In the new Amazon Original Series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character Midge is smart, funny, gorgeous, and makes a killer brisket. Yet, her husband Joel decides to leave her anyway. Why? One possibility may be that it’s the late 1950s, and the age-old stereotype mandates that the white collar, supposedly powerful “working man” leads an indulgent double life. A man like Joel Maisel is expected to have sex with his vapid, eager-to-please receptionist while his wife is at home in their stately Upper West Side brownstone. What better way to create drama than to have a husband cheat on his wife with a younger woman? However, if you are willing to take a closer look at the situation, you may find that the reason Joel leaves his wife is more nuanced than a classic cuckolding plot line.
Mr. Maisel does not leave Midge because he lusts for someone else. He leaves because he is constantly out-shined by his wife, and her brilliance threatens his ego. When he finally decides to leave, he explains to Midge that she is ruining his dream of becoming a comic. Their whole life—the house, their children, his job—is not what he envisioned for himself. What’s more, she made him bomb at the Gaslight, and now he needs to move on to chase his dream without her. I hate to be blunt Joel, but Midge or no Midge, you’re just a shitty comic.
As the series progresses, Joel regrets separating from Midge and mopes around wounded for the rest of the season. Both the the actor who plays Joel (Michael Zegen), and the series creators want to make you feel sorry for our white collar playboy. After all, he’s made one tiny mistake and because of it, his wife is being “mean” to him. To make matters worse, now Midge is a stand-up comedian using their situation as inspiration for hilarious material, and he feels humiliated. He realizes what he has done was foolish, and the last scene concludes with Joel distraught and hurt.
We also are not going to debate about whether or not Midge should take Joel back after his indiscretions. What we will talk about however, is what it means for women when you feel sorry for a character like Joel Maisel.
Although you may feel for Joel, my plea for viewers is this: do not fall for this cinematic trick. Do not feel bad for Joel Maisel. This plea has nothing to do with Joel cheating. Infidelity in and of itself is inexcusable (should the parameters of your relationship state that you are both in a monogamous, closed relationship), but I am not going to argue that we should not show Joel mercy because he cheated on Midge. We also are not going to debate about whether or not Midge should take Joel back after his indiscretions. That is a different discussion for a different time. What we will talk about however, is what it means for women when you feel sorry for a character like Joel Maisel.
Midge has two children, but it might as well be three. In typical 1950s housewife fashion, Midge does everything for him except wipe his little tuchus . She makes brisket to bribe the Gaslight Cafe staff and negotiates on his behalf for the best spot in the amateur line-up. She even writes his jokes because when he is not stealing material from Bob Newhart, he is too untalented to write his own. Everything she did was to help his success. It’s no wonder men in the fifties felt so threatened by disruptions in the patriarchy—having your own personal maid as a wife was a pretty nice set up.
When Joel leaves, Midge’s role as a stereotypical 1950s housewife morphs into one of an independent woman. She begins to realize her self-worth and how lucky Joel was to have her. Without Joel in the house Midge gets a job, becomes an amateur comedian and performs regularly at open mic nights. She also develops a vibrant social life and becomes more self-reliant (well, as self-reliant as one can get when you are twenty-six years old and still on your parents’ allowance). Without Joel, her responsibility as an attentive housewife falls away, and she is able to explore her talent without her needy husband dragging her down.
To feel bad for Mr. Maisel is to invalidate everything that Midge has been able to achieve on her own. To show Joel sympathy is to excuse a misogynistic culture in which a woman must shrink herself so as too not outshine the man she is with—to sentence her to a lifetime of ego stroking and brisket making. But if we cannot feel bad for Joel, what can we do for his character and egotistical men like him in real life? What should be our proper reaction? In my opinion, there are several right answers.
The proper reaction can be a moment when we resort to teaching. It can be a moment in which we allow someone like Joel to realize that it is okay to admit that women are talented, strong, independent, smart, funny beings on their own, and maybe—just maybe— they can be more talented than you. It can also be a moment of tough love—a time to feel absolutely no remorse for characters like Joel, who feel the need to drag others down in order to boost their own egos and mask their insecurities. Or maybe the proper reaction is not to focus on Joel at all and, instead, to celebrate Midge. We should celebrate her self-discovery and newfound independence and, for once, make it about her success and not about his. When Midge performed her final ten minute set at the end of the season I paid no attention to Mr. Maisel. I was thrilled that Midge was back on stage and back on track with Suzie, our wonderful self-sacrificing lesbian hero of the series. Broody, miserable Joel runs out of the Gaslight Cafe to chase after three men who heckled Midge during her set. After punching one of the men a couple of times he says, “She’s good. She’s fucking good.” Yes, she is a mother f*ckin’ queen Joel, but not because of you.