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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 3, POCs Step Into the Spotlight

In season three, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel finally gives us what we’ve been waiting for: characters of color! Check out with latinamedia.co co-founders thought of the latest installment and the risks and rewards of better representation.

CRISTINA: Wow was season three a departure from the lily-white spectacles of the first 18 episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel! Gone was the awkward smoke break with black musicians, the lone black shopgirl forced to represent all of non-white New York. Instead, we got real characters of color and they were done surprisingly well. I was worried when Stephanie Hsu’s Mei Lin showed up. They gave her a lot of Asian stereotypes (Chinese, studying medicine, the eating-feet joke, etc.) but she turned out to be one of my favorite additions to the show. They not only didn’t saddle her with an accent, but they also made her Midge’s equal, which up until now didn’t seem possible on this show. By that lovely moment when Mei and Midge meet at the bar, I was totally sold. The only that that was hard to believe was that Joel had such great taste in women.

NICOLA: I agree the most shocking thing about Mei Lin is the fact that she’d be interested in a divorced dad trying to open his own bar in the first place. Talk about dating down. Mei is clearly a leader in her community, smart, accomplished and studying to be a doctor. It was also difficult to watch how the Chinese community was portrayed this season. While they tried to offer nuance with Mei, the rest of her community was relegated to the background or the not so metaphorical basement of the show. Mei is the only character who speaks, while the other Chinese characters only talk through her or stop talking when Joel comes down to check the fuse box or monologue about his interest in Mei. This relationship proves the trend I’ve seen in film and TV for decades, women almost always are 10 times more accomplished than their romantic counterparts, more so if they’re women of color dating a white man. And while I love her as a character, a part of me feels their relationship is just a replica of Joel and Midge’s — I hope soon Mei will realize that she deserves more than a man whose threatened by accomplished women. I would love to see her end up with a wealthy, successful and funny doctor like Benjamin who bonus has no ex-wife and always supported Midge’s career.

CRISTINA: Maybe Joel has learned something? Maybe he’ll overcome that fear? I mean if Sherman-Palladino can get Sterling K. Brown on her show, anything is possible! Seeing him definitely made me feel like they were doing it right. And his Reggie was wonderful, warm and tough, smart and fallible, protective and human. I loved the scenes between him and Susie. Their manager-to-manager moments got to the heart of the show and why Susie as the force-behind-the-marvelousness is often more interesting to watch than Midge herself. We’re used to watching stars but perhaps more intrigued by seeing how they’re made.

NICOLA: Sterling K. Brown is clearly one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. I was happily surprised to see him on this show, after his work in This Is Us, and yes, even Frozen 2. What I am more disappointed in is the fact that he seems to have to play the teacher/educator to white characters. While on This Is Us he definitely has his own agency, he often is the one who has to teach his only family about race and what it means to be Black in America. While his role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is different and he definitely brings nuance and agency to his character, I found the scene with Susie with him in the barbershop a little more than unrealistic. The barbershop has a lot of historical significance as a place where Black Americans could debate ideas, politics and engage with their community in a space just for them. Using this setting for Susie’s plot point reflects a blind spot that this show still has.

CRISTINA: It was so unnecessary to have it there! Centering Susie’s point of view in a black barbershop was wildly tone-deaf. More on tune? Arguably the most important POC on the show, Leroy McClain’s Shy Baldwin. At first, I was worried that they were going to pair him up with Midge and I didn’t like it. I had no confidence the show could handle it well, particularly as it seemed like they were setting up his black masculinity as an over-the-top temptation. So when he turned out to be gay, I was pleasantly surprised. And I particularly appreciated the sensitivity in which they handled what it’d be like to be a black, gay musician at the time.

NICOLA: Shy Baldwin is currently my favorite character on the show. And the character he is given as a black entertainer in the 60s could have gone dangerously stereotypical. Instead, he is given agency and a complete storyline separate from Midge and her world. His character is given room to breathe and take up space, even when it means pushing an often clueless Midge out of the picture or even off the plane. I appreciate that the writers gave him a functional life where he would continue to be successful and unaltered without Midge there. Unfortunately, at this point, I couldn’t say the same about Mei whose relationship with Joel is the only way she can exist in this marvelous world.

