I’m Tired of Trying to Root for Midge Maisel

Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel in Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (via elle.com)

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.

 

Topics: Television, Comedy
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I watch and enjoy the show, but of any flaws the show may have, the Biggest Flaw of ALL is that she is Not Funny.

Does anyone at home actually laugh at her monologues?

She gets up on stage and the filmed audiences howl, but she is Not. F
Funny. At. All.

If she were funny, all else would be forgiven.

I don't agree with you about Shirley, I think she comes across as loving too, she deeply cares for everyone, and she is a clean freak.
I am tired of Midge's self-destruction every chance she gets. It is uncomfortable to watch.

Well said! I'm not the only one who thinks midge is self absorbed and has a victim mentality. She says how another man ruined her life. When it was Shy that offered her opener for his tour. She betrayed his trust and basically outed him when he's worked his whole life trying to make it work out. Shy didn't owe Midge anything. She acts entitled to be on tour. She has no accountability or self awareness that what she did was way bigger than what she thinks. Clearly bigger than this show is willing to show. The reality is the 1960s was an extremely dangerous world for a gay black man. She could have gotten Shy killed. Gay black men have been killed over less. Yet she has the audacity to blame Shy. When really she needs a good long look at the mirror and realize that she's not perfect. Yet the writers of the show basically make her a Mary Sue for sake of bad feminism. The white, rich, cis and heteronormative brand of feminism that is borderline terf ideology. The writing just screams cis and heteronormative behavior. Bringing in characters from the LGBTQ, but with no real depth. Even Midges manager Susie is likely apart of the LGBTQ, but with no real explanation. Just a bunch of people misgendering her. If you are going to throw LGBTQ characters in the show you've got to get representation down, and this show lacks that in every sense of the word. It seems they only throw in characters like that for sake of diversity without actually going into a conversation or message about it. Maisel just misses the mark and now I find Midge to be completely unlikable. It's really a shame, because the possibility of a real discussion about how Midge is a white rich cis and heteronormative character and has privilege and that her actions were a real threat to a gay black man.

Well said! I'm not the only one who thinks midge is self absorbed and has a victim mentality. She says how another man ruined her life. When it was Shy that offered her opener for his tour. She betrayed his trust and basically outed him when he's worked his whole life trying to make it work out. Shy didn't owe Midge anything. She acts entitled to be on tour. She has no accountability or self awareness that what she did was way bigger than what she thinks. Clearly bigger than this show is willing to show. The reality is the 1960s was an extremely dangerous world for a gay black man. She could have gotten Shy killed. Gay black men have been killed over less. Yet she has the audacity to blame Shy. When really she needs a good long look at the mirror and realize that she's not perfect. Yet the writers of the show basically make her a Mary Sue for sake of bad feminism. The white, rich, cis and heteronormative brand of feminism that is borderline terf ideology. The writing just screams cis and heteronormative behavior. Bringing in characters from the LGBTQ, but with no real depth. Even Midges manager Susie is likely apart of the LGBTQ, but with no real explanation. Just a bunch of people misgendering her. If you are going to throw LGBTQ characters in the show you've got to get representation down, and this show lacks that in every sense of the word. It seems they only throw in characters like that for sake of diversity without actually going into a conversation or message about it. Maisel just misses the mark and now I find Midge to be completely unlikable. It's really a shame, because the possibility of a real discussion about how Midge is a white rich cis and heteronormative character and has privilege and that her actions were a real threat to a gay black man.

I agree with every word of your piece. I really loved this show in seasons 1-3, but I’ve been struggling lately with why I am beginning to really dislike Midge Maisel’s character and that’s due to how she seems to lack any self-awareness or empathy for others.

Maisel is not a perfect show. I have frustrations regarding its casting. I think much of the criticism it receives is justified and thoughtful. I agree with many of the points made here. But I find your excoriation of Midge herself, and the ideas you claims she represents, bizarre.

