We’ve been brought up on rags-to-riches stories, cowboy sagas, and stories of overcoming that stem from a person’s looks, charm, or determination and plucky attitude. The story line goes that to get ahead in life we combine the American values of hard work and a lucky break (or the privilege of class), and we’ll simply ride off into the sunset.
The hit show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon original that won two Golden Globes, seems to be a recent twist on this lone ranger theme. In the pilot episode, we meet Midge Maisel giving her own toast at her wedding with a comedic flourish, carefully curating her romance for public consumption. Things don’t go well, and by the end of the episode, her husband, Joel (in a rather unimaginative move that the quick-witted Midge points out), leaves Midge for his secretary.
Even though she has it all by 1958 standards—a palatial apartment in the Upper West Side, two children, and even a rabbi to break fast at their home for Yom Kippur—Midge’s story doesn’t have the happy ending she’d imagined. After telling her parents about Joel’s new love, they blame her for his decision to leave her. That’s when Midge gets drunk, rides the subway in her pajamas (bottle of wine in hand), and shows up at The Gaslight, a comedy club in Greenwich Village. In a break between acts, Midge gets on the same stage where her husband killed his own comedic dreams and discovers (to our knowing delight) that she (not Joel) has a knack for comedy.
She lives two lives: by day, the perfect housewife from the Upper West Side (and later a department store employee) who wears amazing jewel-toned swing coats, and by night, the comic sensation with a fake name (wearing black pedal pushers and loafers). It seems we’ve been handed yet another American story of overcoming: this time it’s a beautiful Jewish woman who, upon being left by her philandering husband, discovers her own inner strength and how having a passion and work to do helps reorient her life.Though we gravitate toward Midge’s beautiful and witty story of overcoming, it is modeled upon an American myth that to be free we must ultimately be unencumbered and successful—that even significant others are or would be holding us back.
Audiences have been primed for this breakaway hit from Amy Sherman-Palladino since the finale of Gilmore Girls. From its fast-paced, witty dialogue to its gorgeous aesthetic, Mrs. Maisel fills the gap left by Lorelai and Rory. But Mrs. Maisel takes it up a notch, with its beautiful characters, its gorgeous costuming (audiences have swooned over the fashion in Mad Men, Downtown Abbey, and The Crown, and Mrs. Maisel gives us more of the same, making us nostalgic for the past), we rise and fall with Midge Maisel as she makes it on her own.
We need more stories of strong women overcoming the odds, where history and “progress” are stacked against them, and why not do it dressed to the nines? These stories give us a complex view of womanhood, and allow men and women a glimpse into not only the past but the ways our present time can effectively bar women from full participation in all levels of home and society. We want to see ourselves reflected in Midge Maisel’s story of overcoming. But, we must also wonder, is her story of overcoming all that marvelous? Yes, the show exposes the ways in which women were infantilized and yet bought into it (consider Midge’s nightly beauty routine where she waits until Joel is asleep to remove her makeup and put her hair in curlers and then wakes before him to put it all on again). Yes, the show follows Midge taking control of her life, working at comedy in a man’s world, trying to both be a single mother and missing her husband. For these revelations, I want to stand up and cheer.
But is this all there is? Is this only a story of a 1950s housewife with a slim waist, overcoming the odds of the mid-century patriarchy?
Where the show has growing depth is in Midge’s relationship with her parents. That is the story of overcoming that shows nuance. When Midge tells her parents that Joel has left her, her parents blame her. Her father, Abe, a professor, reacts by retreating to his office and throwing things about. That she’s married a “weak man” is Midge’s fault. Meanwhile her mother, Rose, weeps uncontrollably until she finally decides she’ll tell everyone Joel is sick; and she retreats to take a bath.
Yet, the story of overcoming that Midge’s parents model is better than the bootstraps-pulling that the main story line celebrates, precisely because it is both ordinary and it peels back the layers of who each character actually is rather than who they each pretend to be. Rather than promulgating an American narrative that to grow means we must literally “move on,” Rose and Abe stay put. It’s as they stay put, even as they become estranged from one another and from Midge at various points, that real relationship grows.
Rose has believed Midge and Joel will get back together, so she focuses on all that she can control—including Midge’s dress size. When Abe invites a divorce lawyer to the house, Rose’s dreams for a perfect-on-paper family are shattered. In a passive-aggressive move, she turns his office into a formal dining room and Abe is forced to sit amidst piles of books in the living room. But this isn’t just an older version of Midge’s story, where the woman must assert her space and her rights.
Because Abe and Rose must stay put, they are forced to deal with all the vicissitudes of their personalities. They must reckon with who they are versus who they want their spouse or daughter to be.
