Devious Maids and Racism As Entertainment

When I first started seeing the promos for Devious Maids over the summer, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. I thought that I must surely be seeing a parody, a joke, some kind of complex gag that would be revealed in time, but then I found out it was an actual show that an actual network had decided would be a good idea to bring to the general public as summer entertainment. It was a nice reminder that in this delightfully post-racial society, racism as entertainment is in full bloom, except apparently we don’t call it that; it’s just harmless summer comedy with spicy Latinas.

If you’re unfamiliar with Devious Maids, count your blessings. The show revolves around a set of Latina women working as maids who have close relationships with each other as members of the serving class working in the homes of the rich and powerful. There’s a token murder mystery to drive the plot a bit, but overall, the show is designed to be a comedy-drama on a network (ABC) known for its somewhat soapy fare driven by ridiculous overplotting and outlandish characterisation.

So I want to be excited about a show with Latina leads and a main cast consisting predominantly of women of colour. But, Devious Maids reminds us that any representation is not a good representation, because it draws upon ridiculous mythologies about Latinas, right down to the entire premise of the show. Of course these women work as maids, because that’s what brown women do. And naturally their lives are filled with proximal drama as they allow the issues of their employers to pervade their lives, because they have no lives and motivations of their own.

Intriguingly, the show is actually an adaptation of a Mexican series influenced by Desperate Housewives, which shows how television comes full circle (and illustrates how US interest in telenovelas and Mexican culture is on the rise). But the difference between the shows is critical; one is a criticism and commentary rooted in the community profiled, with Mexican women telling their own stories. The other is a white adaptation, which takes on a very different look and feel as the creators aim for a version that will feel palatable to white US audiences.

And those audiences, of course, want racism as entertainment, something demonstrated time and again when it comes to which pieces of pop culture become popular and what kinds of attitudes rise to the surface in conversations about film, television, and culture. Devious Maids capitalises on the hunger for simplistic, racist portrayals of women of colour, just like The Help made white readers and later viewers feel good about the mammy archetype; people got to feel like they were really getting a glimpse into the lives of the underprivileged servant classes when all they were really doing was reinforcing the idea that there should be a servant class in the first place. And reminding themselves of who should be in that class.

This could be a great story about how the lives of women of colour are undervalued in US society and they’re treated like so much garbage, forced to clean up after the parties of the rich and famous and enduring low pay and abusive conditions. Devious Maids could be about sexual assault from employers, subminimum wage, and the fact that no one wants to investigate after a woman working as a maid is murdered. It could be about immigration policy and exploitative labour practices and abusive labour brokers.

But with a title like Devious Maids, you know it’s not. And you know it’s designed as light, frothy fun intended to captivate white US audiences both with idealised visions of the kinds of lives that involve having maids, and with familiar racist tropes when it comes to household service and the kinds of women who find themselves in these jobs. Racism as entertainment is a much more popular sell than social commentary, and ABC, like other networks, is in the business of ratings and drawing advertiser dollars, not in the business of making superb television that breaks boundaries and challenges social attitudes.

Sometimes the two just happen to coincide and the results can be both fantastic and explosive, but usually not. More commonly, the result is offerings like Devious Maids, which draw viewers into stereotypeland for a trip around the merry-go-round of racism and the reinforcement of racialised class stratifications. This is what happens when shows from other nations are adapted for US audiences, many of whom are unprepared for the nuance and complexity of pop culture made outside the US—this is a country that has become so socially dominant, it has a hard time conceiving of the value of anything that doesn’t come from its own creative maw.

Shows like Devious Maids come and go, but the attitudes they espouse live on, and the fact that networks keep picking up the pilots and taking them on in the first place is telling. They know that there’s a chance a show will become a breakout hit and they’re willing to take that chance, to see if the latest round of racist entertainment will do the trick. After all, The Help did so well that clearly audiences in the US still hunger for this sort of thing, lapping up the values it projects and spitting those values right back up again to affirm them for the rest of society.