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The Timeless Pursuit of Social Change through Comedy in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

By Margot Maclaren

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017) demonstrates that topics relevant to the 1950s continue to be relevant today. The show portrays the life of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a Jewish housewife who begins a career in stand-up comedy after her husband leaves. The episode “Because You Left” captures the main themes of the show, wherein Midge begins to adapt to her newfound independence as a single woman. At this point in the series, Midge awakens to the problematic social norms of the era—specifically those that apply to women—as she finds herself thrust outside of these boundaries for the first time in her life. No longer comfortably situated as the perfect housewife, Midge must navigate her social sphere knowing that those around her perceive her new relationship status as indicative of her complete social failure. The show’s modern take on the challenges Midge faces as a 1950s housewife and budding comic serves to explore the relevance of contemporary topics to current audiences.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel might best be approached using comedy theory, particularly through Mary Douglas’ theory of the joke as an anti-rite and the comic character of the joker. Douglas defines a rite as “a symbolic act which draws its meaning from a cluster of standard symbols”; these symbols depend upon a certain order, or hierarchy, that organizes concepts and thereby allows for a sense of cognitive harmony (154). Jokes stand in opposition to this imposed organization of concepts since they “[confront] one accepted pattern with another” (Douglas 157). Jokes are thus anti-rites, as anti-rites serve to dismantle preconceived notions of unity and hierarchy. The joke as an anti-rite is exemplified through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s use of various comic conventions, including the protagonist’s embodiment of the subversive power of feminine creation presented by Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Using the joke as an anti-rite serves to question conventional thinking—in other words, conceptual patterns that have endured in the past and are expected to continue into the future—and open up the possibility for new intersections of concepts and roles. In employing the joke as a tool to dismantle ritualistic ways of thinking, the series demonstrates that a comedic work that criticizes the social norms of the era allows its themes to remain relevant to later generations by expressing the enduring desire to strive for social change.

Douglas’ theory of comedy best explains the comedic approach to addressing women’s independence in both the episode “Because You Left” and the series as a whole, particularly due to the show’s use of the joke as an anti-rite. In one of the early scenes in the episode, Midge and her friend Imogene engage in a lively conversation that centres on the rite of marriage. Imogene tries to avoid mentioning Midge’s husband, Joel. When Midge points out that this is ridiculous, Imogene defends herself with an intensity that affirms the importance of the marriage rite and the significance of Midge’s potential divorce. At the end of a hilariously confusing exchange, Imogene pronounces: “I hate Joel,” to which Midge replies: “I resigned as president of his fan club yesterday” (“Because You Left” 10:05-10:11). While Imogene’s agitation over Joel and Midge’s separation affirms the sanctity of marriage, Midge’s joke suggests that the end of her marriage is as inconsequential as giving up a hobby. In connecting disparate concepts, Midge’s comment operates according to Douglas’ theory of the joke as an anti-rite, which states that jokes “connect widely differing fields, but the connection destroys hierarchy and order. They do not affirm the dominant values, but denigrate and devalue.” (Douglas 155). Midge does not treat her marriage as the most important aspect of her life, as does Imogene and as might be expected. Instead, Midge’s joke subverts the conventional significance of marriage and opens up the possibility of her independence now that she is separated from her husband.

While Imogene and Midge’s conversation involves a confrontation between the rite of marriage and the anti-rite of women’s independence, a later scene of Midge in jail similarly exemplifies the way the show repeatedly brings together distinct concepts to comedically criticize social conventions. This scene comedically associates the sacred figure of the maternal American housewife with hardened criminals. Midge looks elegant in her evening gown as she stands with her back to her two cellmates, one of whom is describing a stabbing that she has just committed. The possible murderer complains that the blood ruined one of her favourite shirts, and Midge interjects with her domestic knowhow: “Salt it” (02:26 – 02:27). The cellmate is surprised by this advice on how to clean out blood, and the scene’s overall shock value is in the absurdity of a housewife providing domestic advice to a criminal. The humour is in the disconnect between seeing a potential murderer and a budding comedian as temporary equals, as prisoners sharing a holding cell. This disconnect forces the audience to confront dominant social perceptions of prisoners as a different class of human, far below the idealized status of housewives. In this scene and throughout the series, the juxtaposition between ideals such as that of the housewife and concepts that interfere with those ideals illustrates the use of the joke as an anti-rite to question social conventions.

Midge also challenges conventions when she speaks truth to power in her role as the comic character of the joker—defined by Douglas as the figure who challenges dominant structures through laughter (159). Midge’s role as a feminine version of the joker becomes apparent in the first court scene, following her brief time in jail. The court accuses her of participating in an indecent tableau as part of her comedy set, but the judge declares that he will absolve her of all charges if she promises to stop acting in ways that are detrimental to the moral health of those around her. This statement infuriates Midge. She goes off on a rant: “And what exactly was wrong with the words I said? […] With everything going on out there – Jim Crow laws, voter fraud – you’re taking the time to pick on a “little lady”?” (20:03-20:26). This passage illustrates that the advantage of portraying a stand-up comic within a comedy show is twofold: the show can address questions regarding the moral boundaries of comedy while also pointing out that policing comedy’s morality draws attention away from the larger social issues addressed by the comic. As a joker, Midge brings all of these questions and issues into the courtroom. Douglas states that “the joker who provokes the laughter is chosen to challenge the relevance of the dominant structure and to perform with immunity the act which wipes out the venial offence” (159). Midge fits Douglas’ archetype. Within her privileged position as a wealthy, well-respected white woman, Midge is able to criticize existing social structures without truly risking her place within said structure. While it seems that Midge must be taking some risk in confronting a judge in his courtroom, she is in no real danger. She only makes her statement after both her lawyer and the judge acknowledge her impeccable reputation in their community. Her life is not significantly altered by her tirade. Though Midge is fined and forced to apologise to the judge, she returns to her life of privilege after she successfully exposes the relative insignificance of her trial in comparison to serious social issues. In using comedy as an anti-rite, Midge, as the joker, calls into question the priorities of the American justice system and suggests the need for systemic reform in the administration of justice.

