Gender, Place, and Nostalgia in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont


Maisel promo
Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.

“It’s interesting. My father pointed out that my favorite part about a newspaper is the ads for shoes. And I felt bad about that, but now I think maybe they just put those ads in newspapers to distract us. Because if women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they won’t step in and fix it. Because they will fix it- And accessorize it!” (Midge Maisel, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Disappointment of the Dionne Quintuplets”)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017-present) is a dramedy set in late 1950s New York City about a Jewish housewife (Miriam (Midge) Maisel) from the Upper West Side who stumbles into a nascent career in stand-up comedy after her husband cheats on her with his secretary, and, subsequently, leaves her. In the series’ fourth episode, Midge accidentally ends up at a protest in Washington Square Park. As she strolls through the park with her son, someone is playing the piano as children, mothers, strollers, and passerby meander. Disrupting her reverie, she is bumped by another woman, who apologizes before running off, declaring, “I hope she hasn’t spoken yet!” We soon learn “she” is Jane Jacobs[ (( Jacobs is best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her efforts at grassroots organizing to protect Greenwich Village, her neighborhood, from Robert Moses’ “slum clearance” plans in the 1950s that were to make way for the building of the interstate highway system. See Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. ))], the real-life activist who critiqued and fought 1950s urban renewal policy for its privileging of industry, cars, and capital over people, culture, and experience. Midge makes her way to the rally and finds it is a protest of Robert Moses’ plan to demolish the park to make way for the interstate highway.[ (( The scene is based on an actual event, where activists protesting Moses’ plan organized a rally that has become memorialized in a photo of the “Last Car thru Washington Square” (although it would not be until April 1959 that the Square was actually closed to traffic. http://www.washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2013/04/05/54-years-since-washington-square-park-officially-closed-to-traffic/. ))] Before she knows it, Midge is called to the microphone, much in the same coincidental manner she finds her way to the microphone at the Gaslight Café in the season’s pilot. Ever the performer, Midge works the crowd, declaring that now that she, and other women, are aware of the harms being done to their city, not only will they not stand for it, but they “will fix it, and accessorize it.”


Midge speaking at rally
Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.


Midge and protestors
Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.


1958 rally and filming
Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.

The rally is so
far Midge’s only entry into any kind of formal political activism. Instead, her
comedy routine, largely pushing boundaries against 1950s gender norms, becomes
the primary focus of her (coincidental) politics. Still, the rally is a notable
scene for what it intimates about the show’s commentary on New York City, both
then and now, and, perhaps especially, what women might do about it.

Much like the beleaguered New York of Jane Jacobs’ era, New York City has again become subject to a discourse of urban crisis—not because it is faltering, as in Jacobs’ day, but because it is prospering. As the city becomes an urban playground for the rich, and iconic neighborhood establishments close to make way for luxury condos no one will ever occupy, lamentations over a lost New York abound. Consider, Jeremiah Moss’ popular blog and book, Vanishing New York[ (( Moss, Jeremiah. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. New York: Dey Street Books, 2017. ))], dedicated to cataloging the disappearance of a New York both iconic and mundane. As a July 2007 post ominously notes, “Now I wait, hiding inside these bricks, blighted and condemned, for the wrecking ball to come for me as it will eventually come for you. In the end, we will all be lost in the pile of this vanishing city.”

Moss is neither the first nor last to decry that New York just isn’t what it used to be. In 1967, Joan Didion’s now famous essay, “Goodbye to All That,” kicked off a whole genre of writing about a New York loved and lost. Although Didion’s essay is more about a longing for a lost youth than for Moss’ vanishing New York, the current mode of “Goodbye New York” is much more along the lines of the latter, where everyone from celebrities to unknown struggling artists wonder if New York is really worth it anymore. For David Byrne, New York is becoming a city for the 1% that no longer makes things and is especially hostile to the social and economic conditions that foster art, creativity, and culture. For Ann Friedman, whose essay, “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24,” went viral, New York is “that guy”—you know the one—“the prom king. He knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Friedman is just one of a number of women penning such essays, leading the feminist blog Jezebel to query, “Is Dumping New York City ‘A Girl Thing?’”

