Posted inCultures

Commend or Condemn: ‘The Marvellous Mrs Maisel’

Illustration by Ben Beechener

I kept being told that I should watch The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. I had already binged Miranda and Fleabag over exams, when going out was no longer an option if I wanted to pass, and so wanted to round off my appreciation of female led comedies with something that I hadn’t already watched an embarrassing number of times.

The Marvellous Mrs Maisel follows Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, a Jewish housewife from New York City as she attempts to begin a career in standup comedy. Midge can be seen as the stereotypical ‘Jewish American Princess’.  She is college educated, but has never had a job. She is married to Joel Maisel, a man with a lucrative job who can sustain the lifestyle that was originally paid for by her parents. She is already showing signs of turning into an overbearing Jewish mother, another common stereotype, through constantly worrying that her baby daughter looks like Winston Churchill. 

But, Midge is not like the other housewives. In her effort to become a standup comic, Midge questions to what extent is she able to escape this identity? Her eagerness to throw herself so forcefully into the stereotypical activities of American Jews of the 1950s and her excitement to have the Rabbi over to break the fast on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, commonly thought to be the most important day on the Jewish calendar) signals that Midge’s character is used to push the limits of the Jewish American Princess identity. Midge tells the butcher that: “it only took four years and a dreidel [a spinning top like toy, commonly used on Chanukah] signed by Sammy Davis Jr, but we finally got the bastard.” The determination and, frankly, the creativity Midge appears to have employed to get the Rabbi to dinner points out that the whole notion is slightly absurd. By calling him a “bastard,” the show clearly signals that Midge does not want to have the Rabbi over because she respects him as a religious and spiritual leader. Instead, she wants to have the Rabbi over because it signals to the other housewives, on a completely materialistic level, that she is better than they are, to the extent that she announces “we got the Rabbi” right outside the butcher’s shop. Her complete glee, coupled with her lack of respect, gives the impression that her worry about being a perfect Jewish housewife, in fact, is a little ridiculous. 

The show further subverts stereotypes through the characterisation of both sets of in-laws. It’s easy to make jokes about in-laws and The Marvellous Mrs Maisel pushes the characters of both Joel and Midge’s parents as far as it can and in the most comical way possible. Moishe and Shirley Maisel , Joel’s parents, are the antithesis to Midge’s poised and sophisticated parents Abe and Rose Weissman. They’re loud, brash and obsessed with money. A flashback shows Moishe telling his son how he should be seeing his bar mitzvah as an economic opportunity. The Maisels and the Weissmans serve as a dichotomy that Jewish people constantly struggle with: are you a fully arrived, acculturated Jew or self-made and too-Jewish? They are used as a source of humour, but their experience was very true of a lot of Jewish people in America at the time. Most of the Jewish people who came to America prior to the second world war found themselves in predominantly working class jobs, especially in the garment industry. This is made explicit in the show as Moishe Maisel is presented as having worked his way up to now owning his own clothing factory. 

But, like Midge, the Maisels are used to push Jewish stereotypes to the extreme. To the extent that, as Andy Samberg put it at the Golden Globes: “It’s the show that makes audiences sit up and say, “Wait, is this anti-semitic?” This question is enforced by the fact that neither Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the titular Midge, Marin Hinkle, who plays Rose Weissman, nor Tony Shalhoub who plays, Abe, are Jewish. Whilst the question of to what extent an actor can successfully portray a character who is of a different culture to them is a complex and important one, for the sake of this article I simply want to consider the fact that there have been very few successful portrayals of modern Jewish families. In this instance Fiddler on the Roof isn’t going to cut it as a point of reference for the actors. However, the creator, writer, director and show-runner for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino is Jewish. 

Sherman-Palladino uses the Maisels to serve as a reminder to the audience that the show is there to push boundaries, to reconstruct ideas of what a Jewish family is. Whilst the Maisels may be a bit too much in every sense of the word, what they truly care about is their family and caring about family is at the heart of both the Jewish religion and culture. 

On face value, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is full of Jewish stereotypes, but manages to make these clear to the audience as the series progresses. Midge subverts the stereotypical Jewish American Princess tropes through her standup, which is often full of sexual jokes that would not go down well at a Friday night dinner. In terms of the older generation, they act as foils for each other, to highlight the ridiculous nature of each stereotype. Through relying on these old stereotypes the show is able to break down for its audience both how life used to be and how much people used to rely on the ‘classic’ Jewish stereotypes. However, by making the characters so extreme, the show allows them to become commentaries on themselves and gives hope that one day, there will be a show about Jewish people that does not rely on stereotypes at all.