“Fix it! And Accessorize it!”: Gender, Nostalgia, and the City in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video, 2017–)
Can televisual nostalgia for midcentury Manhattan have feminist potential? Helen Morgan Parmett explores Greenwich Village and gender politics in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

In a season one episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017-), set in late 1950s and early 1960s New York City, series protagonist Miriam (Midge) Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) strolls through Washington Square Park with her son. She finds herself at a protest in the park led by the urban activist Jane Jacobs. The protest is based on a rally in the park in 1958 that targeted Robert Moses’s plan to demolish Washington Square Park to make way for an interstate highway. When Midge is serendipitously called to speak to the crowd by Jacobs, she asserts,

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!

The scene suggests a possibility for the urban to be a space for women and children who have the capacity to transform the city into a place made for them, a better place—feminized and accessorized! This contextualizes the show more broadly, as Midge’s struggle to make it in the male dominated comedy world takes on larger valences of struggles over gendered spatiality.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) speaks at a rally in Washington Square Park spearheaded by Jane Jacobs

Maisel infuses the urban with a gendered sensibility of a 1950s era middle-class, Jewish, and newly divorced housewife trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. In so doing, the series attaches nostalgia not only to New York City more generally, but also to a set of places at a particular historical moment imagined as full of feminist potentiality. The series uses nostalgia to stage a shifting and changing post-war New York as a space for transformation of its protagonist, thus drawing on the longstanding representation of the urban as an ambivalent space for women’s empowerment. Maisel’s urban, place-based feminist nostalgia is implicated in present day anxieties over the city, where the feminist potentiality cultivated by Maisel’s past New York imagines a more liberating future. But that nostalgic imagination, as it is attached to Midge as a postfeminist subject of capacity provides a limited vision of what the feminist city might look like.

Nostalgia combines the Greek nostos (home) with algos (pain), combining affects of loss, lack, and longing.1Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering, The Mnemonic Imagination (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2012), https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137271549. It was a term that originated in 1688 to describe a medical condition brought on by separation from one’s home.2Alastair Bonnett, The Geography of Nostalgia: Global and Local Perspectives on Modernity and Loss, Paperback-edition, Routledge Advances in Sociology 156 (London: Routledge, 2017). However, nostalgia today is typically considered in relation to time rather than space, despite the fact that as Alistair Bonnet has argued, “mobility, landscape, environment and the hunger for the place called home still provide the most characteristic and powerful tropes of the nostalgic imagination.”3Ibid, 2.

While feminist theory has long derided nostalgia as a bad object—something that harnesses a seemingly uncomplicated past as “the good old days” before feminism, civil rights, and LGBTQ+ movements—Kate Eichorn argues the proliferation of feminist nostalgia reflects not so much a desire to return to an idealized past, but, rather, to the kind of feminist potentiality embodied in a particular place and time.4Kate Eichhorn, “Feminism’s There : On Post-Ness and Nostalgia,” Feminist Theory 16, no. 3 (December 2015): 251–64, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700115604127. To that end, Eichorn suggest feminist desires to return to and even nostalgize the past requires a contextual analysis. Eichorn’s rhetorical approach to nostalgia is similar to Katharina Niemeyer who views nostalgia “not as a symptom that explains something, but as a force that does something.”5Katharina Niemeyer, ed., Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future, (Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 10. It is in this vein that I take up Maisel for how its place-based feminist and televisual nostalgia matters for the present.

Media, and especially television, has an instrumental relationship to nostalgia. Niemeyer notes, “nostalgia has always been an affair of mediated processes, within both literature and the arts.”6Ibid, 7. Further, Niemeyer and Wentz suggest nostalgia, “through its modes of being and its tense,” are characteristic of television more generally, as its seriality and relationship to the everyday and the home “is particularly suitable to unfold the multiple dimensions of nostalgia.”7Katharina Niemeyer and Daniela Wentz, “Nostalgia Is Not What It Used to Be,” in Media and Nostalgia, ed. Katharina Niemeyer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 130. While television’s nostalgic attachments, especially as they are bound up with post-war gender relations, are most often pegged in relation to the suburban home, Maisel demonstrates how the urban is also a significant place through which gendered televisual nostalgia unfolds and attaches.

