When Mrs. Maisel strode on stage at The Gaslight in the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she stepped into a new era for herself and for fictional representations of female comedians. In the rare cases when they have been the main characters in film and television, comediennes, as they are sometimes called, are usually mired in worn-out, predictable caricatures: They are angry, emotionally bitter, battling inner demons, screwing up life off the stage, or some combination of the above.
In contrast, Mrs. Maisel’s optimism and self confidence stick out like a sparkly pink sore thumb. The titular character, played by Rachel Brosnahan, in the two-season old Amazon comedy series from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino evokes Sherman-Palladino’s previous main characters: Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls and Michelle Simms of Bunheads, each with her enviable wellspring of smart, snappy comebacks. For some viewers, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a welcome fantasy land; for others the show is too bubbly and too idealistic.
Mrs. Maisel’s, effervescent charm is not only delightful, it is important. She is a complicated character: She talks about sex and uses the word “fuck” in her sets, but is chagrined when she realizes her language onstage is coloring her personality offstage; she jokes about oppression and power dynamics, but accepts that her father must give permission for her to remarry; she taunts male comedians for being in comedy because there’s something missing in their lives, and herself starts in comedy because her husband left her. Within the intricacies of her character we find the liberation of the fictional female comedian; true progress is the luxury not to conform to any particular ideal, to be yourself.
In the fall of 2018, about a year and a half after the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, All About Nina, staring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character in the feature-length directorial debut for writer/director Eva Vives, landed squarely in the world of the stereotypes that Mrs. Maisel avoids. This Diablo Entertainment feature chronicles the journey of a young female comedian who leaves an abusive relationship and mediocre comedy career in New York to try to remake her life in Los Angeles.
The tough and jaded attitude she has rightfully developed is illustrated by her black-on-black shirt and jeans uniform and her leather moto jacket. Nina is severely emotionally damaged from two abusive relationships and many of her interactions are controlled by her feelings about men: running from them or turning to them because she feels bad about herself. Even when she enters a new, and supposedly healthy relationship, a dinner evening which is predicated on the understanding that she will not sleep with the man, ends with sex. Nina’s sexual references to men in her routines and her frequent encounters with them offstage do not read like the actions of a liberated 21st century woman; her character feels doubly trapped by the social expectation that a strong woman will be angry and tear down men and the sexist notion that a woman’s main plot line must involve men.
A similarly problematic representation of a female comedian is Dottie Ingles, played by Julie Kavner, in Nora Ephron’s 1992 directorial debut, This Is My Life. Dottie is a single mom and aspiring comedian who slowly abandons her two daughters as her career takes off. Early on, as she makes her daughters pancakes, Dottie recounts how she bombed in the previous night’s show and the girls worry about what will happen if she doesn’t make it. “You could get married again,” says the younger one, Opal, hopefully. “No I could not; I’m never getting married again, I don’t believe in love,” Dottie responds. Like Nina, Dottie has had it with men and declares them unnecessary, and yet by the end of the movie she is dating her male manager. Her character is built on the lack of a man in her life, but her assertion that she doesn’t believe in love and can stand on her own is undercut by the incredibly trite inevitability of her relationship with a man who is in a position of power over her.
What is most surprising to me about This Is My Life, is that it is the movie that New Yorker Television Critic Emily Nussbaum has singled out as being more palatable than the “cloying fantasia” that is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. What Nussbaum overlooks about the character is that among the fantastical elements of the show is a story of a woman who is neither defined nor confined by her relationship with men. Much of the drama in Mrs. Maisel’s life revolves around her career, her parents and her manager, not her romantic relationships. That her husband left her has not consumed her life and her new relationship with a doctor named Benjamin is mostly a C-level plot line.
Nussbaum is confused as to why neither Mrs. Maisel’s “butch” manager Susie (whose sexuality we are given no clues to one way or the other), nor the fictionalized Lenny Bruce character, ever gets a crush on her. Why should they? This isn’t a 90s romantic comedy subsisting on painful a will-they-won’t-they plot line because everything else about the movie is too thin to carry it.
Mrs. Maisel’s life is also not controlled by her relationship with her children, although this is in part because her upper-middle class lifestyle affords her multiple childcare options. She is not punished for leaving her children to pursue her comedy and demonstrates no guilt about leaving them for long periods of time; the balancing of motherhood and career is portrayed as a regular part of life.
