Truly Marvelous: Mrs. Maisel

This is a post I write with hesitation and shame, as I abhor Amazon and Jeff Bezos for profiting during this pandemic at a pathologically disgusting level, earning billions when his employees are not adequately cared for, when he has put so many people out of business, including independent bookstores, and as the richest man in the world, has an unconscionable amount of wealth when billions of people in the world do not have enough to eat. Unfortunately, a vital item I needed urgently could only be purchased through Amazon; hence, I received a trial of Amazon prime, as I did earlier when I was a student. I also have ethical qualms about paid, streaming TV disproportionately getting nominated for awards, as it means that only those with the means to afford it can watch these acclaimed programs or films.

Thus with these disclaimers, I must confess that I am a huge fan of the program “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is both revolutionary and retro at the same time. It is nothing short of brilliant, even with its flaws and oddities. It is one of the best modern examples of pure entertainment that I can think of in recent years that engages the viewer with gorgeous visuals, first-rate acting, good humor, and a gripping story. It is the very definition of pure entertainment, something so pleasurable to watch with humor, song and dance, family drama, romance, and ambition.

The production design and art direction are simply stunning. The colors pop vividly on the screen (would that I had a big-screen TV!), the clothes are enviably elegant, every detail is flawless and seemingly appropriate to the time period. As the viewers, we get the sense of what it was like to live in the late 50s and early 60s, when American life was prosperous and booming, yet ready to tear open at the seams socially. There is an irreplaceable sense of style that we have lost in our crass, modern, Kardashian world. I have always been a huge fan of movies from the late 50s and early 60s, largely because of the visual appeal and style of clothing.

Needless to say, the acting is first-rate. The all-star cast is virtually flawless, there is no character who is a weak link. There are of course some standouts. Title actress Rachel Brosnahan’s impeccable timing, snappy dialogue, moxie, pep, youthful beauty, and good cheer coexist with her delicate stature and vulnerability, her willingness to push boundaries, rendering a multi-faceted character we cannot take our eyes off. Tony Shalhoub as her father Abe is a complicated man, whining, irritated, emotionally difficult, yet curious and slightly boyish at times. Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon is unbelievable: her crass, Phyllis Diller-esque stage persona contrasts with her absolutely chilling, manipulative, patrician status in real life, and it is remarkable how one woman can play such opposite characters so convincingly. And finally, there is Susie Myerson (who alone is worth the price of admission). Sarcastic, grumpy, hilarious, like a butcher version of Rosie O’Donnell, yet incredibly loyal, this character is arguably one of the best TV characters ever, and certainly like no other. I have long been a fan of Alex Borstein since her MADtv days, and she brings an elusive quality to the character. What are her motivations for supporting Midge Maisel so fully? Why does she dress as she does, and what is her sexual orientation? Why is she so militantly unsentimental? Emotionally complex, disturbed, outspoken, driven, we never know how Susie is going to react to something–there are plenty of things that surprise us about her, such as her love of bubble baths or children. She says the things that we dare not say in public, and her character is so fun precisely because she is so badly behaved. Alex Borstein has addressed her characterization of Susie in interviews, for those who wish to read more.

The story is absolutely fascinating: an affluent New York housewife with beautiful children and a handsome husband has a talent for stand-up comedy, and decides to pursue it, against all social mores of the day and against her proper Jewish family’s wishes. On the one hand, this is a classic pre-feminist story, about a woman’s drive to make a career for herself at a time before it is acceptable. On the other hand, it is what writer Christopher Castellani might call an alternative reality history (as per his lecture on this topic at my MFA program). Midge Maisel did not really exist, she did not interact with Lenny Bruce or other luminaries of the period. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a brilliant mind and writer (along with her husband Daniel Palladino, who also directs, and the other excellent writers) who has created a most engaging story, for we want to see how a young woman might have done in such a difficult, male-dominated profession. It is a show about comedy with a lot of comedy, and the dialogue harkens back to the age of great Hollywood screwball comedies, with zingers a mile a minute. It is refreshing to see a female protagonist in the arts who is trying to make it while holding her personal life together.

