Status means something to all of us; there’s no getting around that. But there is a type of person who is susceptible to orienting their life entirely around attaining status, or proximity to status. So susceptible that they easily lose sight of just about everything else. And, on top of this, the version of success they grasp toward is not one which they have defined for themselves. Everyone has dreams and ambitions—this isn’t that.
Success to this kind of person is a janky collage of things they have been told they should want. Things other people have, or things that a particular person who is charismatic and confident says are important, or things that appear to have institutional accreditation. It doesn’t matter how dubious the institution: a made-up university, a man in an expensive suit, a certain threshold of Instagram or Twitter followers. I’m talking about the kind of person who you sense that, were they to happen upon a red rope set up around literally anything, a metaphorical trash can, say, would probably clamor desperately to get behind it.
A recent wry piece in the Cut was full of this type of person, each of them detailing their neurosis in lurid detail. The women interviewed for “The Fleishman Effect” cataloged a series of grievances based on envy; a hyperfixation on attaining a level of status which would clearly mutate, mirage-like, on approach anyway, to something better still (be it school, house, new style of home décor, new style of face). Most of all, what these women demonstrated was a total inability to enjoy themselves.
The premise of the piece was that they felt they had seen the ugly reflection of their lives in the TV show Fleishman Is in Trouble, based on the novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. In both show and novel, the divorce of Rachel, a formidable talent agent, and Toby, a hepatologist (who, while successful, is not making “Manhattan hedge-fund manager” money and therefore is not making enough) serves as a stage for broader observations on privilege, striving, status anxiety, and feminism. Rachel runs herself ragged trying to keep up with a super elite and hyperspecific top-Manhattan-private-school-parent milieu. Meanwhile Toby vents about their broken marriage to his trusty, harangued old friend Libby, a former magazine journalist driven out of the industry (and then to New Jersey) by a combination of misogyny and motherhood. She sees herself as grimly sentenced to the suburbs by her relatively low earning power.
The Rachel (and Libby)-esque women interviewed about it for the Cut describe feeling particularly seen by a scene in which Rachel screams while at a yoga retreat, exercising her pent-up exhaustion over the strain of her crusade to the top, and the futility of the endeavor (because there is no top for her, not really). There are anecdotes about kindergarten application consultants and Russian-math tutors. The horrors of finding yourself shopping at Target when you think it is embarrassing. Work days that extend from 6 a.m. until midnight but still don’t pay enough for private school or an apartment in Brooklyn to feel within reach (what else they are paying for isn’t made clear). Private schools where, unless you are a top lawyer or banker, your child is a nobody but you still must contribute toward Cartier bracelets for the bat mitzvahs. And the “subtle heartbreak” of existing in proximity to “two-nannies-and-a-chauffeur wealth, spring-break-in-St.-Barts wealth” that permeates New York.
They all sound miserable, and claim that watching Fleishman Is in Trouble made them take stock. Although, it must be said—they stop short of saying “fuck it all” and instead settle for therapy or planning a few dinners with different, less status-oriented friends. The response to the piece online was a chorus of: Rich people problems; This shows how stupid rich people are; Oh no! The poor upper middle classes on a mere $300,000 per year!; What is it going to take for these people to realize that capitalism has sold them a lie?; Magnificent contribution to “is $400k/yr in new york rich?” A familiar refrain, furnished by years of circular privilege discourse. Discourse the women interviewed seem cognizant of too, actually. Throughout the quotes in the piece, there are nods to the contemporary thinking on privilege and self-awareness (i.e., that you must make a declaration of your advantages before you go ahead and say your piece anyway).
And yes, these are privileged women. These are rich people’s problems. I don’t disagree. But I can’t help but wonder if engaging with a story like this—about people essentially trapped and made unhappy by their status obsession—by effectively listing their advantages takes these people too much on their own terms. While reading this piece, my overwhelming thought was: These people are life’s losers. Not because they have money or because they’re sending kids to private school. Lots of people with money know how to enjoy it. But because, by orienting themselves entirely around acquiring things they feel they should want, they seem to have rendered themselves terminally incapable of enjoying themselves. The most distinctive thing about them is that they seem actually incapable of having fun.
