I just finished watching the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I enjoyed very much. It’s a pleasing fantasy, entertaining and kicky, a bopping tune with gorgeous sets and costumes in saturated, period-reminiscent colors. It’s fun to imagine my mother in those scenes, a woman of the same age as Midge, not yet married, living in Chicago with her roommate, Bunny, and working at the Chicago Daily News.
Midge’s family is wealthy. Like, wealthy-wealthy. The father is a tenured professor at Columbia University and also works at Bell Labs. Mom doesn’t work, just shops and frets about what the maid will make for dinner. Midge’s husband is the son of a wealthy-ish man who owns a clothing company, and she herself works at a fancy department store, though it’s clear she doesn’t *have* to work. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the central premise is that, upon discovering that her husband had an affair with his secretary, Midge launches an improbable–but doggedly successful–career in stand-up comedy. Much of the show is funny, but frankly, not much of the stand-up. It’s a vehicle, baby.
In fact, she has two small children she leaves with her parents while she works. There’s no discussion about it, no wringing of hands or arguments, just “leave them with Mom and Dad.” At one point, all of the adults walk out of the apartment in a rush, returning a few minutes later when they realize they left the kids in the apartment alone.
The childcare issue crossed my mind, but it wasn’t until I read a critical review of the show that I realized the thing that bothered me about it: these people have money to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. The review cited several unrealistic points about which to be skeptical, but the one that struck me the hardest is money. Midge’s mother moves to Paris–and the family doesn’t even notice until she’s been gone two weeks. There was money enough to buy a trip to Paris, for a prolonged stay, for the mother to buy herself food and household supplies and a DOG in Paris, *and* for the household to continue as normal in her absence, a convenience purchased by employing the maid.
There was no lost income from the mother’s absence, and no one noticed that a primary caregiver had vanished. The maid, sole bearer of the truth of the mother’s absence, carried on with her duties as assigned, which clearly–however tacitly agreed upon–included caring for Midge’s children. And Midge didn’t even notice that her childcare provider was just gone.
This show is a charming petit-four, a perfectly packaged sweet morsel of conversational humor, an opportunity for the sharp-dialogue writers from Gilmore Girls to pull out their best stuff, wisecracks and side-eyes, a modern Groucho Marx without the cigar. That this is a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field is an afterthought, not central to the premise of the show. The show sails along on the pretty, crinoline swirling, charismatic Midge, whose wit and charm get her through every situation she faces, including the one incident of misogyny delivered by three boorish comics who heckle her as she takes the stage at the end of a long night–and KILLS, of course.
But what would this show look like without the wealthy family? Without all the money in the world to do whatever she wanted? Without parents with the leisure and accommodating environment to take the children all day while she works?
Without the hats and shoes and brooches and apartments in Paris?
Yes, much of entertainment is escapism. This is surely an example of a place and time into which it’s easy and delightful to fall half-asleep for a couple of hours, allowing the pointy-shoes and patriarchy to wash over you like Valium. But there’s a nagging thought that pricks at the edge of this fantasy that presents itself as almost-real; while this show is ostensibly about a woman comedian, it’s really about one thing: money. Upper East Side apartments and entire summers in the Catskills for a family of eight and that lonely, romantic apartment in Paris with the furry dachshund and childcare on demand? That only happens with money.
Midge takes risks without a single thought to the consequences for her livelihood and for her children, because she knows there will always be money available to take care of her if she fails.
The only show I’ve seen that focuses on a character who actually takes risks based on what she can afford is Jane the Virgin–and even *that* show features a wealthy boyfriend and a wealthy father, who both throw money at problems that come up in the show. Jane does have to make decisions like faking an address to get her son into a better preschool, managing transportation without a car, and losing money when she can’t work a shift as a waitress. Jane relies on her family in explicit, difficult conversations, and leans on her faith when life gets difficult, even when her rich relatives help out.
I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Speechless, the Minnie Driver show with the first actual, honest-to-God person with a disability, her teenage son who uses a communication device, hence the title “Speechless.” The show seems to accurately portray what it’s like to manage a family who has a member with a disability. Showtime’s “The Chi,” is reportedly a realistic, gritty look at life on the South Side of Chicago. I couldn’t watch after the first episode, when the character I was most drawn to was killed on a street corner. I knew that kind of heartbreak wasn’t sustainable for me.
Abundant money is the grease that makes many plots run without a squeak, but I look at this from a writer’s perspective. What would it look like to see realistic plots, like “my oldest child had to drop out of college because we couldn’t afford to pay for it anymore, and now he’s working as a delivery guy and living at home,” or “We both work full time and can only afford one car, how do we get to work on time and still get the kids ready for school?” or “It’s the Tuesday before payday, so it’s time to roll pennies so we can buy gas”, or “my kids have no school on Monday for Kasmir Pulaski day, but I have to work–who’s going to watch them? And can I afford to pay that person?”
Somehow, those aren’t as entertaining as a well-dressed comedian who wears one of her many hats that match every outfit as she walks smartly down Fifth Avenue on her way to a gig.
And maybe that’s because when you’re trying to figure out how to put actual food on the table (not just trying to figure out what the maid will cook for you), life isn’t that kind of entertaining. There are moments of wry humor–of COURSE there’s a traffic jam on your way to the gas station when you’re running on fumes and you have to put your last two dollars in your tank to make it to work–but maybe that’s too much for people to bear. Maybe too close to home is painful.
But life when you’re poor, while the absence of money creates obstacles wealthy people don’t even know exist, isn’t solely about money. Toughness becomes more important, perseverance, pursuit of knowledge and strategy. These qualities are explored in dramas about rich people, but only to the extent that they expand a character’s power and dominance, not as survival skills.
The ability to navigate the world without the support of a wealthy family is hard-won, something to be proud of, and stories about people who have accomplished goals in those circumstances are far more interesting to me than yet another tale spun from worsted wool private school uniforms and glittering crystal chandeliers.
I’d like to think there’s a middle ground, a place in story for wild flights of fantastical plot lines still anchored in gritty reality. Ugh, how I loathe the word “gritty”, as if poverty is solely made of dirt floors and unwashed counter tops. But the word grit has power; strength, resilience, refusal to quit.
In this day of increased representation, I look forward to more stories–in print and on film–about people getting by with determination and gumption, holding their life together with bailing wire and string. Those are people I know, people whose successes and failures resonate for me.
Maybe sharing stories like these–stories most people I know have lived at one time or another–will help narrow the gap widened in the divisive last few years.