Identity Crisis and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I feel a little awkward being in my mid-30s and asking the question of what I want to be when I grow up. After all, I was the college student with a definite plan, and I followed that plan all the way through to the tenure-track academic job. My identity was quite firmly rooted in being a college professor, and now that’s not what I am. It’s disorienting to deal with that loss while also trying to figure out what I want to be next.
So I’m hooked these days by narratives about people facing identity crises, especially at the point in our mid-30s when we’re supposed to be on the path to figuring life out. Enter Amazon’s new show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The show has won well-deserved popular and critical acclaim, winning among other awards Golden Globes for best comedy and best actress.
I’ve watched the eight episodes of the show’s first season twice now, once while my husband was out of town for a week, and then again with him. I don’t watch many shows twice, and almost never twice in the space of two months, but I’ve enjoyed this one as much the second time as the first.
What’s captured me most about the show is that every major character is struggling with same question I am: what am I going to be when I grow up? Who am I when life takes takes an unexpected turn and yanks away a part of my identity?
The series opens on Midge — the main character, Mrs. Maisel — in the midst of her ideal 1950s New York life: she has fashionable clothes, an account at the local butcher, the rabbi coming for dinner, a huge apartment beneath her parents' apartment, two children (a boy and a girl), and a husband. But over the course of the first episode, this life is shattered: she learns that her husband is having an affair, and he leaves her. It also later comes out that her financial situation is much more precarious than she knew, so she moves back in with her parents.
Midge had gained everything she wanted in life: a college degree, an upwardly mobile husband, a comfortable life, respect in her community. She was blindsided by her husband’s betrayal, and the rest of the first season traces her attempts to relocate herself in the midst of so much upheaval. She finds a hidden talent for stand-up comedy, but her path is hardly clear and easy. She finds support and encouragement in the character Susie, who becomes her manager — more on her later — but Midge nevertheless makes multiple missteps and gives horrendous performances as she moves into a new career.
And Midge has to renegotiate more than just her identity: she must navigate a new relationship with her parents, as an adult child once again living at home. She has to renegotiate her place in her community as her marriage dissolves. She has to navigate employment and babysitters and the court system on her own, and while the show is a comedy the difficulty of Midge’s position is clear.
Losing her identity as “wife” throws Midge into chaos. But the show is ultimately hopeful: losing this one part of her identity hurts, but it also creates space for other parts of her identity to emerge and flourish.
But it’s not just Midge reevaluating her identity. Her husband, Joel, leaves in part because he feels stifled by the perfect 1950s life — but as Midge brutally observes, he has left her to live the Methodist version of his old life, not to live a new type of life. Joel then goes on to reevaluate his actions, confronting the fact that he threw away a good life in favor of a pale imitation because his discontent went far deeper than the externals of beautiful wife, two children, and luxurious uptown apartment.
Likewise, Susie — who works at the club where Midge first tries stand-up — sees Midge as her golden opportunity to not just watch performers but to shape one by becoming Midge’s manager. Susie is grasping after a golden opportunity, and one that she has thought about before, so her identity crisis is much less acute than Midge’s. But the two women must both work through what their new positions and relationship mean, and like Midge, Susie doesn’t transition smoothly.
Even Midge’s parents must grapple with change: while her father is offered his dream job at Bell Labs, Midge’s mother has difficulty coping with the fact that her daughter may not have the life that both women envisioned. She cannot accept that Joel and Midge’s separation may be permanent because a divorced daughter does not fit into the life she has always assumed she would have. (Midge’s parents don’t yet know of her ventures into the world of comedy; I imagine this will be a major plot point of the next season.)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about how the disintegration of Midge’s marriage spirals out around her, forcing her to reevaluate her life and her identity but also bringing change into many other lives. Midge displays resilience and determination, but she and those around her experience grief and bewilderment and frustration through this process.
Ultimately, this show reflects the unexpected turns that life can take, and the pain that ensues when a cherished part of our identities collapses. It also normalizes this process: Midge has a crisis, but she will survive. And if a 1950s housewife can reshape herself as a stand-up comic, perhaps we too can survive our own crises of identity.