When domestic worker Lucia Aguilar talks about Netflix’s hit series ‘Maid’, she doesn’t echo the frequent criticisms found in publications, including mitu, packagingquestioning the choice of a white “maid” (Margaret Qualley) as the main character – when, as mitú reported, 65% of American housekeepers are Latinas whose stories often remain untold.
No – Aguilar, domestic work activist and part-time nanny who serves as an advisor to Hollywood through the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NWDA)heats up as she describes the character of Qualley, a struggling single mother, trying on the landlord’s cashmere wraps, tasting expensive wine, dipping in the ocean-view hot tub, and turning on the state-of-the-art AV system in a luxurious house when she finished her cleaning job.
NeverAguilar said in a discussion that also included another entertainment industry adviser, Allen Galeon, who has been providing in-home care for the elderly since 2008, and president of the NWDA. Ai-jen Poo. The meeting took place last week at a West Hollywood office ahead of the release of new research from the NWDA and USC’s Norman Lear Center. “Spotlight on Domestic Workers”, examining depictions of domestic workers in television and film from 1910 to 1920.
Aguilar wasn’t amused by Qualley’s character searching the refrigerator for an open bottle of chilled Sancerre while her employer was away for Thanksgiving. “I want to talk about the serious good,” Aguilar told TheWrap through an interpreter during a heated discussion conducted in English and Spanish. “It didn’t do me any good. It degrades us as workers, making people think that the (real) worker is going to do the same… I give my all to work. Whatever you do, you have to to do well.
According to the report, the United States employs more than 2 million domestic workers – the NWDA’s preferred inclusive term for housekeepers, caregivers of children and the elderly, nannies and au pairs. Recent movies and TV shows including “Maid,” the Fox drama “The Cleaning Lady” (about an immigrant Cambodian doctor who cleans up crime scenes to survive while seeking medical treatment for her young son) and the Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 Oscar-winning feature “Roma,” as examples of projects featuring complex and likable characters who just might push the needle in Hollywood.
“Something transformational going on there, something actively going on there,” Poo said. She added that the NWDA’s work with Hollywood portrayals is an effective way to “shape the narrative” of how domestic workers are perceived by employers and, in doing so, improve their actual working conditions through greater awareness.
For Aguilar, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, with a long history of working as a housekeeper, cook and nanny in Mexico and the United States, this means helping employers see a domestic worker as “not a servant, but a human worker”, with their own families and personal needs to be taken into account. She pointed out that few domestic workers benefit from the paid holidays or sick days granted to most 9 to 5 employees outside the family setting. .
Hollywood stories are often about people behaving badly, in all walks of life. But panelists agreed that the representation of domestic workers is at stake, as depictions of these workers tend to be sparse, stereotypical or one-dimensional, with the character rarely seen or relegated to the background.
Aguilar, who has spent the past nine months researching representations of domestic workers for the NWDA’s Pop Culture Council, said she would like to see more representation of women of color and Indigenous women in worker roles. servants, but more importantly, she wants to see all of these roles be well balanced and likeable. Because the series dives deep into Alex de Qualley’s personal life, Aguilar and the other panelists praised “Maids” despite that unauthorized sip of wine.
Poo pointed out that in this case, the casting reflects reality — in Washington state, where “Maids” is set, the majority of domestic workers are white (the figure is 46% nationally). However, the report notes that in its analysis of 100 domestic worker characters over a century, white domestic workers were overrepresented in the sample (69%).
Galeon, who, in addition to his role as a caregiver and his work as a consultant in Hollywood, is active in Los Angeles Filipino Workers Center working in community organizing and COVID relief for other immigrants, said he spent nearly 15 years working with the elderly in tribute to his mother, who shares her home with Galeon’s son, aged 6 years old. He is also adamant that men should be portrayed as being just as good at providing care as women.
Galeon cited “Roma,” about the life of the native housekeeper of a struggling upper-middle-class family in Mexico, as a big step in the right direction. “Her life as a maid has been seen around the world,” Galeon said. “She was a hero and she saved lives. She was the family psychologist.
The report finds 47,000 mentions of domestic work in film and television scripts since 1916 (the period includes perhaps the most deconstructed depiction of domestic workers, Hattie McDaniel, Oscar winner as Mammy in “As Many Gone with the Wind” in 1939). In addition to the numbers, the report analyzes the terms used to describe the workers (including derogatory terms such as mom, servant and helper), as well as the amount of dialogue involving the characters and the subject of the dialogue.
Findings from the NWDA USC Annenbergstudy include:
• The majority of domestic worker characters portrayed on screen were white (69%) and female (94%). • 25% were identified as immigrants in the dialogue.
• 57% of domestic worker characters were housekeepers, 22% home care workers, and 21% child care workers.
• White child care workers and domestic workers had the most dialogue.
• Domestic workers, and particularly non-white domestic workers, were portrayed as less competent than other characters (as indicated by the complexity of the language).
• A qualitative analysis of dialogue spoken by domestic workers in small and medium roles revealed that they discussed a variety of topics, including romance with their employers and serious crimes.
• White domestic workers were overrepresented in the sample (69% overall, 60% American titles), while non-white domestic workers were underrepresented (13% Latina, 12% Black, 4% API) . However, in the United States today, 42% of domestic workers are white, 29% are Latina, 22% are black, and 6.3% are IPA (Wolfe et al., 2020).
• White domestic worker characters had more dialogue than colored characters.
Like Aguilar and Galeon, the report concludes that quality of representation, with depth and substance, is more important than quantity. “Think twice before placing a domestic worker in the background of the frame, instead place domestic workers in important and developed roles,” the document recommends.
While Aguilar and Galeon are cheerleaders for better representation, their own television viewing habits don’t necessarily lean toward content featuring domestic workers. Aguilar is primarily a news junkie, with comedies ranking second.
And Galeon has an unexpected TV favorite from the past: the late king of “champagne music” Lawrence Welk, whom he applauds as both a positive role model for the elderly and a longtime charitable supporter of the people that Galeon chooses to serve.
“It’s beautiful,” Galeon said with a broad smile.
Read the full NWDA USC Annenberg report here.