The best line so far in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel – the Emmy award-winning comedy drama about a New York-50s-housewife-turned-standup-comic – isn’t a joke she delivers in a set on a dingy club stage. It isn’t even one of the endless, off-stage zingers by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (also behind Gilmore Girls). It is, in fact, the searing three-word reply that Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) fires at her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), halfway through season one, when he asks why she won’t give their marriage another shot: “Because you left.”
In that moment, Mrs Maisel becomes the ultimate single woman’s icon. In a world that measures her success and identity by her marital status, she makes the decision to be a single mother and blindly embrace whatever is ahead. While the social stigmas attached to being unmarried might have relaxed since Midge’s time, the reality today is this: in 2019 five hospital trusts and six clinical commissioning groups banned single women from accessing IVF; our prime minister once said the children of single women are “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”; single people feel priced out of owning a house while couples have a double income; and – take it from someone who knows – if you’re not standing on a soapbox shouting “single, fierce and independent!”, friends and family assume you’re sitting at home feeling sad with the cat (or without the cat, because the landlord won’t allow it).
Midge’s message is a reminder to know your self-worth, forget about societal expectations and take no shit. There’s also the fact that she’s very, very funny and unafraid to constantly crack the punchlines – another defiance, this time of the “women aren’t funny” trope (again, something that female comedians still face today). They are the very reasons why, say, a single woman might have felt completely uplifted while rewatching the series for a third time in lockdown after heartbreak. Because, when Joel left, Midge turned her assumed failures into her biggest strengths – and the real Mrs Maisel arrived.
When her husband left her for his 21-year-old secretary Penny Pann, Midge laughs at him. “A girl who doesn’t know how to use an electric pencil sharpener?” she guffaws. “Grab some pens on the way out – you’re gonna need them.” Rather than chase after her husband , she downs a bottle of Yom Kippur wine and ends up stumbling on stage in a comedy club, performing a monologue about what has just happened. She establishes a knack for seamlessly snappy, observational standup that is brutally personal – a true talent for turning trauma into triumph. Rather than taking Joel back just to please everybody else, Midge takes a chance on herself as a single woman for the first time and gives this comedy thing a shot.
What’s more, she does it despite society’s prejudice against divorced women. She ignores her father Abe (Tony Shalhoub) when he laments: “I’m no fan of Joel, but you need a husband”. She carries on, despite her mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle), demanding to know what Midge did wrong to cause her poor husband to leave, then walking around every room in the apartment, wailing: “Oh shiiit”.
Over the following three seasons, we see gutsy Midge continue to defy society’s expectations of how a single woman should act. Comedy quickly becomes a career goal and she does everything she can to make it happen. She embraces a new female friendship with her agent Susie (Alex Borstein) – her total opposite, and someone she might not have even spoken to while married, but with whom she forms a beautifully odd and respectful working relationship (“Look at you – it’s like a dollop of whipped cream grew a head,” Susie quips to nail their dynamic). Midge swallows her pride, moves back in with her parents and seizes control of her income for the first time, taking a job at a department store and recording radio adverts for extra money, all while gigging most nights. She even ends up in a position where she can buy back her old apartment on her own (a little unrealistic, especially in today’s market, but let’s roll with it).
As the show goes on, we see her increasingly act in a way that shows us that there are more important things in life than having a partner. In season two, Midge falls for Dr Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi) – the most perfect man ever to be written down on paper – only to call off their engagement because she realises she doesn’t want the relationship to compromise her comedy (in fairness, he is far too good a person to be used as material by his wife on stage every night). She also sleeps with Joel a few times, divorces him, drunkenly marries him again, then leaves things open. Things are inevitably complicated with the father of her children, who did a bad thing but isn’t necessarily a bad person. This time, though, their relationship is all on her terms, and married life is clearly no longer her ultimate goal.
Then there’s the comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby – TV’s most underrated sex symbol) who becomes a mentor, friend and subject of a will-they-won’t-they storyline. “You’re living in a hotel? Who are you? Willy Loman?” Midge jibes when they very nearly sleep together in season three – but don’t, because, once again, she doesn’t want a sexual relationship with a man to hinder anything or rock the mutual respect they have for each other as comedians.
Sure, Midge isn’t as perfect as her impeccable veneer. She often makes decisions that some might consider unwise or selfish, such as leaving her children for six months to go on tour with Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain) in season three (she also takes minimal interest in their day-to-day lives). But to be a woman forging a career during that period – especially a woman in comedy – selfishness was a necessary and sometimes vital tool. Another questionable move was the uncomfortable set that gets her kicked off Shy’s tour; in not realising how her jokes about Shy’s sexuality might have crossed a line, she shows that she is still often unaware of her privilege.
But Midge does what she set out to do – she becomes a standup comic. There have been so many times where she could have given up – the cancelled gigs, the non-payments, the constant sexist remarks, the offers of an easier married life with a doctor or an ex – but she keeps on going. In today’s digital age where burnout culture is the norm and women are still expected to work longer hours than men, her warrior approach is extremely relatable. Particularly as she remains true to herself while developing, saying what she wants to say on stage, always parading an outstanding wardrobe of outfits, regardless of how grimy the venue is – and making sure she turns down career opportunities that conflict with her values.
In the opening act of the fourth season, which has just launched on Amazon Prime, it’s clear that Midge is done with men dictating her life. With no money, no apartment and no work lined up after being sent away from the tour, she’s out for revenge – and why the hell not? They say that anger is an unattractive trait, but Midge isn’t here to sit pretty and please anymore – and neither are women today. “I stood there, I watched that plane fly away and I realised that once again a man has stepped in and fucked up my life,” Midge tells her crowd. “I know – that’s life, shit happens, you should be the bigger man and let it go … Well, I’m a woman – so fuck that.”