I’m Tired of Trying to Root for Midge Maisel
It’s happened, folks. Midge Maisel has mutated into a supervillain.
When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel first came out, I thought, what could be better than this? Amy Sherman-Palladino—creator of my all-time favorite show, Gilmore Girls—was finally getting paid to write about Jews (instead of WASPs who speak like Jews) in a series about the meteoric rise of a smart, funny woman in the male-dominated comedy world of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The gorgeous, candy-coated visuals of mid-century New York City played directly into my sense of nostalgia for a time I never lived through. Midge’s entanglements with history in the form of a friendship with Lenny Bruce and a residency at the famous Gaslight Cafe were heaven for my inner comedy nerd. And I welcomed the return of Sherman-Palladino’s rat-a-tat dialogue combined with larger-than-life, wacky characters played by Hollywood heavyweights like Tony Shalhoub, Alex Borstein, and Kevin Pollak.
You know what? It was too good to be true. Maisel has been rightly criticized for whitewashing and oversimplifying history for the sake of that aforementioned golden nostalgia, for treating its characters of color with less dignity than its white characters, and for casting non-Jews as Jews in pivotal roles, including the title role. Time and ill-conceived story have worn my initial excitement down to a kind of grudging obligation-watching. I’m still here because of my manic devotion to Sherman-Palladino, who is most of the reason I became a writer in the first place. But Maisel is getting harder and harder to watch.
I’ve been known to say I hate when Midge Maisel makes a Lorelai Gilmore decision—impulsive and self-destructive. Say what you want about Lorelai Gilmore, the mother character in Gilmore Girls—and there is plenty to say—but at least her ambition was motivated by a deep sense of loss. Despite her privilege and stubbornness, Lorelai is easy to sympathize with, because we know what she’s been through as a young single mother, and because growing up fast as a result of teenage pregnancy stunted her development in other ways. Part of the joy and heartache of Gilmore Girls is watching Lorelai take big-girl steps and make big-girl mistakes for the first time.
But what motivates Midge Maisel other than Midge Maisel? What is the engine that makes us believe in her, other than a vague nod to an archaic #GirlBoss feminism? The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel might have been considered ahead of its time had it been released in 2012 or 2013, but it’s too late for that narrative now. The pop feminism of the early 2010s was very individualistic, shallow, and white—see the cult of personality around dictator and war criminal Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, or any number of “Boss Bitch” mugs and kitchen signs that speckled corporate offices at the time. That isn’t going to cut it for me in 2022; I’m no longer interested in unrepentant characters who can’t take responsibility for their destructive actions.
At the end of the third season, Midge was fired from her position opening for global music superstar Shy Baldwin on his world tour. To hear Midge tell it, she did nothing wrong. Shy Baldwin was just another man who couldn’t handle Midge for all the woman she is. The truth is, obviously, more complicated—Midge made homophobic jokes about Shy (referencing his “Judy Garland shoes,” the fact that they met in a ladies’ bathroom, and that he “has a guy for everything”) in a vain attempt to win over an all-Black audience. In doing so, she outed a gay Black man—one who already struggled with keeping his secret, and who had been repeatedly subjected to physical hate crimes—to an enormous audience in the early 1960s. (The shows’ writers also seem to be making the nasty assumption that an all-Black audience would enjoy homophobic jokes.)
Several episodes into Season 4, Midge finally apologizes to Shy at his sham wedding to a woman he obviously doesn’t love. The problem is, it’s a half-assed apology that doesn’t account for the pain she caused him. He seems to forgive her, because she’s a better comic than her replacement and because he “misses her brisket.” But this is just another example of Maisel letting Midge off the hook too easily.
Over and over, Midge hurts people who trusted her, and the show lets her get away with it. She’s an antihero, but unlike on shows where that works, like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Maisel doesn’t seem to know she’s an antihero. I’m tired of trying to root for an allegedly good main character who feels no loyalty to the people who helped her along the way.
Since Maisel premiered in 2017, Jews have been arguing about whether or not the series presents us in a flattering light. I don’t think there’s a satisfying answer to that question, but I do think this most recent season of Maisel has taken its sticky relationship to Jewishness to a whole new level.
I’ve always loved Moishe (Pollak) and Shirley (Caroline Aaron) Maisel, Midge’s ex-in-laws, because they remind me so much of my grandparents. But I’ve always felt like I love them more than the show loves them. Midge’s parents, the very buttoned-up (and admittedly hilarious) Rose (Marin Hinkle) and Abe (Shalhoub) Weissman, obviously hate the very things about Moishe and Shirley that make them remind me of my grandparents. It’s not a wealth thing; the Maisels and the Weissmans are both financially well-off. It’s cultural embarrassment. Moishe and Shirley are loud and brash, proud and Jewish, in a very stereotypical white American Ashkenazi way. Rose and Abe are much more refined, much more educated, much more transatlantic-accented. Much more assimilated.
The show refuses to give Moishe and especially Shirley the three-dimensional treatment it gives its more assimilated Jews. What’s more, the fourth season has relied on more harmful stereotypes than ever before in its lazy, shorthand characterization. Moishe and Abe are incredibly stingy, complaining about spending negligible amounts of money on their grandson for his birthday. (No matter how stingy your Zayda is, I bet he never batted an eye spending a little money to make you happy). Shirley’s only personality traits are “loud” and “smothering.” She falls into a category of Sherman-Palladino characters (think Sookie St. James from Gilmore Girls) whose kookiness can sometimes cross the line into cruel stupidity, making wacky decisions the other characters can laugh at. Even the most meddling Jewish mother would never set her son up on a date with a woman who’s nine months pregnant—but Shirley does.
Sherman-Palladino loves to write characters who are rhythmically and aesthetically Jewish, which is fun for a lark. She struggles with writing characters who experience identity-based hardship—think of the fumbling of Shy Baldwin or of Michel on Gilmore Girls, a rude, effeminate, Black man most often othered because he was French. Maisel would be a much stronger show if it allowed for the possibility that there are forces at work in the world, like systemic racism and homophobia, larger than anything keeping its protagonist down. For now, in Midge’s world, there are no systems—only flashy colors.
How to cite this page
Leiber, Sarah Jae. "I’m Tired of Trying to Root for Midge Maisel." 8 March 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/im-tired-trying-root-midge-maisel>.