Whereas many period TV series construct gendered nostalgia in ways that imagine the city of the past as a space for men to relive their glory days outside of feminist critique, such as, arguably to an extent, in Mad MenMaisel unabashedly feminizes the city and makes it the place in which ostensibly white women are invited to find their authentic selves through sampling “authentic” spaces in the city. Maisel draws on longer standing discourses of the city as an ambivalent site for women—a space of danger and potential oppression but also a space for women’s liberation. From the beginning, urbanization discourses problematized women whose presence in the city disrupted gendered boundaries between the public/private and created anxieties around gendered norms of respectability, and early cinema frequently explored and provoked these tensions.8Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998). While some women were figured as in need of protection—the city as a space of danger—other women, especially poor, immigrant, and women of color, were seen as the dangers to be controlled or banished.9Leslie Kern, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (London and New York: Verso, 2021). Yet, the city is also figured, especially within feminist discourse, as a space for liberation, as “the city is a place where women had choices open up for them that were unheard of in small towns and rural communities.”10Ibid, 11. During both the industrial and post-war eras, women sought out the “authentically urban” to “reject safe suburban conformity and repetitive rural rhythms.”11Ibid, 11. Thus, the urban as signifier of authenticity has come to also stand in for a sense of women’s authentic and liberated selfhood, and this is a theme that contemporary television series, and in particular period pieces such as Maisel, evoke.

Midge Maisel in her first drunken performance at The Gaslight Café

A core space for Maisel’s production of nostalgic attachment to a past New York is the representation of the Village as a space of “authenticity.” In the pilot, Midge takes a taxi ride downtown to The Gaslight Café, where the neighborhood is presented as a space of uniqueness and locality, as camera shots shift from iconic views of Grand Central Station and Washington Square Park to a defamiliarized neighborhood full of life and vitality. By the end of the episode, after Midge learns her husband has been cheating on her and intends to leave, she returns to the Village from her Upper West Side apartment. Midge finds her way back to the Gaslight, where she performs her first drunken stand-up act and is arrested for indecency. In the next episode, she returns to the Village with a new awareness, and we view the street scenes of Village life through Midge’s eyes as a pedestrian, rather than through the car window, immersed in everyday life of the city. While walking, Midge encounters garbage, yelling, drunkenness, urination, and a woman who appears to be leaving an apartment after a night of sex in her clothes from the previous evening. These are not the gentrified streets of the Village today despite being filmed on location—rather, they present the city as gritty and potentially dangerous for “respectable” women. Yet, it is in this representation of a New York City past grittiness that Maisel harnesses a nostalgic representation of the urban that becomes the stage for Midge’s independence. That nostalgic representation is enhanced through realist on-location filming to recreate the key places that distinguished the Village in this era, such The Gaslight Café, The Kettle of Fish Bar, The Village Vanguard, The Music Inn, the 7B, and La Bonbonniere (appearing in the series as The City Spoon). It’s notable some of these sites have vanished or are in danger of being lost due to the city’s gentrification. The series invites the viewer to lament their loss and to perhaps take up Midge’s determination to “fix” and “accessorize” the city as they endeavor to discover their own liberated selves in the city.

The Village in Maisel is juxtaposed to Midge’s life on the Upper West Side, which represents the gendered subjectivity of the housewife that she must leave behind as she embarks on her stand-up career. But Maisel’s representation of Midge as a 1950s urban housewife, as opposed to a suburban housewife, matters, as it figures the urban apartment not only as a site of gendered entrapment but also as a site of potential feminist empowerment. This representation is tied to what Pamela Wojcik refers to as “the apartment plot,” a key feature of post-war films, particularly those set in New York, that were responding to the changes in the urban brought about by suburbanization and post-war consumer culture.12Pamela Robertson Wojcik, The Apartment Plot Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). The apartment plot challenges gendered ideologies embedded in suburbanization, as the urban apartment represented the potential for imagining alternative identities and ideals of family outside the dominant norm.13Wojcik questions whether the apartment plot can apply to television, arguing that its seriality prohibits the apartment itself from constituting plot as it does in film. But Maisel challenges this, as much of the show’s plot both unfolds in but also circulates around the apartment itself.

