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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Midge pursues her "bad feminist" dreams in the season premiere of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Illustration for article titled Midge pursues her bad feminist dreams in the season premiere of iThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel /i
Photo: Amazon Studios
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In the opening shot of “Strike Up the Band”, we see a close up of Midge’s face as she wakes from her one night stand with Joel. It’s a moment of interiority that is unusual for a series that prefers to catapult viewers into fantastically elaborate scenes where everyone is constantly moving and talking. Midge looks alternately satisfied and concerned as she gazes intently at the camera, before turning to Joel and making her grand escape, carefully getting her clothes, and kissing her still sleeping and soon to be ex-husband goodbye.

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In this way, right from its first few opening moments, the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sets itself up as being more introspective than the last, allowing viewers a closer view of our consistently chipper heroine. Unlike many recent TV shows featuring “strong, female characters”, the candy-colored world of Midge Maisel doesn’t fixate on female pain, instead allowing Midge to consistently pick herself up by her very aesthetically pleasing and color-coordinated bootstraps and move forward. This is true even in moments when the show directly calls out the sexism of the times. When Susie explains to Midge that she should ask for less money, the two barely pause to consider the injustice before expressing enthusiasm that what they will be earning is more than either of them have ever made.

In her 2018 review of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum offers a compelling naysayer perspective on the critically acclaimed series, arguing that the cutesy nature of Midge’s transformation from devoted housewife to successful comic is ultimately flat and two-dimensional. While there have been points when I’ve been frustrated by Midge’s character, I think Midge ultimately struck a nerve with a lot of women not because she is “perfect” but because she is, as Roxane Gay might say, a decidedly, “bad feminist.” She’s eager for independence, but still takes wads of spending money from her father. She wants to find her voice, but decides to take a family trip to the Catskills, rather than stay in New York to actively pursue her comedy career. Even the ways that Midge breaks the “feminine” mold aren’t particularly heroic: she’s a terrible mother who can’t stand to be around her children; her humor can be so cruel and caustic that it humiliates a friend on her wedding day. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t a frothy escape so much as an extremely fun-to-watch indictment of a culture where social mores have more persuasive sway than we might like them to.

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In “Strike Up the Band” viewers are likewise allowed to have their cake and eat it too: we are invited to champion Midge’s comic success and forays into independence and we also get the opportunity to thrill at the spectacle of a late 50s performances for American troops that include scantily clad tap dancers, a musical number by Shy Baldwin, and a performance of White Christmas where everyone knows the words except Midge. Though certainly beautiful and atmospheric, the amount of time spent on some of these musical numbers seems a little long, especially in comparison to the amount of time we actually get to see Midge on the stage performing.

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In true, “bad feminist” form, Midge is hardly miffed by the comments on her appearance and even invites some hooting and hollering when she makes a joke about picking a red dress that has less fabric. Later, when a gust of wind blows up her dress accidentally during a photo with several newly enlisted guys, she isn’t embarrassed or concerned. Instead, she is consumed by the fact that Joel hasn’t been actively calling and trying to win her back, even though it was she who left him in a cold bed in the middle of the night.

Midge is clearly still ambivalent about her decision and why wouldn’t she be? Joel looks so genuinely warm and loving as he asks Midge, “Did you knock em’ dead?” The two clearly care about each other and it’s unclear why Midge feels it’s so necessary to drop Joel in order to pursue her comedy career. The more I’ve watched them go back and forth, the more I wonder if it’s less that Midge is afraid that Joel won’t support her, than the fact that Midge simply can’t respect him being less talented than she is. At least he seems to be pursuing his own dream of owning a club. Sure, the place needs a lot of work and seems to be connected to some kind of illegal gambling establishment, but he is also next door to a very interesting new woman with a lot of beauty, humor, and style who will clearly be some sort of love interest or foil to Midge in the future.

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At long last we find out how the heck the Weissmans can afford a life of luxury, not on Abe’s professor salary, but from Rose’s substantial trust fund. Abe and Rose are the most bourgeoise couple ever, so it’s particularly funny to see Abe’s sudden Marxist mid-life crisis, which his wife just does not get behind. It was strange to see them both start to blame Midge for their troubles and I was especially blown away by Midge’s comment that she “doesn’t read” when her father asked if she had read Jack Kerouac. Didn’t she major in Russian Literature in college? Sure, not the same as the Beat poets, but Midge would have definitely been a pretty heavy reader at some point. The idea that she is only interested in dresses and comedy now doesn’t make a lot of sense. At least Abe takes Midge’s advice and checks out Lenny Bruce’s performance, which helps increase his new counter culture persona by landing him in jail. Abe is so pleased with himself, humbly comparing his actions in the comedy club to something that Gandhi might do.

As always, Susie is an absolutely wonderful character who isn’t given the opportunity to develop fully. It’s season 3 and I’d like to learn more about what makes Susie tick and what drives her, beyond her need for money and success. Still, her patented flat affect and wry zingers make every scene she is in complete comedic gold. And I’m eager to see how her relationship with Sophie Lennon goes and how that impacts her relationship with Midge who is, for the moment, decidedly unhappy with Susie’s decision to be Sophie’s manager too.

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Tits up! Here’s to a bold and interesting new season!


Stray Observations:

  • Did Midge give Susie her lip pencil to figure out financial calculations!? Those things are expensive, Midge. Get Susie a #2 pencil instead or that money is going to go really quick.
  • Would soldiers really be so excited to hear jokes about women’s magazines? At least she stayed away from dick jokes as Susie recommended.
  • I loved the White Christmas scene so much—truly one of the funniest in the entire series as Midge attempts to sing along with the rest of the performers by belting out the obvious words and mumbling her way through the rest.
  • I would totally watch a spin off series about Moishe’s button guy who moves into zippers!
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I write about TV, film, art, empathy, culture, and our digital lives.

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