Make Susie Gay, You Cowards: On The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Lesbian Problem

The Gaslight Café, where The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s eponymous plucky heroine gets her unexpected and highly intoxicated start as a stand-up comic and her eventual manager Susie Myerson is vaguely employed, was actually a real place in New York City. A fixture of New York Bohemian life and the official “Beat Mecca,” the basement of 116 MacDougal Street was the go-to spot for readings by sexually fluid poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Diane di Prima. In the ’60s, folk musicians and comics were added to the busy nightly line-up.

The Gaslight was not only located in Greenwich Village, an epicenter of gay and lesbian life in New York at the time, but also in a specifically lesbian section of Greenwich Village. Swing Rendezvous, a jazz club and lesbian bar visited by Audre Lorde and Kitty Genovese, was directly across the street at 117 MacDougal and attracted a mostly-white working-class clientele who adhered to strict butch/femme roles. The Portofino, an Italian restaurant with an unofficial Lesbian Night on Fridays where Lorraine Hansberry often turned up and Edie and Thea met, was a three-minute walk from The Gaslight, as were lesbian bars Pony Stable Inn, The Laurels and Provincetown Landing, a regular haunt for Patricia Highsmith. A 1955-56 F.B.I. investigative report of The Gaslight’s neighborhood declared, “a majority of the bars and restaurants in this area cater to lesbians and homosexuals.” Just around the corner from The Gaslight, Tony Pastor’s Downtown had a mixed clientele of “lesbians and tourists, some gay men, and female impersonators.” (It’d shut down in the ’60s and would consequently host meetings for The Gay Liberation Front and The Radicallesbians.) Next door was The Music Box, another “notorious… place of amusement” for gays and lesbians.

Buddy Kent, a lesbian who did drag shows in the neighborhood in the ’50s, said the area “was home. and we had the best protection in the world from the Mafia. They ran everything.” Still, raids were common, and an arrest, followed by your name in the paper the next day, could ruin your life. So the culture was underground but very visible if you knew what to look for.

Here is where we find Susie Myerson: a very butch, scrappy, hilarious, endearing, working-class misanthrope in menswear who manages, over the course of two seasons, to embody a love that dare not speak its name or even suggest the existence of its name by never — not once! — encountering another lesbian or lesbian culture, let alone identifying as one. Nor do we sense the subject is being intentionally avoided due to taboos around homosexuality at the time. The overwhelming sense, instead, is that Susie has been neutered. You know, like a house pet.

Ah, tough luck, we don’t have any spots yet on the lineup tonight for butch lesbian representation

Do butch straight women exist? Yes! Would a straight woman adopt a butch style in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s? Probably not! If she did, that choice and its accordant contradiction would undoubtedly be a hot topic.

Susie is therefore almost definitely gay, but also not gay. I mean: she’s gaaaaay. But Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino talk about Susie like how your parents would talk to your grandparents about you in the actual 1950s.

In Rolling Stone, they wax poetic about Midge and Susie acing the Bechdel Test with their important female friendship while avoiding the meat of the matter. “Susie is a little more mysterious. She’s a woman who basically at some point shut down in her twenties, and even we don’t quite know why—” says Dan.

He’s interrupted by Amy: “Well, I don’t think we don’t know totally. Susie is somebody who, again, did not fit the times. She was not a beauty. Where did Susie fit in with the kind of clothing that she wears and the views that she has?” A few grating clauses later, Amy declares that Susie’s “never gonna find a husband, have some kids” because “that’s just simply not an option.” Why not? Let’s not say! Better to say “not a beauty” than “a lesbian.”

Let’s say this instead: “And once you take that option off the table in 1959, women were left with a lot less choices.”

Dan goes on to note that “once the series came out, everybody was reading into it,” without addressing what, exactly, everybody was “reading into.” He concludes: “That’s our ultimate goal, to get people to read into it what they want to read into it. Make it their own.”

The problem with that assessment is that Susie’s sexuality is the only one requiring a read-into. She’s the only character on Mrs. Maisel who is not, in fact, explicitly heterosexual — everybody else is married, or they’d like to be, or they talk about their wives or husbands or how hot this or that boy or girl is. But not Susie!

If we give the creators the benefit of the doubt — that Susie’s gay, it’s just not discussed because it’s the ’50s and she’s a private person — then why wouldn’t they acknowledge that in interviews and other press around the show, conducted in 2018? And why are we still, in 2018, bending over backwards to give creators the benefit of the doubt?

Bafflingly, in an interview with Cosmo, Alex Borstein said her dream for Susie is for her to “get married and have babies.” What?!

That man over there looks like great marriage material I can’t wait to climb him like a tree

After Season One, we were willing to forgive the Ambiguously Gay trope. There was a lot to set up, after all. The details would come later. Judith Katz, a butch lesbian author who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, described Susie’s identity as “never spoken but clearly intended” and declares, “Susie Myerson is a butch Jewish dyke as sure as I’m writing this down.” (Unfortunately though, Susie’s character isn’t Jewish.)

