Beyond Fame and Fortune: Unveiling Mrs. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s success story
What does it means for women to have “a really big life?”
Watching Mrs. Maisel, especially during the pandemic, showed me a delicious possibility at a time in my life when I was asking myself if I could be braver, if I too could defy the rules of my good girl upbringing and claim for myself a bigger life.
I loved Midge’s world and the lens of the show which brought humor to these worlds that the makers so clearly adored. The scene at the village in the 1950s, the Upper West Side Jews, the expectations of what it meant to be a woman in 1950.
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One scene, I kept replaying in my mind over and over — how she and her husband go to bed, and then when she sees he is asleep, she gets up and puts various creams and larger curlers into her hair and gets into bed. And then, in the morning, she gets up earlier to take off the creams and undo the curlers and no doubt put on her makeup — as if she is always the model dream girl with her hair perfectly coifed, her lipstick, and image seamless.
That was one of the scenes that made me love “Mrs. Maisel.” I don’t think I was alone.
I needed stories about women who claim their stories and their truths in a way that doesn’t require them to be perfect saints or martyrs and which also doesn’t turn them into monsters who are ultimately and justifiably punished for their ambition (Witness Joan Crawford movies of the 40s and more recently, Tár).
Contrasting Worlds: Mrs. Maisel vs. The Handmaid’s Tale
Mrs. Maisel was a stark contrast to and a relief to the bearably painful “Handmaid’s Tale,” showing concurrently.
I watched the first season of “Mrs. Maisel” around the same time as I watched The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” was so bleakly true I felt I might drown in the hopelessness of our current reality. Nothing in the Handmaid’s Tale was far from the truth, and its fictional reality was coming true with alarming speed.
In the period that it was shown, Roe Wade was struck down and women criminalized for seeking an abortion. Sexual slavery all over, though in reality, it has never ended, and neither has slavery. It exists, just like it has in centuries in the past. We have elaborate means to deny this reality because everything in our world is built on it, and the only way you can live with yourself is to come up with a rationalization.
My rationalization was martyrdom. You are enslaved but you tell yourself, you have chosen it. Better to preserve some sense of agency. I told myself I was staying in a low paid job to empower students to have confidence in their voice and their ideas. I believe that every moment in history where people changed the status quo in unexpected and revolutionary ways involved someone, who wasn’t supposed to, telling the truth publicly.
The only problem was that I wasn’t living my truth — I was thinking that I could give to others what I longed to do but didn’t — because I had the excuse and the rationale and the reality that my livelihood depended upon this job where I got just enough to pay the rent and did something that I believed was worthwhile. Except, when I saw the truth of it, it had enslaved me, and this slavery worked by taking people who were open-minded and conscientious, responsible and creative, and above all, those with a deep sense of integrity — teachers — and it takes the best of their impulse and uses these to fill in the gaps that the educational system, which is now corporately owned, does not want to pay. Teachers are only paid for their hours in the classroom. Imagine, in an office, telling people that the only hours they will be paid for are the ones where they are in meetings. Whatever work they do outside of those times doesn’t count because it’s not in the arena that other people witness.
I talked to a woman who had a long line of students outside her office for office hours where she helped each and every one of them get through the math requirement which, for many who had been poorly educated, if educated at all, by the primary education system, was the barrier to getting into college and getting through college. Her office hours were unpaid. She drove an hour each direction from her house. She had lost health insurance on some university technicality. She was caring for two family members who were disabled and would otherwise be homeless, teetering on the edge of financial disaster herself. She was 80 years old.
I wish I had been as effective and beloved as she was in my teaching efforts. This was who I had aspired to be, and in every way, I failed because there was a part of me that treated this job as a gig because I still wanted my real life to be one where I got to do the things I was training my students to be able to do. I got to be the one speaking, and somewhere I’d found, there was a stage for me. I had been invisible for so long I no longer believed that there was a stage anywhere, that I could stand on.
And so when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” came along, with Midge and Susie — two women determined and willing to break rules, and didn’t always do the best job of it — it struck a chord in me.
It was as if the universe was showing me two versions of my life and future: one going the path I had been on, hoping that plan B and my escape would become clear, and Midge, a woman who, through force of circumstance but also her own willingness to use the tragedy and the dismissal she’d been handed, really used it for her own ends.
This is what an artist does, and the universe was showing me the path of the good girl and the path of the artist. I had been walking the good girl, play by the rules path, though skirting around the edges of it, willing to be poor to buy back a few hours of my day to write.
What if, like Midge, I had to learn to be braver?
