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© 2023 by London St. Juniper

"Thank You, Zelda": Women's Labor in _Mrs. Maisel_

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

I have feelings about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The first is that I love the show. I haven't yet indulged in the second season, but I watched the first three times. I don't buy that someone like Miriam Weissman is falling for Joel Maisel, but Rachel Brosnahan, Marin Hinkle, Alex Borstein, and Tony Shalhoub are well-cast, and give amazing performances. I want to hang out with Midge and Suzie, and I have a great fondness for Rose, who is just so familiar. But...


But.


I want to think about motherhood and childcare, and Zelda. I've been thinking about Zelda.

Midge Maisel has two preschool children, and when her husband Joel leaves her the assumption is that Midge has full custody - and responsibility - while Joel takes his son (and only his son) once in awhile. So, part of Midge's very-real journey is figuring out what to do with the kids when she moves, when she finds a day job, and when she starts performing as a comedienne.


A shaky effort is made with a neighbor, and then Midge does what so many do, and relies on her parents. Yet through Rose's narration something becomes clear: it's Zelda, and not Rose, who is taking care of the children. And even in the arc of the show this is troubling. For a show that is self-congratulatory of its feminist voice, Zelda is a problem. Not her job as she is presumably hired by the Weissmans, as a cook and housekeeper, but in the extraneous duties she's asked to perform when Miriam moves in and doubles the household.


Before her marriage ends, Miriam is shown physically caring for her children. When she moves in with her parents those responsibilities seem to transfer to Zelda who, off-screen, is said to make them alternative meals when they don't like dinner, to bathe the children and put them to bed, to watch them when other adults leave. And I find myself wondering ... was she given a choice? Was she given a raise? Or was it just assumed she'd take on the increased domestic duties?


I have three children - I know just how much they increase domestic work, and mine are old enough to pitch in themselves.


Miriam gets a job in a department store to be able to buy things without being beholden to her parents. But the cost of her work is never discussed - her father asks "who" will keep her children, but never how much it will cost Miriam, in a show that does talk about money. Miriam's work, both her day job and comedy, is enabled by the uncompensated labor of other women - by an assumption of care. Though a story of growing independence and liberation - of a privileged woman finding gendered independence - the show doesn't recognize the burden it places on another woman, to allow this protagonist to challenge the value of women's labor.


And I get it. I get it. As a performing mother, I know the stress of finding childcare for gigs, often at odd hours. And that care often comes from my unpaid mother or mother-in-law (thanks Mommom and Grandma), or a babysitter who makes more from the gigs than I do. For eight of the nine years I was an adjunct professor my entire paycheck went to childcare. I get it. It's not glamorous. Or funny. But it's a big, and problematic, truth. And I just can't buy a narrative of female liberation that depends on the exploitation of other women.


Thank you, Zelda.