After watching her comedy special, “Alex Borstein: Corsets & Clown Suits,” I have to say, I kind of want to be Alex Borstein when I grow up.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star isn’t that much older than me, to be fair. She’s 52, which, according to most pop culture, is when you’re supposed to become invisible as a woman. In the recently released musical special on Amazon prime, Borstein jokes about how actresses are made to “disappear” in their middle age, and that’s why she always sleeps with one eye open and has “rubbed some lamb blood’s on the door jamb, it’s an old Jewish Jedi trick.”
Where the average middle-aged woman may be invisible in pop culture, the middle-aged Jewish mom has a fate possibly worse — desexed and unbearable, loud and nagging. Yet in this special, Borstein, who is a mom to two young kids, is not just sexy in her sequined clown-patterned skirt and velvety black corset, she is also a sexual being — one who talks about reproductive rights, abortions and menstruating right alongside having sex after her divorce and looking at porn — or as she calls it, sex documentaries.
Borstein’s special is all about being perceived. She talks about spending her life in a “clown suit” as a famous funny lady. She was the iconic voice of Lois Griffin from “Family Guy.” She made her mark on MadTV and the dark HBO comedy “Getting On.” And if you’re a reader of this particluar publication, chances are you know her as Susie Myerson from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” who gave us all (OK, me) the butch Jewish icon we needed. And while I personally think Susie is a hottie, none of these roles demanded of Borstein the kind of traditionally accepted ideals of attractiveness and sensuality that we are used to seeing on TV.
After an unexpected divorce that ended a two-decade relationship (“my perception was off… the clown had been clowned”) Borstein had to think about perception. “In order to be seen, a woman has to make herself as small as possible,” she tells the crowd. “Post-divorce, I would do anything to be seen.”
In this special of songs, jokes and moments of extreme candor, Borstein, who, like many Jews, is diminutive in stature, seems anything but small. On stage at the Wolford Theatre in New York City, accompanied by two musicians, Eric Mills and Slava Rey, who also serve as fellow interlocutors, and a sign language interpreter, Borstein fills up the space, leaving not a trace of empty air behind.
The special is filled to the brim with the kind of conversation you might have when you’re a little tipsy. You share your favorite songs (this special has them all — The Cure! Bowie! LCD Soundsystem!), you dish out life lessons (keep the jewelry; Borstein kept her wedding ring because she paid for it) and you reveal embarrassing stories — like getting slapped by a dick the first time you have sex after your 20-year relationship ended (a fact that she reveals to an audience that includes her raised-Orthodox Jewish father).
It’s also super, super Jewish, because Judaism is deeply interwoven into everything Borstein is (she built a sukkah in her Barcelona home, after all).
“As the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors,” Borstein tells the crowd, “I know it’s never OK to make a Holocaust joke… unless it’s really fucking funny. Then it’s mandatory, it’s like the 11th commandment.”
“One of the things I love about being Jewish,” she continues, “is that we can laugh about almost everything, and sometimes we have to, especially about Hitler.”
She and the musicians later go on to sing an entire humorous song imagining the German woman tasked with cleaning the bunker after Hitler’s suicide. When she makes the whole crowd of the cabaret show sing along with her, she then chides them: “You just sang the weirdest shit and you did it because I asked you too, and that’s exactly how Hitler came to power.”
Borstein also reveals the different names she wanted to give her band, which is comprised of two and a quarter Jews — Rey is a quarter Jewish, and the three met in Barcelona, where Borstein settled to lick the wounds from her divorce. The favorite contender is Jewmanji. They then envision a Jewish version of “Jumanji” in which you’re tasked with “annoying people until you win the game.” It’s a movie I would 500% watch.
Perhaps my favorite part of the special is its ending song. When introducing it, she reminds us of the fact that most Christmas songs were written by Jews (for the royalties, she jokes) and says that she and her fellow Jew and a quarter propose another addition to the canon. She then preforms a dark and funny original song. As a Jewish writer with grinchy tendencies, I’ve written more than one screed against the dead trees at Christmas, and Borstein’s song has given me my new rallying cry — “Your Christmas tree is dying/While I’ve got latkes frying,” she sings. She and the band also incorporate some “Hava Nagila” into the song, naturally. It’s the Jewish Christmas song of my dreams (or maybe nightmares?).
Borstein laughs about everything, indeed, but her special is also full of political rallying cries for trans people, abortion rights and gun control. She rails against the men on the Supreme Court legislating our bodies. She empathizes with the suffering of trans women, and chastises people who don’t respect pronouns. At a certain point, she enumerates all the dystopian truths about the modern world, and you see how genuinely broken-hearted she is about it.
She also includes a tribute to past and future generations of Jewish women. She speaks Hungarian with her Jewish mom, whom is sitting next to her father in the crowd, and calls her a GILF (as in Grandmother I’d Like To…).
She also pays tribute to her Holocaust survivor grandmother, who taught her how to smoke and that you need to keep things simple, and who she loved dearly.
Borstein says she’s glad her grandmother was no longer around to witness her divorce, and then enacts her imagined response with a thick European accent: “Oh you make a divorce, you waste 20 years? I survived the Nazis! Why you are so soft? Why you are so slow? Have a candy. Why you eat so much candy? I love you.”
It’s clear Borstein comes from a line of amazing Jewish women, and she says in the special that she is teaching her daughter “to find her voice, to scream it loud and to eat until she is fucking full.” Amen.
The perception of female bodies used to exist in a binary — you are either slut or virgin, either clown or seductress, either big or beautiful. But it’s 2023, and while some are still clutching their pearls about binaries, I think we can all agree that we can be two things at once, and so much more.
In this delightfully frank special, Borstein is all of the things she wants to be, and she makes me believe that I can be that, too. A sexy, loud, Jewish mother doesn’t have to make herself small to be seen.