The climax of This Is My Life comes when Dottie’s daughters run away to their estranged father. When they return to her, having realized that their father really is a dud, Dottie meets them on the train platform; crying and clutching them close she tells them she loves them. This is the first time she has focused fully on them and not her career since the beginning of the movie. The moment feels like a cautionary tale, warning women to be carful to keep their aspirations in check, lest they forget to love their children.
On stage, Mrs. Maisel delivers delightfully quippy jokes, mostly observations about her life: her children’s peculiarities, her father’s work, her estranged husband and the curiosities of her job as a makeup counter girl. In her first successful and sober set (her first two times on stage at The Gaslight she is drunk), she jokes about catching her parents pulling their twin beds back apart after having sex, a little boy observing a man’s erection on the train: “the real question is why is my son looking at lumps in men’s pants,” and the man who came into the store asking her to make his wife look like Elizabeth Taylor: “I wanted to say to him, ‘sir, look in a mirror. Would someone who looks like Elizabeth Taylor come home to someone who looks like you?’” Her sets contain lots of raunch and swearing, but they never feel forcibly bawdy.
We meet Nina for the first time on stage, where she starts her set off saying “it’s incredible the things us women could be getting done if we weren’t defending ourselves from men trying to fuck us all the time.” From there her jokes march on in an un-ceasing parade of fucking men and fucked women: “You ready to see a girl comic? This is fucking bullshit… why do I want to fuck her?”; “you’ve made a breakthrough; you’re about to find the cure for cancer, but you just want to fuck your lab assistant. Fuuuuck”; “at least he fucks me right.” The incredibly narrow subject material completes Nina’s construction within the stereotype of the bitter female comedian: she finds herself a good relationship, messes it up, she is sad and mad at herself, the rest of her life suffers, she manages to get back together with the guy and decides her life will be ok. It is all painfully predictable.
Early on in All About Nina, Nina wakes up in her tiny, cluttered New York apartment, the first inklings of a bruise appearing on her cheek from where her abusive semi-boyfriend struck her the evening before, visibly exhausted and disgusted with herself for having asked him to stay and sleep with her anyway. Naked except for black underpants, Nina paces in front of her apartment windows rehearsing her act. She appears not to care who sees her naked breasts. Stalking defiantly around her apartment, Nina tries to make jokes out of her friend’s rape and her own abuse: “I don’t mind, it keeps me from falling asleep during sex.” Nina’s nakedness seems to be an attempt to take some control over her body, but it comes off as just another checked box in the tired trope of the angry and beaten down woman.
Contrast that with one of the moments we see Mrs. Maisel naked: she is in college and mid-way through the ill-conceived plan to bleach her hair and pubic hair blond, she is running giddy circles on the college lawn, buck naked, trying to pass the time until the bleach can come off. The moment is joyful and her friends giggle along.
Mrs. Maisel parades through the show in billowing colorful coats, neat heels, nipped-in at the waist skirts and dresses, tailored pedal pushers and strings of pearls. The primary agenda of her clothes is to make her look good, and they succeed. The show also resists the urge to dress her less stylishly or more like a man as she herself becomes more comfortable being brash, swearing and talking about sex openly and crassly.
Nina and Dottie on the other hand, both wear a stage uniform of sorts; Nina’s is head-to-toe black, a combination that has long been synonymous with edginess and Dottie chooses to dress herself exclusively in polka dots so that she will be memorable. Leaving for her first steady club gig, she wears a red dress with white polka dots, a white sash with large black polka dots, and a black jacket with white dots. The dots persist even when she becomes famous.
All three works were written and directed by women and even though Sherman-Palladino commonly co-writes and produces with her husband, in a pleasant upset of the historical narrative in which men are often credited for women’s work, Sherman-Palladino is the one who is associated with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (and her two previous shows). The character of Mrs. Maisel also bucks another easy narrative: the oft-passed around idea that she is based on Joan Rivers. Although Sherman-Palladino is a fan of Rivers’ work and based some of Maisel’s material on Rivers’ sets, the inspiration for the character is actually an agglomeration of the characters in the world she grew up in: 1960s and 70s New York with two comics for parents and Lenny Bruce’s mother as unofficial godmother.
In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Sherman-Palladino said of the kind of character she wanted to create, “I didn’t want someone who was looking out the window thinking, what if there’s something over the bend? I wanted to deal with somebody who actually really loved her life, really thinks she won.” What has emerged from that urge is a show that is something of a fantasy, yes, but maybe also signals a new era in which a strong female comedian can be successful and happy. To steal the show’s catch phrase: Mrs. Maisel’s success is a glimmer of hope for a world in which life can be “tits up” on and off stage.