Oddly enough, I found myself thinking of these women again when I watched the recent Vice documentary on Andrew Tate. It details assault allegations, ignored by police, leveled against Tate, who has made millions and millions from using his misogynistic online persona to market dubious products and experiences to regular people. One of the saddest things about the documentary is how unimpressive Tate is, considering how many people he has swindled; how little he is really selling. He has sold copious “degrees” to his “Hustler University,” an entity a not-especially-sophisticated 12-year-old should be able to see through.
His right-hand man, Iggy Semmelweis, is literally a hypnotist who wears a glittery satin waistcoat, has a long scraggly beard, and has made promotional videos in which he balances CGI flames on his hands. And, at one point in the documentary, a group of men who have paid £5,000 to come to Tate’s compound are told they are expected to fight a trained fighter. Essentially these men have paid for the opportunity to be punched in the face and then laughed at by Tate, a man who seems to always be wearing an elasticated beige blazer. All of this is plainly a red rope set up around a trash can.
For all the differences between Tate’s men and the Fleishman women, a thread runs between them. Battling to get your kids into a school where they will be treated like nobodies because you aren’t a partner at a law firm, presumably so they spend the rest of their life doing exactly the same thing, if they’re lucky, sounds not a world apart from paying to be punched in the face. A life like this is what happens when you have no value system of your own: you become incapable of operating on any basis other than envy and status-seeking. Yes, these are privileged women. But these women are also life’s terminal losers. There was the constant sense, in both the documentary and the Cut’s piece, of a group of people performing frantically for an audience that doesn’t exist.
As privilege discourse has attempted to trundle on over the past few years, it has really stagnated. We circle back over the same ground constantly, but don’t spend much time discussing what a good life truly means, who is getting what they want out of the world, and which of us is really enjoying ourselves. Who are life’s winners, in other words, and who are the losers.
A friend of mine, Felix, an artist who is highly skilled at living a life he thoroughly enjoys, has struck up a friendship recently with an older woman with a terminal illness who frequents his local pub. He told me recently about some advice she gave him that I think is worth passing on in this context: “You need to be having some sex!” she said. “You’re young. My son is young but he doesn’t know how to enjoy himself. He’s not having any sex. So many of my friends aren’t having sex, and they’re all unhappy because of it. I have a brain condition, I might die soon. Everyone thinks they’re not going to die. But you will. You need to enjoy yourself, have some sex!”
When I sent him the Cut piece he replied: “Everyone in this needs to have some sex!”
He really did literally mean sex. But I knew he was using that reference to his older, wiser pub friend to make a bigger point, too: That everyone living like the Fleishman women needs desperately to take themselves less seriously. That life isn’t about scraping, desperately, toward a slightly better private school. Or it shouldn’t be. That the time for having some sex, reading, playing your favorite album while you cook your favorite meal, going out dancing, or doing any of the things we like to do just for the sake of doing them, will be over far quicker than any of us want to admit.
We will all die, someday. And everyone is getting older all the time. It can feel like there are rules about how you are supposed to spend your time and money, but there aren’t. Only choices, which you can make, or not make. Money can make some practical things easier. But “two-nannies-and-a-chauffeur, spring-break-in-St.-Barts” money isn’t really doing that anymore, is it?
That’s not to say it’s doing nothing, just that the thing it is doing is harder to explain in terms of tangible benefits. It is nice to have nice things … as long as you really want them. Figuring out what it is that you want is half the thing in life. Or actually maybe it’s the whole thing. I don’t really know; I don’t know any more than you do. Which is, depending on the kind of person you are, either exciting or terrifying. It is definitely possible that you happen to want exactly the same things as the people in the slightly nicer house down the street.
Or perhaps I could suggest having more sex.