by Wendy Millstine
Back in January, I was watching the Netflix mini-series called Maid. The series addresses domestic abuse, violence, poverty, addiction, codependency, mental health, and social work. The series is loosely based on the author Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, which was a true depiction of a mother’s escape from torment and the ability to survive by becoming a maid. I appreciated that it offered insight into a multitude of personal relationships including: abuser and victim, mother-daughter, father-daughter, friendships, social workers, employer, and so on. But what mainly held my attention was the unique aspect of emotional abuse that is central to understanding domestic violence. We watch as Alex (the victim) learns that although she has never been physically hit, emotional abuse is domestic abuse.
Since emotional abuse is so often dismissed or ignored in our society when it doesn’t involve physical violence, it’s worth defining it. According to Psychology Today, “Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them.” Examples may include emotional manipulation, demeaning or threatening behavior, regularly judging a person’s perspective without trying to understand it, controlling a person’s behavior, relying on blame rather than improvement, Isolating a person from family and friends, regarding the other person as inferior, frequent ridicule, sarcasm, constant criticism, and telling the other person how to feel in an attempt to be “helpful,” and gaslighting, to name just a few.
I also noticed right away that the people who held power over or hindered Alex’s success were all white people: her abusive husband, her mother-in-law, her own mother and father, and so on. The people who really wanted to help Alex were people of color, such as her employer at the maid service, one of women who repeatedly requested only Alex to clean her house, the social worker at the shelter, the friend who gave her a free car and sheltered her and her mom for a short period of time, and so on. This was a new angle and depiction from the usual “white savior” story, of which we’ve all grown tired.
As a racial justice worker, I began to wonder what this mini-series would have been like if viewed through the lens of race. So I began my list of questions: What if Alex was a Black or Brown woman? How would viewers perceive her setbacks and obstacles differently? Would this series have wide appeal if Alex was Black or Brown? How would the system serve or not serve her needs as a woman of color? Who would reach out to help her? What opportunities might be denied her on the bases of race and discrimination? How might this story play out differently if Alex were not white? And ultimately, what privileges and opportunities are afforded Alex because she is white, that might be denied if Alex had been a woman of color? Just to name a few…
Whether you’ve watched this mini-series or plan to watch it, I truly believe that as racial justice advocates and activists, we need to imagine the role of race in every situation, especially when it comes to media. I believe our inquiry and questions need to come from an honest and vulnerable center of our beliefs. When we sit with the uncomfortable lens of race and the questions therein, we can more fully investigate our racialized implicit bias. Our blind spots around our own perpetuation of racism can more clearly come into view.
In the end, though I felt that there were redeeming qualities to the series and though I did want to see Alex triumph and succeed, I still had to acknowledge that Alex’s experience felt like a white fairy tale. I continue to ask myself, would Maid have been this successful if Alex were a Black woman?
And therein lies the double standard at the core of whiteness:it is more challenging to stomach a person of color persevering under systems of oppression designed to ground her down than it is a model-thin white woman who rises above adversity with hard work and grit.