CRISTINA: Do you think Midge crossed a line with her stand up at the Apollo though? Her jokes all seem so stayed compared to what gets said about LGBTQ folks today but that doesn’t mean they weren’t barrier pushing at the time. I agreed that they certainly wink at his sexuality without acknowledging it but that doesn’t mean they’re not derogatory. Watching the scene, I kept waiting for an absolutely clear, cringe-inducing joke to come out of her mouth but it never came. That said, I understand why Shy cut her in the end. I guess I think both of them can be right.

NICOLA: Once she said the phrase “Judy Garland” I knew a line had been crossed even though it was subtle. Judy Garland and “Friends of Dorothy” were often used as a euphemism to talking about sexuality without actually discussing it, especially in the 60s. I appreciated the overall subtilty because I think Midge is often clueless to the damage a word, phrase, or action could cause, especially if you’re a Black gay man in America. I think subtle isn’t an adjective that even Shy can allow. On the tarmac, Reggie says it all when he simply says “You’re not friends.” Because in the end, friendship is more than just sharing champagne on a boat or having one heart to heart, it’s understanding and acknowledging your differences as well.

CRISTINA: Right and Midge is not so great at that. In fact, any scene where she’s not the center, where she smiles at others jokes or has to sit in the background kind of fails. She just disappears and I’d be left wondering where all her marvelousness went. That said, this season had everything that fans of the first two will love, the beautiful costumes, cinematography, and set pieces. The charm of the supporting cast, particularly Midge’s parents (Marin Hinkle as Rose was particularly phenomenal this time around and Tony Shalhoub again delivered an amazing performance). And they addressed some of the annoying things about the earlier seasons (finally Midge accomplishes something and thinks of someone other than herself) but not everything (her landing that Apollo set was a bit hard to believe). And of course, the biggest, glaring problem was the lack of diversity.

NICOLA: I like this season a lot and much credit also goes to Midge’s parents who are natural scene-stealers and continue to be some of my favorite characters as they struggle with their new life phase. I think this show was definitely improved by adding Mei, Shy, and Reggie to the cast — not only are they strong, dynamic characters but they continue to push and challenge Midge and that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

CRISTINA: Looking to season four, my biggest hope is for Susie to finally get a love interest. They’ve already done gay, no reason to turn back (if she is indeed as gay as she seems). She didn’t need that gambling problem this season! Imagine how much more interesting a lover would have been! Anyway, I’ll be tuning in, assuming they bring Mei back.

NICOLA: Same! I love Mei and if they take her off the show just because things might end with Joel, I’ll be pissed. Because women of color are not just plot tools, and I hope they honor her character and maybe give her a dynamic storyline that doesn’t include Joel. My big hope is for behind the camera, currently, there are no writers or directors of color on the show. I hope next season Mrs. Maisel doesn’t just add people of color in front of the camera but behind it as well. I know this would make the show better and allow it to better tell the stories of the characters that represent our communities.

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Preparing for the Second Season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is coming back to Amazon December 5th. Before the second season premiere, the founders of Mujeres Problemáticas discuss their hopes (but let’s be real mostly their fears) for the upcoming season of last year’s Emmy darling.

CRISTINA: So I’m excited for the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I devoured the first eight episodes after it won all those awards. I went in skeptical because it seemed so WHITE (and because Roxane Gay tweeted this: “So many shows I actively dislike actively winning” during the Emmys, thereby curbing my enthusiasm).

That said, I really liked it. Yes, the costumes and sets are fun but you can catch those on Call the Midwife and other period shows. No, what I really liked was how Maisel shows that gender is a trap for everyone. The main character, the marvelous Mrs. Maisel of the title, Midge thinks she’ll find happiness by following the good woman script (get married, have children, always look beautiful) to the point where she’s waking up before her husband each morning to do her hair and makeup and then pretending to be asleep again so he not only thinks that her appearance is effortless but also never sees her in her actual natural state. Of course, he leaves her anyway, unaware of all that effort. In response, she decides to throw out her old ideas and try on some new ways of being. Meanwhile, her ex-ish husband is on a journey of his own, trying to unlearn all that male learned helplessness – does he need to be “taken care of?” Can he manage his own emotions? We’ll see.

