“Marvelous Mrs Maisel” Finally Addresses Susie’s Sexuality, Sort Of

Like so many episodes of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the fourth season premiere, “Rumble on the Wonder Wheel,” managed to offend me as a gay person and make me question, as a Jew, how much nonsense I’m willing to endure in order to see Jewish characters being funny in strange outfits on my teevee set.

Season Three ended in a difficult place for Mrs. Maisel, and we opened in that place’s aftermath. After delivering a gay-joke-ridden set about Shy Baldwin — a queer black man in the 1960s whose sexuality was only known to Midge ’cause she’d recently walked in on him cleaning up his injuries following a gay-bashing — Shy Baldwin booted Midge from his European tour, leaving her on the tarmac with a bucket of broken dreams and her pocket not-gay manager/sidekick, Susie the Sartorial Newsie.

I’d envisioned this twist would be an opportunity for Mrs. Maisel to get her enormous flower-encrusted hat out of her asshole and consider the plight of literally anybody but herself. Alas! “I thought we were friends,” Miriam sobs in the street regarding Shy Baldwin, who is no longer speaking to her after she nearly ruined his life.

The episode proceeds apace — Midge framed as an unwitting victim of a queer Black man’s refusal to let her speak her truth (which is actually his truth, although nobody, let alone Susie, points this out, or even mentions what specifically was troubling about her set). As the episode reaches its excruciating end, Midge and Susie sit down in their favorite diner to hash out the season’s central thesis.

Over untouched cups of cole slaw and a cornucopia of fresh pickles and fat sandwiches held together by wee toothpicks, Midge declares that she will not let the man get her down! She shines when she riffs, and she wants to be herself and speak her mind every time she walks out on that stage!!! Somehow Midge is, like so many obstinate stand-up comics of the present day, unaware that you can be an edgy, controversial, boundary-pushing comic without causing direct harm to vulnerable groups of people. Her defiance towards this perceived censorship is framed as radical and inspiring, something the viewer should naturally support. The implication is that Shy Baldwin is the villain here. Like so many Armored Closet Gays, his internalized homophobia resulted in Miriam’s unjust dismissal!!

Miriam declares "I wanna be me every time I walk out on that stage"

And I expect a $1 million dollar stand-up special on Netflix to arrive on my doorstep posthaste!

In the subsequent episode, “Billy Jones and the Orgy Lamps,” Midge is in her Upper West Side apartment, flustered over her inability to buy milk for free, when she passes a television set announcing Shy Baldwin’s engagement to his alleged girlfriend. She goes to her room to cry — perhaps, I thought, she’s now realizing the consequences of her actions — but as soon as she gets Susie on the horn, all she can talk about is the milk.

It is in the wispy remains of this homophobic fog that the show finally begins to address an issue they’ve defiantly avoided for three entire seasons — Susie’s sexuality.

In December 2018, I wrote Make Susie Gay, You Cowards!, which details all references to Susie’s sexuality onscreen and off from the first two seasons, so I won’t rehash that here. But I do want to re-address some of what I said about the queer history this show is ignoring. Like that The Gaslight, the bar at the epicenter of the Maisel universe, was actually located at the epicenter of lesbian life in Greenwich village and had a thriving queer culture of its own. But, like Susie herself, its historical queerness had been rendered invisible.

Susie’s sartorial choices are handled as a cute character quirk, but arguably within a historical context, her clothing can really only be read as a calculated risk. This was 1960, after all. People caught wearing less than three gender-appropriate items of clothing could be arrested and incarcerated on charges of “sexual deviancy,” but it was even more likely they’d find themselves the target of verbal and physical street harassment. LGBTQ Historian Christopher Adam Mitchell found in his research that whereas gay men and trans women who mention the “three-article rule” in historical accounts recall being arrested in bar raids, “lesbians and trans men, on the other hand, were being accosted on bars and on the streets.” It’s my understanding that generally, those who “cross-dressed” despite these risks were doing so because they thought they could pass as men, they were trans (and therefore not actually “cross-dressing” at all) and/or because they wanted to be clock-able to other queers.

Well, at least one person has clocked Susie: Midge. In Episode Four, “Interesting People on Christopher Street,” Miriam finally, after years of friendship during which Susie’s sexuality has been effectively neutered, wonders about Susie’s romantic life.