Of course no TV show is perfect, though this one comes close. Where it flounders sometimes is in the storyline. At times, it can feel a little bit as though the writers are making the story up as they go along. For example, it was certainly an unlikely move that Midge’s mother would suddenly up and move to Paris. Midge’s father has, oddly, taken up with Communist beatniks. There are also a few things that are little bit too familiar or clichéd. Joel Maisel’s parents are almost a little too stereotypically Jewish, especially his mother, who is the classic overbearing Jewish mother, complete with raspy voice. The scenes in the Catskills recall “Dirty Dancing.” Sometimes there are detours and plot threads that are unnecessary and feel like they are there to fill the time. And finally, given that everything is so perfect and era-appropriate from the makeup to the music to the furniture, the ending songs that always play over the credits are incredibly jarring since they are modern. Would that they changed this annoyance.

Nonetheless, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is nothing short of enjoyable for all (preteen and above) ages. It is truly a brilliant concept that is well-executed and feminist in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head with being feminist. Most importantly, it is a bright spot in a time of such turmoil in America and the world. The origins of the word entertain are in the root of “to hold”–I am completely held and mesmerized by this wonderful series, marred only by the fact that it is produced by the evil empire of Amazon.

Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal–“I was born yelling!”–but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.

The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.

TWOL Will Return Shortly

Dear Readers,
In honor of International Women’s Day, take a moment to think of the great women who have made a difference in your life.  They don’t need to be famous, only significant to you.  And ladies, think of the men who are in support of our work, and who are feminists as well!  As always, thanks to my readers; since beginning the MFA, things have been quite busy. But stay tuned for another post soon.

The True Meaning of Misogyny

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani social media star and feminist)

So much gets thrown around these days in terms of what the word misogyny means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as “a hatred of women,” from the Greek misein to hate and gyne woman. Our own cultural connotations of this word in American society vary greatly. Is a man staring at an attractive woman on the street and example of misogyny? Or only when he makes a comment? Is the fact that we do not really encounter a female Mozart when studying European culture and music a sign of misogyny? I would argue that we have to be careful, when defining misogyny, not to negate or deny certain things that are naturally or even inherently masculine, certain things that may be harmless. Also, a male acting in traditionally masculine ways is not necessarily being misogynistic. I, like many women, love chivalry and find it charming when a man opens a door for me, whereas other women may find it demeaning. We need to distinguish between superficial misogyny and genuine, deep-rooted misogyny.

In the first example, a man staring on the street may be acting simply out of his own biology and own masculine nature; while it may be uncomfortable to some women, we have to be careful not to label this as misogynistic in all cases. Same for opening a door –a man may see himself as being a gentleman and doing his duty and a chivalric way. In the second example, we are dealing with a more complex situation. Indeed, our history books and curricula have often neglected women entirely, or minimized their contributions. (Hence the presence of this blog, and its title that seeks to honor women in cultural positions). And needless to say, in earlier centuries, women were not educated to the same level as men, if at all, and female Mozarts may have existed but were instead expected to do needlepoint and then be married off at age 16. But we cannot use our modern standards to evaluate the Canon and earlier eras; to do so would simply be ridiculous and anachronistic. I frequently take issue with modern politically correct scholarship and interpretations of earlier works and time periods, for it shows a deep ignorance of history and a certain shallow Americanism. Sometimes I even have to laugh when the whole issue of calling a woman a “girl” becomes a subject for debate, because some of the most old-fashioned men who call a woman a girl might be the ones who treat her with the most respect as opposed to the politically correct men who call a woman a woman but whose behavior is not respectful.

What, then, does misogyny mean? Because we can’t deny it exists, and on some level, we deal with it every day in America.

I would argue that true misogyny means denying things that are at the very unique essence of what it means to be a woman, things that are particular to our gender. Misogyny, at its deepest, means a denial of female emotion and female energy.