NICOLA: I confess, I am not new to the fast-talking, female-centric television of Amy Sherman-Palladino. Ever since I first saw Gilmore Girls in middle school, I fell in love with her characters and writing style. Every woman in her show was insanely smart, funny, and much more relatable than the dry storylines of Lizzie McGuire. But there was always something missing, most of her central characters were white (except Lane aka Keiko Agena who was amazing!). So when I heard about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I was excited and for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. It had everything I loved about Gilmore Girls and more.

CRISTINA: I’ve never watched Gilmore Girls so I didn’t know what to expect. But I do love a quickly spoken monologue, delivered while walking (see half of the script of my favorites, The West Wing and everything Shonda Rhimes does) so it’s no wonder I liked The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

NICOLA: Yes! It has a great script filled with witty women with agency plus the stand-up comedy sets bust the myth that women aren’t funny (hopefully hereby retiring it forever). And huge bonus if you love period pieces – it has a 1950’s wardrobe that will make you ask why you don’t have a different coat to match every outfit. The only thing I couldn’t ignore was the blinding whiteness of it all.

CRISTINA: Agreed: the show is terrible on race. Like, ok, you’ve picked a white community as your setting (Upper West Side New York in the 1950’s) BUT you’ve also picked this transgression plot. Midge leaves that world, she defies it in the comedy clubs of New York. Theoretically, her and Susie are an odd couple. They have big class differences with Susie’s tiny apartment contrasting with Midge’s palatial flat to name just one example. Not to mention Susie keeps getting mocked for her “masculine” appearance (although she looks pretty normal by today’s standards) while Midge is an expert at performing heteronormative femininity (we’re talking about a woman who takes her measurements every day). YET, these women could be sisters. Same hair, same skin, similar features. They couldn’t have picked someone more different to play Midge’s foil? Don’t get me wrong, Alex Borstein is fantastic as Susie. I just wished they’d more meaningfully represented New York and its world-famous diversity.

NICOLA: Totally, I’m waiting for Amy-Sherman Palladino to center a character that isn’t her stereotypical quirky brunette. Palladino is great at creating worlds that exist beyond the problems of today, that function as escapes, whether it is mythical Stars Hollow Connecticut or Uptown New York in the 1950’s. Maisel is totally escapist: feel-good nostalgia with a touch of modern feminism dressed as Audrey Hepburn. Because let’s face it, racism existed in the early 2000’s in Connecticut and it definitely existed in New York in the 1950’s. And in 1950’s New York, racism definitely doesn’t look like a rich housewife comparing how many times she went to jail with a couple of Black men from a jazz band while sharing a smoke. That scene in particular seemed horribly out of touch.

 

CRISTINA: It’s true, when people of color finally speak, it’s pretty rough. Whether it’s that Black jazz band or the Black model/make-up girl, or the Black performance artist who’s used as a simple punchline. None of it shows any understanding of what means to actually be a person of color or even where Midge and her band of white friends stand in the world.

So outside of race, the show worked for me because I’m so hungry for “unlikable” women. Male characters get to be good and bad and in-between but women characters usually get stuck on the edges, all good or all bad. Midge is neither of those things and that’s what makes her so compelling. Yes, she’s ruthless to her husband and herself. She’s unaware of the world around her, has never held a job, and only takes middling interest in her kids. For someone so self-absorbed, she’s extremely unselfaware. And yet, she’s hilarious and raw and strong. I enjoyed watching her lay waste to her protected existence, discover the broader world, and hone her newly-found craft. I didn’t find her particularly likable but I did find her interesting – I’m excited to see where she goes in season two. I’m even curious about what Mr. Maisel will do after the season one finale and I’d originally figured he’d be a throwaway character.

