The heroines of history and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the same kind of heroine that your mom is. Or maybe your grandmother or great aunt. The Amazon Prime original about a 1950s mother and housewife turned raw and raunchy comedienne is a look back at the ways in which ordinary women of every kind have defied convention and liberated us all in the process.

Miriam “Midge” Maisel is a blissful wife and mother of two in 1958s Upper West Side Of Manhattan. She is divinely content in their luxurious apartment as the picture perfect cheerleader for her husband, Joel. They spend their date nights in a Greenwich Village dive where Midge plies the owner with classic Jewish cuisine to garner better performing times for her husband. Joel has more appreciation than talent for stand up comedy. He doesn’t have good delivery, or an original act, but he did marry a very funny lady.

Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino worked at The Comedy Store early in her career, and knows that often times comedians lead lonely and strange lives marked by sadness and anger, only made hilarious by a gift of gab and observant mind. Joel’s sudden departure and the loss of her home, being arrested, and the discomfort of moving back in with her parents as an adult woman are the tragedies that drive Midge to erupt.

Despite the circumstances, the show remains as bright and effervescent as champagne, the dialogue a caffeine crazed buzz of coffee, just as one would expect from the creative minds (Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino) that gave us the Gilmore Girls.

Co-creators, Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino.

Midge Maisel isn’t the typical proto-feminist you might find in other series, she’s a portrait of domesticity and quite happy to be so. She stands by Joel and his harmless fantasy of fame, until he walks out on their family for his secretary and his flawed financial planning sends Midge’s life into a tailspin.

The unhinged Mrs. Maisel takes the stage in a delightful fury of scandalous wit, bringing the house down and the cops in to arrest her. It is just the kind of accidentally shattered bubble that enabled our female predecessors to ascend without even consciously meaning too.

My great grandmother wasn’t the kind of woman you would find at a comedy club or the Women’s March. She was a deeply religious lady and a teetotaler in rural Tennessee. When she found herself wed to a charming but unreliable alcoholic she stuck it out. The second world war made it possible for her to support the family, finding work as a seamstress in a factory making everything from parachutes to uniforms.

Her skill and hard work made her a floor and department manager, the lack of men returning from overseas enabled her to keep her position when the war ended. She was Rosie the Riveter without ever meaning to be so, and her attitude towards work inspired her matrilineal descendants to do whatever they had to do just to keep their families fed and warm.

Neccesity is the mother of invention for Mrs. Maisel as well. Her need to vent creates her ribald and risqué stand up comedy stunts. The necessity of making her own income that isn’t dependent on the charity of her parents or following their rules, drives Midge to step into the workforce as a makeup counter salesgirl at B. Altman department store.

Her arrest and court appointments force her to rely on the street smarts and connections of Susie (Alex Borstien), a pushy veteran of the business who wants Midge to be a professional comedian and fancies herself Mrs. Maisel’s talent manager.

Susie takes Midge go to see a few comedy legends to inspire her act.

Amy Sherman-Palladino, drew her inspiration from a family history of comedy to bring the character of Midge Maisel to our screens. Her father was a comic and she grew up surrounded by funny people trying to make each other laugh, including the legendary Lenny Bruce, who’s mother was something of a godmother for the comedians in their social circle.

Mrs. Bruce was the person they took their fresh material to for her insight, much like Joel Maisel seeks Midge’s counsel in the pilot episode. If it weren’t for Amy’s memory of her, we might never know what a source of inspiration she was.

As Midge Maisel, the truly terrific Rachel Brosnahan pulled inspiration from the early stand up comedy of Joan Rivers, to help craft her comedic timing and the gutsy, shocking, panache of a lady turned loose on a world that claimed there was only one way a woman could be funny. Most of the ladies in comedy of the era played the dumber half of a duo, or had to portray a half-witted character to gain a toehold in the business.

Smart, articulate women who were their raw selves on stage were extremely rare in the early days of the 1950’s comedy renaissance. Midge experiences both of these conventions in her path to the spotlight and soars above them on a breath of fresh air.

Midge Maisel finds herself fresh out of lock-up and inspired to go back thanks to the advice of Lenny Bruce.

The path to liberation for women has been cut by some impressive figures, only a few of which we are taught about in school. Most of the heroines of history are veiled by a masculine narrative, buried in dusty tomes. But the vast majority of real female heroes who could inspire us have led unexamined and unarticulated lives carved by circumstance and necessity rather than an intention to shatter glass ceilings or break boned corsets.

This is what makes a character like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so incredible and intriguing. She could be a branch on anyone’s family tree and we might never even know it.

Image credits: Amazon


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