The only reference to Susie’s lesbianism in Season One was in the finale, when Susie informs Midge’s husband Joel that he’s “barking up the wrong tree” when he attempts to secure a spot on The Gaslight’s lineup by complimenting her “blouse.”

Then Season Two dropped, unlike any acknowledgement of Susie possessing romantic or sexual desires. “I deeply dislike what they are doing with Susie this season,” tweeted writer Jeanna Kadlec. “I had higher hopes for butch representation on television, ESPECIALLY after Alex Borstein won an Emmy for this role.”

I’ve never been a Gilmore Girls fan, and certainly wasn’t encouraged to give it a shot when, called upon to remark on The Gilmore Girls’ subtextual homosexuality in 2013, Amy declared, “We had characters in the town that we thought of as gay. And we just thought of them as characters.” (She declined to tell the reporter who of these “just characters” were secretly gay.) Apparently, Sookie was initially written as a lesbian, but that idea was nixed by the WB back in 2000. But when Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life debuted — a decade after the original concluded, in a new, way more accepting milieu — the show still seemed fundamentally uncomfortable with any actual queer representation.

I can’t wait to make this sandwich for my husband one day

“Midge and Susie, it’s a love story, you know?” Alex told Hollywood Life. “I’m not necessarily saying it’s a lesbian [love story], but it’s a female love story, and [Joel]’s part of that triangle.” I suppose that quote may have encouraged Midge/Susie shippers but if anything, I’m grateful Susie hasn’t fallen into the tired lesbian trope of “poor mannish lesbian crushing on her beautiful straight best friend.” It’s not a love story with Midge I yearn for, but an independent sense of self for Susie. When Susie found herself a family of sorts at Steiner Mountain Resort (including at least one man Susie clocks as gay), I thought her moment for love had finally come. But it was not to be!

Even more unfortunate is how thrilling and historically accurate it’d be to actually call Susie what she is in a show that suffers from chronically low stakes. 1950s-era lesbian liaisons are richly dramatic, which’s why they’ve popped up in other period dramas of the era like Masters of Sex, The Man In The High Castle, Bomb Girls and Call the Midwife. 

It was a complicated time to be gay. “Suddenly there were large numbers of women who could become a part of a lesbian subculture,” writes Lillian Faderman of the era, “yet also suddenly there were more reasons than ever for the subculture to stay underground.” Post-World-War-II, homos who’d been dropped off in big cities developed dynamic queer communities. Women had, during the war, been let into the workforce, which supplied economic independence, acceptable venues for girl-on-girl socialization and the freedom to wear pants. Conversely, threatened by the confidence and marketable skills acquired by women during the war, American culture in the ’50s took a hard conservative turn, doubling down on obligating women to get married, have kids and vacuum. Then you’ve got the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the Cold War era and the Lavender Scare, characterized by obsessive suspicion of literally everybody weird. The government was cracking down on the homosexuals, forcing them into the closet or out of work. Even leftists were suspicious of potential gays and lesbians in their midsts. The FBI monitored gay bars, psychologists were publishing dubious studies that painted lesbians as hysterical lunatics in need of treatment, pulp fiction offered refuge as well as villainization and condemnation; and in many places it was still technically illegal for homosexuals to “gather.” In 1958, Barbara Gittings established the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a social club dedicated to a “respectable” image of lesbians: white, middle class, wearing skirts, eschewing butch/femme.

When Season Three begins, we’ll be heading into the ’60s, an era of social upheaval, especially for queers in New York. Will we, then, finally acknowledge that Susie is queer?

Listen; there’s a lot to love about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and most people do. It’s delightful to experience: smart, cheerful and loaded with charm, funny quips, lite-feminist principles and genuine out-loud laughs. Alex Borstein’s performance is aces. It’s just edgy enough to stimulate your intellect but not too edgy for your Bubbe (although she might wonder why Mrs. Maisel’s butcher sells pork or everybody wishes each other “Happy New Year” (in English!) on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). Its agenda is subtle and easy to swallow, like a wee matzo ball. But it’s also a bit of a neoliberal fantasyland where anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, and sexism only exists to be delightfully skewered.

In 2018, subtext, the life raft we once clung to, has been sent to sea and in this new bold era, Susie’s squelched sexuality somehow feels personally insulting. (Worth noting that Amazon also cancelled two series with actual butch lesbians playing butch lesbians this year, I Love Dick and One Mississippi.)  I get itchy hearing people talk about the show, like how I used to feel when straight people talked about Ellen Page allegedly dating Alexander Skarsgård  before she came out. It seems to represent a fundamental unease with queer stories, wanting all the benefits of a sassy gay sidekick without the hard work of acknowledging, let alone understanding, their multifaceted personhood. Put that on your plate and you’ll really have a story to dine out on.

