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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!