What exactly is "girlboss feminism" to you? I know you think you explain it, and I don't entirely disagree with you, I guess -- I'm also no fan of corporatized pop feminism. But this show tells a story about a woman who is, from the first episode, dealing with systemic oppression that ripples throughout the show. Yes, I know she is rich. It is still systemic – and I don’t think I need to go on a tear, on this website, about how wealth has never ultimately protected Jews from antisemitism. The minute Joel leaves, she loses all control over her life – control she lacks, as women did in that era (and still do), because it made them easier to exploit. The show is a comedy, it’s not depicting this with a side of Clara Leimlich quotes, but this theme is indisputably present. In fact, one of the most central conflicts of the show is Midge vs. money: She does not control her money, and has very few ways of making any significant amount of it on her own, because she is a woman. Rose ends up having to face this too. Sure, they have nice shoes. They also have no way to keep their husbands -- as Rose herself points out, I think, in the end of season 3 -- from upending literally everything about their lives because of selfish whims, because they are an exploited class. This is to say nothing of the fact that the show literally constantly portrays Midge dealing with sexual harassment, underpayment, and blacklisting in the comedy circuit -- and moreover, usually drawing strength from/appealing to other women. All of these are systemic issues we’re discouraged from openly depicting, to this day. This is still a big deal: one of the functions of patriarchy is to keep women’s oppression private, and not discussed on, say, TV shows. And for goodness’ sakes, the show does this while making its central relationship the bond between Midge and Susie, a poor butch lesbian (though yes, I wish like hell they hadn't shied away from that until this point). Exactly how often do we see that? A show that tackles the themes I just laid out, that roots itself in a female relationship between two Jewish women? Susie is a SHOCKINGLY rare sort of character, and her struggle – especially her poverty – is literally always present. She is shaped in substantive ways by being butch, working class, and female. And she’s one of the most major characters.

What about this is "girlboss"? Where is the hyper-individualistic, capitalistic, fuck-you-got-mine Lean In spirit in that? Is "girlboss" just the label we use now, for shows about women who try to find literally any kind of professional success, express pride in their achievements, and sometimes fuck up? Because yeah, she fucks up with Shy. The apology isn't amazing. Sometimes fiction is about troubling characters! You're theoretically okay with that, hence your Breaking Bad/Sopranos comparison, but quite frankly, as a fan of all these shows, I think you're cutting the ones about men an immense amount of slack. They "know" they're bad, but they also relish how fucking cool it is to watch the big bad dangerous men do their thing. Maisel never even does that -- the worst thing Midge does, the Shy thing, is really fucking bad...and it torpedoes her career, and she has to eat shit about it later. The show never extensively glories in it the way Sopranos/BB love to portray Tony/Walter being total badasses. Yeah, it's not an amazing apology, and yeah, she gets to indulge in some self-pity blindness early on. But that does not compare to the kind of Emmy-winning monstrousness male characters get to pull for multiple seasons, which networks/merchandising/etc play up as Ultra Cool for $$$, and which is tied to just as many, and almost always more, brutal real-world realities. Why is that okay, when we’re allegedly discussing the way media can impact real-world oppression? Why can a female character not be fucked-up and still the main character, whom the show is on the side of? Why do we seem to trust men to separate fiction from reality, but not women? Why does women-centric media that doesn’t add in constant disclaimers about how they know other people have it worse and the character is behaving in a way no one ever should, earn our ire so readily? Are people bringing this same energy to Succession, which sympathizes with literal oligarchs as often as it satirizes them? How about The Plot Against America – were people bringing up Phillip Roth’s disgusting misogyny all the time when it was on the air? Are we decrying Don Draper as “boyboss” pabulum, because he treats lots of people like shit and is sad about growing up in poverty, without first making it clear that it couldn’t have been THAT bad, because at least he was a white dude?