Amidst this longing for a lost New York, it is little wonder that some of the most popular recent television series set in the city are period pieces, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  In its fastidious set design, aimed to transform today’s city streets into the sites, scents, sounds, and experience of 1950s New York, the series produces affects of nostalgia. As production designer, Bill Groom noted, “It’s nice sometimes to capture a little bit of the New York that’s disappearing.” The series imagines a New York that was more gritty and “authentic” than the one of today, but also a past in which women were at the cusp of a movement and leading the charge to create a city that responded to their needs. Undoubtedly, this nostalgia is as much about the present and future as the past, responding to gendered discourses of urban crisis in present-day New York City while reminding us of a past in which New York women were poised to create change.[ (( Eichhorn, Kate. “Feminism’s There : On Post-Ness and Nostalgia.” Feminist Theory 16, no. 3 (December 2015): 251–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700115604127. See also Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic books, 2001. ))]

What are we to make of this nostalgic longing, especially as it becomes pegged to Jane Jacobs and her influential work on gender and the city? As Jacobs makes her way into contemporary popular culture, her theories of women’s importance in creating vital and vibrant cities is also seeing a revival in urban planning and renewal strategies. Marguerite Van Den Berg suggests Jacobs’ appeal is precisely because of her emphasis on gender—“femininity is here associated with the imagined future city: a city of creativity and spontaneity…Jacobs is mobilized because she symbolizes this non-modern spontaneity, but also because she is a woman.”[ (( Van Den Berg, Marguerite. Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 2019, 25. ))] Yet, unlike Midge, the women of today’s New York, especially women of color and working class women, are not only fighting new Robert Moses figures—real estate developers and tycoons who want to clear the city to make way for new high rises and highways. They are also, in a sense, fighting today’s Jane Jacobs, whose ideals have been adapted by real estate developers and bureaucrats alike to preserve and reinvent the city’s “authenticity,” driving up rents and displacing the poor as much as those strategies more Moses-like.[ (( Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ))] While Midge joins arms with other women calling for the preservation of Washington Square Park, if she were transported to today, would she be protesting yet another coffee chop, Edison lightbulb decorated craft beer pub, cat café, or axe-throwing range?

One can only wonder.

Nostalgia is a
powerful affect. It remains to be seen how Mrs. Maisel exactly imagines
Midge and other women will ultimately “fix” and “accessorize” the city. I guess
we will just have to keep watching.



Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.
  2. Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.
  3. Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.
  4. Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.


References:




I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Collective Facebook

Collective Facebook

I first heard about Facebook a few months ago. My cousin, an undergraduate student, was having dinner at my house and mocking my husband mercilessly about his MySpace page. MySpace, she intoned, was over; Facebook was “it.” As a scholar of media, she found me guilty of not keeping up with the times. The Internet isn’t really one of my main research areas, I reasoned; I barely have time to keep up with my email. But I was intrigued. The only way to get into the Facebook system is to sign up and in so doing get a page of one’s own. I did so. A bare bones page… but four hours later I was still “on” Facebook, complaining to my husband about how few old friends I could find.

Facebook is a social networking site or social utility. It has one of those dizzying pedigrees we associate with the Internet age. In 2004, its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, began with the idea of developing an online version of the paper facebook produced for incoming students at Harvard, where he was a student. In less than a year he had dropped out of school and moved to California. Within the next six months, Facebook was made available to students at most universities in the US, soon high school students were invited to join, and networks were expanded to include Britain, Canada, and Australia. Less than two years after it began, Facebook opened its doors to the general public and was estimated to have 12 million users. Today it is said to have as many as 20 million users as rumours circulate that a buyout for as much as 2 billion dollars is in the works.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is a strange place. You can provide an almost unlimited amount of personal information on your page. You can post pictures. You can engage in an ongoing commentary about your life, minute by minute. The system also creates a running mini-feed that lets you know every minute change any one of your “friends” effects on their pages. You can invite people you know and strangers to be your friends, to come to social events, or to join Facebook groups that you start or are merely a member of. A lot of people use Facebook like email. It’s a place to chat and to keep people informed about your life. But for some people — and this is how I, and I suspect many people my age (the over 35s, who are even older than 25–34 year old “oldies” discussed in one recent Globe & Mail article), get hooked on Facebook — it’s a place to find old friends that we weren’t likely to track down anywhere else. And this is where, I suspect, we differ from younger cohorts of Facebookers who probably aren’t as nostalgic as we are… yet.

