As a woman in her 30s, I can relate to the Sex and the City Problem that Reese, the star of Torrey Peters’s 2021 novel Detransition, Baby, has identified. This problem is one that many of us face when we reach a certain age and the shine of our youth starts to dull. We are presented with four limited options for finding meaning: a career, a partner, a baby, or a life dedicated to art. It’s no surprise that Peters has dedicated her novel to divorced cis women, as gender transition and divorce are closely linked in the book.
In Fleishman Is in Trouble, Rachel and Libby have encountered the sharp edges of the boxes they’ve chosen. Rachel has a clear and glittering vision for her future, but she finds herself attempting to juggle a full house of SATC characters. She heads her own successful agency, pays for top tier private schools while showing up for the required mom functions, and moves the Fleishmans into two coveted and pricey zip codes—all the back-breaking “accomplishments” of privilege chronicled in the recent internet-breaking piece on the Fleishman Effect for The Cut—and yet she remains miserable. Libby was a Carrie, a writer who longed to squeeze the bloody heart of adventure onto the page, but she ended up on the publishing sidelines before making a right turn into the life of a Charlotte.
The characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble are far from the divorced women in the Petersian mold. They toss and twist to great emotional effect, but in the end Rachel and Libby return to their roles without stretching towards a more complicated, pleasurable—and less well-cataloged—life. Neither of these women attempt to be truly alone, neither explores what would happen if she asked for something new from her partner. Without any serious investigation of what’s on the other side of those options, Brodesser-Akner limits the power of Fleishman to the narrow stories we’ve already been fed; Like Sex and the City itself, Fleishman Is In Trouble is ultimately a conservative tale.
The moral of Fleishman is that “this is as young as you’ll ever be,” as Libby intones over and over to us and to herself in the show’s final episode. There is no possible return to the moment before the SATC Problem, the time before we all made the choices we did. This is true, and a good thing to remember in the throes of any mid-life crisis. But what is also true and what none of the characters in Fleishman engage with is that youth and class conformity have little to do with happiness. We can make infinite choices if we push back against the pressures of the boxes we’ve built around us.
As I reflect on both Detransition, Baby and Fleishman Is in Trouble, I’m reminded that there is always hope for something different. We can choose again and again forever. We can explore how to make our days too wild and messy to be captured in an hour-long prestige show. We can search for freedom in real conversations with our partners or in time with our children that feels pleasurable to us and not our neighbors. We can imagine a unique and pleasurable life with the people we love. It’s important to remember that these stories are fiction, but they can still serve as a reminder that there is always hope for something different if we push back against the pressures of society’s expectations.