Zoom out for a minute. How many shows are there about Jewish women? Two Jewish women, one of whom is poor and gender non conforming? Two Jewish women living in an unapologetically Jewish world? One created by a Jewish woman? I know the world rewards women for getting over our ardently feminist phases asap so we can move onto Being So Over It, but take a moment to look around. Are things really so fucking amazing and improved for women today, as opposed to the grievous world of early 2010s feminism you invoke, that this show isn't groundbreaking? Can you direct me to the plenty of other shows about Jewish women living Jewish lives I can watch? It's really not worth playing coy anymore, so I won't: I think most criticism of pop/girlboss/whatever feminism going around is shallow, reactionary intellectualization of plain old misogyny. I think “actually, feminism is bourgeois” is a very old bit of backlash that never actually accomplishes much – I say that as one of those female Jews of color people always claim to want to be speaking for when they do this. It’s not about centering my experiences of shitty health care and intergenerational trauma: It’s about getting women to shut up. I think suddenly finding stories about women vaguely cringe, and manufacturing that into criticism of bold, flawed female characters as being somehow worse than vicious male characters who are actively glamorized by real-world men (who never receive this sort of scrutiny) because they don’t caretake literally everybody on the planet before they tell their own story, is bullshit. I think Joanna Russ wrote an entire book about in “How To Suppress Women’s Writing.” You invoke the specter of Daenerys' hideous fans -- a character who gets dissolved into Crazy Bitch Who Needs To Be Put Down By A Man by male showrunners, in episodes that aired just a few years ago. Does the presence of some girls in Khaleesi shirts, the fact that Maisel exists at all, and “Boss Bitch” mugs in the hands of women who are still, I promise you, dealing with abuse, shitty health care, harassment, pay gaps, and everything else, really mean that a show about Jewish women, CREATED by a Jewish woman (which is, as a Jewish woman in a creative field, I can tell you, STILL VANISHINGLY RARE), suddenly ho-hum? Dislike the show. Find Midge annoying. Develop criticism about things like the portrayal of Joel’s family. Bring attention to work made by and about other marginalized people. But don’t start thinking the world is rosier than it is for the sake of dunking on a show that is, in many respects, literally unparalleled.

I loved the first and some of the second season. Through the third and now the fourth, Im not thrilled. I had a conversation with my aunt about how, IMHO, this is is a show stereotyping Jews as Upper Middle class citizens or higher and doesn't actually tell honest Jewish voices. My aunts argument, at least we have a show that is strongly breathing Judaism. I mean, thats partially true. I grew up in a lower middle class family, but we would get Black & Whites (vanilla, not lemon), chocolate babka, for Shabbat... we would also get excited about getting the Rabbi for our pesach seder. Let's not even mention the Kosher sink. Now, I love Amy SP... much like the author, GG is my favorite show, but though Amy grew up "Jew-ish" as she had mentioned in interviews, but she mainly grew up Catholic. Now, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew depending on how you feel about maternity vs paternity, but can there be an honest portrayal of Judaism if it seems to be a partial view? That was a bit of a rant. My apologies. I just really appreciate this article.

THANK YOU👍🏼👏🏽

I am SO disappointed in the 4th season so far. Midge's refusal to acknowledge Any responsibility for her being fired, and for the pain she caused Shy, have made me angrier than even she is. Joel and Mei have shown not an iota of affection, Ilsa is a tragic figure, and it's just not any fun anymore.
I can't imagine the creative disruption that Covid caused in the ensemble and for the writers, but it is so harsh and brittle now. Shaloub, whom I've adored since Wings, is now a characature instead of a character.
I'm in a nursinghome, and have been mostly homeless for 5 years. This season of Maisel is one of the very few things I've looked forward to. I'll probably watch a few more episodes in desperate hope that the show will correct course, but it may be too painful. The whole tenor so far is Anger, and it hurts.
I'm 70, Jewish, multiply disabled. I have no empathic boundaries. Pretty much bluedawg liberal Democrat all my life. I love Old Broadway, folk music, and standup comedy, and have studied the histories of all these. The accurate portrayal of the clubs where Folk and standup grew up together is so good I could Almost forgive the rest. Almost. If it doesn't turn around I'll give up on it cos I Have enough pain and disappointment IRL🤷🏻‍♀️
Thanks again for opening this up!

I am totally hooked on Mrs. Maisel…..I am not Jewish, but these families are terrific to me….lots of shows have nutty parents etc. The love is obvious to me. Midge is a hysterical part to play….Her humor does not reflect how she was raised in some ways and then she seems like a revolutionary wanting out of a way she was taught to be. I adore this show and it’s characters and the stories .

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 February 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/im-tired-trying-root-midge-maisel>.

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