image description: Alex (Margaret Qualley) carries a vacuum while working as a maid in a client’s home. Image via Netflix
“Maid” is an incredible portrayal of the blight of poverty when intertwined with single-motherhood and the reliance on domestic labor in a world that devalues it, as well as generational, cyclical, physical, and emotional abuse. The show itself is tremendously poignant, weaving together Alex’s (Margaret Qualley) struggles with raising her child, losing her child to her abusive ex, regaining custody, returning to aforementioned ex, and trying to stay above-water with nearly nothing in her bank account. The depiction of poverty and abuse as an overwhelmingly sticky and retentive force is appreciated; there are no light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel tropes when it comes to Alex’s financial circumstances—instead, the anxiety of Alex’s chronic lack of money is a constant drumbeat that erodes the viewer’s nerves and resembles the real-life devastation of poverty.
It must also be said, however, that the show falls flat in a multitude of ways. The domestic labor that is the entire show’s namesake seems majorly neglected—it offers a wealth of potential social commentary that was left woefully untapped. Of course, a reflection on the social and political status of maids cannot really be attempted without consideration of the people that compose the largest proportion of maids: women from the Global South. In the U.S alone, the Economic Policy Institute finds that over 50% of maids are women of color. Still, even Alex’s status as a (white, thin, conventionally attractive) maid is not appropriately fleshed out—instead of analyzing the dynamics between women who are hired as domestic helpers and their employers, the show goes on to sensationalize a very exploited labor force.
After being fired by Regina, the woman Alex performs domestic help for, Alex and her newfound friend from the domestic violence shelter proceed to steal Regina’s dog. When her guilty conscience overwhelms her, Alex calls Regina and returns the dog to her in what ends up being something akin to a reconciliation. It is a very classic Hollywood protagonist-regains-their-footing scene: Alex berates Regina, yelling at her in a fit of rage for firing her and failing to pay her for her work. And of course, Regina, shocked by this audacious display, is uncharacteristically taken aback and decides to rehire her within the same episode. It’s a totally unbelievable interaction, functioning solely to smooth out a plot wrinkle. The writing fails tremendously here, showing a kinship between two people—worker and employer—that creates a disappointingly superficial portrayal of an idealistic relationship between the two. Simply put, this is something that would never happen in real life. And, entertainment or not, the other brutally raw aspects of the show make this part fall particularly flat.
The reality of domestic work is, of course, far more vicious than “Maid” purports. In their book, “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy,” Barbara Ehrenreich and sociologist Arlie Hochschild analyze the working conditions of maids and nannies. While it focuses majorly on those from the Global South who travel to Europe and North America for work, it is helpful here in illuminating some of the dynamics that arise from the sociopolitical status of maids in relation to their employers. In one chapter, the authors follow the story of Josephine Perera, a Sri Lankan nanny who works in Greece. While her employment offers her a semblance of independence, the exploitation is palpable. Perera is a mother of three children, all of whom are back home in Sri Lanka, and all of whom she has not seen in ten years—other than a single two-month visit. Her children have suffered as a result—her middle child has attempted suicide three times and her youngest lives in an orphanage and visits his aunt, Perera’s sister, on holidays. Meanwhile, Perera takes care of her employer’s children, joking with them that they are actually hers.
This outsourcing of “the second shift” (the domestic work typically prescribed to women, wives, and mothers) by affluent Euro-American women to maids, typically women from the Global South, is not as benign or innocuous a process as “Maid” would have you believe. Hochschild and Ehrenreich liken this delegation of domestic labor to a form of imperialism: much like the extraction of natural resources from the Global South, the affluent in Euro-America are able to both achieve and maintain their relative positions in society by extracting a different kind of resource from these women—a manufactured form of love and care, both for the employer’s children and their household.
The neglect in portraying these realities as accurately as possible is precisely what is so harmful about its portrayal of Alex’s labor and its interaction with the rest of her life. Perera and other women like her are relegated to choosing either to be with their children and remain in overwhelming poverty with virtually no chance of social mobility, or to work as maids and nannies, earning some money but being forced to cope with the sheer anguish of not being able to raise their own children. And Perera’s case is one of relative ease: many women who travel to other countries for domestic work end up in what can only be described as modern-day slavery: hidden away in the recesses of their employer’s home, these women are brutalized, sexually assaulted, denied pay, and stripped of their passports so they cannot leave.
These forgotten women and their stories are precisely why “Maid” falls so short. While the utility of a deeply personal and intimate story as Alex’s is clear, her relative privilege is not addressed, even in a roundabout way, and the dimensions of race are completely neglected. Unfortunately, this combination results in the creation of a tepid story with inconsistently scathing commentary. Ultimately, while the show appears to attempt to create a cultural analysis of prodigious issues such as domestic violence and poverty, and in many ways, succeeds, it does not seem to even try to attempt commentary or analysis on the basis of race, creating a slight but tangible hollowness to the story. Alex’s story is not particularly groundbreaking, but illuminates the lack of stories about women who are most exploited.