“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is an Amazon Prime original series that depicts the life of a Fifties housewife who wants to become a standup “comedienne”. (Just to be clear, Google no longer recognizes the word, preferring the term “comedian”. This is progress but there was a time when female comics deserved a separate title because they faced their own special problems.) The series captures the New York downtown culture of that period, complete with the mildly scatological humor that I remember from my own visits to Greenwich Village at the time and the all too ordinary guitar groups and the lousy poetry that was also recited from the stage. Most of all, though, it captures the relations between men and women, at least those who lived in a comfortable Jewish household on the Upper West Side, Rachel Brosnahan in the title role capturing the intonations of the ten year younger girls I knew from that time. The series is a welcome relief from “Madmen”, which portrays women as victims, the secretary with the big chest saved from being a laughing stock only by the fact that she is super capable, and the heroine at the ad agency finding no way out of an abortion. Here the women are simply living their lives under the parameters set for them and altering those as best they can. No one need be sorry for anyone.
In one of her standup pieces, Miriam Maisel says that she never lived alone. She went from her parents’ home to college to marriage, though she didn’t add that the apartment in which she was raising her two children was just a few floors below her parent’s apartment and that they provided the babysitting that allowed her to galavant around town. She supports her husband’s attempts to do standup even though he isn’t very good at it and then he has the nerve to leave her for his young secretary and only then does she decide to take a try at standup herself. After he leaves, and someone her parents knows is invited over for dinner, she says that it is just a dinner party and her mother rejoins that now that she is single again, every dinner party is an occasion for attracting a man.
The point is that Fifties Manhattan is not that different from Jane Austen’s Hampshire, where every occasion is one for engaging in courtship because all single woman have as their primary interest the attraction of a man, that aim not ending even after marriage in that both Mrs. Maisel and her mother get out of bed earlier than their husbands awake so as to scrape off the beauty cream and take out the curlers they have put in after their husbands have fallen asleep. This may seem a farcical way to point out the subservience of women but it is a fair way of indicating that these women, who by and large get their way with their husbands, never cease the need to remain as attractive as possible because the be all and end all of their lives is marriage.
It is only after her husband leaves her that Miriam Maisel who, after all, had majored in Russian literature at Bryn Mawr, which means she had a head on her shoulders, decides that she too has to have a calling, a purpose to her life, other than to stoke her husband’s ego and to care for her children and to gossip about friends, family, and the people at the synagogue. She applies to be an elevator operator at B. Altman’s and is turned down, her suggestion that she would look great in a feminized operator’s uniform treated as a joke, which is what it was made as. Instead she gets a job at the makeup counter because she knows a great deal about that and strikes up friendships with a number of girlfriends at the department store who also punch time clocks even while the focus of the young women is on catching husbands. Her father, a mathematician at Columbia University, is shocked that she should seek employment just so she can claim to have some money of her own. That is a similar note to what happens in “Private Benjamin” where the heroine’s father suggests that he can get her out of the Army because he doesn’t like the riff raff with whom she is associating.
In one episode, Miriam meets a very successful comedienne who works in a fat suit and plays a character. Miriam is told that women comedians would not be accepted in their own right. And this was true enough. Comediennes from Fanny Brice to Joan Rivers adopted exaggerated personaes to do their thing and they were not particularly attractive. Everyone was like the over-sexed Ado Annie, from “Oklahoma”. And then the viewer realizes that Miriam Maisel is doing something brave. She is not impersonating anyone else but just telling jokes about her own life and she, in fact, is quite pretty. A revolution is brewing here professionally.
The same is true of private life. Miriam Maisel remains faithful to her husband but she has shown a sufficient capacity for raunch that she can be included as sexually liberated, as is not the case with Marjorie Morningstar, also an aspiring actress from the same West Side of Manhattan in a novel written in the Fifties but set in the Thirties, who sees herself as a fallen woman who has to be forgiven by her future husband for her previous affair with a composer and playwright. These are not Miriam’s issues. Miriam’s accomplishments lie elsewhere, in making a career, show business an image since at least the Thirties of how girls put themselves in positions where they had to get a paycheck if they were to pay the rent and eat, and so showgirls could stand in for every ordinary working stiff. The same is true today where Hollywood actresses become the examples of female exploitation in the workplace, even though sexual exploitation is probably more rampant in sweat shops and places that hire illegal aliens.
It is very liberating to think that there are other explanations for social movements and social change than that an oppressed people is rising up to protest their oppression. That is the case with the modern women’s movement even if many of its defenders still use the metaphor of oppression, whether economic or the result of cultural chains, to explain the prior or present condition of women. It is true that the suffragettes had to battle to secure the vote and that withholding it was a kind of suppression, though withholding the vote from women could also be understood as part of the fact that human rights are always being expanded to new groups and that a struggle is required to accomplish that. The battle for equality contains many wars. The striking thing about the wave of women’s liberation that began in the Fifties and Sixties was that it was not based on people thinking they were oppressed. To the contrary, they thought they were in some senses equal and that the difference between men and women was natural and not to be treated as imposed. My ninth grade English teacher was not reluctant to say that “mankind” was a term that included women. It was a grammatical usage that came to stick in the craw only later on as we imposed new conventions, such as “he and she” for “he” to deal with gender divisions that seem to be recognized as very fundamental parts of language, more profound even than “Mister” or “Mrs.” or “Doctor”, which are titles affixed to proper names rather than everywhere recognized. My ninth grade teacher did not think women were being demeaned by being referred to as part of mankind though, then again, maybe they were.
What is satisfying about “Mrs. Maisel” is that her life was already satisfying. Women did not want, for the most part, to defame their natures. They understood themselves as to some extent creatures of their body and tried to come to terms with that just as young men had to do the same thing. So girls in my time would opine about whether having children could be considered the way in which women expressed their creativity, or say that women had ways to express themselves in their clothes in ways men did not, or that girl friendships were deeper than the friendships available between men. It was all a way of reliving the Simmel distinction between men and women as being the inevitable other and so ineffably and inevitably different from one another without any need to decide who should be on top.
Miriam Maisel does not see herself as a Feminist. Neither did the girls I knew at Barnard, ten years younger than Mrs. Maisel, though Barnard and the Seven Sisters were still pushing the idea of feminist activism. The girls I knew just saw themselves as forming their own lives. They became doctors and lawyers and administrators of computer systems. They did not think of themselves as heroines just as people, some ten years after that, who had to have flexible work hours so that they could pick up their children after school when their husband’s couldn’t. That doesn’t mean that they did not have to overcome resistance from outdated viewpoints and customs, only that their revolution was of their own making rather than imposed upon them by the necessity of resistance. The revolution in which they took part was the one that said women had a right to a career just as much as their husbands did and just as Mrs. Maisel did, she thinking she should exercise her distinctive talent. It wasn’t oppression that made her and her cohort do it; it was just the desire to reach out for something more. This was before the #metoo movement proclaimed that sexual exploitation was the main problem for women, an issue that does not seem to concern Mrs. Maisel, who has to deal with prejudice against women as a gender but whom no one but her husband asks for sex. Sometimes movements go retrograde for a while.