Code Switch
12:27 am
Tue July 2, 2013

Can 'Devious Maids' Really Break Stereotypes About Latinas?

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 8:36 am

On Sunday nights this summer, Lifetime is hoping to draw audiences with a campy, soapy drama from Marc Cherry, the creative mind behind Desperate Housewives. It's called Devious Maids, and it looks nothing like anything else on television because it has five Latina stars. It's an unprecedented lineup for a prime-time drama.

The show itself is an upstairs/downstairs story about sensible maids and their neurotic bosses. In the first episode, there's a murder (complete with the victim staggering into the swimming pool), accusations of affairs, a suicide attempt and a star-crossed love story.

Viewers also get nonstop horrible stereotypes, in the form of wealthy white snobs bossing around long-suffering, noble Latina maids. An immigrant mother separated from her young son tries to reunite with him, but her boss won't let her take the time off to see an attorney because she has a facial and an interview. Another employer can't tell the difference between one Latina maid and another. It's an almost cartoonish take on the relationship between the servant and the served.

You wind up wondering: Why does every Hispanic female character on this show have to be a maid?

Thankfully, the maids themselves aren't stereotypes. But there are no Latina bosses here. The series barely shows the maids' homes or relatives who aren't servants. Even when these funny, charismatic ladies get together for lunch in a park, what do they talk about? Not their own families or interests; they talk about their bosses.

A great TV writer once told me that a series evoking serious racial stereotypes has to earn that privilege by saying something insightful. That writer, the late David Mills, helped create an HBO miniseries about black drug addicts in Baltimore called The Corner. One of the many complicated characters is an addict named Gary who once had a successful construction business. He passionately described how he tried to help his neighbors when he was doing well, but many of them, he felt, wanted to fail.

Gary put a human face on the disintegration of his entire neighborhood. The Corner cracked open the ugliness of a drug-ravaged city to tell a layered story about people who could be stereotypes — black drug addicts. Devious Maids never gets beyond empty outlines of hard-working Latinas serving rich white people.

Other landmark shows just burst stereotypes wide open. In fact, The Cosby Show was revolutionary, showing an upper-middle-class black family. Now English-language TV channels are desperately seeking their own Cosby Show for Latinos.

But Bill Cosby was a superstar comic who controlled his own sitcom. If American TV outlets want a Hispanic version, maybe they should consider handing a talented Hispanic performer and producer the latitude to create his or her own vision.

Until then, a campy soap opera about virtuous maids and their abusive bosses won't do much besides give a few really great Latina actresses a little more steady employment.

Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On Sundays this summer, the cable channel Lifetime has a new show from writer Mark Cherry, the creator of the hit series "Desperate Housewives." Critic Eric Deggans says "Devious Maids" is trying to challenge stereotypes about Latinos and domestic workers, the key word being trying.

ERIC DEGGANS: There really is nothing on TV like "Devious Maids," a soapy drama about five strong Latina women. But should they have to face scenes like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEVIOUS MAIDS" )

ANA ORTIZ: (as Marisol Duarte) I could come clean your house. I mean, if you're having trouble finding someone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) That is so sweet. Thank You, Lupe.

ORTIZ: (as Marisol Duarte) It's Marisol.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I thought her name was Lupe.

BRIANNA BROWN: (as Taylor Stappord) That was the previous maid.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Oh. You could be her twin.

BROWN: (as Taylor Stappord) She looks nothing like Lupe.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I thought she had work done.

BROWN: (as Taylor Stappord) You thought our maid had plastic surgery?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) For God sakes. Taylor, poor people like to be pretty too.

DEGGANS: It's a good try; setting up a campy, upstairs/downstairs story about sensible maids and their neurotic bosses.

But what viewers really get is horrible stereotypes; wealthy white snobs bossing around long-suffering, noble Latina maids. It's an almost cartoonish take on the relationship between the servant and the served.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEVIOUS MAIDS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I finally found a lawyer for immigration. She said that he could help me bring Miguel to America.

BROWN: (as Taylor Stappord) Who is Miguel?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) That's her kid back in Guadalajara.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I need a day off.

BROWN: (as Taylor Stappord) I've got a back-to-back appointments on Friday. And Saturday, I'm being interviewed by "Showbiz LA."

DEGGANS: Feels a bit like the evil stepmother telling Cinderella she can't go to the ball.

Thankfully, the maids themselves aren't stereotypes. But there are no Latina bosses here. The series barely shows the maid's homes or relatives who aren't servants.

You wind up wondering, why does every Hispanic female character on this show have to be a maid?

Even when these funny, charismatic ladies get together for lunch in a park, what do they talk about? Their bosses.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEVIOUS MAIDS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Lupe told us Mr. Stappord's new wife is a hot mess.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Oh, She's OK, just a bit insecure. God is it awful to me to gossip about my employer?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as character) Honey, if you're going to sit by us it's a requirement.

DEGGANS: A great TV writer once told me, a series evoking serious racial stereotypes has to earn that privilege by saying something insightful. That writer, the late David Mills, helped create an HBO miniseries about black drug addicts in Baltimore called "The Corner."

We meet an addict named Gary who once had a successful construction business.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CORNER")

T.K. CARTER: (as Gary) All I'm saying, Cardy, is that when I had it I shared it. I shared it with my family. I shared it with my friends. I shared it with those people in the neighborhood who came around with their little hard luck stories. All I'm saying, Cardy, is when I had it I shared it.

DEGGANS: He complained about how his neighbors wanted him to fail.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CORNER")

CARTER: (as Gary) Just felt when I failed that people would like me more for being like them.

DEGGANS: Gary puts a human face on the disintegration of his entire neighborhood. The Corner cracks open the ugliness of a drug-ravaged city to tell a deeper truth.

Other landmark shows just burst stereotypes wide open. In fact, "The Cosby Show" was revolutionary, showing an upper middle-class black family. Now, English-language TV channels are desperately seeking their own "Cosby Show" for Latinos.

But Bill Cosby was a superstar comic who controlled his own sitcom. If American TV outlets want a Hispanic version, maybe they should consider handing a talented Hispanic performer and producer the latitude to create their own vision.

Until then, a campy soap opera about virtuous maids and their abusive bosses won't do much besides give a few really great Latina actresses a little more steady employment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.