Miriam: When was the last relationship that you had?
Susie: What?
Miriam: We always talk about me and my relationships. What about you? I haven’t seen you with anybody since we’ve been together.
Susie: So?
Miriam: So, I’m just curious about your life.
Susie: My life is you. That’s it! Thinking about you. Talking about you. Waiting for you, rescuing you from bullshit dates. As soon as I get you off my hands and make you a star, I can shove you out on an iceberg and focus on something else.

First of all, yikes!!!! Second of all, Miriam then heads out to the West Village, where she solicits men on the street for lesbian bar recommendations. “You’re a cop,” one man replies, shuffling away, and Miriam continues her search, opening her request with “not a cop!” LOL?

Miriam asking a man to direct her to a lesbian bar

You know, like the American Girl store, but for adults

Finally she finds John Waters on a bench in Christopher Park, as one does. Miriam insists she’s looking “for a friend” but John Waters doubts her denial. He asks if her friend “dresses like her” and Midge dies laughing, just considering it. He then discloses there’s a place nearby that just opened, welcoming to people “of different attires.” Midge gets out her address book.

Susie is hype about the new live/work space she closed on earlier that day as Iconic LGBTQ+ Ally Midge shuffles Susie through the Village towards the new lesbian bar. Susie, still wrapped up in her fantasies about secretaries and typewriters, takes a minute to clock where she’s been taken, and as soon as she does, she’s offended. “Did you bring me to a lesbian bar?” Susie asks, simmering.

Susie: "Did you bring me to a lesbian bar?"

And did you do this without double-checking that none of my exes would be here?

Midge, proud of herself, admits that indeed she did. But Susie’s not having it. Midge wanted to try, she says, and Susie never talks about herself. “Yeah, ’cause it’s none of your business,” Susie replies. Midge wants Susie to know she is “totally comfortable with you being whatever it is you want to be.”

Borstein plays the scene obtusely at first, and I was nervous for a big gay denial. But no denial comes, just frustration: Susie feels that Midge has encroached on Susie’s private world. “How did you even know about this place?” Susie asks. “What, you hang out on Christopher Street asking guys with carnations in their lapels where to find a butch bar?” (They earn the laugh.)

It’s a cheeky and characteristic exchange in which Midge’s attempt at allyship is, like so much allyship, revealed to be a miscalculation of ego — Susie’s capable of making romantic decisions and finding lesbian bars without Midge’s help, and Midge’s approval (or not) holds no weight on Susie’s sexual pursuits:

Susie: This is the Village. I live here. You think I don’t know how to find a lesbian bar? There are three within rock-throwing distance. Two doors down, there’s guys sticking their fists up each other’s asses. This is my town! I know everything!
Miriam: You are always alone. Always.
Susie: So the fuck what?
Miriam: I don’t want you to be alone.
Susie: Let me worry about that.

Susie is focused on her work and her business, she reiterates, charging out of the bar. We’re left wondering if Susie’s stated prioritization of work over love is a manifestation of internalized homophobia or a desire to obscure from herself and Midge that her obsession with Midge is effectively preventing her from considering other options. Conversely — although it’s 2022 and I’m not inclined to give creators credit for being amongst the first to represent a consistently marginalized group when they didn’t even do it on purpose — perhaps Susie is asexual or demisexual and homoromantic.

It’s an interesting set-up with lots of possible pathways, and I was eager to see what would ensue in future episodes, but then I read an interview conducted at the Season Four premiere with Alex Borstein, where her comments on Susie’s sexuality suggest that this scene existed to wrap up an issue, not to set a story in motion. She argues we’re imposing modern standards of openness on a closeted time. As if most contemporary shows about this time period haven’t in fact managed to draw full LGBTQ+ female characters, for example Bomb Girls, Masters of Sex, Alta Mar, Ratched and Call the Midwife. She then suggests Susie’s a “40-year-old virgin” who is still unaware of her own sexuality, but she’s in love with Midge, but also “wouldn’t pass up a night with Lenny Bruce” because she’d “sleep with talent whatever the package.” Okay?

Following the fumble of Shy Baldwin’s story, and the straight-washing of the entire West Village prior to Episode 404, I’m still left simply feeling that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel thinks addressing the genuine full implications of anything, let alone queerness, would impede on the show’s zany, apolitical tone. They simply don’t want to tell gay stories. It often feels like so much pre-2010 gay content: that the show is using the characters’ homophobia to cover up their own, and that they’re doing so at the expense of a far richer and more complicated narrative.

