The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2: Pregnancy, Women Comics, and Censorship
In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2, Midge deals with a kind of censorship familiar to generations of female performers.
The following contains spoilers for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2.
“…You see the thing I know the most about pregnancy is –”
With that one word, pregnancy, Midge Maisel is hustled off stage in the season two finale of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “All Alone.”
It’s easy to see why she’s be confused – we’ve previously seen Miriam perform in various states of undress (albeit facing indecency charges afterwards), and throughout this season she has said an array of four-letter onstage with no negative outcomes. As Susie points out to the host who interrupted her, the comic before her had been talking about getting “dick fungus,” something that surely must be more, “foul,” than what he deems as, “female stuff…private.”
With this bit of censorship that uniquely targets women – as speakers and as subjects – the fictional comic Midge Maisel joins a proud line of real life women comedians, starting with a direct homage to none other than pioneer Lucille Ball.
Back in 1952, Lucille Ball’s own show was in its sophomore season. I Love Lucy broke many barriers – it portrayed an interracial couple by having Lucy’s actual husband, Cuban band leader Desi Arnaz, play Ricky Ricardo, and Lucille Ball had an unprecedented level of creative control. In spite of all that, some things were a bridge too far, even those that might seem antiquated to modern sensibilities. Lucille Ball was pregnant with her second child and was able to write that pregnancy into the show, for what would be early television’s most high-profile pregnancy.
However, when it came time to deliver the news, the network was uncomfortable with the word pregnant or pregnancy actually being said on television, in spite of the content of the episode itself. So the episode was titled “Lucy is Enceinte” (French for pregnant – why they didn’t go with Spanish is beyond me) and everyone spent the entire episode euphemizing Lucy’s condition as “with child” or “expecting.” The idea was that the actual word pregnancy would conjure up how, exactly, a person came to be that way. In a time when twin beds were required for married couples, sex, like a woman’s pregnant body, was simply too vulgar of a concept.
As ridiculous as that sounds, it was actually an improvement. During the show’s pilot, Lucille Ball was visibly pregnant with her first child and the entire show simply ignored that reality. Getting a show to write in an actual pregnancy is still difficult and rare, and most actors have to wear baggy clothes, hide behind purses and furniture, or are written into a scenario that explains their absence.
The How I Met Your Mother writers put in a hot dog eating contest gag for Lily when Alyson Hannigan was pregnant, but mostly they wrote her out for the season. In a 2015 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Julia Louis Dreyfus opened up to Jerry Seinfeld about how he wanted Elaine Benes to get fat when she was pregnant, an idea that caused her to burst into tears at the time. As ridiculous and outmoded as that sounds, Mad Men actually did it in 2012, with Matt Weiner writing in the Fat Betty storyline when January Jones was pregnant, much to Jones’s chagrin. Some fans saw this as humorous while others considered it another way the character was punished, as the current or former love interests of male anti-heroes so often are.
Women comedians have long pushed back against this kind of censorship, just like Midge Maisel did. Lucille Ball may not have been able to say pregnancy, but the very next episode she managed to get the word in the episode title, and at least she was able to arrange her work around her own pregnancy, a major coup that stars today still dream of. Bea Arthur’s show Maude famously depicted an abortion before Roe v. Wade. More recently, comedians like Amy Poehler have used the reality of their pregnant bodies to great comedic effect. Poehler not only continued to work on Saturday Night Live well into her pregnancy, she incorporated her pregnancy into her humor, using it to heighten every sketch she was in. Brooklyn Nine-Nine wrote in Chelsea Peretti’s pregnancy, and having Gina be as mysterious and blasé about her pregnancy as she is about everything else worked for her character.
Stand up Ali Wong rose to prominence with her 2016 special Baby Cobra, during which she is visibly pregnant, acting out the conception process and telling the same off-color sexual jokes for which she had become known, a fantastic subversion of expectations of pregnant women. In her 2018 follow-up special, Hard Knock Wife, Wong is once again visibly pregnant and, while she does not acknowledge that, she mines the experiences of motherhood and her first pregnancy for highly graphic bodily humor, once again made all the more sublime by her physical comedy with a pregnant belly and exposing herself, much like Midge Maisel. Pushing our taboos further, Wong has openly used miscarriage, post-partum depression, the sexism of child-rearing expectations, and the way pregnancy pulverizes women’s bodies in her act, all topics that most would rather ignore when discussing pregnancy and babies, in favor of romanticizing the miracle of goddess births and growing families. I’ve got to think that if Midge Maisel heard Ali Wong’s bit about how her friend’s vulva looks like two hot dogs slapping together, she would want to buy her a drink.
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There are still plenty of taboos for women comedians – while Ali Wong’s standup has been popular, it could never air on network TV. There’s a long history of censoring sex on screen specifically when it’s pleasurable to women, for a time women’s navels were even banned from television, and we can barely get anyone to say the word abortion on screen, never mind have a main character get one and survive the season. Comedy and television have thankfully come a long way since “Lucy is Enceinte.” I have a feeling that in season 3, Miriam Maisel will find her own way around the “pregnancy” ban, and any other obstacles that come her way.