Dream On

My husband and I have been watching the Amy Sherman-Palladino-created The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime, and it ranks as my third favorite comedy on television (just behind GLOW and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Bolstered by strong performances by Award winners Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, and Alex Borstein, as well as Marin Hinkle, who has come a long and interesting way since she played the funny, lovelorn Judy on Once and Again, this show tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a New York Jewish housewife and mother whose husband leaves her for another woman. (Maybe) because of this, she subsequently discovers she has quite the gift for stand-up comedy. We see her struggle to balance her duties to her family with her efforts to break into the male-dominated world of stand-up, the show being set in 1959. At every turn she’s faced with a conflict between what the world wants/expects her to be and who she truly is/wants to be. Midge (Brosnahan) isn’t always likable, but I’m interested in seeing what she does next and how she learns, or not, from her mistakes.

While I love this show, like almost all things we love it has its problems. Most of the time I’m fully on board with it, and then there will come a scene that leaves me wondering what the heck just happened and what I’m to make of it.

Season 2 kicks off with a brief arc in which Midge’s mother Rose (Hinkle), tired of being underappreciated, heads for Paris to discover who she really is; her time there ignites an interest in art. When her contrite husband (Shalhoub) at last convinces her to return to New York with him, he arranges for her to sit in on art classes at Columbia University, where he’s a professor. So far, so good, right? Regrettably the show squelches this arc pretty quickly, as if only one woman per series is allowed an ongoing journey of self-discovery. Even worse is how it’s squelched. When Rose finds out that the young women in Columbia’s art program have plans to teach, she points out that Columbia has no female art teachers. (And of course there are no other schools where women might teach.) One of the women mentions she wants to be an artist, whereupon Rose lets her know that no woman has any hope of succeeding as one. (I guess Georgia O’Keefe doesn’t exist in this universe.) She advises them all to cut their losses and abandon the study of art and join the Business School instead, which is full of potential husbands. The young women fall for this advice so completely that Rose is blamed for gutting the art department and denied the right to sit in on classes. She has neither expressed nor shown any interest in art since.

This, I will admit, is in keeping with Rose’s established character. Since Season 1 she has upheld traditional gender roles, so it makes sense that after a brief flirtation with feminism she would fall back into her old familiar perspectives. What bothers me is that not one single art student has sufficient courage of conviction to challenge her. Not one of them asserts that art might be worth studying for its own sake, as if that weren’t what Rose herself is doing. Not one of them expresses any real passion for creating. Instead they sit there crestfallen, their dreams having been exposed as useless. Rose’s past becomes their future, and the art faculty at Columbia will continue all male in perpetuity.

Here we get a message that sharply contradicts the prevailing ethos of Midge’s dominant plotline: Ladies, don’t dream — or else tailor your dreams to fit the world’s expectations. Dream of marriage, babies, and bake sales. Accept Things As They Are and don’t push for change.

A scene from another episode later in the season echoes that sentiment. Midge’s agent, Susie (Borstein), manages to get free room and board at the Catskill Mountains resort where Midge is spending the summer by masquerading as a plumber (which amounts to her walking around the resort with a plunger in her hand). As she beds down for the night in the female employees’ dormitory, the other women swap stories of the great things they hope to do. One aspires to be a Broadway headliner, another wants to paint, another wants to become the next Emily Dickinson, etc., etc. The whole thing has a pleasant sorority feel to it until, just before the lights turn off, Susie says, “You realize none of that’s ever going to happen, right?” Like Rose’s reactionary advice, this pithy dream-puncturing is met with stunned, dejected silence. Couldn’t at least one of the woman have come back with, “That may be so, but I’m still going to try”? Of course not. The last word must be Susie’s. Cynicism: 1, Aspiration: 0.

I’m left wondering: in a show that centers on a woman pursuing her dream of being a great comedienne, why this insistent skewering of the dreams of other women? Is Midge Maisel really the only one special enough to deserve to aspire to a goal that diverges from 1959’s gender norms? If this is what we’re meant to think, then the show is far from as feminist-friendly as we might have expected. I still love it and can’t wait to watch the next episode, but I’ll own I’m a little disappointed. Maybe more than a little.

When I see or read stories I love and notice certain problems in them, I naturally think of my own writing, and I am resolved never to prop up cynicism and/or the Way Things Are at the expense of dreams and the hope for change. Cynicism may have a voice, but it won’t have the last word. Because I’m that aspiring writer sitting cross-legged in her bunk in the employees’ dormitory, dreaming that her words can have an impact. It’s never going to happen, right? I don’t think so.

My publisher closed its doors last year, and now I’m venturing into self-publishing even though I have only a basic idea of what I’m doing. Still, I’m doing this, because it’s who I am.

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