Let me begin by saying that I was one of the skeptics. One of those people that started critiquing ‘Devious Maids’ after only seeing the initial trailer. A Latina myself, I come from a long list of women spanning generations who worked as maids in the homes and hotels of the elite. I was concerned this would just be another Hollywood caricature of Latinas, framing our bodies as tools for manual labor and sex symbols present exclusively for the pleasure of the white male gaze. In fact many critiques of the show have been centered on the notion that it is disconnected from reality and buys into highly stereotyped and stigmatized images of Latinas. Some of the central arguments critics have used are that A) it oversexualizes Latina maids’ bodies B) it strips Latina voices of their agency C) it is irresponsible to center a show about Latina maids around violence.
I want to take a moment to think about how this show has been sold to the public and the ways in which the creators and producers promote it, which in many ways contributed to this initial backlash. Below we see a couple billboards that were used to advertise ‘Devious Maids,’ one selling the image of sex, and the other highlighting murder. In neither image do we see a full female body, though it is understood the fragmented image is that of one of the maids with her low-cut uniform revealing cleavage, and the sponge she is cleaning with.
The promotional ads found online and in magazines such as the one below, very intentionally sell a specific image of latinidad within the audience they are trying to reach. Here we see a variety of poses that fit within the Hollywood constructions of what is deemed sexy. Though they still have the off the shoulder little black dress, the actors exhibit poses of defiance.
Although the viewer is seeing a stream of images of the sexy Latina maid, script writer Tanya Saracho, is very intentional about giving the characters strong, independent voices, an approach that has largely been absent for Latinas and many women of color in Hollywood up to this point. The individual stories and personalities we see through the experiences of the “devious maids” are far more complex than what has been created for mainstream television. As Vanessa Verduga of Policy Mic writes, “Saracho tends to hold up a mirror that reflects the fallacies of an America that is still spellbound by its egotistical opinion that its mission is to enlighten and redeem the world.”
Before the show was even aired on June 27th, a great deal of criticism had already been formed. Vanessa Verduga writes,
“it seemed rather surprising that a Lifetime series…would actually produce a script that scandalized its viewers. Actually the correct word would be, non-viewers, as the general uproar began before the pilot episode was available to the general public.”
Some voices in the Latino community expressed disgust, calling “Devious Maids” a wasted opportunity. Author Alisa Valdez, was one of the public critics of the show, writing that “there is something very wrong with an American entertainment industry that continually tells Latinas that this is all they are or can ever be.” This reaction has very real roots and it’s natural in a social context where mass mediated images of Latinas are bodies reduced to sex objects. However the question is, can a humanizing story about Latinas only happen in extremes? Shouldn’t we be aiming at increasing our visibility at every level? Eva Longoria one of the executive producers, along with the lead actors, have defended the integrity of the show. Longoria insists it should be praised for being the first mainstream English-Language Drama that stars 5 Latina characters as main characters. “What I didn’t expect,” said Longoria, “was that much criticism from our own community having not even seen it. It doesn’t define our culture if we’re playing these kinds of roles.”
The lead actors in ‘Devious Maids’ from left to right: Dania Ramirez, Roselyn Sanchez, Ana Ortiz, Edy Ganem, Judy Reyes
Dania Ramirez, who plays the maid Rosi, has highlighted that being a part of the cast means getting the chance to tell a story of struggle.
“Now I finally have a chance to portray the stories of the older generation. If we are going to tackle Hollywood, then we need to educate Hollywood first. You gotta start here.”
Ramirez’s point is crucial in continuing to build increasingly positive images of Latinas in Hollywood. Nothing happens overnight, but the fact that this show is pushing certain boundaries (if only a couple) within a mainstream network is promising. It is one of many steps. It is not a question of settling. In fact we should not settle for the singular image of Latinas as maids. We absolutely need to write ourselves into more storylines that showcase the diversity of our power and strength whether in the classroom as teachers, in the courtroom as lawyers, first generation college students, activists. ‘Devious Maids’ is not the end point but merely one of many starting points. I challenge us to question how we are defining Latina agency. If we only understand subversiveness through one narrow lens, we can’t push the boundaries of representation. The writers and producers are trying to sustain their airtime on a mainstream network, and within those limitations have written a storyline that does break away from long entrenched depictions of Latina maids as voiceless and creates sentient, intelligent characters, women who will do anything to fight for the rights, dignity, and future of their families.