Nostalgia is a definite key for many of the Facebookers I know — and I can’t quite believe how words like Facebooker and Facebooking flow out of me after just a few short weeks of interface. While quite a few of my “friends” are people I work with, live near, or am related to, the ones I really seek out and the ones I, in a sense, have thus far derived the greatest satisfaction from being connected to, are the old friends I lost touch with along the way. Frederic Jameson says that “an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism” (18), one that “cannibalizes” the past into a cacophony of “overstimulating ensembles” (19). This is an apt description of Facebook for many users (and perhaps of many users as well).

An April 23 editorial in the Toronto Star makes the libidinal quality of the Facebook experience explicit by suggesting that social networking sites are now rivaling Internet pornography for sheer number of users. Jen Gerson writes, “though the website du jour may change, the desire to be connected all the time isn’t going to go away among the youth cohort.” I agree, although I think the focus on youth misses the fact that people in their 30s, 40s, 50s (and so on) are increasingly using social networking sites to stay connected with their pasts as well as their presents. Here’s one example: I recently invited one of my best friends from high school, a busy working mom with four kids, to join Facebook. She so rarely responds to her email, I thought she’d just delete it. But, just a week later she sent me a message (on Facebook) saying she just couldn’t keep herself from trolling the system looking for old friends.

Linda Hutcheon makes the important point that a predilection for seeing postmodern culture and its artifacts as inherently nostalgic is something to be cautious of. She’s right of course. Nostalgia often implies the longing for a mythic past, whose doors, always barred to us, make what is behind them infinitely desirable and whose completedness masquerades as simplicity, as authenticity, as a time that was really “real.” We can go home, but we can’t go home. In her recent book, Giving An Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that one of the problems of doing so — of giving an account of oneself — is that there is always an originary part that we cannot know. A piece that is beyond language and memory but that is nonetheless foundational to who we are. We are, on some level, aware of this, and search for ways of contacting or connecting with this originary part for which we have no vocabulary of enunciation. This may be part of Facebook’s appeal. Many people are casting around in its multitudes looking for connections to a past they feel cut off from; from parts of themselves they think might be lost; for threads of a narrative that will allow them to give a fuller and more complete account of themselves.

And yet, is there an ironic aspect of Facebook? Is this type of postmodern cultural production/immersion (as we are both in it and, in a sense, co-producers of it) simply a reification of a mythic past, a giving in to longing for something unrecoverable, or do we engage with Facebook via an “ironic distance,” or both (Hutcheon)? Hutcheon argues that irony and nostalgia are both responses to things, rather than things in and of themselves. Facebook can be read as a space where irony and nostalgia co-exist, especially for those who use it to seek out the past. The pages and groups people create are genuine but evidence a type of ironic distancing that comes from a recognition that the people reading are, in some sense, at a temporal distance. These groups play a bit like the newest ad in the Diet Pepsi “Forever Young” campaign. Called “Make-Out,” the ad features a couple in their thirties who wish they could make-out like they did when they were teens… flash to them making out in the grocery store and at parent-teacher interviews to the 1983 Bonnie Tyler power-ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Happily, they return to their present, but with the recognition that Diet Pepsi keeps them young, connected to their youth… like Facebook.

Facebook T-shirt

Facebook T-shirt

Ironic, nostalgic, Facebook does have a high school quality. One friend told me she had resisted joining because of an experience on an earlier social utility: she kept looking for ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends, comparing the “coolness” of their sites and hers, comparing the numbers of friends each had. It was, she finally explained, like being back in high school. Alyssa Schwartz, in the Globe & Mail, discovered similar invocations of a “high school mentality,” finding Facebook guilty of “bring[ing] back behavior that went out with plaid shirts, Tuff boots and Nirvana.” Note how Schwartz’s invocation of high school, here coded through fashion and music, marks the ironic nostalgia of Facebook participation, but also locates “old” Facebookers as people who were teens in the 1990s, not the 1980s (shoulder pads, doc martens, and Madonna), 1970s (hot pants, platform shoes, and Led Zepplin), or 1960s (mini skirts, saddle shoes, and The Beatles).

There is clearly much to be studied in the worlds of Facebook. The desire to network the past in the present, the availability and massive usage of this technology, certainly warrants closer examination.

Works Cited
Jen Gerson. “Social Networking rivals porn on Web.” The Toronto Star. April 23, 2007.
Linda Hutcheon. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.”
Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP: 1991.
Alyssa Schwartz. “Grownups get their Facebook fix.” Globe & Mail. March 31, 2007.

Image Credits:
1. Collective Facebook
2. Mark Zuckerberg
3. Facebook T-shirt

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