Why did The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sweep the 2018 Emmy Awards?
The Amazon television series — created by the brilliant Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino — took home five gold statuettes: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a comedy series, Outstanding Writing and Direction, and Outstanding Comedy Series. This marked a record in the Emmys’ 70-year history: Amy Sherman-Palladino became the first artist to pick up back-to-back awards for Comedy Writing and Comedy Directing in the same year.
The visionary television writer-director-producers Palladino were not new to creating strong female characters that would subvert the damsel-in-distress cliché. This is attested by their previous successes in comedy-drama television series, such as Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, The Return of Jezebel James. One could think that this vocation was determined by their name, since they truly epitomize the “Paladins” and defenders of female empowerment.
But how does the story of a Jewish housewife, living in the Big Apple during the Fifties, resonate with our time? The answer can be found in the way history is cyclical. And the role of women in society — even after decades of hard fought battles to pursue gender equality — is still ranked below that of men.
Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is relatable and lovable because she is vulnerable, she is struggling to constantly improve herself and fails along the way. She was raised to believe that the goal was to be a beautiful and perfect housewife and mother, and nothing else. She seemed to be content in the role of doting wife, who supported her husband in his talentless stand-up aspirations. But in order for Mrs. Maisel to find her voice and forge her own path, her Good-House-Wife-world had to shatter.
Only then does The 26-year-old realize her life can be more than what society’s norms impose on her. Miriam’s apparently idyllic life in the Upper West Side gets wrecked when her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) leaves her for his secretary, Penny Pann (Holly Curran); while her parents try to initially persuade her to win him back.
The portrayal of matrimony during the Fabulous Fifties emerges not only with Miriam’s and Joel’s complications, but also through the articulate interaction between their parents and in-laws. As it is known, in every wedding, you don’t just marry an individual, you marry the whole family. Joel’s parents, Moishe (Kevin Pollak) and Shirley (Caroline Aaron), determine the life of ease of the young couple, and are ready to take it all away. Whilst Miriam’s family — who lives in her same building and habitually babysits her son Ethan and baby girl Esther — refractorily takes her back home, retrieving the parental dynamics of when she was an adolescent. We learn about the balance between matriarchy and patriarchy through Midge’s mother, Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle), who is overwhelmed by the emancipation of her daughter, as much as through her father — the illustrious Professor Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) who has his evening routine, of quiet reading and piano playing, discombobulated by circumstances that are out of his control.
The enlightening and contemporary trait of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is not just the analysis of gender politics and the protagonist’s phoenix-like rebirth, but the manner in which this takes place. This series breaks away from the Queen Bee Syndrome, or more generally how women can be unsupportive and competitive towards other members of their same sex. Miriam discovers a hidden talent for stand-up comedy and embraces it, thanks to another woman: Susie Myerson. Midge’s Pygmallionesque associate, who works at The Gaslight Cafe — where she accidentally makes her debut — eventually becomes her best friend and manager. Susie does all she can to pave Miriam’s way through the nightclubs of Greenwich Village, in the city’s comedy industry. It is thanks to this female mentor that the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel learns that she can take life into her own hands and do more, than make the perfect brisket and own a stylish wardrobe, to feel empowered.
Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (which was translated and released in English in 1953 — the decade where we see the emancipation of our Marvelous Miriam Maisel), fully grasped how females have been inculcated since childhood that they must maintain a perspective where they are the objects in a man’s world. They are raised to be decorous, frail, stay-at-home trophies. Even during this century — that sees women as apparently independent and outspoken — some men still play power games on female employees and co-workers. After all as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Midge’s story doesn’t portray sexual harassment, however she embodies the malaise of womanhood and its historical baggage. Rachel Brosnahan portrays a well-rounded woman of the fifties that also echoes with today’s champions of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. She is contradictory. She is strong, but has moments of fragility; she is conscious of her skills, yet she questions her talent; she is optimistic with some occasional doldrums. In all of this she also expresses ladies’ fascination for elegance and sophistication. Midge wouldn’t be as stylish if it weren’t for Rachel Brosnahan’s grace — that she attributes to her late designer aunt Kate Spade of whom she fondly said: “People around me have said that I’ve inherited little pieces of Katie’s style.”
To answer the initial question, regarding the secret to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s success, one can find the answer in Brosnahan’s words during her acceptance speech of the Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Comedy: “It’s a story about a woman who’s finding her voice anew, and it’s something that’s happening all over the country right now.”