The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and How It’s Possible to Laugh Even While Exposing Prejudice
It took me months to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I had seen all the hype, Emmys and Golden Globes just after one season, something very rare, and advertisements for it constantly flooded my Amazon video account. My sister watched it and raved about it to my entire family for weeks, and even then I still didn’t watch it. Eventually, the day I was home very sick, and I reached a point where the boredom of being stuck at home all day with nothing to do was killing me, so I pulled up Amazon video and started to browse for literally anything. I decided to click on The Marvelous Maisel simply as an attempt to ease my boredom. The first thing I did was read the blurb, “In 1958 New York, Midge Maisel’s life is on track- husband, kids, and elegant Yom Kippur dinners in their Upper West Side apartment. But when her life takes a surprise turn, she has to quickly decide what else she’s good at — and going from housewife to stand-up comic is a wild choice to everyone but her.” My first thought: “eh why not?” I wasn’t immediately captivated by the plot, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to watch the first episode.
I was shocked. I started episode one and was promptly welcomed into a world of glamorous, bright-colored costumes and the exciting bustle of 1950’s New York City. This was all accompanied by the star of the show, Mrs. Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Straight away you get a sense of who Midge is, as she gets up to give a speech at her own wedding and nonchalantly mentions that there is shrimp in the egg rolls. Over the course of the episode, a wild series of events leads Midge to accidentally doing standup comedy at a club in the village, and to everyone’s surprise, she was incredible. Midge’s sharp wit and excellent comedic timing led her to be hilarious at standup, even when it was not intentional.
The show is set in the 1950s where women were expected to sit still and look pretty. After World War II, and the men returned, women were encouraged to return home to where they belong and resume their previous roles as loving mothers and affectionate wives. Additionally, after World War II and the rise of the threat of the Cold War, men and women adhered to strict gender roles in an attempt to promote happy, healthy families and consequently a happy, healthy society. Women were believed to be an essential piece in the family unit, and by remaining home and refusing to pursue a career, she would be more capable of providing for her family and be the best woman she could be. This strict adherence to gender norms forged a relationship between them and national security, therefore making it even more difficult for women to break through the glass ceiling they were born into. This also further encouraged the importance of outward appearance, therefore pushing men towards being the “manliest” they could be, and women being as outwardly beautiful and proper they could be.
Due to this overwhelming pressure to fit these ideals and norms perfectly, the idea of being “unladylike” was especially popular at this time. The dictionary definition of unladylike is, “not appropriate for or typical of a well-bred woman or girl”. The word that sticks out the most to me in that definition is “well-bred” if you do act a certain way it exposes women as not being well-mannered or brought up in a well-off family. Another interesting aspect of this “well-off” term is that it is also used as a trait in literal animals, like a horse or a dog. The use of this word, not only confines women to a position of needing to act prim and proper at all times, but it also emanates the idea that women are of equal standing as animals.
The overwhelming devotion to these gender roles during this time period is what makes Midge Maisel so refreshing. She followed all the rules, went to college just to find a husband, had two children young, and was living in a massive apartment on the upper west side, right below her parents. She had what was perceived as a “perfect” life, even Midge was blissfully unaware of the bubble she was living in. However, when her life gets flipped upside down she, in a drunken rage, finds a hidden talent that she did not previously know about; stand-up comedy. At this time, standup was possibly the most inappropriate career for a twenty-something-year-old housewife. However, she wasn’t just good at it, she was great, and this discovery opened her eyes to the “imperfect” world around her. No longer was she the doting wife with no real understanding of the box she had been confined in since birth. She was a new woman who had a dream and would break through every glass ceiling to achieve it.
Midge Maisel reclaimed her femininity and is somewhat unconsciously using it to fight against inequality. When I first heard about this show I thought that it was going to be a carbon copy of the overdone displays of feminism and dissatisfaction in a time period where it was not common to fight for equality. Shows like that are important and can be very interesting, but it has been done before and continues to be done over and over again. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was not this. Midge Maisel grew up very well off in an upper-class family, with her father, a professor at Columbia and her mother constantly obsessing over outward appearance. She was never exposed to life any other way than how she saw it from the confines of the upper-west side. The show is still able to tackle topics such as workforce disparity and discrimination without blatantly stating it. For example, in the first season, Midge decided that she wanted to get a job in order to support herself with her own money and as she says, “with no strings attached”. The backlash she received was staggering. The people around her, especially her family, were astonished that she would go out and get a job, according to them it was not proper, which was not unsurprising particularly in regards to her mother who actually lost sleep over her granddaughter not being a very attractive baby because “it’s easier to be happy when your pretty”. When it came to physically get a job Midge struggled, there were no jobs that would even consider hiring a woman. She eventually found a job at a department store behind the makeup counter; something “only a woman” would know about. Interestingly enough, in the second season, it is discovered that there is another women-only force that works in the department store as telephone operators in the basement. It is revealed early on that although these women are equally qualified to work the makeup counter, they are not pretty enough, and the company does not women “like them” working where the public will see them.
Another habit Midge adopts, or rather gives into, is cursing or using foul language. Although today using a bad word in a sentence is not at all uncommon for anyone, it is still considered improper and unladylike. In the 1950’s it was extremely taboo for women to curse, especially in a public setting. Midge unconsciously uses a plethora of swear words while doing her first-ever standup gig, and simply swore because it was the best way to voice her frustrations. She wasn’t cursing to be “dirty” or to demonstrate her frustrations towards the double-standard between a man and women’s ability to openly curse, although there is one. Midge cursed because she wanted to, nothing more and nothing less. For this cursing, however, Midge was arrested and thrown in a cop car.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel does everything right. It is funny without trying too hard and it has the ability to evoke a strong emotional response from its viewers, something that I feel comedies can have a hard time doing. However, my favorite part of the show is its ability to call out bigotry and discrimination without shoving it in your face. Midge faces prejudice every single day, especially being a woman in standup comedy, a male-dominated profession, but the writers of the show demonstrate Midge’s dissatisfaction and annoyance with these societal norms in a way where the audience can feel for her and also fall out of their seats laughing. The show delivers the glamour of the 1950s without the bigotry that often goes hand in hand, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also does not hide from it. When a heckler yells to Midge on stage and says “Women aren’t funny!”instead of making it a gender issue, she yelled right back an offensive line about how his wife must have a sense of humor because she has seen him naked, flipping his prejudice back on himself and therefore exposing his bigotry and demonstrating that Midge is more than capable of being hilarious all on her own.