By Kahini Iyer Dec. 05, 2018
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which drops its second season today, is one of the most anticipated TV events of the year. The show subverts the conventional trope of “the perfect female lead” by having a heroine whose perfectionism isn’t a temporary product of her circumstances.
After a tremendous first season that swept up two Golden Globes, five Emmys, and a Peabody, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel returns with its second season today on Amazon Prime. And safe to say that the show, which follows Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a wealthy Jewish housewife discovering stand-up comedy in the late 1950s, is one of the most anticipated TV events of the year.
Created by Gilmore Girls’ showrunner, Amy Sherman-Palladino, season one of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel saw Midge’s charmed life crumble after her husband leaves her to continue an affair with his secretary. As her promised future is snatched away, Midge channels her pain and anger into the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy, stumbling upon her hidden talent of turning her misfortunes into fodder for jokes.
Initially, Midge doesn’t seem to fit the bill of a brassy, no-fucks-to-give female comedian in 1958. Sure, she’s whip-smart and communicates in snarky one-liners, but her identity is dominated and defined by her pathological perfectionism. She takes her measurements every single day to keep tabs on her slim figure; cooks up delicious briskets as bribes to get her husband back – an uninspired stand-up aspirant – into comedy clubs; secretly removes her makeup at night only to wake up early to put it back on so that her husband never sees her without it.
For Midge, the illusion of her perfection assumes sole priority, which can’t ever be shattered. It’s also why it feels so invigorating to see her bare her soul in front of an audience.
Sure, she’s whip-smart and communicates in snarky one-liners, but her identity is dominated and defined by her pathological perfectionism.
After all, Midge is that woman who seems to have it all until she loses it all – a familiar trope in vintage-era shows. There’s ’80s actress Debbie in GLOW, who is constantly walking a tightrope between expectations of her femininity, being a single mom with a cheating husband, and her job that involves beating up other women in televised brawls. Then there’s Mad Men’s Betty Draper, a gorgeous housewife and a former model who is often compared to Grace Kelly. She’s also a Bryn Mawr graduate who speaks fluent Italian. But here’s the surprise: Like Midge and Debbie, she has to deal with an unfaithful husband and a marriage that traps her as well.
Essentially, Betty and Debbie’s character arcs – just like that of numerous female leads whose romanticised perfectionism is code for their ability to “have it all” – follow a similar pattern. For instance, the pressure of always having it together is oppressive for the chain-smoking, perennially unfulfilled Betty while Debbie grows increasingly erratic as she takes refuge in drinking. But in both cases, their perfectionism is hardly allowed to be their exclusive trait. Instead, these shows betray their individuality by letting the female leads have zero control over their perfection. Both Betty and Debbie are made to watch their lives fall apart thanks to the men who aren’t mandated to meet any such standards.
The perfection of the female lead then, exists in films and shows only until the male leads allow them to have it. And this is where The Marvellous Mrs Maisel strays from the trope. Midge isn’t bogged down by the weight of her perfection, because the show takes great care in depicting it as a part of her identity and not a temporary product of her circumstances. When her husband leaves her, a drunk and outraged Midge winds up at the same comedy club where he bombed to collect the brisket dish she cooked for him. She ends up ranting on stage about her husband’s infidelity, admits that he never quite deserved her. And proving it when, completely by accident, her “act” is met with the raucous laughter that Joel failed to garner.
Even in a trying time when she loses it all, Midge isn’t reduced to a victim – in fact it’s implied that she doesn’t need to have it all to be perfect.
Unlike the female leads we’re used to seeing on screen, Midge’s perfection is neither performative not does it exist for someone else.
In a way, Midge is insufferable, because no matter how much of a loser her husband is, how offensive his mistress is, how regressive her parents are, or how sexist society is, she still has everything going for her. After her act, Midge instantly gets a manager and is mentored by comedy great Lenny Bruce and remains a rich, fashionable Upper West Side girl who perpetually oozes wit and charm. Mostly because the show lets her own her perfection, gifting a female lead, the rare luxury of discovering herself. Essentially, the upheaval in her life doesn’t define her or her sense of worth. Instead, she dusts herself off, finds a department store job, and successfully pursues stand-up.
And that’s because Midge’s Mary Sue tendencies are tempered by the show’s wholehearted embrace of that perfectionism. Unlike the female leads we’re used to seeing on screen, Midge’s perfection is neither performative not does it exist for someone else. It’s an empowering narrative shift that’s been a long time coming. Maybe season two will throw her unshakeable perfectionism a worthy challenge. That, will indeed be marvellous.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.