-Interpersonally, probably the worst example of misogyny is a man’s inability to accept and understand a woman’s emotions in a romantic context. Labeling women as “crazy,” or fearing that “she’s going to go out of control” are all ways in which the fundamental nature of a woman, to be emotional in a way that a man cannot be, is quashed and destroyed. Women are taught logic and rational thinking; men are seldom taught how to understand women’s emotions (though we have to understand that biologically there may be a limit to what they can comprehend). But the point is that this imbalance leads to a lot of anger and hostility in relationships. These days, with social media, it is easier for men to hide behind a screen rather than hear, see, and feel what his woman is experiencing.
These days, it seems that the more educated and professional the man is, the less he is able to deal with a woman’s emotions, and would not hesitate to end a relationship. Whereas a less educated man might be able to cope better, perhaps by going out for a beer with his friends and accepting he said something stupid and go back home, accepting to a certain degree that there are certain gender traits and one must accept them.

-Many women may criticize the above, but that proves the next point: women are not allowed to be women in all aspects of life. In order to do well in their careers, too many women have been forced to adopt masculine ways and to stifle their femininity. This is especially prominent in certain fields, such as finance, law, STEM fields, even academia. In order to get ahead, a woman has to play the game. And when our culture dictates that work life consumes most of our day, it becomes difficult for women to relax into their femininity when they are not at work. This has made gender roles difficult for both genders, and many men complain about masculine, controlling women. This is a legitimate complaint, but its origins come from a male-dominated society that has pushed women to be this way.

-Misogyny is patriarchy gone extreme. Notice that I did not say misogyny is patriarchy, but qualified it with an adjective phrase. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can say that there are certain aspects of a patriarchal society that could be beneficial to women–a male who is a provider, who will stay in a relationship, who will be a responsible father, and who will allow a woman to be her feminine self. It can provide a sort of social safety net. However, in too many countries and cultures, including America, this patriarchy can push women into unwanted or undesirable marriages, motherhood, deny them an adequate education or work opportunities, and worst of all, result in domestic violence. The latter is the most tragic example of men trying to maintain their power and values at all costs, but sometimes the cost is death.

-So much is discussed about abortion rights — something that indeed must be kept safe and legal – and birth control, but what about birth rights? If only a woman can give birth, and is capable of that magical creative act, why does our society fundamentally not support that? This is not a liberal-conservative debate, but simply one that asks to honor a woman’s ability to reproduce. Why do so many women opt to have abortions? The first reason is that the birth control has failed (again, a failure of effective birth control for women, and a lack of birth control for men), and so a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. But another reason is that she is not in a culture that supports her pregnancy. Financially, America is a very difficult place to raise a child. Many women may not wish to embrace motherhood, and that is an equally valid choice. But for others, they may want to but find themselves torn between earning a living, pursuing a career that will lead to her earning a living, or abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. Where is the support for these women who want to keep the child?

-And let us not forget the pathetic joke of maternity leave: a Forbes article from April 2016 presents the grim situation of how the U.S. is the worst in terms of maternity leave of developed countries. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave – if you and your workplace meet the criteria – is inhumane. We can’t even think about paternity leave until we get better maternity leave, which is a shame.

-Pressuring women to look a certain way – even unfeminine – in the workplace. Must a female attorney who clerks for a Supreme Court or federal judge be condemned to a lifetime of navy and black suits? Is an investment banker any less qualified if she wears shoes with stripes? Or if a woman wears a pink dress to give a speech when she is running for office, is she relegated to being “cute”? The problem should not be placed on women and their sartorial choices, but on the men who cannot understand them.

These are just some examples of everyday misogyny and a deep lack of appreciation for the female and feminine energy. What many men fail to recognize is that to deny the feminine externally is to also deny the feminine inside them. While men are not wired to be women – thank goodness – and it can be physiologically harmful for them to process emotion at the same level as women, they still need to accept that we all have our masculine and feminine elements within us. In turn, women need to relax into their feminine sides and accept certain elements of masculinity, however unpleasant or strange they may seem. Feminism cannot work without understanding men.

To conclude with a classic joke– isn’t it the ultimate misogyny when a man doesn’t understand that the woman is always right?!