5 Reasons Why Every Cultural Enthusiast Must Watch 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'
by Dhivyaa Chelvan
I usually restrain myself from writing about, if not talking about movies and television series, because I somehow have my ways of making them academic. But this series (recommended to me by a friend for its feel-good nature) turned out to be exceeding my expectations – for it is culturally rich, it is evident that an enormous amount of research, thoughtfulness, and hard work has been put in the making of each frame, with delightful music and fast rolling content (not the story)- anyone might overlook some of these valuable aspects, and I think it deserves my nerd-ish take. Okay- here is what you can pay attention to in 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'.
1. Late 1950’s New York City
As a trained cultural landscape architect, my initial thoughts as I started watching this series, wandered to the mid-1950s to early-60s New York inner-city spaces where pouring immigrant population acclimatize to their new home in the neighborhood clusters of Lower Manhattan and the Lower East Side. This was an era where slum, poverty, drugs, prostitution, and violence were existent in New York City and there was a sharp contrast in the landscape between the urban poor and the middle- and higher-income districts.
The series creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino has done a great job of portraying this social contrast primarily through the lives of the main characters- Midge and Susie, but also in various candid moments where the cultural aspects are intertwined in the story that the viewers are sure to be transported to the late 50s. The Italian immigrant family living at Susie’s apartment for a brief period, the appearance of activist and urban design theorist Jane Jacobs to protest the plans of Robert Moses to destroy Central Park and build highway (which was a true event, btw), and where Midge was offered a marijuana joint at the Jazz club are a few examples that were reflective of the period’s reality. More importantly, this brought to life some of the urban contexts that “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs is based on, which I’m sure most cultural enthusiast will greatly appreciate.
2. Jewish Culture
I can, with much certainty, say that I’m now entering a contested zone. Critics have been all over the internet contemplating if the Jewish culture is got right in this series. It should be noted that Amy Sherman-Palladino approached the tone from her father who was Bronx-Jewish. So, watch the series only with that perspective in mind. While I only have a textbook knowledge of cultural characteristics of Jewish-Americans of the upper-middle class in the late 50s and early 60s period, I believe that the role of each character is justified. For example, the Weissman family members are well-educated, intellectual, men hold respectable jobs, the entire family is taught to be well-mannered and cultured, which were the typical characteristics. Look out for the community vacation with family at a classic Jewish resort in the Catskills (Steiner), where many stereotypes of the period come to life in a much candid and comic tone. What is more refreshing to see is that Midge has broken out of that Jewish housewife, mother and princess stereotypes after her divorce and take them on-stage with some added twist as a comedy (you might need to be aware of those cultural stereotypes to understand some of the comedy- so listen closely). There are also wonderful references to well-known Jewish holiday- Yom Kippur, to the lesser-known ceremony Tisha B’Av.
Living in a capsule wardrobe era, it might be a bit overwhelming to see the Upper West Side couture fashion of the 1950s, but needless to say, it has captured the attention of Vogue, and many fashion editors and bloggers alike. I will honestly give great credit to the costume designer Zakowska to have put in great detail and attention to the historical references for each category of clothing from casuals, work wear, active wear, outwear, nightwear, seductive gown, wedding gown, to a more serious stand-up performance wear and much more. In many ways for Midge’s character, “the choice of clothing complements her emotional strength or assertiveness or lack thereof through the colors” as described by Zakowska in an interview with EW. This series has reacquainted the audience with the fashion and lifestyle of that period. Although we can obtain this fashion knowledge from the Met Museum or such, it is fulfilling to see some of the period pieces and palates come to life, especially with the matching accessories. It is not just Midge’s clothing, but also Zelda’s, Rose’s, Susie’s, Sophie’s, and all other character’s sense of fashion just feel right and justified.
4. Role of Women
This was set in a period where the Jewish women were expected to get married, have children and be a housewife. Although Midge went on to become more independent and carve a career path in comedy after her breakup with her husband, there is one cultural aspect I must point out. I’d like to draw an analogy here- you know how we curate our social media pictures to make sure none of un-instagramable portrait or selfie is posted anywhere in social media so our friends or network don’t judge us? Similarly, upper-middle-class women of that period highly curate themselves to be presentable, to an extent that they don’t even reveal their non-curated self to their husband. That aspect, even if it is a bit exaggerated, holds a degree of truth to it, and for me, it’s astonishing that even though it’s a tiny detail, this cultural perspective says a lot about the role and ideology of women in that period and what it means to be ladylike. As a women-centric series, you can witness the transformation of three women- Midge, Susie, and Rose- to grow in strength, become independent, and break some social norms, yet the process and the learning curve still applies to this age that you connect with the hurdles of the character
5. The Landscape of Stand-up Comedy
Ever wondered what a person trying to break into a career in stand-up comedy might have to go through in an age where YouTube or other social media were non-existent, let alone Netflix or Amazon videos that recognizes these artists? Further, being a woman of that era in the comedy landscape adds another layer of complexity. It was a period when even television was not a commodity in every household in the America. Amy Sherman-Palladino has brought into life the struggles and challenges facing both budding as well as well-established stand-up comedians of the late 50s. What’s fascinating is the fact that these challenges and hurdles are still relevant to date, probably in different forms and circumstances, and every woman trying to get a recognition in their career can relate to Midge’s and Susie’s efforts, which makes it fresh and invigorating. Nevertheless, the comedy itself is original, wry, and energizing.
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