From Mrs. Maisel to Rory, Amy Sherman-Palladino Relies on Flimsy Anti-Heroines

Rachel Brosnahan, a white woman with brown hair, in the titular role of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Rachel Brosnahan as Midge in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Photo credit: Prime Video).

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel entered its fifth year by airing the long-awaited, pandemic-delayed fourth season of the period comedy on Amazon Prime in February. Mrs. Maisel is the third effort from husband-and-wife team Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, who previously created Bunheads and Gilmore Girls. Their newest series follows the eponymous Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) as she walks out on her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) to follow her dream of being a comedian. The catch: it’s set in the 1950s and ’60s, when being a female comic was even more challenging than it is today. But like all of Sherman-Palladino’s plucky heroines, Midge overcomes the odds and forges forth as exemplary in her field despite being fairly ordinary as a person.

It all began with Gilmore Girls in 2000, when Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) burst onto our television screens and helped define a generation. A single mom raising a bookish daughter in a small Connecticut hamlet, Lorelai is the town’s pride and joy despite her personality being mostly made up of coffee and junk food. Rory’s is, too, for that matter, but she also reads, so she’s not like other girls. Despite everyone in Stars Hollow revolving around the titular Gilmore girls, Rory is the epitome of an entitled millennial, done no favors by the 2016 Netflix revival A Year in the Life which bolstered her privilege, while Lorelai is a flighty, selfish Cool Girl

The show reeks of conservatism, with anti-abortion storylines, fatphobia, and scarcely a person of color in sight. Those who do appear on the show aren’t treated with the reverence of the Gilmore Girls, namely Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), Rory’s long-suffering best friend who gets pregnant with twins the first time she has sex. Why does Amy Sherman-Palladino hate sex-positive women?! 

In other words, Rory and Lorelai Gilmore are accidental anti-heroines.

Then came the short-lived ballet series Bunheads, which was memorable for being Sutton Foster’s pre-Younger foray into a leading television role and little else. Because it only ran for one season, we didn’t get a chance to really see how Foster’s former Vegas showgirl who clashed with ballet teacher Fanny Flowers (played by Sherman-Palladino mainstay Kelly Bishop) would live up to the showrunner’s anti-heroine ideal.

And Sherman-Palladino’s first prestige TV attempt, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premiered 2017, brought with it many of the tropes at play in her previous work. The first episode of the series sees Midge measuring each of her body parts to make sure they have not changed since her wedding day. “You are completely proportional! How long have you been measuring yourself?” Midge’s best friend Imogene (Bailey De Young) exclaims, as if she wouldn’t already be privy to this information.

“Every day for ten years,” Midge beams. 

While this was probably standard body image fare of the time (and, indeed, of Sherman-Palladino’s oeuvre more broadly), Maisel doesn’t portray it in a critical or even nuanced way. Instead it’s just one of Midge’s many quirks that the audience is supposed to find endearing.

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A season three episode juxtaposes Midge turning up her nose at the beatniks that have commandeered her parents’—played incomparably by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle—apartment with a pastel-hued aerobics lesson at which Imogene frets about her post-pregnancy weight because of course she does, and Midge laments her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) having to take on other clients because she should be enough. It’s a clever class indictment that is sometimes rare for this show. 

In true anti-heroine fashion, Midge white womansplains oppression not once but twice: first at a Jane Jacobs rally in season three, when Midge is given the mic to speak about urban renewal in Greenwich Village despite living on the Upper West Side, and again in the most recent season when she informs the Black, Brown and working class women and sex workers she’s been arrested with what oppression is. “Tonight, I said something and I got busted,” she opines from her jail cell. “But it’s not about what you say. It’s about where you happen to be when you say what you happen to say. And who happens to be around…” Of course she bails out one of the only fellow white women and leaves the rest languishing in jail.

But it’s the climax of season three that really cements Midge’s anti-heroineism. Midge has started to see real success as a comedian, being tapped to open for singer Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain) on his international tour. Shy, who is a Black man during the Civil Rights movement, confides in Midge that he is gay but cannot come out for fear for his career and his life. Despite the trust Shy puts in Midge, she uses it as material and makes stereotypical “jokes” about how gay men love shoes and are friends of Dorothy, perhaps insinuating that in the Maisel canon, Midge was the originator of that perjorative. You’re not cute, Sherman-Palladino.

Despite the trust Shy puts in Midge, she uses it as material and makes stereotypical “jokes” about how gay men love shoes and are friends of Dorothy, perhaps insinuating that in the Maisel canon, Midge was the originator of that perjorative. 

Midge was subsequently left stranded on the tarmac as she was dumped from the tour and Shy’s private plane took off without her. It was a cathartic moment for anyone who’s taken umbrage with the aforementioned times when Midge—and by extension Sherman-Palladino—has engaged in less-than-enlightened behavior. So season four seemed like the opportune time to really lean into Midge’s character flaws and help cement her in the annals of other iconic anti-heroines like Nancy Botwin, Olivia Pope, and Devi Vishwakumar.

Instead we see Midge again “solve sexism” by introducing fruity cocktails and barring the manager (played by Santino Fontana) from entering the dressing rooms at the strip club where she performs following Shy’s dumping, which the show positions as a downgrade. (In actuality, the burlesque performances are some of the most impressive and entertaining set pieces of the season.) When she does finally confront Shy at his stunt wedding to throw people off the scent of Midge’s set in the latter half of the season, it’s feeble.

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“I would never hurt my friends,” she said in lieu of an apology. And instead of Shy getting the last word, he invites her to hang out, claiming he misses her. Midge responds that they were never really friends and bids him adieu. It’s infuriating that Shy is the one to extend kindness and forgiveness to Midge, who has done nothing to warrant it. And frankly, would an upper-class white woman who’s proven herself to be clueless when it comes to issues of intersectionality have done the work to realize why what she did to Shy was unforgivable? Sure, those words are put into Brosnahan’s mouth in the script, but the character work to get her there is basically nonexistent. I would rather she double-down on her self-righteousness and single-mindedness by believing she was right than whatever the hell this season offered.

The fact that Midge didn’t get her comeuppance and concludes the penultimate season of Maisel with her career back on track is not to say that she doesn’t engage in more anti-heroine moments. There’s the aforementioned oppressionsplaining at the jailhouse, Midge sicking mobsters onto Joel’s pregnant Chinese girlfriend, and making Jackie Kennedy cry double-whammy in the second last episode—and, proving she learned nothing from the Shy fallout, Midge traipses around Greenwich Village looking for a lesbian bar for her not-out manager by yelling that she’s not a cop.

It’s just that Sherman-Palladino doesn’t see her perfect, beautiful, white, brunet heroines as anything other than loveable screw-ups who always land on their feet. Instead of portraying Midge Maisel and Rory and Lorelai Gilmore as flawed women who make mistakes, learn from them, and grow with their audience, Sherman-Palladino puts them on a pedestal that they’re never to fall from. By making them irreproachable, she makes them two-dimensional. 

They—and we—are worse off for it.

 

by Scarlett Harris
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Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic and author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment. You can read the rest of her work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris