Upon Amazon’s cancellation of Good Girls Revolt, I was pretty peeved. Aside from Transparent (which is its own bag of worms — an article for another time), it seemed like the company didn’t really care about creating content for the large demographic of female viewers. But now, Amazon has gifted us with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The show, starring Rachel Brosnahan as the title character of Miriam (Midge) Maisel, is about a housewife in the 1950s who pursues comedy following a nasty breakup with her husband.
As a Jewish woman, I personally found it refreshing to see a Jewish female character have her own story on a TV show and be portrayed in a positive light. With the exception of Rachel Bloom’s character Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this is a rarity. Throughout television history, Jewish women have been portrayed as “loud, vulgar, spoiled, and unattractive.” They frequently appear as unappealing caricatures.
“When young Jewish women are on screen, they often fit the model of the spoiled Jewish princess looking for bargains and a man, preferably a wealthy doctor to take care of them (e.g., Fran Fine on The Nanny), or they are frumpy and unattractive (Fran on Mad About You, Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Brenda on Rhoda),” writes Joyce Antler for My Jewish Learning.
“Although Jewish-princess and Jewish-mother jokes make for easy, quick laughs, such humor is cruel and upsetting to Jewish women, lessening self-esteem, particularly for younger women, who especially rely on the media for their role models, while shaping male attitudes toward Jewish women in negative ways,” Antler continues. “Those non-Jews with little acquaintance with Jewish women tend to accept the stereotypes as real.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel makes references to keeping kosher, holidays like Yom Kippur, and other nods toward the Jewish community. Considering the huge increase of anti-Semitism this past year, it’s a relief to see Jews represented in a positive light.
However, unlike Rachel Bloom, who is actually Jewish, Brosnahan is not. The show’s creator and writer Amy Sherman-Palladino’s mother was Southern Baptist and her father was Jewish, and she has said she was raised “sort of” Jewish. Learning this did put a damper on my excitement for the show, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless, despite some strange moments that I don’t think actual Jewish characters would tolerate. For instance, in one of the show’s later episodes, Midge seems pretty okay with a guy doing a Hitler impersonation. And considering the show is meant to take place in the late 1950s — only about 10 years since World War II — that “joke” fell pretty flat.
I spoke with other Jewish women about their thoughts on the show. “Representation matters, and not just of the obvious Jews with kippahs and payot who stand out in the crowd for the obligatory Jewish inclusion, or the funny Jews who just say they are Jewish, throw in the random ‘oy vey,’ joke about their noses and hair, and call that representation,” says Ari Kras, a 31-year-old living in Washington D.C. “This is truly one of the only mainstream shows that I have seen that I saw myself in.”
However, others were not too impressed by the show, citing disappointment in the casting choice (again, Brosnahan isn’t Jewish); and the fact Midge comes from a wealthy Jewish family on New York’s Upper West Side, which doesn’t resonate with working-class Jews. In fact, a 2013 report found that about 30% of all New Yorkers living in a Jewish household are poor or near-poor. Over the past two decades, this number has nearly doubled — from 70,000 impoverished Jewish households in 1991 to 130,000 in 2011. About 90% of poor Jewish households are in New York City. In 2012, only 7% of New York Jewish households reported an annual income of $250,000 or more, while 42% reported incomes of less than $50,000. 37% of households reported that they were “just managing” to make ends meet, according to The Forward. These statistics mostly affect the elderly, children, the disabled, and single-parent households. “Poverty in the Jewish community continues to grow at an alarming rate, much faster than the Jewish community as a whole,” writes Dr. Jacob B. Ukeles, who led the 2011 report on Jewish poverty.
“I, for one, can’t relate to the Upper West Side bit and the Columbia professor [Midge’s father] and well-traveled background. I would have much more enjoyed the show had it taken place like, in Astoria, in a more blue collar, first generation family that is actually probably more typical of most of the Jewish population,” says Addison Levy*, a 24-year-old living in Florida.
“My only thought about [the show] is that it isn’t actually Jewish women’s representation,” says Sylvanna Seydel, a 40-year-old living in New Mexico. “The actress who plays the title character isn’t Jewish, but apparently thinks that growing up in a Jewish neighborhood makes her enough of an expert to play a Jewish woman,” she continues, referring to Brosnahan’s upbringing in Chicago’s Jewish Highland Park neighborhood.
“Casting a [non-Jewish woman] to play a Jewish shero and martyr is a special kind of goyish bullshit,” Seydel states. “I’m actually boycotting all movies and TV shows that tell Jewish stories without casting actual Jews. The only time Jewish actors get cast to play Jewish characters is when we’re playing the villains or the comic relief. We never get to play the heroes of our own stories, and I’m 100% done with it.”
“I was kinda disappointed with the representation,” says Grace Goldman*, a 22-year-old living in New York. “I would’ve loved it had been a more blue collar Jewish New York story. Most of even the wealthiest Jewish families I know come from a background like that, my family included.”
“Also, kinda disappointed about the goyische actress when I know from experience that existing in the industry as a Jewish actress is often a strange place in which ‘Jew-y’ Jewish girls always get character roles (not ‘Jewish looking’ Jewish girls), get praised, and given ingenue-type roles,” she continues.
Overall, I liked the show. Midge comes off as a trailblazer for female comedians, like how Good Girls Revolt was about trailblazing female journalists. Set in the 1950s, Midge is on stage talking about female sexuality, definitely a taboo back then. Additionally, the show depicts the downfall of the “appropriate” female lifestyle — getting married right out of college and being a stay-at-home mother who never has to lift a finger. In the 1950s, way before divorce was normal and single working mothers were commonplace, Midge considers divorcing her husband. She gets a job at a department store, and still manages to find time to pursue comedy. She defies the “norm” of womanhood at the time. In this way, Midge can be seen as an icon for breaking convention.
Yet, for season two (which was already confirmed), I do hope the writers and producers consider getting input from actual Jews — especially Jews who were around in 1950s New York. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll hire actual Jewish actors for new roles on the show.
* = A pseudonym was used for the last name at the request of the interviewee
Top photo: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel/Amazon
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