Cixous’ theory of feminine writing also connects to the progressive ambitions expressed within the episode. Cixous argues that the explosive energy of women’s truth is required for women to burst out from within the confines of the patriarchy. To achieve such an explosion, women must reclaim language and tell an embodied version of their truth. With this statement comes the recognition that there is no singular set of experiences that defines womanhood: what Cixous calls for is a celebratory expression of individuality. Cixous instructs: “Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth. […] [We] will change the rules of the old game” (350-1). With the strength found in reconnecting with their bodies, women can cease to frame their stories with patriarchal structures of discourse and create a new and powerful mode of expression. Midge often embodies her stories by referring to her sexuality during her sets. In “Because You Left,” Midge performs a set in which she riffs on the fact that it is her first time in a jazz club and asks whether it is anyone else’s first time as well. When no one responds, she notes that this makes her the only jazz club virgin: “Losing my virginity to a bunch of jazz musicians—every Jewish mother’s worst nightmare” (34:50-34:57). While playing with the idea of her sexuality, she dismantles the patriarchal idea that women are not sexual beings and that any discussion of women’s sexuality from a woman’s point of view must be repressed. Midge does not censor herself based on which topics might be socially acceptable; she speaks from and for the body she inhabits, and thus embodies the truth of a woman rather than restraining herself to a patriarchal narrative.

The acclaim that Midge quickly receives for her comedy illustrates the expansive impact that such truthful storytelling can have for others. Midge’s manager, Susie, describes Midge’s comedy style as “impulsive, intuitive, and hysterical. […] She’s special, raw, unpredictable, and we are going forward in a big aggressive way” (40:43-40:47; 41:01-41:10). When individuals take pleasure in telling their stories unapologetically and others recognize the value in their expression, a revolutionary and explosive energy emerges. It is only through this recognition of the value of women’s perspectives, or the perspectives of other gender identities, that the patriarchy is truly threatened. Midge contributes to this threat in that she does not respect the social norms that would have her stay at home and fulfill her duties as a housewife; even as a comedian, she does not limit herself to topics deemed appropriate for a woman in the 1950s. Instead, she embodies her truth and pushes beyond patriarchal structures. In doing so, Midge creates new potentialities for future story-tellers. It is important to add a caveat here and recognize that myriad traditions of storytelling have evolved across the globe over millennia; it would be absurd to argue that a single white woman could be responsible for opening up alternatives to patriarchal narrative structures. Rather, the point here is that Midge bases her comedy in her personal experience to successfully—and publically—push against structures established in her society. From there, the takeaway abstracted from her experience is that comedy is a forceful narrative device that can be used to examine the legitimacy of established social structures. It is precisely the display of this capacity to potentially disrupt such structures that leads to the sustained relevance of the show’s comedy.

The use of comedy in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tohighlight the ways that the joke can explode conventions permits comic themes specific to the 1950s to translate to a modern audience. In the second half of Midge’s stand-up set in the jazz club, she pulls out a parenting book recommended to her by a friend. The book, Midge discovers, is full of useless platitudes. She goes on to wonder why the default role for women is to be mothers and whether she herself is meant to be one. She ends with the punchline: “I can’t change my mind and donate my kids to the library like I’m gonna [sic] do with this book” (36:44-36:49). As a concept, motherhood is generally revered, and the associated assumption that all women are meant to be mothers is similarly pervasive. In her set, Midge wonders why we think that all women must be driven by a maternal instinct, but she does not attempt to provide a definitive answer. Douglas notes that humour often opens up possibilities in this way:

The joke merely affords opportunity for realizing that an accepted pattern has no necessity. Its excitement lies in the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective. It is frivolous in that it produces no real alternative, only an exhilarating sense of freedom from form in general.

(Douglas 150)

In challenging an accepted concept—for instance, the idea that women are meant to be mothers—the joke opens up the opportunity for this concept to be questioned but does not offer a definitive answer on the matter. Rather, the joke allows for such structures to continue to be questioned in the future since it encourages the perennial desire to strive for social change. A comedy such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which uses jokes as anti-rites to question the zeitgeist of the era in which it is set, can be used to reflect upon such critical forward thinking in future eras, which grants its comedic themes a timeless quality.

The successful debut of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel illustrates that comedy exploring the social criticisms of an earlier era can make its contemporary themes relevant to a modern audience. The show’s comedy explores issues with various social structures and rites in order to encourage the audience to question their validity. By criticizing social conventions through comedy and through Midge’s use of the joke as anti-rite, the show encourages the audience to consider possible expressions of individuality beyond what is known and accepted. The comedy does not attempt to provide a final answer to its probing questions. In this way, the comedy is left open-ended, which means that the comic elements of the show are free to stimulate future questions and considerations. With this striving motion embedded in its comedy, the show’s relevance transcends its era and can be enjoyed by future generations as they seek to break from contemporary social norms.   

Works Cited

“Because You Left.” The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, season 1, episode 3, Amazon, 17 Mar. 2017.   

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, 1975, pp. 347-362.

Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, Routledge, 1970, pp. 146-164.

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