When Abe can’t close his office door any longer, he’s forced to deal with his emotions out in the open and to share them with someone. When Midge tells him that she and Joel may in fact be getting back together, he curses, reminds her of the trouble it’s caused him and Rose, but then launches into a sweet memory of loving Rose (who’s no longer talking to him)—how she would smoke after returning from France, how she’d share a chocolate cake instead of dieting. He misses the young Rose, but he also stays committed to the present Rose, citing “people change” but that ultimately he loves her. Staying put—even physically among his books in the living room—allows him the space to process his loss and commit to his marriage.
If Abe reframes his love by giving his wife space to grieve and mourn their daughter’s potential divorce (even if not talking to him isn’t a long-term solution), Rose must reckon with her relationship with her daughter. She, too, stays put and instead of making excuses or dissolving into tears, she enters into truth, even if it means conflict.
In the finale, Rose, calm and collected—perhaps a bit numb—also has a defining moment with her daughter when Midge is dressing for an evening where she must prove herself after bad press at The Gaslight. Rose asks her where she’s going (Midge hasn’t told her parents about taking up comedy) and yet jumps in with, “You’re not going to tell me are you?” She recognizes “things are different now,” acknowledging that there had always been a wedge between herself and her daughter, she just hadn’t wanted to face it. Rather than throwing herself around, weeping uncontrollably, or drumming up lies and withdrawing to take a bath, Rose confronts reality and broken relationships—whether that’s between herself and her daughter or the dissolution of her daughter’s marriage.
The apparent ending of Midge’s marriage makes Midge and her family of origin work through who they are. They each must confront the double lives they’ve led and the ways they have wallpapered over their selves to meet social norms. While Midge rises to the occasion—getting a job, working hard at standup rather than just drunkenly emoting her feelings—her parents falter at first. Yet ultimately, Rose and Abe seem to provide the most hope to overcome the brokenness of relationships, even if it’s not nearly as glamorous or witty as Midge Maisel’s rise to fame.
Though we gravitate toward Midge’s beautiful and witty story of overcoming, it is modeled upon an American myth that to be free we must ultimately be unencumbered and successful—that even significant others are or would be holding us back. What Midge’s interactions with her parents in the season finale show is a different model of overcoming: that to be free doesn’t mean making your own way or “lighting out for the territory”; to be free means you commit to stay.
It’s not surprising that the Jewish characters in 1950s New York would understand the nature of covenant. The breakdown in relationships in the show happen when, rather than championing covenant, the characters try to chase the upwardly mobile, social ladder-climbing, individualistic American Dream. They live by contractual agreements that claim, “I’ll stay as long as what you can do for me outweighs the demands on me.” In contrast, a covenantal relationship proclaims, “I’m committed for the good of the relationship rather than my own personal gains.”
The idea of a covenant-making God is central to Jewish (and Christian) identity. Wedged between a contractual meritocracy of mid-century New York and a faith tradition that emphasizes God making an unbreakable bond with his people, characters must decide if they’ll live according to a covenant or contract. Will they turn their faith into who’s in and who’s out—or who has the best seat in Temple? Who gets to host the rabbi?—or who doesn’t? Will they stay put or will they find a story of overcoming that always centers the unemcumbered individual?
Midge and Joel, perhaps because they’re younger or their social mores are loosening, at least in this first season choose the narrative of contract. Joel Maisel, even when he returns to Midge, never actually apologizes and continues to feel like he’s diminished because she’s beautiful, funny, smart, and well liked. He stays the center of his own story. Midge’s go-getter attitude, quick wit, hard work, and success endear the audience to her: she can laugh at the ways her femaleness or Jewishness is a weapon of prejudice in the hands of the privileged. Yet, ultimately, her success story is contractual rather than covenantal. It centers upon herself. This makes sense, and we’ve been bred to cheer: she’s been left behind by her husband and the powers that be and so she comes out swinging.
For all of their overreactions and dysfunction, Midge’s parents model what it looks like to be committed to something larger than personal gain. Abe and Rose, in contrast to Joel and Midge, and even as they use immature ways of dealing with conflict, stay committed to the covenant. We hope that as they reckon with who they each are, rather than who they want the other (or their daughter) to be, their family will heal. But it’s only as they stay put, and they come out in the open with their feelings, their history, and their desires, that they’ll overcome their losses. It’s only as they commit to loving their daughter and each other, rather than force their spouse or child to fulfill a particular function to bolster their own sense of neediness or worth, that they will grow. As they stay put they value covenant over individualism.
Do we need more stories where overcoming necessitates individual empowerment? Yes, we do, but we also need stories that show us a way forward—where staying put is where the good life is found, where families unearth issues and practice forgiveness, where committing to a community even when it’s hard grounds us, and where sacrifice is the path we walk toward abundance. May these quiet, ordinary, and grace-filled stories of overcoming be the stories to ground the splashy stories of individualism.
Though it’s not as flashy or beautifully costumed, that is a story of overcoming we can all learn from.
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