‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Shows How Society Dismisses Women As ‘Failures’ for Each Career Setback
This article contains spoilers for Season 4, episodes 1 and 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
“Marks achchhe laao warna roti banaana seekh lo.” (Get good marks, or start learning how to make flatbreads.)
“Do saal kar toh li naukri… kya ukhaad liya? Bahut hua shaukh paalna, abhi serious ho jaao life ke baare mein, aur shaadi karke settle hojaao.” (It’s not like you’ve achieved/earned much after working for two years. It’s time you gave up on this “hobby,” and started taking life seriously — by getting married and settling down.)
These are statements that ran through my mind while I watched Midge Maisel worry about her family’s reaction to her career crisis. At the end of season three, we saw her being dropped as the opening act for singer Shy Baldwin just as she was about to get on a plane with him and head to Prague. Season four begins with her on the cab back from the airport as she begins to have a breakdown about this setback. She starts taking her clothes off one by one, until she is standing in just her inner-wear smack in the middle of a road in the wee hours of the night — her eye-make-up creating pools of black around her eyes.
The sequence had a light-hearted ring to it because, at the end of the day, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is ostensibly a comedy. But to me, it served as a stark reminder of how quickly society dismisses women as “talentless” for every little setback in their careers. It’s part of a tacit cultural understanding where women can’t afford to screw up — if we do, we shall be written off immediately. That’s where Midge’s world — set in the 1950s-60s America — collides with the present day. Or, may I say, “blends”? Often, women are still held to the same impossible standards. To date, we even have to work harder to be promoted.
We see this when she finally gathers the courage to meet her family. Her former father-in-law and current money-lender, Moishe, remarks that she should have known she was going to get “fired” from Baldwin’s tour since she “can’t tell a joke.” Depicting that it’s not just men who are prone to doubting women’s potential, the show had her former mother-in-law chime in with agreement when Moishe said, “I’ve told you that [you’re not funny] over and over, but you just won’t listen!”
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But it’s not just family, who alleges she is “talentless.” In the second episode this season, a newspaper columnist does so too. Much like gossiping neighbors that many Indians have to put up with; people in Midge’s world, too, seem to be lying around waiting to criticize any norm-defying woman for the smallest sign of trouble she faces in her chosen path. Take, for instance, L. Roy Dunham, the columnist, who takes a jab at her, calling her jokes “the deeply unfunny meanderings of no one’s favorite Mrs. Maisel.”
That’s not all Dunham does, though. Reminiscent of people who also tear down a woman’s past successes the moment she stumbles, he refers to her as the “downtown darling,” hinting, as another character sums it up, that “she’s a whore.” Premising his argument on her alleged lack of talent, Dunham reasons: how else would a girl who came “out of nowhere” be “palling around with Lenny Bruce and opening for Shy Baldwin”? This brought to mind every instance I’ve witnessed of people bitterly commenting on women being promoted, accusing them of having “slept their way to the top.”
We’re told she’s in dire financial straits too — even though watching her ability to pay movers, and perhaps, cleaners, to set up her rather large apartment and get everything running immaculately in under a day makes it a little difficult to believe. Nonetheless, that coupled with mounting remarks about her lack of talent steers her to yet another breakdown in the second episode — albeit a less harrowing one. She wonders aloud to her manager, Susie, “You know what’s gonna happen, don’t you? I’m either gonna wind up married to Joel again… or I better start trolling the hospitals for a nice doctor right now.”
Therein lies yet another fear women, who dare to defy society’s norms, live with: if they fail, they must go back to tending to their husbands and children, and never “be allowed” to pursue their dreams again. They can be forgiven for going against the norms just once — but if it’s not followed by blinding success, they wouldn’t be given many more chances. Or, in the case of Midge, be denied credit for the purchase of milk without her husband’s name.
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Sexism is riddled with hypocrisy too. Relying on her past savings, Midge had taken a loan to buy her old house back. She offers her parents an opportunity to move in with her. Their reaction: what will people say when they find out we’re taking help from our daughter? Instead, they tell the world they bought the house back, and allowed their divorced — perhaps, even bechaari (poor) — daughter to stay with them. Needless to mention, while this sequence, too, is played for laughs, she’s hurt. Not only is she facing the possibility of her successes being written off, but she’s also being denied credit for the achievement of buying a house!
As great a commentary on society’s sexist microaggressions, the first two episodes of Mrs. Maisel was, the colorful costumes and airbrushed faces of the characters couldn’t camouflage what, to me, was rather worrisome. Despite venturing a little too close to outing Baldwin as gay in front of a packed theatre, which led to him firing her, Midge spends absolutely no time introspecting on her “riffing.”
I could have almost forgiven her because she was, clearly, so preoccupied with how to face her family that she had a literal breakdown. But the fact that, later in the first episode, once things settled down, she decided to look back at that ill-fated set and announced how amazing it was to her manager, left a better taste in my mouth. How can she truly be that self-absorbed?
It remains to be seen whether future episodes of the multi-award-winning show redeems everyone’s favorite — yes, Dunham, you’re dead wrong — Mrs. Maisel. Okay, perhaps, not everyone’s.