Domestic workers

Domestic workers are misrepresented in movies and TV, says new report

Domestic work in TV and movies bears little resemblance to reality, according to a new report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California.

Advocates say the misrepresentation has far-reaching implications for people doing domestic work in the real world, the majority of whom are women of color.

An analysis of 47,000 keywords from over a hundred movies and TV shows from 1910 to 2020 shows a much whiter workforce with fewer immigrants than in real life. White domestic workers had more dialogue than colored domestic workers, as well as more complex dialogue with more and different words used. One in three mentions of domestic worker keywords was pejorative, although the language has improved since the 1970s.

Erica Rosenthal, director of research at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, co-authored the report. “Representation is important,” she said. “People learn from entertainment. They learn how the world is and how the world should be. … When [domestic workers] are portrayed in a stereotypical or dehumanizing way, then audiences are more likely to dehumanize the actual domestic workers who work for them or whom they may encounter in their lives.

Domestic workers have always been disproportionately women of color. Race was a factor in the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers from the National Labor Relations Act and other New Deal programs.

Rosenthal points out that not only are white domestic workers overrepresented in entertainment media, but they are also portrayed with more complexity than their counterparts of color. About 80% of domestic workers in larger speaking roles with larger and more complex dialogue were white. In reality, only 40% of domestic workers are white.

“There are really two types of domestic workers who are represented. You might see white workers in fully fleshed out roles, like “The nanny“for example. And then we have another class of domestic workers of color, who are more likely to be background characters and not fleshed out. They’re more defined by their status as someone’s worker,” Rosenthal said. .

The results came as no surprise to Kieran Clarke, a domestic worker living in New York who is part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s new pop culture council, which hopes to improve media representation. The alliance partnered with the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project to commission the research report.

Clarke has described the media’s portrayal of what she does every day as “degrading” and “dehumanizing”.

“What you see on TV is usually just babysitting and cleaning. And this representation is overwhelmingly white. The people who do this work [on television] don’t black people do the job in real life,” she said.

Clarke is originally from Saint Lucia. As more than a third of domestic workers, she is an immigrant and, like more than half of domestic workers, a woman of color.

Clarke worked as a domestic worker for over two decades as a nanny and home helper for people with dementia. She also works as a doula. “I’ve cared for people from birth to 100 years old,” she said.

The report also indicates that there is little representation of the home care workforce (6% of media representation), compared to other forms of domestic work such as cleaning and childcare. children. According to the Domestic Policy Institute, around 62% of domestic workers are employed as home health aides for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Clarke bristled at the portrayal of domestic work, particularly care work, as unskilled or requiring little effort.

“There are skills involved. A baby or a child or an individual is not like a brick. They come with human emotions. They have issues and problems. You have to navigate it all to get the job done. You have to be patient and empathetic,” Clarke said.

The report contains positive news: derogatory language towards domestic workers appears to be on the decline. Words like “servant” and “helper” appear less frequently today than before 1970, for example.

“There’s still a long way to go, but pejorative terms are less and less common,” Rosenthal said.

Clarke’s advice for improving media portrayal of domestic workers is simple: “Talk to a domestic worker. … We want people to understand that our stories matter. Our work matters. We do the work that makes all other work possible.