Of course the season is far from over, and of course I will continue watching it and perhaps this show will surprise me, in which case I will eat not only my hat, but also all of these hats, which I think would qualify as a very hearty plant-based lunch:

Rose at lunch surrounded by women in large hats


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Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in California. 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 2988 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. yeah, I hated this treatment of Susie – and generally how she’s been written this entire season. I feel like they were trying to be clever/cute and self-aware here by playing themselves as Midge, like, “See how awkward and bad Midge’s allyship is here? We know that’s just how hamfisted and useless we would be if we just suddenly noticed Susie’s sexuality and tried to do an episode around it! and we even recognize it!”

    which might be fine? I guess? if it was the set-up for an actually thoughtful storyline instead of just another agonizing instance of how little the writers are capable of writing outside their own experience (something reinforced by how badly Mei was written this episode). so it’s not fine, they want a pat on the back for being fucking lazy and incompetent writers.

    gay women don’t want a head dip of recognition and a ‘sorry, we know we can’t do it justice so we won’t do it at all’ – I wanted Susie to be more thoughtfully written from the beginning, and since they couldn’t do that then I want them to suck it up and own their sucking and just keep ignoring her sexuality until the world is finally set free of this charming show that should have ended two seasons ago – given that it’s insisting on refusing to let its characters grow even a single iota.

    • So much to unpack. Spouse and I only on season 2. Both of us age 60 plus. Seeing this through Midwestern 1960s eyes.
      Midge is utterly self-absorbed. We aren’t sure if this is true 1960’s Jewish Rich portrayal or what.
      We see so much wrong that we are calling it a pure fiction story. Not sure if we CAN continue watching it. We keep telling the TV “no, not really like that”. But, again, 2 Midwesterners. We have zero idea what upper crusty New Yorkers were like.
      For us, labeling Susie as anything is annoying. They are navigating the best they can. It’s ok by us if that character is who they are. We like (love) the character as is.

  2. Wow the comment by the actor really shows how little thought she (and by extension the writers) put into thinking about how the character might exist in this world.

    I’ve always found Amy Sherman Palladino’s shows feel aggressively straight though so this tracks.

  3. Alex Borstein, wyd? Do you even *know* what you’re wearing? Susie deserves love and sex!

    Riese, ty for this comprehensive rundown with historical context. At least we know that if there had been a real Susie, she would be having beautiful, affirming sex in a dozen pocket-sized apartments, on a dozen beautiful Murphy beds, the likes of which Midge Maisel would never know.

    • I feel like the way they’ve addressed the issue thus far tracks with the way it was. I can’t help but feel than when I see pieces like this written by younger people that perhaps it’s a dearth of emotional context. The fact that it was an awkward, obtuse conversation would have still been progressive for the time insofar that a straight person with zero other context would have even made it a topic of conversation, and Susie’s reluctance to get into it with her reflects that. “Addressing the issue head-on” seems like 2022-wokeness. It seems far more genuine to me to see it obliquely referenced or side-stepped, yet still tacitly suspected or acknowledged through signals and private reckonings. Susie’s eulogy of Jackie seemed to be an emotional outlet for some of that energy, which, having lived through it and can attest, comes out sideways when the alternatives for the time were harrowing, at best.

  4. Love this piece! Very spot-on and it’s pretty wild that they would overlook this character’s sexuality for all these seasons! It’s one of those shows I’ve been meaning to watch/ watched the first like 4 episodes then abandoned. But now I kind of want to watch more and see just what you’re talking about.

    • I’m sorry, but I think that’s a big point missing here: there’s no other character than Midge (and I’m wildly happy about it too). Every other storyline just serves Midge (her dad not earning money? Cute scene of the two, done with the matter).
      Nothing matters if, in the end, it doesn’t feeds Midge’s character development. She is egocentric, egoistic, sad woman. She isn’t perfect despite her best efforts.
      Susie might be gay? Yes. What does this means for Midge? Exactly what you described, a gross and clumsy attempt to ally-ship that misses every mark (and i think it’s very appropriate for the time too, if we consider Midge-Susie relationship exclusively).
      If susie doesn’t wanna inform Midge her sexual orientation, we don’t get to see it. If we see that, it will be for shedding another light on Midge, not on Susie.
      Of course these are just my two cents

