Domestic workers

How domestic workers are portrayed in movies and TV shows

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar in 2019 for Romea film about an indigenous housekeeper residing for a wealthy Mexican family that was also a semi-autobiographical story about her mother. In his acceptance speech, Cuarón thanked the Academy for recognizing a film centered on “one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without the right to work, a character historically relegated to the background in cinema”. He added, “As artists, our job is to look where others don’t.”

Rome is a rare anomaly in the catalog of Hollywood productions that portray domestic workers – those employed in private households – as round, three-dimensional people. The same goes for finding a new report which analyzed the portrayal of domestic workers in 100 movies and television shows from 1910 to 2020, finding that overall, producers depict domestic workers as lacking agency, skill and complexity, especially women in color, which are seriously under-represented. He found that domestic workers were referred to as pejorative terms, stereotyped and presented in a negative light. Advocacy groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which published the report, and domestic workers themselves are encouraging the film industry to include more accurate portrayal, to help influence cultural perceptions and improve the treatment of America’s 2.2 million domestic workers.

Rome2018. [Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix]

“We know that entertainment has the power to really shape the way we see and feel about different social issues,” says Kieran Clarke, an NDWA organizer, who worked as a housekeeper for 21 years, half as a nanny, and the other half as a caregiver.

The study was a joint project of the NDWA and the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at USC Annenberg. They performed a frequency analysis, looking at 27 common keywords, exploring how often the words appeared, how they were used, and whether they changed over time. They did a deeper content analysis of 100 titles, Downton Abbey at Law and order and carried away by the wind at Parasiteexamining the demographics, jobs, and general character portrayal of domestic workers.

They found that out of 47,000 mentions of domestic workers, one in three references were pejorative, including common use of the words “servant” and “maid”, both counted around 13,000 times (although they declined over time). Better terms like “housekeeper” were rarer, at about 3,000 times, and “housekeeper,” the industry-preferred term, only 18 times. Other household roles, including carers, those caring for patients or the elderly, were greatly under-represented: workers were housekeepers 37% of the time and carers only 6% of the time. The word “helper” was mentioned less than 500 times.

In the United States, approximately 42% of domestic workers are white, but 69% of the characters on screen were white. In addition to being over-represented, white characters tended to be more complex, competent, and have more dialogue, compared to black and brown workers, who make up the majority of domestic workers in real life. While in smaller roles, white workers and those of color were evenly split; in major roles, 83% were white and 17% people of color. White domestic workers spoke 10.8% of the title dialogue, compared to 4.6% for Latino workers. In some cases the work tends to be more glamorous when the production involves a white worker, for example in the case of Fran Drescher in The nanny. Meanwhile, minority domestic workers “have to endure racism while living in someone’s home and still being underpaid,” says Houston-based NDWA nanny, caregiver and organizer Tasha Wilson.

Desperate Housewives2009. [Image: ABC]

More generally, domestic workers are painted with various negative traits. They may be incompetent, as in the case of a Desperate Housewives episode, where a housekeeper says, “Hola, I’m Christina. Good governess. My English is not so good,” or silent obedients whose duty it is to serve, as in a Baywatch episode: “That’s what I want to do now, live with an American family and take care of them. Because it makes me happy. Other common tropes include depictions of domestic workers as criminals or adulterers. In 2004 Spanishthe nanny’s portrayal is instead more nuanced, says NDWA executive director Jenn Stowe, but then she has a romantic entanglement with her employer, played by Adam Sandler.

Instead, Stowe says there is a need for more rounded and accurate portraits of domestic workers, which “[depict] domestic workers as the heroes they truly are. Roles should be more substantial and paint a fuller picture of their own life outside of work. “Roles that really emphasize that the women who do this work are more than the product of their labor,” she says.

Some films and television series have revealed the trauma and dehumanization inflicted on workers by employers. But there aren’t enough of them, says Stowe, and while visibility is important, she would rather not have it if domestic workers remain “silent figures in the background”. Instead, the media should show how essential domestic workers are to the economy. “What we miss are stories that illustrate the innate value of housework as something that makes all other work possible,” she says.

The NDWA has a Pop Culture Workers Council, of which Clarke and Wilson are members, which consults with Hollywood producers to help them more fully represent workers. “You really have to be in the trenches with us to know what we have to endure on a daily basis,” says Wilson. The council gave its opinion Romeand to Netflix Housemaid, starring Margaret Qualley, both of which portray domestic workers as complex people with lives outside of work. Wilson applauds Housemaidbut wish there were similar stories featuring people of color.

The ultimate goal of the NDWA is to drive legislative change. Historically, domestic work has been excluded from workers’ rights; they were omitted protections granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, probably on purpose for racist reasons. Positive and accurate on-screen portrayals could help show that the work is highly skilled and therefore deserves a living wage, as well as protections for health and safety, and against discrimination and harassment.

“We want everyone to see that we’re human,” Clarke says. “And we deserve dignity and respect like them.”