Help! I'm a Latina Writer and I'm Hooked on "Devious Maids."
I got hooked on Devious Maids when it premiered last year a for good reason: I was excited to see so many Latina actresses in their 30s and 40s engaging issues of race, class, and gender within the soap opera formula. As part of the Lifetime Network brand, I didn’t expect deep and subtle storytelling, I expected fun, sexy, romantic, sentimental stories rife with overly dramatic camp. And I got it. While there was much to like about the women in the initial episodes, I became quickly disillusioned with the show.
The show’s beginning was promising: a Latina domestic worker is murdered while employed by a wealthy white couple. The police have a young man in custody who is also an employee but it doesn’t add up. There are implications that the murder victim had been sexually abused at the hands of her male employer, and clear signs of a high level cover-up. Three of her friends, also Latina maids, suspect that justice has not been served. A fourth Latina woman, a professor of literature, goes undercover to investigate by posing as a maid in the home where the murder took place.
I liked the premise and loved the ensemble cast. In addition to the undercover literature professor (Ana Ortiz), one maid (Roselyn Sanchez) is an ambitious Puerto Rican singer who began cleaning the home of a Latin music superstar to advance her career. Another (Dania Ramirez) is a Mexican mom who has come to the US for work, and is trying to reunite with her young son. The final pair of women are a mother (Judy Reyes) and daughter (Edy Ganem) from East LA. The mom is a snarky, no-nonsense type who adeptly manages her rich drama queen employer (played over-the-top by Susan Lucci). Her daughter is an ambitious aspiring designer, who is in love with the drama queen’s son. That all sounds like exactly the fun kind of sentimental slush I was looking for.
But the show is endlessly frustrating. A month after I got hooked, I wrote on my blog that I’d spoken too soon about loving the show: “The plot and themes are quickly becoming primarily about sex, romance, and family. In particular, the singer has stopped trying to push her demo album. Instead, she’s settled in to her job as a maid, concerned mostly with romance and caretaking.” According to the network, these maids “have dreams of their own,” but their dreams never seem to take center stage.
The first season was rife with stereotypes—Tanisha Ramirez described the show’s trailer as managing to “efficiently portray Latinas as hypersexual, nosy, scheming and, at times, totally invisible domestic servants, one set of pushed-up breasts, devilishly squinted eyes and sassy hair flip at a time.” and Writer Alisa Valdes also pointed out that in the original Spanish-language version of the show, all the characters were Latino. In the English-language version, only the maids are Latino and the wealthy characters are all white. In season two, the show has been finding new lows in its characterization , and I have begun to find many new aspects of the show offensive.
But I also haven’t stopped watching it. I’m so starved for diverse images of Latinas in media that I keep tuning in.
The problems with the writing on Devious Maids this season are myriad. First of all, all plot material related to a Latina woman's career is generally in service of some other romantic/dramatic storyline—the idea of a woman pursuing her career is always secondary. The aspiring singer character, for example, only makes a career move every few episodes. When her boss has to leave the office for a while to go to alcohol rehab, we find the aspiring singer on the couch filing her nails. Anyone with real ambition in the music industry would be raiding the boss' Rolodex, utilizing the boss' printer, and using the downtime to hustle. She is portrayed as spoiled and lazy, which working women artists are anything but. In the writing of the show, her musical career isn’t treated as something important, rather, the writers trot it out in order to trump up some romantic conflict for the storyline: she can’t marry the butler because her career comes first; she sings beautifully at the open mic and a weird guy becomes obsessed with her. In the latest episode, she begins dating a man who connects her with a gatekeeper at a record label, and the gatekeeper turns out to be his wife. So, her career ambition is just a gateway into another love triangle.
You're telling me this is all just an excuse for a love triangle? Now that's devious.
Meanwhile, the aspiring designer rejected the opportunity to go to school in order to be a maid, and her most recent storyline also involves a love triangle. As Project Runway or the now defunct show Jane By Design showed, there are infinite compelling plot possibilities in fashion, but this show doesn't seem interested in any of them. In the latest episode, she gets an offer of an internship in New York, just in time to be separated from the only man standing after the collapse of her love triangle.
For her part, the lit professor got a book deal, and her career seemed to be in the spotlight for a moment. But then the focus shifted to her shady fiancé/now husband. We haven’t heard anything about her writing for several episodes.
In other words, while these maids are supposed to have “dreams of their own” their dreams never seem to have plot arcs of their own, where anything moves forward in their careers. They are more like the plots of Gilligan’s Island, always finding a new zany way that they might get back to civilization. And predictably foiled by the end of the show.
As a mom striving for work/life balance, I want that in my TV, as well. I like some career drama with my sex/romance/family life or I get bored. I felt similarly about Sex and the City. Carrie was supposed to be a writer, but we never got very deeply into the grit and struggle of her writing career. However, Candace Bushnell’s other TV show, Lipstick Jungle, had three girlfriends in NYC with lots of romance, sex, and drama. But it also had strong career storylines that created the type of multilayered plot that held my attention. Unfortunately that show was cancelled after only 20 episodes. Another show that I found captivating was The LA Complex, a Canadian-made show about young artists trying to succeed in different parts of the entertainment industry in LA. Sexy, dramatic, compelling, career-focused. Also canceled after only one year on air in the United States.
With Devious Maids, I am so hungry to see Latinas on screen that I was able to forgive the fetishization of women’s careers in service to storylines centered around men. However, this season has become downright ridiculous. One of the maids is working for an African American family. They are an unfortunate collection of stereotypes: The bitter, plus-sized, 40-something woman who never married; the hoochie, cheating, golddigger wife; the scheming, violent black man. As an Afro-Latina, it’s painful to see half of my heritage get airtime only to put down the other half.
This show wasn't bad enough, so the writers added more stereotypes.
Another tired cliché I could do without is the murderous lesbian. This character on the show was jilted by the straight girl who never loved her and eventually—wait for it—commits suicide. Apparently it's death by every homophobic cliche.
The show’s original appeal was that it challenged the usual preoccupation with the lives of rich peoples in film and television. It looked at Beverly Hills from the Latina maids’ perspectives. But now it seems to be a perspective that the Latina maids are content in caretaking roles for the wealthy. They focus on the trials and tribulations of their bosses and don’t pursue their own dreams beyond romance and family.
I feel the pull to dump this show like I did last year with Whitney and Revenge when they just got too offensive and absurd. But with five fabulous Latina actors in the cast, it’s much harder to send that breakup text. Eva Longoria, the show’s co-producer, put the show in its Hollywood context:
“I take pride in the fact that this is the first show to feature an all-Latina lead cast. I take pride in the fact that these characters are not one-dimensional or limited to their job title... Television is a business. If we don't support shows that have diverse content, we won't see shows with diverse content! They will simply go away and the hurdles to make the next show with diversity will be even more challenging.”
Perhaps the show is an indicator of the state of Latinas in a racist, sexist Hollywood. An actress from a previous generation, Lupe Ontiveros, estimated that she played a maid 150 times in her career. Maybe Longoria is right that it's a breakthrough for the maids to take center stage, and if we want better shows in future, we need to support what we have now.
There are interesting and funny moments in the show. And there was one compelling plotline this season when the show explored one maid’s vulnerable immigration status, and how she risked deportation of herself or her son when she became a whistleblower against a boss. I keep hoping (in vain?) that those original moments will become more frequent. I don’t know what I’m going to do next time I get an alert of a new episode from Hulu, but right now it’s time to turn away from TV. Unlike the characters on the show, I actually have to get work done.
Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is currently completing a sex worker heist novel, as well as blogging and tweeting about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com.
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