown under the bus. A recent column in the New York Times mocked “wife guys,” that is, men who write flattering things on social media about their wives. The author, Amanda Hess, notes that a wife guy “is crafting a whole persona around being that guy. He married a woman, and now that is his personality.”
Women used to complain that they were defined by their husbands. But when husbands do the reverse, they are dubbed “ludicrous” and “embarrassing.”
In her new book, Era of Ignition, the actress and young feminist icon Amber Tamblyn recounts her story of a successful and well-compensated career in Hollywood before then marrying David, a man who was supportive of all her choices—including her unilateral decision to abort their first child. David (she does not offer up his last name, which is weird, since he is the actor and comedian David Cross) is nothing if not a committed feminist by the definition of an older generation. “He has long been a champion for women in our business, supporting and amplifying the careers and voices of comedians, writers and even actresses like myself,” Tamblyn writes. “So when I told him I was ready to adapt and direct my first feature film, he couldn’t have been more encouraging and supportive.”
But the problem remains that David is a man. Men, writes Tamblyn, “are the gatekeepers and women are locked outside, doing everything we can and sometimes things we don’t want to just to unlock the gate, let alone get a set of our own keys.”
What specifically is Tamblyn talking about? It starts out as some kind of sotto voce discrimination: “Women are passed over for promotions, jobs, scholarships, or public office because of deeply ingrained biases against our voices, bodies and perspectives.” She feels little need to present any evidence of this, but the fact that women graduate college at higher rates than men and earn the same salary as men until they drop out of the workforce to have children has not crossed her radar.
The accusations by women against the other half of the population simply broaden and become harder to quantify. Women have to do more “emotional labor” than men, these advocates complain. Articles like “Why Women Are Still Doing More Emotional Labor in Relationships Than Men” and “Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor” abound. But how are we to measure emotional labor? Would everything fall apart if women didn’t do it? And how are we sure men aren’t doing it?
Today’s feminists are also professional mind-readers, to judge by their recent pronouncements. Men, Tamblyn writes, “don’t think about the ramifications of things they have said or done because they’ve never had to.” Women, by contrast, “are raised to doubt first and decide last.” How Tamblyn knows what goes on in the minds of most women or most men, she doesn’t say.
Instead she offers her own experience. Tamblyn comes up with an idea for a movie and then is plagued by doubt. She recounts: “What came next was a familiar feeling for most women who step outside their comfort zone—a pang of fear. How would I get the rights to the book? Who would let me write the movie? Who would I get to direct me? What if my agents just shined me on? What if everyone said no to me?” Tamblyn suggests, with no irony whatever, that such thoughts just don’t occur to men. And that women will have achieved true equality only when men and women care about the same things.
While Fleishman Is in Trouble is a comic novel, it is in fact the perfect representation of the existential crisis at the heart of fourth-wave feminism—which is itself a reaction to the fundamental problem posed by feminism’s success. The rage felt by Rachel and Libby and Amber Tamblyn and Brigid Schulte and the bride who is forced to make floral decisions by herself is a rage against a supposed unfairness that is not correctable. Feminism has already largely corrected everything it can possibly correct, including the behavior of men. So now what?
Fourth-wave feminists are living through a period in which feminist dreams have become reality. And they are finding that reality unpleasant. They were sold a false bill of goods. It was a fantasy that if they did what they were supposed to do—get good grades, become successful in journalism or business, like Libby and Rachel—everything else would fall into place. But real life doesn’t work that way for anybody. You have an important powerful job that pays a lot of money? You’re not going to be able to spend a lot of time with your kids. You have crazy ambition? You’re going to feel like an impostor and be filled with anxiety about performance. And, evidently, if you’re a woman, you’re going to fantasize that men don’t have exactly these same problems, even when they do.
As Fleishman Is in Trouble reveals, both honestly and inadvertently, elite women in 2019 exhibit a kind of paranoia—they are convinced that even when women seem to have gotten exactly what they want, men still have it better.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Feminism may have delivered greater freedom for women, but it has never delivered greater happiness. In fact, longitudinal surveys suggest that women are less satisfied with their lives today than they were a few decades ago. Having more choices—as we all do in an age where Amazon can bring thousands of brands of shampoo to our doorstep tomorrow and Facebook allows us to pick among 17 different gender identities—does not make our lives richer.
In fact, all these choices seem to make things harder for both men and women living in middle- and upper-class America today. We perpetually wonder whether we have chosen the right profession, married the right person, moved to the right house in the right neighborhood in the right city, sent our kids to the right schools. Are we spending enough time with our sons and daughters, giving them the right kinds of enrichment? Are we saving enough for college or for retirement? Every time we make a choice, we are faced with social-media posts and television shows presenting us with all the other roads we could have traveled, each one a potential cause for regret.
And these choices become all the more complex when we make them in conjunction with a partner. We ask ourselves: Is he feeling the same guilt about time spent away from the kids? Is she suffering the same difficulties concentrating at work? Is he being treated differently by the boss for leaving early? Would I be happier if the school called him first when my child was sick? Such thoughts build up a stream of jealousy and resentment. Even when confronted with a generation of husbands who are supportive of women’s professional choices, husbands who want to be more involved in their children’s lives and who acknowledge the “hidden” contributions their wives make to the success of their families, it is not enough.
By moving the goalpost beyond changing the behaviors and attitudes of individual men—fathers, teachers, bosses, etc.—to fighting an amorphous structural misogyny that seems to exist more in women’s minds than in reality, women can continue to play the victim. They cannot be held truly responsible for the choices they make or the consequences of them for their own happiness or the well-being of their families.
The truth is simple: Men and women both want to achieve loving relationships with their families, some amount of professional success, as well as the opportunity to make a contribution to their communities and enjoy some leisure every once in a while. Alas, the time and effort we devote to each will be constrained by the number of hours in a day and the number of days in a year and years in a lifetime. And feminists, for all their power to change society, have thus far been unable to make time into a social construct.
“How could I find my way back to a moment where my life wasn’t a flood of obligations but an endless series of choices?” What does Libby of Fleishman Is in Trouble mean by this? I think she is really asking to turn back the clock, to find a lost youth, to feel the kind of freedom that comes from being young and unattached, to have a whole life in front of you, to feel that you have not made any tradeoffs, let alone any mistakes. This is not a problem that feminism or any political or social movement can solve. It is not a problem at all. It is the human condition.
1 That professional and economic inequalities are relatively trivial is exemplified by Brodesser-Akner’s Libby. She had a great job as a magazine writer, but years after she left the workforce—her decision, not her husband’s—she is still steaming over the fact that her bosses questioned the expenses she incurred during her reporting while they never seemed to question those of a star male reporter.