Welcome to Role Call, where we call up TV’s leading ladies to talk about their most vital, memorable, and feminist episodes.
There’s a scene in Amazon’s lovely confection of a dramedy Marvellous Mrs. Maisel where Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), the manager of the titular stand-up comedian Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), attempts to shoulder her way into the Friars Club, a real-life private club for the highest echelon of comics. You’ll notice how shocked the management reacts to Susie — a woman! Without a male escort! — and the gall she has in trying to enter such a hallowed place. When she does end up through the Frairs’ doors, it’s impossible to ignore the tables upon tables of old white men inside the impossibly smoke-filled room. This is clearly their dominion, and women aren’t exactly welcome — unless they’re invited and arrive prepared to look pretty and laugh at their host’s jokes. No speaking required.
The moment in episode 4, “Because You Left,” is a dark look at what comedy was like in the late 1950s, when Maisel takes place. But, it’s also a reflection of comedy as a whole today, where writers’ rooms are still dominated by men, people still debate out loud if women “can” be funny, and, as recent news stories about men like Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby prove, women are consistently victims of predatory sexual behaviour. In a world where the comedy industry sounds worse and worse every day, the scrappy, feminist, and ultimately optimistic Mrs. Maisel is what we all need.
A lot of the Amy Sherman-Palladino-created series’ reassuring outlook is thanks to the fact it’s anchored by the female friendship of Midge and Susie, or, their “womance,” as star Rachel Brosnahan calls it thanks to scene partner Alex Borstein. Midge’s portrayer recognises just how essential those kinds of relationships are in an industry like comedy. “Part of being a modern feminist, is about lifting up other women,” Brosnahan told Refinery29. “That’s particularly true in a world like comedy, where it’s historically been a boys’ club.” Thanks to that truth, Midge and Susie’s burgeoning, complicated, and necessary friendship “becomes the beautiful centre of the story.” Without their mutual support, neither woman has much of a future in the biz, as we see proven throughout Maisel season 1.
Susie and Midge’s us-against-the-world reality spills out into the real-life production of Maisel, which is led by creator Sherman-Palladino and her producer husband Dan Palladino, who together also gave us Gilmore Girls. Brosnahan sees her streaming show as “a multi-faceted solution” to the misogynistic darkness currently looming over both comedy, and entertainment as a whole. “This is a show that lifts women up, that highlights their battles. This is a show that employs women, both in front of and behind the camera,” the actress said.
That assertion is true, as the only non-(Sherman)-Palladino with a Maisel writing credit is the couple’s regular collaborator, Sheila R. Lawrence. Beyond Lawrence, you’ll find women among the credits for everything from producers and assistant directors — AS-P herself directed more than half of season 1 — to film editors and photographers. “So [Maisel] feels important right now, even more so than it did when we started,” Brosnahan admitted.
When you hear Sherman-Palladino herself speak about her dreams for Maisel, it becomes clear why so many women needed to be working on set, beyond the fact we make everything better: the period piece is a deeply woman-first show. “[A] female story was a story I was interested in telling, even more so than, ‘Lets do something centred on stand-up,’” Sherman-Palladino explained to journalists during a July visit to the series’ Brooklyn set, steps away from the made-for-TV B. Altman department store the crew recreated from scratch.
“The story I really wanted to do was the story of a woman in the ‘50s who didn’t hate her life," Sherman-Palladino added. "I feel like we’ve seen that a lot … the repression and the unhappiness.” Anyone who has watched Maisel for five minutes knows it would be impossible to repress Midge Maisel, as the up-and-coming comic would immediately react with at least three curse-laden insults and then promptly return to whatever she was doing.
Knowing Sherman-Palladino’s plans for the series helps explain how it toes the line between not-so-subtle critics of sexism and, also, a sunny optimism sometimes lacking in the increasingly gritty world of television. “When you watch this show, you can tell how far we’ve come and how far we have not come,” star Brosnahan pointed out. One season 1 moment that fits this description can be found in penultimate episode “Put That on Your Plate!” where successful older female comedian Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) tells Midge to hide her beauty to gain success. “Men don’t want to laugh at you. They want to fuck you,” Sophie explains, truly believing what she's saying is the best advice possible.
Brosnahan recognises this obsession with female entertainers’ looks hasn’t ended, saying, “We’re never enough. You’re either not beautiful enough to be successful, or too beautiful to be taken seriously … That’s a part of this war [against sexism], this ongoing war.” In Maisel, Midge rages against that “war,” giving a barn-burner of a speech dismantling Sophie’s misguided so-called wisdom and encouraging the women in the audience to never apologise for who they are. Brosnahan credits the monologue as her favourite of the season.
Midge’s resolution for the Sophie Problem reveals how Maisel can maintain its feel-good vibes, despite delving into tough topics: this heroine truly believes in progress, paired with a good laugh. “It’s a show that’s filled with a lot of joy,” Brosnahan said. “The world is so terrible right now and in so many different ways that I think it’s one piece of what we need right now. It’s certainly something that I’m craving.”