“Such a bad parent — barely involved with the kids.“
This comment is not directed towards Don Draper from Mad Men. He was a hard worker, an alcoholic, and a philanderer, but he was also a loving parent. Despite Don rarely engaging with his children, the last bit is somehow always assumed. Nor is it for Walter White, who, through his selfishness and illicit trades, brought about the downfall of his entire family in Breaking Bad. The general consensus absolves him of all his transgressions since, at the end of the day, he wanted to support his family even after his death.
Similarly, it is worth noting that Ross Geller from Friends took on his parenting role seriously only after he had a child with Rachel Green. His son, Ben, from his previous relationship, only appears in the ten-season long sitcom for a total of 25 episodes, with Ross practically having a non-existent relationship with him towards the end of the show. But he is not the one being subjected to this criticism either.
Each of these fictitious working dads is afforded the luxury that comes with being a man. In society, males are inherently perceived to be multifaceted humans who exercise interests beyond being a parent.
Miriam Midge Maisel, however, does not enjoy that liberty. Exploring themes of sexism and empowerment, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel debuted on Amazon Prime in 2017 and received immense critical acclaim. Even then, numerous viewers have repeatedly taken to social media to express their disapproval of Midge’s ‘bad parenting skills’.
In the show, Midge plays an affluent ‘50s housewife who has it all – an affectionate husband, two perfectly healthy kids, and a gorgeous penthouse in Manhattan — until she doesn’t. After a failed stint as a comedian, her husband, Joel Maisel, decides to leave her and also admits to cheating on her with his secretary. She loses her sprawling apartment in the process and is forced to return to her parents’ home with her children. Facing some pushback on her freedom from her parents, she momentarily takes on a full-time job as a saleswoman and simultaneously pursues her dream of being a stand-up comedian herself. Because of the latter, we see her frequent sticky-floored clubs downtown or on the road for her tours.
In spite of all the challenges she evidently faces in a male-dominated industry, it is frustrating how her being an absent mom is the main takeaway from the series for most naysayers. In a show primarily about comedy, not motherhood, viewers still nit-pick how a working woman should care for her offspring. Over the course of four seasons, criticisms have poured in, demonstrating that society still demands proof that working mothers can still be devoted caregivers, while working dads, like Joel, are given the benefit of the doubt.
Admittedly, as a single working mother, Midge is unable to spend as much time with her kids as would be expected of her. Still, Midge gives us a glimpse into how a wealthy mother from the mid-twentieth century might have her children tended to in her absence — leaving them in her parents’ care, hiring help either in the form of Zelda, the housemaid, or her own babysitter. The sitcom never corroborates what or how Midge provides for her children but given her fortune and privilege, it’s safe to presume she’s placing them in loving, capable hands.
The show explores another plot point in Because You Left Me (Season 1, Episode 3) during one of Midge’s earlier stand-up sets. She wonders, “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother? What if I picked the wrong profession? … I can’t change my mind and donate my kids to the library like I’m going to do with this book… Women are supposed to be mothers, it’s supposed to be natural … What if someone was supposed to just travel a lot or run 24-hour diners in rural areas [instead of being a mum]? What if some of us were just supposed to talk to adults our entire lives?” This remains one of the most illuminating moments in the series. But the show’s creators choose not to address Midge grappling with these emotions in later seasons. They make no mention of her thoughts regarding her role as a mother, and rightly so. After all, the entire premise of the show is about how Midge navigates her career aspirations, her romantic relationships and maintains a friendship with her no-nonsense manager, Susie Myerson.
Furthermore, there exist women in real life who are not utterly thrilled to be mothers, especially those who are forced into the role by society, so why should the media we consume not portray this? Are supermoms the only ones allowed to appear or be represented on television? How damaging would such depictions be for mothers who are already overwhelmed with media concepts which reinforce guilt-inducing ideas of how they should act and behave? It is also worth mentioning that had the show been about a single father pursuing comedy and staying out until the wee hours, no one would quibble about him being an absentee dad, as is seen in the aforementioned instances.
Also, from an entertainment aspect, the hustle and bustle of parenting could easily become one of the more monotonous and dull angles of Midge’s life on the show — changing Esther’s diapers routinely, helping Ethan with his homework, and dealing with the kids’ temper tantrums. This is obviously not to say that parenthood is unimaginative or cannot be used for comical purposes. It’s quite the opposite — the idea has been fictionalised several times over the past few decades. However, that is not the point of this particular series.
What the comedy-drama intends to delineate, instead, is the life of a working mother who does not need her kids to devise a comical or narrative plot. Even going by modern-day practices, mothers are responsible for most of the childcare and relative household chores. With a character like Midge Maisel’s, we are reminded that mothers are people who are just as interesting, just as individualistic, just as funny and driven outside of their kids as they are with them.
Shruti is currently a Fellow at the Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop. As a journalist and reporter, Shruti hopes to explore gender representation in media and pop culture. She can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: Den of Geek