Midge looks around at her apartment longingly as she is forced to leave in Season 1.

Midge’s continual yearning for return to her past life and gendered self is figured via a desire to return to her past apartment. The longing the apartment represents is especially on display in the two scenes in which Midge says goodbye to her apartment in Seasons 1 and 3, as she contemplates the contrast of her contentment in the apartment past and grief and loss in the present. But she continually finds that despite her yearning, she can never actually return home and to the person that she was before, and she is forced to reconcile with whether she would even really want to, a plot line further developed in Season 2 when she turns down a doctor’s marriage proposal, and his apartment, to instead pursue her career and go on the road. This more ambivalent example of nostalgia perhaps constitutes what Svetlana Boym calls reflective nostalgia, which dwells on longing rather than return.14Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001). In contrast to “restorative nostalgia,” which yearns to restore the present to an idealized past, reflective nostalgia marks change and the social forces that bring about that change to open to other possibilities for the future.

Reflective nostalgia as attached to the urban apartment is also at work in a Season 2 storyline in which Rose (Marin Hinkle), Midge’s mother, sojourns to Paris to rediscover a sense of her past self. Her trip to Paris plays on longstanding tropes of Paris in contrast to the U.S. and New York, accentuated by topsy-turvy imagery of the Empire State Building turning upside down into the Eiffel Tower, as Midge and her father fly to Paris to convince Rose to come home, presenting Paris as the obverse of New York. In Paris, Rose returns to the same apartment building she had lived in when she was younger—a simple one room apartment with a single chair and twin bed. Paris becomes the site for exercising her freedom and a part of her “authentic” self that had been missing in New York.

Rose Maisel in her Paris apartment

Nostalgia figures strongly in the Paris episodes. Rose’s return is itself figured as a nostalgic longing for her past self, one that she’s missed and lost in her Upper West Side life, and she returns to Paris to retrieve it. Similar to New York, the Paris episodes represent a lost and vanishing Paris prior to its global commercialization that is a site of potentiality and change in the characters’ identities. While the show bandies stereotypical representations of Paris through the American tourist imagination, they feature real places that have since been marketed to tourists seeking out an “authentic” Paris experience. Here, though, “authentic” is parlayed through the experience of the show—the stereotypical transforms into the “authentic” through its association with the series. In the end, though, Rose realizes she is not the same Rose as the original Paris Rose, as her life in New York has forever changed her, and the Paris episodes come to a close with a turning back around of the Eiffel Tower to the Empire State Building, returning Rose to her Upper West Side kitchen despondently eating a grapefruit. But soon, she realizes that, like Paris, New York is now different upon her return as well, and the apartment and its connection to the urban vitality of the city opens up renewed possibilities for Rose’s own gendered empowerment.

Rarely, however, are Maisel viewers provided insight into how Other bodies outside of Midge’s and Rose’s middle-class, white, Jewish identity are implicated in city space. For a few moments, we are invited to contrast Midge’s posh Upper West Side life with that of her queer-coded, but never officially outed, manager Suzy, who lives in a tiny one room apartment in which she can only put the bed down when the door is closed. Although the viewer might perhaps imagine that Suzy’s marginalized gender and class identities force her to navigate the city differently than Midge, for whom even the more dangerous areas of the city seem to open like an oyster, we never really get to explore how Suzy navigates the city, not even for how the city might perhaps provide a queered subject like Suzy a different kind of freedom than Midge.15Although this latter aspect does perhaps come into play in the episodes that contrast Suzy’s urban life with that of her previous one in the Rockaways. Similarly, although segregation is briefly alluded to when Midge is on tour with Shy Baldwin, and he informs her that he is not staying at the same hotel as her because he is Black. But this brief reference never opens to flesh out the complicated dynamics of how Midge’s gendered empowerment interacts with her racial and class privilege. Moreover, these references to segregation and perhaps even producers’ refusal to out Suzy as queer seem to forego reflective nostalgia for a romanticization of the present—that is, imagining that the problems of the city past have been resolved in a more progressive present, despite today’s cities are being more segregated than ever, and queer and Black bodily movement in the city remains under continued threat, surveillance, and control.