NICOLA: I agree, what’s great about the show is how much of it centers around a woman (a mother no less!) that makes mistakes and still hasn’t found herself. And it’s totally okay. I think as women, and especially as feminists, society often tells us we should know exactly who we are and have all our goals mapped out on some sort of Pinterest-sanctioned vision board. However here’s a woman that actually did everything society told her to do (marry, have children, look that certain way) and she realizes she’s not sure it was what she wanted. We need more female characters that aren’t perfect, ones who don’t find their passion till later in life, ones who maybe don’t need their husbands anymore. I just hope that maybe the next season includes a little more acknowledgment of the diversity of New York City. Who knows maybe next season will acknowledge that there’s a Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn? Or maybe Midge will make a (real) Black friend?

CRISTINA: Preach! I hope so. The (lack of) portrayal of race could hardly be worse than season one, so I’m figuring season two will be better. It can only go up from here!

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When I First Saw Myself on TV She Was White

I was in high school, a self-described book nerd, when I first saw a character on TV that I believed was me reincarnated, her name was Rory Gilmore. Rory loved books, drank obscene amounts of coffee, loved the Shins and Belle and Sebastian, and dreamed of being the next Christiane Amanpour – we were perfect for each other.

She was my fictional hero, a young woman who was valued more for her intellect and quick wit than her beauty. A healthy change from our culture’s overindulgence in the beautiful white blonde protagonists of the early 2000s like The O.C or Gossip Girl. But there was one thing that Rory and I didn’t have in common: she was white, I’m Latinx. Growing up in fictional Stars Hollow in Connecticut, Rory and her world looked similar yet different from mine.

Even then, I knew light skin was an unspoken requirement for TV, excluding the role of the ethnically ambiguous friend (shout out to Miranda from Lizzie McGuire). On Gilmore Girls, Rory’s numerous love interests reinforced the idea that light skinned women were most likely to get the guy, specifically white men.

Nothing I am saying here is shocking – Gilmore Girls had and continues to have a notorious reputation for how it treated people of color. From Miss Kim, Rory’s best friend Lane’s mother, who they paint as a stereotypical “Tiger mom” with a heavy accent, to Michel, Lorelai’s co-worker who they limit to the harmful gay tropes without a meaningful storyline or character development. And let’s not forget the worst and most cliche stereotype: the treatment of the maids. The countless women who work for Emily Gilmore are mostly portrayed as women of color with heavy accents and are so interchangeable that their names are optional.

Gilmore Girls: Yeah, it's sad.

However, the saddest aspect of this show for me lies with its central character Rory. I was a senior in high school when I finally found out the truth. That the actress Alexis Bledel who played Rory over the show’s 8 years was in fact half Mexican. Just like me.  She even grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, not learning English until she began school. I trusted that Bledel wasn’t hiding her ethnicity on purpose, but the network and the creators of the show certainly were.

Looking back, I think about what Gilmore Girls would have meant to me if Rory wasn’t the unattainable white heroine I grew to love. What would it mean for millions of young Latinx women to watch a show with a Latina character who was known first for her intellect and not for her sexuality? What would it have meant for white girls to be asked to empathize with someone just a bit different from them? To see a character that wasn’t a criminal, nor constantly worried about her immigration status, nor just a sex object? To follow a girl who spoke Spanglish and had witty references to the genius of Allende, Cisneros, or Selena.

Last year, Amy Sherman Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, created her second TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to wide acclaim. The show is set in the New York Comedy Clubs of the 50’s, conveniently a place that historically wouldn’t have allowed people of color. I don’t believe this is merely a coincidence. I am sad that Palladino continues to rely on the witty white woman narrative, instead of creating space for a character that isn’t from the white communities of Connecticut or uptown New York City. Representation matters whether you’re 17 or 27 and I’d so appreciate Palladino expanding from her whitewashed world. Sadly, I can only dream that one-day young Latinx women will have characters in movies and on TV that are as complex as we deserve.

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