C’mon what’s a lady gotta do to get her man on the horn around here?!

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2842 articles for us.

71 Comments

  1. I love all the history bits in this, thank you.
    I was entertained enough by the first season, hoping Susie would be actually gay in s2. It not only disappointed in that way, but the misgendering and the very bad jokes in the french drag show, a few other people already mentioned, made me so mad (esp. the scene with the two mobsters, they also made her drop her pizza so RUDE). Then the not-so-casual racism. At the big ending night show at the resort, before they introduce the “international” theme they mention something about doing “under the stars” or a similarly normal theme the previous year, so obviously racist tropes weren’t necessary. There was no reason for the writers to create that scene with that theme/those stereotyped costumes, besides a few not good, very uncomfortable jokes for the characters to say in comment on the theme. Definitely not interested in watching any other seasons.

  2. I’d been hoping for a piece like this and boy did you deliver. It was really beginning to feel disrespectful (the constant misgendering & Susie’s overall appearance being a running joke, the gay jokes about Joel, the “closet” comment also felt like such a cowardly wink with apparently no intention of going there) so it’s about time someone called out Mrs. Maisel & Amy Sherman Palladino for this. (And yet we always feel hesitant to complain about these things, lest we appear too impatient, or angry, or overall incapable of approaching television with nuance.) Thank you so much for putting in all this work and having the history to back it up.

  3. Fair point, but how about we let the artists just create the show and unveil it on their pace? She used the word “seems” several times which translates to “I don’t know if it’s a fact but I’m writing it so just treat it like it is.”

    Sanctimonious critics who think they have influence over content pull down a title before it has a chance to open its wings or before anyone’s even seen it. Now producers are so hyper-sensitive they shit their pants and try to check all the boxes. That’s not art – it’s appeasement.

  4. It’s funny, in many ways Maisel seems to have gotten less radical in the second season. Then again, perhaps that’s just because the novelty and excitement of a show that was that explicitly, ebulliently Jewish had worn off.

    And don’t even get me started on how S2 failed to give any of its characters good arcs. Honestly, Susie coming to trust Midge enough to explicitly come out to her would have made the entire season (and especially the last episode) 100x better. Instead we just got the show puttering along into a bullshit non-confrontation with Sophie Lennon that existed almost entirely to set up S3.

    Random thoughts:

    1) Both Midge and Abe are definitely just a wee bit bi. This will never be explicitly acknowledged.

    2) My partner and I were debating if Susie is Jewish, and we came to the conclusion she is. I thought she wasn’t but neither my recollection nor google backed up my belief. I’d be curious to see if other folx remember evidence better than I.

  5. i tried to talk about this article with my (straight) mom and sister and they got really defensive and weird about it

    “maybe the writers WANT people to read into it, maybe they want to START A CONVERSATION”

    ?? by avoiding having a conversation?? at seemingly all costs???

    It was disappointing. I like the show too!! (Not as much as they do, for no particular reason, but I didn’t exactly open with that)

    People Can Be Critical Of The Things They Like 2k19 holy cow

  6. I was just watching this and on top of all the brilliant points made by Riese I would also add that Midge’s plotline in the second season is basically a coming out story! Especially the scene where her father finds out and tells her that she has to wait before telling her mom. So on top of closeting Susie, ASP is also co-opting a queer storyline for a straight character. Jeesh.

  7. It bothers me SO MUCH that they just call her “not a beauty.” I mean, no, she is not “beautiful” according to mainstream heterosexual norms but like, as a queer lady I find her attractive. And I mean, they could find her some cute, neurotic femme* who would be really attracted to her if they wanted to.

    I think it’s just another way they’re erasing queer women’s sexuality and culture. That particular butch aesthetic is not just an accident because butch women don’t know how to be feminine or beautiful. It is also rooted in a particular time and place and subculture and would be super-attractive to many queer ladies and thus might actually be a conscious choice! (not necessarily the gender non-conformity, but the specific aesthetic/style)

    *Not that she could only date a femme, of course! But my understanding of 1950s lesbian culture is that butches mostly dated femmes.

  8. Can I also build on the comment on Midge ‘s queerness? My high-femme-came-out-post-breakup-with-shitty dude self would love to see her explore, but not be shitty with that either. And she didn’t day that she hated her girl experience… I hope season 3 is better with Susie, and folks of color.

  9. This kind of vague tokenism is a recurring problem for Sherman-Paladino. The Michel character in Gilmore Girls is a gay stereotype (catty and “effeminate”) but his sexuality isn’t explicitly addressed until the Netflix revival, and then not explored thoughtfully at all.

  10. I’ve been watching Mrs. Maisel thinking how great it is to see a broke, masculine-of-center, hustling, devoted manager/friend ace woman from a family of assholes represented, and with storylines not centering on her journey to find romantic love. Why can’t we just let the writers unfold the story at their own pace and let Susie come out of her closet (or is it just a tiny apartment?) at her leisure?

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