How domestic workers are portrayed in movies and TV shows

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

Roma is a rare anomaly in the catalog of Hollywood productions that portray domestic workers — those who are employed in private households — as rounded, three-dimensional people. So is the finding of a new report that analyzed the depiction of domestic workers in 100 movies and TV shows from 1910 to 2020, finding that overall, producers portray domestic workers as lacking in agency, competency, and complexity — especially women of color, who are seriously underrepresented. It found that domestic workers were called derogatory terms, stereotyped, and framed in negative lights. 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 representation, to help influence cultural perceptions and improve the treatment of America’s 2.2 million domestic workers.

Roma2018. [Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix]

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

The study was a joint project by the NDWA and USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. They conducted a frequency analysis, examining 27 common keywords, exploring how often the words emerged, how they were used, and whether they changed over time. They did a deeper content analysis of 100 titles, from Downton Abbey to Law & Order and Gone with the Wind to Parasitesurveying the demographics, jobs, and general portrayal of the domestic worker characters.

They found that, across 47,000 mentions of domestic workers, one in three references was pejorative, including the common use of the words “servant” and “maid,” both counted about 13,000 times (though has decreased through time). Better terms like “housekeeper” were rarer, at about 3,000 times, and “housecleaner,” the industry’s preferred term, just 18 times. Other domestic roles, most notably caregivers, those who look after patients or elderly people, were severely underrepresented: workers were housecleaners 37% of the time, and caregivers only 6% of the time. The word “caregiver” was mentioned less than 500 times.

In the US, about 42% of domestic workers are white, but 69% of the characters on screen were white. As well as being over-represented, white characters tended to be more complex, more competent, and given 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 large roles, 83% were white, and 17% people of color. White domestic workers spoke 10.8% of the title’s dialogue, versus 4.6% for Latino workers. In some instances, the work tends to be more glamorized when the production involves a white worker, for instance 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 Tasha Wilson, a Houston-based nanny, caregiver, and organizer at NDWA.

Desperate Housewives2009. [Image: ABC]

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

Instead, Stowe says there’s a need for more rounded, accurate portraits of domestic workers, which “[depict] domestic workers as the heroines that they really are. ” Roles should be more substantial, and paint a fuller picture of their own lives outside of work. “Roles that really underscore that the women who are doing this work are more than a product of their labor,” she says.

Some films and TV series have exposed the trauma and dehumanization inflicted on workers by employers. But there aren’t enough of those, Stowe says, and while visibility is important, she’d rather not have it if domestic workers remain “silent figures in the background.” Media should instead show how essential domestic workers are to the economy. “What we’re missing are stories that illustrate the innate value of domestic work as something that makes all other work possible,” she says.

The NDWA has a Pop Culture Worker Council, of which Clarke and Wilson are members, which consults with Hollywood producers to help them represent workers more wholly. “You have to really be in the trenches with us to know what we have to endure on a day-to-day basis,” Wilson says. The council lent its guidance to Romaand to Netflix’s Maid, starring Margaret Qualley, both of which draw domestic workers as complex people with lives outside work. Wilson applauds Maidbut wishes there were similar stories that feature people of color.

NDWA’s ultimate objective is to drive legislative change. Historically, domestic work has been excluded from worker rights; they were omitted from protections granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, likely by design for racist reasons. Positive and accurate screen portrayals could help show that the work is highly skilled and therefore deserving of living wages, along with protections for health and safety, and against discrimination and harassment.

“We want everybody to see that we’re humans,” Clarke says. “And we are deserving of dignity and respect like they are.”

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