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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: a Female Comic Finds Her Voice on Gender Politics in a “Be Pretty” Society

Amazon’s hit show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, follows the life and struggles of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan), a Jewish housewife living in the Big Apple in the 1950s. As the show begins, Midge seems to be leading a charmed life with a beautiful home, adorable children, and a successful husband (Joel, played by Michael Zegen) she adores. Joel moonlights as a struggling comedian at The Gaslight Cafe, a local comedy club. Joel’s performances (which are comprised mainly of stolen material) are so poorly received that he is able to get a decent time slot only by having Midge bribe the comedy club employees with her delicious brisket. Discouraged by his lack of success on the comedy circuit, Joel confesses to Midge that he has been having an affair and is leaving Midge (using Midge’s own suitcase) for his secretary, Penny Pann.

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Reeling from the news of Joel’s infidelity (and his mistress’ ridiculous name), Midge drunkenly takes over the stage at The Gaslight and discovers that she (unlike her husband) has a raw talent for stand-up comedy, much to the delight of Gaslight employee Susie (played by Alex Borstein). Things go awry as Midge bares her breasts on stage to make a point, and she ends up arrested for indecent exposure and performing without a cabaret license. As fate would have it, Lenny Bruce (famed stand-up comedian, played by Luke Kirby) is in the same squad car. Lenny warns her against the comedy business, but Midge takes his words as encouragement for her budding passion for stand-up. Midge teams up with Susie, her new manager, to hone her comedy skills, which are particularly strong when addressing gender issues in the 1950s.

Midge, in order to make ends meet, applies for a job running elevators at a luxury department store, but she is hired to work at the make-up counter instead. The main rules for the position are conspicuously posted in the workplace: “Be on time. Be polite. Be pretty.” It’s hard to imagine any employer posting a “be pretty” rule in the workplace nowadays, but is it unlawful to make hiring decisions based on physical attractiveness? Not necessarily, so long as the employer does not discriminate based on a protected category such as race, age, sex, ethnicity, disability, etc., or if the employer is able to establish a bona fide occupational qualification (such as casting actors or actresses in certain roles for authenticity or genuineness).

Is it advisable to make decisions based on employees’ physical appearance or to post a “be pretty” rule? Well, of course not. Not only is there zero evidence that physical attractiveness has any correlation to talent or competence, but many of the characteristics protected by federal and local law tend to overlap with traditional notions of beauty making this a legal minefield. Naturally, the best practices are to make decisions based on merit and establish some reasonable guidelines for professional image (e.g., policies on grooming, dress code, etc.) in the workplace.

However, the irony of Midge working in a “be pretty” workplace setting, while spending her evenings delivering often searing commentary on gender issues in the 1950s and occasionally baring her breasts in public to make a point, is clear. It is a treat to see Midge finding her inner voice and ambition out of the wreckage of her personal life, which is anything but pretty. Season 2 is likely to have many more instances of Midge navigating her new path with grace (most of the time) and lots of humor. Until then, tell us your favorite Midge moments from Season 1.