  5. Totally not the point, but I keep getting stuck on “You think I don’t know how to find a lesbian bar? There are three within rock-throwing distance.” Was that ever true, even in the Village? IMAGINE HAVING THREE NON-MALE-CODED QUEER SPACES WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE. *sighs, stares at nothing for an uncomfortably long time*

  6. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel violates modern sensibilities left and right because it attempts to adhere to the sensibilities of the historical period it portrays. It’s filmed more like “dick van dyke show” or “I love lucy” and self consciously reflects those production values as a commentary on those times. Alex Borstein’s comments on Susie’s relationship to her own sexuality, boundaries she sets, relationship to Midge, seem right on to me. Just as the show avoids dealing with the realities of divorce, child custody, Midges superficial relationship with her children, the origins and life story of the German cook, etc, it also glosses over issues of sexuality. Midges stumbles and failure to deal with Shy’s sexuality reflect the awkwardness and discomfort of the times. As a senior citizen who remembers those times, I think the show captures the vibe of the times pretty well, for all its flaws. Susie is a heroic character which is recognized only by Jane Lynch’s comedian, who has faced similar challenges and made her own compromises with the times.

  7. I don’t know. For me, I feel like you have to take awareness into the equation. And if there’s one thing about Amy, she made a show that’s very aware of its own character development and depiction. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have a continuity director. Basically, I believe that there’s a balance between entertainment, being socially relevant and progressive and “checking boxes” in order to be as inclusive as you can be. Shy Baldwindepicted as a closeted GAY black man, in this time period, could actually be where they’re aiming the bulk of that storyline. Comparing and contrasting Shys historically accurate character with Suzies cartoon character-ness, it lets them examine something in one area and still leave room to make another statement in another. Shy is a demographic that seriously needs to be as depicted in media as much as possible (now more than ever) because the black community…in 2022…remains nearly as homophobic as it did in the 1950’s. Not accepting LBGT members of its own community, on top of rampant racial discrimination. So I applaud Maisel for touching on that conversation and I give Susie a pass because I truly think the show knows that the audience wants her to be clearly gay. But If she’s not openly gay, or uninterested in romantic partners, then there’s a reason. I think that in and of itself might be the statement. For some characters, the audience gets too fixated on their romantic development/storyline (especially with women) and they completely miss the point of the character. And as hinted by Alex in that interview, the reason Susie is probably not going to “come out” any time soon is because she’s JUST learning how to be a person. How to have a friend. Susie is gaining her first support system/family and that’s what the focus needs to be on. Adding romance to her character (due to how blunt they’re being about not doing it) would take away from a bigger message. And once again, Shys storyline is probably there to also SHOW the audience that the creators are hyper-aware of the historical consequences of being LGBT and they’re purposely choosing to not go into it with Susie because it won’t add to the character.

    • I love what you have to say here about both Shy and Susie! I think focusing so much on romantic aspects of characters live is not always the most interesting or important. Even though we see that for Midge to some extent, a lot of her and Susie’s journeys are not about that, which I think is important because women are good for a lot more than just romantic love. I love what you say about Susie learning to have a family and friends and support system. I have always enjoyed that aspect of the show.

  8. “There are three within rock-throwing distance.” That’s a great fucking line, however. It speeds by so fast it’s easy to miss the question left hanging in the air whether Susie was inside one of them when someone WAS close enough to throw a rock. But as usual with this show, the moment passes.

    Which I think pretty neatly sums up the problem with Sherman-Palladino shows in general–frequently brilliant writing (when it doesn’t go right up its own ass) on a line-by-line basis but stories that never quite deliver on its promise. That, and main characters whose raging narcissism everyone but their creator seems to recognize.

  9. I had to quit this show after last season because I couldn’t stand Midge and her narcissism and fat-shaming (the latter of which I think is not just her POV but the show’s, much like with Gilmore Girls), and it sounds like that was the right choice.

  10. I responded to this article on Twitter but I thought I’d copy my response here in case someone else sees it. I like that this article references the resonances that her character has with a-spec people, as an a-spec person myself who has always connected with Susie. I think by considering her portrayal as “neutered,” just another in a line of queer characters who don’t get their sexuality seen as much as their heterosexual counterparts (something I’ve seen in other shows), I think automatically seeing a portrayal similar to Susie’s that way does a disservice to, and ignores, a-spec queer and gender nonconforming people and the way we might see ourselves in characters like these. We are often ignored.

