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How ‘Marvelous’ Is Mrs Maisel!

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For those of us who addicted to the world of web series, ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ I think is one of the few among Amazon Prime’s originals which will take you away from Netflix with its fresh perspective and relatable characters.

A lot has been discussed about the ‘feminist‘ approach that the series has taken in the portrayal of its leading characters and story, right from challenging family structures to unconventional career choices made by women. However, I think that the beauty of this award-winning series lies in the fact that it manages to address the elephant in the room in such a light-hearted, under current way possible that it would pass off as a regular sitcom and yet provoke thinking.

A still from the show.

The show begins with Mirium ‘Midge’ Maisel’s seemingly ‘perfect’ life falling apart when her husband announces his intention to end their marriage. This comes right after his failed attempt at stand-up comedy that he fancies as an alternative career.

Midge Maisel and her estranged husband Joel Maisel

The shock of his betrayal wrecks havoc in Midge’s mind. Helpless and drunk, she steps down from her fancy apartment and totters on to the same stage that her husband left a while ago, to vent about the collapse of her blissful marital life before a group of complete strangers. Her unintentional jibes about everything that went wrong in her perfect cut out from fairy tale life – from the incredulity of his affair with a commonplace secretary to maintaining her model-like figure for her husband’s pleasures in the bed- strikes a perfect chord with the audience and has them in splits. After all, who does not enjoy jokes made at the cost of someone else’s dysfunctional life that would show their own lives in a better light?

Several moral barriers and ‘middle-class’ sensibilities are thrown to the wind that night as Midge continues with her hilarious narration, to the end that the police are called in and she is arrested. What thus began with an accidental stint as a stand-up comedian continues and flourishes as an unlikely career for Midge after the bar attendant Susie (doubling up as her partner and Manager) convinces her to give it a shot.

Susie’s life is a complete contrast, an antithesis of the life that Midge has been living, beginning from the size of her one-room apartment which is smaller than, well, the closet that Midge owns back in her home. Susie’s poverty, however, is portrayed in a matter of fact way. Her lack of resources is highlighted, but it does not give her the vulnerability and meekness that usually precedes such a situation. Susie is unabashed about her poverty, unrestrained in the language and unfeigned in her indifference to any sentimental nonsense that comes her way, which I think makes her a very delightful character. Yet, she is driven by a belief that the partnership that she worked out with Midge will take them a long way. Most importantly, she believes in Midge and the talent that she has and wants to leave no stone unturned to push Midge to her glory.

Alex Borstein as Susie Myerson in the Amazon Prime Original ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

Midge and Susie do not share an overtly expressive emotional bond or are involved in each other’s personal lives. They just have each other’s backs in the business that they have gotten themselves into, and celebrate their small victories over a drink at night. The kind of friendship that the two women share with each other has been explored many times between two men in cinema and literature before, the kind which transcends differences of background over a shared passion and has underlying emotional dependability. It was gratifying how Susie and Midge easily broke into this space.

Midge is often ignorant about the life that Susie leads with all her big and small domestic trials. She is, for instance, amazed to know that Susie does not leave the city in the summers for the holiday- a reflection of the privileged life that she had. She keeps forgetting how the lack of social security or a stable family to fall back to will always give her an advantage over Susie in the face of the social backlash they face for their misdemeanors, in spite of the fact they have equality in all the other matters.

But the fact that Susie belongs to a world so different from her does not discourage Midge from entrusting her career in Susie’s hands. She is often surprised, but never embarrassed about Susie’s behavior even if others express their disbelief of having Susie as her manager. “You get used to her”, she says to them. In this not only lies the strength of her inherently liberal mindset, but also an acknowledgment of Susie’s experience of dealing with life’s travesties over her own. Midge knows that Susie possesses something that she herself lacks, with all her luxury that’s given to her- making her own choices.

Even in her job at the makeup counter in the lifestyle mall, Midge strikes an easy camaraderie with the other girls (once again, who had very different lives from her own). She slides in and out in her role as a friend to Imogene (her friend from her former life as petit Mrs Maisel), the counter girls (friends at her workplace), Susie and the outrageously blunt comedian Lenny Bruce (from her life as a comedian) and is still herself in all of that, with all the pretty hats.

Midge Maisel and her mother Rose Weissman

An interesting comparison with two other female characters in the series would help me to establish my point. The first is Midge’s mother Rose Weissman. She was not ignorant of the stifling domestic life that she has been living with her husband. She also very well understands the yearning for freedom that Midge has acquired post her break up. At a juncture when her tolerance at dealing with family problems takes a beating, she packs off and takes recourse by relocating to Paris for a brief stint of an unbridled and chaotic life. Here she is only Rose, not Mrs. Weissman of Upper West New York. However, by the time we start wishing for more of the rebel Rose, she returns home at her husband’s insistence, homes the same persona of self-assured homemaker and is once again back at plotting to bring her daughter back in the toe-line.

The second such character is veteran comedian Sophie Lenon. Sophie disguises as a fat, unattractive and unsophisticated woman from a humble background and uses this to crack jokes on her and misadventures with the posh society. Unlike Midge, who has no qualms in appearing before the audience just as she is and making her ‘perfect’ life a butt of jokes, Sophie has herself convinced that her real face of an attractive, rich woman would never make her successful as a comedian. The insecurity that she harbors in revealing her true self to the world once again emerges from the societal stereotypes about women, such as ‘pretty women cannot be intelligent’ or ‘high-class women should not be so coarse and vulgar in their language’ and so on and so forth.

Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon. Credit: toprankblog.com

I think both Rose Weissman and Sophie Lenon are similar in one respect, even as their desires run parallel to each other. Rose desires the Bohemian life of gay Paree, and Sophie wants the luxury and material attractions of the world. The similarity is that both have willingly (and sadly) bowed down to the social expectations to live with the caricatures they have created for themselves.

Midge, on the other hand, struggles to negotiate for a more liberated life, a career of her choice and a relationship with her husband on her own terms within the existing circumstances. She doesn’t want to run away to Paris like her mother or disguise herself as someone else to fulfill her aspirations.

I strongly feel Midge and Susie are ultimately, thus, more empowered and sorted, even more then they themselves understand it.

They are outspoken against everyday sexism and unapologetic about the bold career choices they are making. Both are comfortable in their own personalities- Midge with her hats and heels and Susie with her dapper attire that doesn’t even let us guess her gender. In the path that they will traverse, the glass ceiling would be shattered into hundreds of pieces and what would emerge is a success story of women who took on the world. And, of course, a few really funny jokes on how this happened, courtesy Mrs. Maisel!

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  1. Abhi U

    Fascinating and descriptive review! I liked how you captured the essence of the characters. Susie is my favourite character on the show. MMM has been compared to Mad Men because both shows are period dramedies about people who live secret lives: one in which they present an ‘acceptable’ face to the public and the other, which is their true self. However, MMM is topically more relevant because it deals with the lives of working women in the 1950s, a topic that has not been explored much in the entertainment media.

    I would have liked to know more about your own views on the gender politics of the era and how much it has changed (or not changed) since then. Do you think Miriam would’ve found it easier to start a stand-up career today? Would Susie have been accepted into the managers’ circle more easily, or would it still be run by old boys? I would also have liked to know your views on Miriam’s attitude towards her children. One gets the impression that she doesn’t think much about them and had them only because it was what was socially required of her. Would she have been a bachelor today given the opportunity?

    Looking forward to more pieces 🙂

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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