Ultimately, the city is the space for Midge’s individual empowerment, enjoining viewers to nostalgize the city as a space for their own individual empowerment and to perhaps become the kinds of subjects embodied in Angela McRobbie’s theorization of postfeminist “top girls”—i.e. feminine subjects of capacity via neoliberal empowerment.16Angela McRobbie, “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Sexual Contract,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 4–5 (2007): 718–37. But as Marguerite van den Berg reminds us, McRobbie’s top girls are not figures of equality, but, rather “the preferred subject for the accumulation of economic capacity.”17Marguerite van den Berg, Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy, 1st ed. 2017 (Cham: Springer International Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 19. Maisel’s feminist potentiality is thus limited by its investment in postfeminist empowerment. As we consider how this comes to bear on and implicate present-day New York City, there is, on the one hand, some reason to celebrate how the show perhaps opens toward pushing for a city that is feminized, perhaps less sexist, where girls and women have a place as agents in the production of space. It mobilizes nostalgia to imagine a past New York, on the cusp of a moment in which the city might open to women in liberating ways. On the other hand, there are reasons to be skeptical of this as a form of what van den Berg calls “genderification,” which puts gender and femininity to work “to produce class upgrading: higher middle-class dual-earner families and feminine city marketing instruments…serve to get rid of working-class and precarious populations and images.”18Ibid, 10-11. Genderification is part of the feminization of the post-Fordist city, envisioned as “less rough and masculine than its Fordist predecessor. In transitioning to a post-Fordist economy in entrepreneurial strategies, femininity is a tool and strategy…It can be used to introduce a new economy: one that is service-based and post-Fordist.”19Ibid, 50. These practices privilege certain types of femininity—white, consumption oriented, higher educated, working in paid employment, mothers, and women of capacity—that are precisely those versions of femininity on display in Midge. Maisel’s political potential is thus limited in its use of gendered nostalgia attached to the urban—it both enables possibilities for imagining a city that cultivates gendered empowerment, but it also forecloses them by disarticulating that empowerment from broader collective action and foregrounding instead a postfeminist and neoliberal empowerment, especially when considered from an intersectional lens.

While nostalgia is often theorized as a temporal yearning to return to a previous time, it is almost always also about materiality and spatiality; and, indeed, it is a specific material place or object in time to which our nostalgia often attaches. While feminist scholarship has taken up mediated nostalgia as it relates to the home, Maisel suggests how bringing in the urban and gendered struggles over the city is also important in conceptualizing nostalgia in television. Maisel points to how nostalgic discourses of the urban, and especially for so-called “authentic” urban places of the past and the urban apartment as an alternative form of gendered domesticity respond to present-day anxieties over shifting gender norms as well as the gentrification of the city and the effects this has on the idealization of the city as a site of women’s empowerment.

Importantly, Maisel does not operate as an isolated text; it is part of a broader set of intertextual discourses about the city and other television series that similarly position the city as a site of women’s empowerment (e.g. Girls, Broad City), and especially period pieces in which the urban is the stage for women’s growth and development of their passions (e.g. The Queen’s Gambit, Call the Midwife). Further, renewed interest in earlier series, whether through reboots (e.g. Gossip Girl, And Just Like That) or ongoing TV tourism of shows past (e.g. for Sex and the City, Friends, and the original Gossip Girl), play on audience nostalgia as well, imagining the city of the past as a site for budding feminist potentiality in ways that are brought to bear on the present. These productions of the city of the past as a site for feminist empowerment, albeit often in neoliberal and postfeminist terms, contrasts with the discourse of TV as a primarily domestic and suburban medium. Taken together, these series speak to the ongoing ways the city is figured in TV as a site for gendered empowerment and the crucial ways in which nostalgia is brought to bear on the material production of contemporary city space in gendered and gendering ways.

Notes[+]

Morgan Parmett, Helen. "'Fix it! And Accessorize it!': Gender, Nostalgia, and the City in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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