The Limitations of Traditional Success Stories
I started to feel uncomfortable starting season two in how Midge and the writers were defining her ambition and what was really at stake for her. If this was just a story of a careerist who finally gets their big break, the story is less interesting for me and depends a lot on what the career is and what the big break means. The season where she goes on the road invoked race, class and priviledges of heteronormativity in keeping Shy Baldwin’s sexuality a secret, but did not actually explore any of theses in any depth. It was the backdrop, not unlike Paris or the Catskills.
We have more than enough stories about the great man who becomes a hero, the genius artist whose pure genius is enough to propel him to worldwide fame. Never mind the wife who cleans and cooks and takes care of their children, and at night types up his manuscript, also editing it, maybe also rewriting it, or who cleans his studio and tries to keep him sober and no doubt after all that, lets him fuck her at night because that is what women do.
Is Mrs. Maisel really just another one of these, a success story where the reward for women is fame, fabulously extravagant trappings of wealth — witness the apartment in Paris, Midge’s team of assistants, booking her into the top venues, and Susie’s palace-like home filled with her collection of colorful parrots, and her luxury to watch Jeopardy because she has already worked with every “name” in the business and is a legend in her own right?
Maybe that’s what success looks like — certainly, we are told that having money and success means living in luxury, being able to travel, being recognized, and for women, it may also mean being alone and lonely, having children who hate you because everyone knows you were a mother. One of the things I liked about the show is that the Palladinos didn’t pull punches here about what it meant for Midge to not play the traditional feminine role — to pursue a career in a male-dominated world.
What they didn’t show is the social or emotional cost on her family relationships. The show is comedy, so all of these kinds of real conflicts, named, are mostly presented but not really struggled with. The struggle is another kind of story, and after all, this is a story of success.
At the turn of the century, Horatio Alger stories of success accompanied the industrial revolution and the rise of corporate office culture, and they operated as propaganda: anyone with ambition who was willing to work hard and persevere could go from mailroom clerk to CEO.
Never mind systemic racism, sexism, class stratification, and colonialism that kept almost everyone out of the mailroom to start with.
These stories created the myth of equality — that everyone started in the same place — and told people who did not move up or achieve what they had hoped that this was a personal fault — a failure to work hard or to “do what it takes,” which almost always tells us that we have to be even better at playing the game than those for whom the game was made, and its main beneficiaries.
But I wonder if delving into the real struggles and tensions of class, gender roles, and race might not have made the show dramatically stronger and also more resonant.
Seeking Originality and Meaningful Success
A lot of the time, my complaint with comedians is that they go for the cheap laugh, the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that is obvious. If you’re going to use humor to be a commentator on culture, then say something original.
In telling my own story and living it, I have tended too much towards telling the story of the struggle. I believe most people get lost inside their trauma stories. Since our wounds are deep, there are a lot of ways to get lost in the labyrinth, trying to make sense, trying to find a means of escape.
A light approach always gives momentum, and perhaps that is the power of comedy and of the way Mrs. Maisel’s success story was told. I just wish that the trappings of success were less about fame and wealth and that what success looks like was also part of the story.
Midge says in the final episode that she was never good at playing by the rules and thus steps forward triumphantly, declaring herself a comedienne, and goes on to recap the story of her husband’s betrayal and her family’s underestimation of her, and her lack of interest in motherhood for laughs.
I wish, though, that most of those laughs had not been centered around making fun of the intelligence of her husband’s secretary to establish her intellectual and moral superiority — proving she is indeed marvelous.
I think we are all hungry in this time of upheaval for stories that show us glimmers of how we might succeed in liberating ourselves and others.
And for these stories to liberate our imaginations, we have to also consider what success means and might look like, and how our ideas of success might transform as we begin telling and making space for our messier truths to be told.
As the great Tina Turner sang in the post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max:
“We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
We don’t need another heroine or a story telling us that success is measured by fabulous wealth and fame, and that to succeed, we must be exceptional.
I wonder what the ending of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” would have been had they left her ultimate success up to our imagination and showed us what personal triumph looked like within the scope of her actual relationships and the times she lived.
Maybe it isn’t as grand as a Beaux Art Apartment and staff in Paris
What success is found in smaller but more personally profound acts, such as deciding one day, to stop donning a mask at night to create the illusion of perfection, to reject the pressure to deceive and lie about the effort it takes to maintain the facade of feminine expectations.
What if telling the truth, however we manage it, is enough?
What if telling the truth, however imperfectly we manage it, or loving what we love, enthusiastically and without apology, is most profound and powerful thing any of us can do?
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