The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and the matriarchy

Gwen Smith on why finding a mentor like Midge’s Susie could be the best thing you do all year

Features

10 Jan 2019

After winning the best actress in a TV comedy award at this year’s Golden Globes, Rachel Brosnahan, star of Amazon’s period hit The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, thanked the ‘matriarchy’ of its production team, which is led by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. The sentiment had double resonance because it suggested that the most heart-warming aspect of the show’s fiction is present behind-the-scenes, too. For in a series that revels in knotty and contradictory messages, there is one straightforward takeaway: the importance of mentors, and how transformative they can be when you’re starting out in your career.

Protagonist Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, an Upper West Side housewife turned aspiring stand-up comic, may inspire the show’s title – and yes, she also hogs the spotlight during her shocking stage outings. But this is ultimately a story about two people, not one; the backbone of the series is the unlikely but beautiful partnership between Midge and her manager Susie.

Now, Susie hardly does an impeccable job, what with her lack of experience, fondness for ruffling the feathers of showbiz big dogs and limited resources. However, what she lacks in polish, she makes up for in dedication. From the moment Midge drunkenly grabs the mic at the dank comedy club where Susie works, the wannabe manager recognises her talent. It’s Susie who convinces Midge that she should give telling jokes professionally a shot, that there might be more to life than marriage and make-up. And once she’s made her realise her potential, she sets about helping her to fulfil it, schlepping around the country to find her gigs and giving short shrift to the morons who dismiss her as a ‘girl comedian’.

As I’ve learnt from having my own mentor (last year I was matched with an excellent senior journalist through women’s network The Second Source) support like this is invaluable. It buoys you up in numerous ways, the simplest and most immediate of these being that realising someone is willing to reject the prevailing office culture of twitchy competitiveness and lend a young hopeful a hand makes you feel a little less glum about the state of the modern workplace – and, consequently, that of mankind itself.

Then, once you’re done dabbing your eyes and stopping strangers in the street to tell them that there is some good in the world after all, other benefits come into focus. All this skivvying your mentor is doing on your behalf seems to be actually… making stuff happen. For instance, although considerably better organised than Susie (and far more nattily dressed), my mentor shares her fondness for providing resources rather than just praise. Midge gets coaching on her routines; my mentor has given me a host of new contacts and a connoisseur’s guide to the best career newsletters.

And then, of course, there’s the confidence issue. Before having a mentor, I was fairly certain everyone either hated me or was laughing at me. The only reason an email could have gone unanswered, I told myself, was because the recipient was too busy ripping it apart with a large group of colleagues. But thanks to the fact that my mentor doesn’t visibly recoil at the mention of my ideas, along with her robust assurance that I’m not grossly failing at basic industry etiquette, my paranoia is diminishing. Yes, I still have visions of the pitch-mocking editors, but they’re less potent. And I now ask my boyfriend if there is something ‘weird’ about the way I’ve written ‘Hi,’ at the start of an email once rather than twice an hour. (Possible 2019 goal: rule this out entirely?)

Susie similarly lends Midge confidence. Not in herself (self-regarding Mrs Maisel doesn’t need assistance on that score) but in her routine, assuring her that what she wants to talk about – women’s lives and preoccupations – are valid material in the testosterone swamp of Fifties comedy. And this brings us to the key reason Susie’s backing is so effective. She’s a woman. I hear you, #reversesexism warriors, mentors come in all shapes and sizes – but there is something uniquely helpful about having the ear of someone who has shared the same experiences and setbacks as you. After all, that way they’ve probably worked out how to channel those experiences, and how to overcome those setbacks – and unless they’re completely morally depraved, they’ll share that wisdom with you.

Along with being a brilliant role model, my mentor has hammered home that my perspective matters, both in terms of what I choose to write about and my experience of working life. What’s more, as in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, our relationship has blossomed into friendship, although happily a less dysfunctional one than that shared by Midge and

Susie. So, mentorship offers career advice and good company – and for that reason it thoroughly deserves its moment of Golden Globes fame.


Close