Ready to feel old? It’s been 15 years since Jennifer Lopez warmed our hearts in Maid of Manhattan. The story of Marisa, a maid and single mother hoping to realize her dreams of a management position at The Beresford Hotel where she cleans rooms, unfolded following the same rags-to-riches recipe as Cinderella and Pretty Woman before it. In 2017, we seem to be pretty accepting of the fact that falling in love with the right man is the key to social mobility for women is problematic and antiquated at best. However, we do not appear to be making much progress on our portrayals of maids in pop culture.
Since the 2002 romantic comedy, there haven’t been many other shows or movies that focus primarily on maids or domestic workers. The exceptions to this trend only give us more complications to grapple with when it comes to this underrepresented group. 2011’s The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s eponymous novel, focused on the relationship that an aspiring white journalist fostered with Black domestic workers to help her with a story. The same year, American Horror Story: Murder House premiered, featuring a ghost maid that could change her appearance to seduce the man of the house. And perhaps most infamously, Lifetime aired Devious Maids for four seasons before it was canceled. The serious featured an ensemble cast who became entangled in a web of scandals that included sex, murder, and their wealthy employers. It relied on the trope of the “spicy Latina” for its edge.
What is always at the center of any plot involving the cleaning ladies, though, is the aspiration for a better life and a way out of picking up behind others. But it’s hard to tell this story in film and television without also considering the larger social and political circumstances that dictate their work options. Housekeeping, especially at the commercial level, is considered a low-skilled and low-paying profession. It is work designed to attract the most vulnerable members of society. This includes women, single moms, and people of color — which is often reflected in the casting of maids. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the service industry employs 33% of undocumented workers.
Considering the very nature of their industry, there are more than enough reasons for these service workers to go unnoticed. Think back on the last time someone from housekeeping knocked on your hotel room door before you were ready to welcome them in. I don’t think there has ever been a profession where avoidance was so important. There are so many reasons for maids to exist in the shadows. And on both the big screen and the silver screen, the shadows are mostly where they and the issues that impact them remain.
So it may be that the way we see maids in film and television is simply a representation of how we view them in real life. They are most useful when they are invisible. And if maids aren’t acquiescing to the desires and ambitions of those who do have to interact with them, they’re villainized. And despite how far-reaching and bureaucratic issues of immigration, employment, and education, portrayals of maids — with the exception of The Help — are always about individualistic optimism and achievement. Maid In Manhattan was a great film, and an even greater fantasy, but all these years later, we're no closer to the darker realities that make maids so easy to overlook