Aaron R. Davis
This is something I’ve been thinking of a lot over the last couple of days, and feel free to tell me if this is me being ignorant, but I’ve got to test this thought out in public.
This has to do with the criticism of the new Lifetime soap Devious Maids, a series revolving around Latina women who are, as the title denotes, domestic workers.
The main criticism is that we have a primetime show starring Latinas, and they’re all maids. There is a sort of low-level anger that’s been generated around this series because how dare American television send the message that all Latinas are capable of is being domestic help? Rather than looking at the positive here — an actual television show with Hispanic actors and actresses in the lead roles — television critics are looking at the first thing they see: why do they all have to be maids?
Look, I could spend a whole column on the opportunities for Hispanic-American actors in American television, but I don’t think I have to. We all know how little we see Latin men and women on TV. What bothers me is the tone of entertainment criticism in general and white critics in particular.
Let’s do the first one.
As critics have gone on blathering more and more self-importantly about this being “the Golden Age of Television,” the expectations have gotten higher and a lot of critics much more whiny and impatient. This makes most of it impossible to read. A lot of critics get so damn impatient with a series as its unfolding, wanting all of the twists NOW, all the character growth NOW, for every episode to be advancing the story NOW. No rest stops, no mystery, no simply spending time with characters that are well-written-and-acted. No, every single thing must advance the story a little further or else the entire episode is simply a write-off. Doesn’t matter how funny, enjoyable, dramatic or watchable it is; I’ve seen critics all but declare that if the plot isn’t constantly developing, it’s all for shit.
I think that’s a shitty attitude, especially when you’re dealing with the first two or three episodes of a show. And I think a lot of the critics who are just flat out dismissing a show — any show, even if it’s Devious Maids — as not having sufficient character shading and depth immediately out of the gate to justify the dishonor of having Latina actresses play maids on a television series aren’t really doing their job well. Yes, they can only review what’s right in front of them, that’s true. But they also can’t really predict what turns the show will take, how it’s characters will grow … they’re kind of ignoring the format and basic storytelling. Yes, we often meet characters who seem stereotypical. But then, the characters develop and, hey, that’s writing. That’s television. The point is to take characters who seem easily dismissed with a simple, stereotypical description and make them something more. Maybe the show will actually do that. They used to call that drama. But why write about what something does well when you can latch onto and be offended by the one aspect of it that makes you feel guilty: that very often, Latinas are hired as household servants by rich white people.
And this is the aspect of the criticism — and so far, 95 percent of the criticism I’ve read has been by white people — that weirdly offends me, and this is the part that might sound especially ignorant, so if it does, I apologize.
You’ve taken a show that engages lead actresses who are all Hispanic women, a very underrepresented American experience on television. A show that is created and produced in part by Eva Longoria, a Hispanic actress who has been successful on television, also something still too rare. And you’ve decided to criticize her for being very honest and maybe a little confrontational about the fact that, guess what, there are a lot of Hispanic-Americans in this country working as domestic help for privileged people. In a world that is still arguing over whether or not gay people or immigrants or black or Hispanic people get to be considered fully human under their legal representation, I find this fact a little relevant.
Look, it’s not Eva Longoria’s job to address the employment or wealth disparity in this country. But it’s also not the job of white critics to tell her that she’s not doing enough because the program she’s producing isn’t about Hispanic politicians or doctors or billionaires. It’s not the job of white critics to decide how and where Latin women are supposed to be represented on television, or what experiences in their lives are worthy of dramatization. Yes, I get that while people are guilty that most television series are about white people, and they want to address that, but getting offended by a series simply because it reflects the fact that a lot of you hire women of color to clean up after you doesn’t make you sound enlightened.
Because, frankly, it’s not for white people — who have never been Hispanic and never will be — to tell Hispanic-Americans when they’re being equally represented for them. It’s not for us to tell them which of their experiences are valid and when exactly they have enlightened representation for them. It’s not for us to tell them what barriers are being broken because — and pay attention to the irony here — telling them how they should be represented on television is dehumanizing, telling them we will not accept them unless they’re portrayed a certain way is demeaning and getting offended on their behalf because someone even actually having a show with Latina leads isn’t good enough for you is insulting.
Sorry, white people, but you don’t get to tell Hispanic-Americans when they’ve achieved enough on television. You don’t get to set the bar. That’s been the problem all along.
But keep using words about how “problematic” it is that these Latina women are playing “stereotypically sexy and spicy Latina maids” as though the part that isn’t the problem is that the only way to get a primetime soap about Latina maids on TV these days was to start with the expected stereotype and then go from there.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.