    I get the frustration with the Shy Baldwin plotline. I think it’s unfortunate that Midge hasn’t as unequivocally recognized her mistake (though I think she does at some point). I think it’s unfair of to see it as something to want revenge for. But I also think it’s OK to represent her frustration with her situation and others’ disappointment in her. The show recognizes her failings while also being realistic, in recognizing the anger in the situation. I think she does recognize she made mistakes, as Susie points out to her, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the other emotions related to that. I think it’s normal to be angry at the other person, at least at first. I think it’s OK to see her character’s flaws.

    Now, back to Susie. I like that this article recognizes the danger someone like her would face for dressing like she does. I’ve always loved that despite the challenges, the show just presents this gender nonconforming character doing her thing, because people like her existed at that time I understand Riese’s frustration with what Alex Borstein characterizing Susie as someone who doesn’t know who she is, but I really don’t think that plays out in the show. I think Susie knows exactly who she is and what she wants. I think it’s been very clear from season one, when she says “I don’t mind being alone, but I do not want to be insignificant.” She has ambitions, wants to be remembered. I think it’s why she’s so upset when practically nobody remembers Jackie when he dies.’

    Throughout the show we see her drive to find success for herself and for Midge, whose talent she admires so much. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for this kind of relationship to be the most important in a queer woman’s life. I actually liked how the episode contrasted Midge and Susie. Midge keeps trying to go on dates, but is not successful in finding someone she likes. But it’s something that matters to her, which is reflected in her concern about Susie being “alone.” And Midge tries to “help” her, knowing that Susie would not be into men she looks for a lesbian bar. But we see through Susie’s reaction that this is not what she would have wanted from Midge, reiterating that finding a partner is not a priority of hers. She is annoyed Midge feels the need to say that she accepts her no matter what. Susie is older than Midge, she doesn’t need this younger woman’s validation. Midge has always respected her for who she is, generally speaking. As Susie says, she knows the culture in the place where she lives, living among other queer people.

    The implication is that she could go to lesbian bars if she wanted to, because she knows all about them. But that’s not her priority. I’m glad at least Riese hints at the way this could be read as an asexual or aromantic character. As an a-spec person who has felt a strong connection with this character (both for her ambition and her presentation that resists normative femininity), I like that we aren’t seeing a sudden change in the character, with her suddenly wanting a relationship.

    If she had a relationship with a woman, I would be fine with that (ESPECIALLY if that woman was Midge, dear lord). But I don’t think it’s “yikes” or bad that she isn’t in one and doesn’t want to be. A queer person is still queer when they’re not with someone. Queerness isn’t just who you fall in love with/kiss/sleep with, if you want to do any of those things. Asexuals aren’t always accepted as readily into conversations or spaces around queerness because they are considered straight for not having sex, even though heterosexuality doesn’t recognize us either. It’s great to see more representation of the sex and romance aspect of diverse sexualities, but I don’t think it’s right to think that everyone wants a romantic or sexual partner above all else, or that it’s important to everyone’s lives. It’s just not.

    And I don’t think it’s always progressive to only show queer characters as having fulfillment from being in a relationship. Susie isn’t a character who seems to feel shame about her own identity, she just lives her live as herself without apology. If she were in a relationship, that would not make inherently make that presentation any more meaningful. Being with a same-gender partner resists heterosexual norms. Not being with anyone resists those norms, too, because of how much emphasis society places on romantic/sexual relationships. We’re taught that they are vital, essential for fulfillment. That life without it is lacking. But for someone like me, that is not the case. Familial and platonic relationships are so very important, but too often society devalues them.

    I like that Susie is something different from other queer and gender nonconforming characters I’ve seen. Someone who is unashamed and driven, a nonconforming individual doing her thing. Her portrayal is not perfect, but perfection shouldn’t be the aim.I think writing about queer and gender nonconforming people still needs expansion, and I hope there are more characters like Susie. We must not forget about a-spec resonances in characters, must not let sex be the only thing that gets focused on in queer stories. It’s not the be-all end-all for straight people or queer people to be in a romantic relationship, and I like seeing queer and gender nonconforming characters who don’t need to be in a romantic or sexual relationship to be happy or fulfilled. It’s great to see portrayals that show that romantic and sexual relationships between queer people are just as interesting and beautiful and complicated as we grow up seeing heterosexual relationships can be, but that shouldn’t mean that that all queer characters should have one, because not all queer people need them.

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