Somewhere in the past few years, at least in my slice of the universe, women found self-love. Brene Brown became a role model, vulnerability became an asset, and ‘I am enough’ became something to wear on one’s t-shirt. In the ensuing Instagram avalanche of personal stories, embracing our imperfections and owning our bodies became a thing.
But nothing truly prepared us for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, currently in its second season on Amazon Prime. On the face of it, Mrs Maisel (referred to as Midge or Miriam) is a privileged Upper West Side (New York) woman with a marriage and two kids, a manicured home and a talent for baking (she trades briskets to gain spots at a café for her husband’s unoriginal standup acts). When Midge’s husband decides to leave her for his secretary one night, her carefully curated life becomes a house of cards; she responds by venting in a drunken stupor in front of an audience at the same café and discovers something about herself: she has a flair for standup comedy.
Mrs Maisel is a lot. She’s endearing, witty, attractive, poised, well dressed, the life of the party. She is the loud one, the funny one, the ballsy one, the weird one – and she lets all of them thrive. Midge has the goods to do whatever she needs to do to survive in a world of patriarchy, but there is no feminism in her universe, even though she occasionally stumbles into rallies and says things like, “Women will fix it. And accessorize it!”
Yes, she is a “fix it” bomb, much as my mother and I are; much as we all are.
She wears her sexuality lightly, her motherhood even lighter. When she talks about pregnancy – “allowing another human to grow inside you till it reaches a size of 6-12 pounds and then giving it an escape route the size of a change purse,” you chuckle. When she wonders if she was meant to be a mother and maybe she picked the wrong profession, you find yourself leaning forward. Ever so slightly.
But Midge’s journey towards finding her voice is far more layered than the predictable evolution from housewife to career woman. She in that sense is Everywoman — angry and sad, inspired and hopeful, vulnerable and buoyant at the same time.
The part that I found most straightforward and progressive is that she turns her marital mishaps into material and she does this without pointing fingers. I may not have her waist, or share her fetish for hats but I could see scenes from my life playing out as comedy (even the sad ones). Everything is material.
I wasn’t perplexed that a show about a woman who is a mother does not focus on her motherhood; her children are like byproducts, props in the background, almost invisible, inaudible even. As someone who struggled balancing motherhood with a writing career (and still does), I was reminded that even with all the strollers, baby-wearing gear, and tactile toys in the world, birthing and caring for children inevitably presents a roadblock to nurturing the self. Women who write “having it all” essays obviously haven’t struggled with stifling creative freedom.
She talks to the mothers who rejoice when their children go to school than to the perpetually-joyful mothers. Yes, she has parents in the same building (and later, in the same house when she moves in with them); yes she often leaves her kids with them, yes they were far less hands-on than she was, and yes, it was the maid who really looked after the kids – I didn’t process the logistics. Except that one time when she, midway through wheeling her kid in the park, starts addressing a rally and I wondered where the baby was. I still loved her, and at no point was in in the mood to analyze her motherhood skills, a thing I probably would have done in my early years of motherhood, perhaps still hung over from prostaglandins. Motherhood doesn’t seem an obvious challenge for her; perhaps she doesn’t overthink it, although she phones her mother while on tour and wonders if “the baby” has forgotten her.
The fact that her children seem to deliberately fade into the background is exactly why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel worked for me. May be it shouldn’t have.
She has a day job as a sales counter girl or cloak girl at a departmental store and is demoted to working the phones, but money is never a problem for her. As a single mother with no child support, this should have jarred or made me angry – how unequal our lives were, despite having something in common. But it didn’t.
The point is: the show isn’t applauding Midge’s bravado of venturing into a standup career despite having two small children. It worked for me because it treats the two as mutually exclusive events. The show is set in the late 50s but remains very now: the universally internalized notion that motherhood should be joyful is often in conflict with the desire to pursue joys of a different sort. We can’t pretend that deriving joy from our children does not, at some point or another, come at the expense of our own professional and creative journeys. Because despite all the cacophony of voices we nurture and support, we can still hear our own. And that’s just fine.
(An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 23rd December 2018)