The Marvellous Mrs Maisel Asks, “What’s So Funny About Checking Your Privilege?”

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The Marvellous Mrs Maisel Asks, “What’s So Funny About Checking Your Privilege?”

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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ast year, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s wildly inventive The Marvelous Mrs Maisel introduced us to a ’50s housewife stepping out of her privileged Upper West Side bubble and into the smoky nightclubs of stand-up comedy. When her cheating husband leaves her, Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s idyllic life goes for a toss but she still has a pretty charmed life.

When in a fit of drunken pique, she rants on stage at a comedy club, Midge is brilliant without even trying. But of course, her stand-up career causes complications: As a respectable upper-class woman, Midge has to keep her gigs a secret from her elite social circle. Thanks to her privilege, she can afford to have the best of both worlds. Neither does she have to deal with the consequences of telling filthy jokes, nor with the existential angst of being a struggling artist.

But all’s not well in the second season of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. For it explores Midge’s anxiety as her disparate worlds collide. Midge can just as easily hang out with her foul-mouthed, broke manager, Susie at a diner, as she can dress up for ritzy galas with her  fellow heiresses. As she grows more successful, the conflict between her stand-up act and her perfect life comes at her head on.

The second season opens with the disappearance of Midge’s mother Rose, who has run off to Paris, discontent with her loving but inattentive husband Abe. Rose doesn’t just feel unappreciated by her family but also unfulfilled by her New York routine. In Paris – where she lived before her marriage – Rose is no longer the stick-in-the-mud society wife. She lives in a tiny flat in an artist’s commune and embraces la vie bohème.

Neither does she have to deal with the consequences of telling filthy jokes, nor with the existential angst of being a struggling artist.

I couldn’t help but think: Like mother, like daughter. In a way, Rose foreshadows Midge’s arc. The parallels between them are evident: Both have been let down by their husbands and both find freedom in doing something that falls outside the structures of polite society decorum. Essentially, both mother and daughter are rebelling against the same privilege that they find stifling. Like Rose at her Parisian bistro, Midge can walk into her downtown diner and be greeted by a dozen of her struggling artist friends who will embrace her even though she isn’t one of them. But while Rose happily reverts to her comfortable life despite a taste of life without needless expectations, Midge fails. She is unable to reconcile her double identity as a provocative female comedian and the privileged trophy daughter of a good Jewish family. This season of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel might feel confused, but it sure does know when to check Midge’s privilege.

For instance, even though Midge insists that she takes her comedy career seriously, she can’t resist putting it in the background and prioritising her family’s annual Catskills holiday. Which is a two-month trip to a lavish Jewish summer camp, that comprises swimsuit pageants that Midge always wins. And eligible men who always flirt with her. For Midge, this place where the staff is trained to serve her endless glasses of tomato juice has always been her comfort zone. And is passion greater than comfort? Not in Midge’s world.

But what’s interesting about this season is the contrast that the show offers. Sure, we see the show through Midge’s rose-tinted glasses, but it’s Susie’s reactions to Midge’s inherent upper-class laziness that forms the crux of the conflict. Susie’s response to Midge’s planned hiatus basically is all of us broke folk. She demands to know how Midge expects to get paid and by extension, pay her. Their priorities are remarkably different: While Susie has never been able to afford a break from work, Midge has never been exposed to the concept of spending summer in the hot, dusty city just because she has to earn money. I was fascinated with what the show intends to ask: Does our passion get better or worse with our social class?

When she does a bit about finding humour in oppression or feels the weight of discrimination in a male-dominated industry, it’s clear that Midge is starting to know what it feels like to be the underdog.

The second season of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel makes Midge realise that stand-up is, at its core, a challenge: To society, to her privilege, and to herself. It’s best evidenced when Susie books her a “blue night” – or dirty – gig at Catskills and Midge finds her stone-faced father in the front row. She gamely battles through her set, delivering jokes on sex and trying to ignore her father’s palpable disappointment. It’s a tense, heartbreaking moment, where Abe’s glowing perception of his genteel daughter is shattered. As Midge delves deeper into her comedy, she is no longer just the funny society girl.

When she does a bit about finding humour in oppression or feels the weight of discrimination in a male-dominated industry, it’s clear that Midge is starting to know what it feels like to be the underdog. To not have it all. But the second season also throws us a googly: Can upper-class people ever really be starving artists, who put their privilege aside for the discomfort of following their dreams?

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