Lifetime’s incredibly soapy and evidently immensely popular drama Devious Maids has just been picked up for a second season, which is either enough to destroy your faith in Hollywood or further evidence of society’s acceptance of Latina-driven television, depending on who you talk to. The show has certainly sparked commentary, from its very start, when many Latina media watchers were very concerned about where Devious Maids might be going, even as some were celebrating a show with a heavily Latina cast.
The brief on Devious Maids, for those who have avoided the show, is this: it’s based on a Mexican series, Ellas son la Alegría del Hogar (They Are the Home’s Joy) created by Marc Cherry, who also wrote the drama that inspired Desperate Housewives. Initially, ABC was prepared to pick up Maids, but the network later dropped it, and Lifetime took it up.
In the series, a group of Latina maids serve the rich and powerful of Beverly Hills, a notoriously wealthy and white neighbourhood in Los Angeles, and get drawn into a murder mystery that unfolds into a soapy epic.
One of the obvious deep problems with the show is that while people claim it’s true to Cherry’s original, there’s an elephant in the room: race.
Ellas son la Alegría del Hogar features all-Latina actresses. Race and class complexity are explored within the structure of the show, set in a nation where all are not equal and the wealthy class tends to look and behave a certain way. The show creates a commentary on the different racial groups within Mexico, a highly diverse nation, as it explores who serves and who is served. In Maids, the maids are Latina and the wealthy women are white. Many critics argue, rightly, that this reinforces some very damaging stereotypes about Latinas in the United States and their role in society. Namely, viewers of this show take away the message that the role of Latinas is primarily as maids.
Even more troubling that the show’s initial dramatic event is the murder of a maid, underscoring the disposability of Latina lives (and those of women of colour in general) on US television, and in US culture at large. In a country where racialised violence is very much an issue, such a creative decision was particularly loaded. While it may be indeed be true to the narrative Cherry’s original show put forward, it took place in a radically different context. The United States is not Mexico, and the way the United States thinks about Latina identity is very different from the way Mexico does.
Those stereotypes are further reinforced with the title; Devious Maids? Really? Wealthy people in the US are often convinced that ‘the help’ are stealing, or scheming to steal, especially when they’re women of colour. Actual Latina maids in Beverly Hills are searched upon entering and leaving work, monitored with hidden cameras, and forced to endure other indignities and violations of privacy if they want to keep these jobs. Even when such invasive activities stretch the boundaries of the law, maids are afraid to protest both because they need the work and because, for the undocumented among them, deportation is always a looming threat on the horizon.
The power dynamics of race and class in Devious Maids are different than those on the original Mexican series, and they’re something that need to be handled with extreme care. Thus far, there hasn’t been any evidence of that; this is just another soapy drama played for the most attention possible, and thus far, that seems to be working for Lifetime. The network is trying to model Scandal’s social media popularity, woo viewers, and win loyal fans, but one thing the show doesn’t appear to be doing is having an honest look at race, class, and service in the United States, unlike Scandal, which is taking the racial bull by the horns.
Which is a pity, because that is a show I would totally watch. Something that challenged stereotypes about service and the people who are expected to serve would make for amazing viewing. And Beverly Hills is a great setting for that examination; this is a place where the bus schedule is deliberately arranged to funnel maids to work in the morning and home in the afternoon, but not to allow free passage between low-income neighbourhoods and the wealthy community during the rest of the day via public transit. It’s a place where million-dollar cars sit casually parked by the sidewalk next to massive mansions with formidable security systems, where boutiques line the streets of the retail district selling products worth more than the annual wages of the domestic workers who keep the homes of the wealthy running.
Beverly Hills is a fascinating place to view class in microcosm in the United States, showcasing as it does two such extremes living side by side. There are the wealthy, drifting through the environment of Rodeo Drive, and there are the poor, undocumented women who labour on hands and knees to scrub their toilets. It’s the maids, though, who are considered ‘devious’?
Latinas have long been stereotyped in US pop culture and media as highly sexualised, scheming, ‘spicy,’ bent on theft and betrayal. I see nothing in Devious Maids to suggest that these stereotypes are being confronted, despite the diversity of the production team, which includes Eva Longoria. While Longoria is, of course, not fully responsible for the content of the show, and is working in an industry that creates considerable obstacles for Latina women, it’s notable that she ‘doesn’t believe’ in stereotypes, and thus apparently doesn’t think they’re an issue she needs to consider in projects under her supervision.
Is Devious Maids harming or helping the Latina community? It’s certainly sparking a conversation about whether any representation is truly a good representation.
Photo by halseike, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license