Maid (Netflix miniseries)
directed by Molly Smith Metzler
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
Hachette, $11.99 (paper)
Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home
Megan K. Stack
Anchor, $16.95 (paper)
The Perfect Nanny: A Novel
Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
Penguin, $17.00 (paper)
In the 1970s, a group of feminists collaborating under the banner Wages for Housework (including Selma James, Silvia Federici, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa) came up with a remarkably precise dictum to convey their perspective on the domestic labor performed by so many women in their own homes: “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” Pointedly, they did not deny that unwaged housework might be a manifestation of love. Rather, Wages for Housework argued that “nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.” In other words, the fact that caring for a household under capitalism often is an expression of loving desire, while at the same time being life-choking work, is precisely the problem.
The fact that caring for a household under capitalism often is an expression of loving desire, while at the same time being life-choking work, is precisely the problem.
That the “they” of the dictum—bosses, husbands, dads—are actually not wrong about this illustrates the insidiousness of the violence women encounter (and mete out) in the domestic realm. It’s the reason paid and unpaid domestic workers, and paid and unpaid mothers, still have to fight just to be seen as workers. And why being recognized as workers remains only a precursor to—one day—ending their exploitation and, by extension, beginning to know a new and different form of love.
Under capitalism, Wages for Housework perceived, “love” often serves the interests of the ruling class because it can be leveraged to depress wages (surely you’re not in this for the money) or even withhold them altogether (do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life). The gendered injunction to care “for love, not money” obscures the grinding, repetitive, invisible, energy-sapping, confining aspects of the work involved in making homes of any kind. The principle that some things “should not be for sale” becomes a way to disguise the reality that, everywhere, on every street, they are—and to excuse underpaying those doing the “selling.”
Thus the Wages for Housework movement, which was internationalist but had particularly strong ties to New York and Italy, was not for housework at all. On the contrary: these feminists were against it, against wages, and against all capitalist work for that matter. Their platform—which was rephrased and clarified by Federici in the formula “wages against housework”—was in this sense far removed from the now-ascendant demand that we “value” care work and grant “dignity” to domestic labor.
Wages for Housework contended that domestic labor under capitalism was intrinsically incompatible with “dignity.” Therefore no set of incremental improvements would ever get at the heart of the problem, namely that women will always be pressed into this work because capitalism needs them to perform the cooking, laundering, sheltering, and foot-rubbing that make it possible for workers to keep slogging away, day after day, generating surplus value. Rather than calling this involuntary labor “love,” Marxist feminists identified it as social reproduction, and Wages for Housework refused the notion that the family, any more than the factory, is “natural.” By contrast, today’s prevalent perspective, as expressed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, seeks to ameliorate conditions such that the private nuclear household, with its army of paid and unpaid workers, might survive and hence continue to generate (“dignified”) jobs.
The gendered injunction to care “for love, not money” obscures the grinding, repetitive, invisible, energy-sapping, confining aspects of the work involved in making homes of any kind.
None of this can be separated from fantasy—we’re talking about love, after all, or at least what we think of as love. For many centuries, and certainly since Charles Perrault’s 1697 Cendrillon (later “Aschenputtel” a.k.a. “Cinderella” as recorded by the Brothers Grimm)—or, if you prefer, ever since Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740)—Europeans and Americans have lapped up tales of poor wenches elevated, in the end, to the condition of a lady. These tales encrypt, of course, the consolations of lottery logic (what if, what if, Prince Whatever chose me, and I could escape this dump?) as well as substantial anxiety about miscegenation. And, actually, the outward appearances of social mobility and class transgression in these texts belie the underlying logic of the genre. You see, lowly Pamela (or equivalent)’s innate spiritual nobility proves that she should not be in the working class at all, and has actually been the victim of a sorting error, a cosmic miscategorization the plot then handily rectifies by marrying her “up,” thereby restoring order to Nature.
We should not be surprised that, to this day, the publishing industry persists in producing vehicles for this conservative fantasy in literature and memoir. Romantic fantasy remains inseparable from class fantasy. It will not stop until the plug is pulled, from below, on the love plot—the domestic romance—of class.
For now, I detect only rumblings and gurglings. Consider three recent bestsellers about commodified care, all based on real events, whose respective vantagepoints form a kind of triangle—angelic maid, guilty madam, and a fictional narratorial standpoint poised between madam (author-surrogate) and demonic-nanny-in-sheep’s-clothing from the banlieue.
In the opening episode of the Netflix miniseries Maid, adapted from Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, working-class protagonist Alex is introduced as someone who yearns, more than anything, for bourgeois domesticity and a private family life of her own. A slew of fantasy sequences—in which Alex closes her eyes mid-clean and is suddenly shown embracing her daughter in a gracious sunlight-flooded home (modeled on her client’s beautiful property)—establish her as a likeable heroine; she is no threatening proletarian. Only in Alex’s fantasies does she stuff her face with cake from the designer fridge of her client. In reality, she categorically does not steal—not even the luxury food she’s been ordered to chuck in the compost bin. Indeed, this is enough a point of pride that it is one of the things she almost-apologetically tells her roommate at the domestic violence shelter. Via close-ups of her face that recall shots from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we see that Alex the “Maid” principally simply suffers. She incubates no vengeance.
There is savagery, darkness, despair, and rage in the hearts of those whose work it is to care for kitchen surfaces and small children.
Yet the literary world has come close to acknowledging, lately, that there is savagery, darkness, despair, and rage in the hearts of those whose work it is to care for kitchen surfaces and small children. This is true of those employed to do this work, and its true of those who employ them, as well.
Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home (2019) is the bestselling memoir of Megan K. Stack. In it, Stack writes about the women she paid to keep her houses in Beijing and Delhi while she sat down to work at writing (about them). She says: “We—the women who occupied my house—were left to improvise, to endure what we could endure, to become as monstrous as we allowed ourselves to become.”
In Leïla Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny (2016), monstrosity reaches the point of infanticide. On page one, the crushingly exploited Parisian nanny has bloodily murdered her charges, a little boy and girl. Slimani’s parents did employ a nanny when she was growing up in Morocco. Everyone pretended, she recalls, that this nounou “was a member of the family, but everyone knew she was not.” So, then, does the author of The Perfect Nanny, with its carer-turned-killer, employ a nanny herself, to look after her little boy and little girl in her chic Parisian flat? I do not know. But in 2018, Slimani was greeting interviewers clad in a sweater bearing the ambiguous provocation “Bourgeoisie Sauvage.”
One pervasive theme throughout Maid (both the memoir and the miniseries), The Perfect Nanny, and Women’s Work is loneliness. “Despite Mia’s constant touch and pull and her sticky hand finding mine,” Land writes of her daughter (whose name is Story in reality, and Maddy on Netflix), “I walked along a deep precipice of hopelessness.” Many of the owners of the houses Land/Alex cleans treat her as a nameless nonentity. She has to listen to racist fantasies about welfare recipients from “the person whose pubic hairs and leg hair stubble I’d have to scrub from the ring of her jetted tub.” Her anger at this treatment—and at her ridiculously low wages—is compounded by the way single mothers, even white ones, who receive state benefits are treated. People snarl, “You’re welcome!” at her in the supermarket when she pays using food stamps. Mia/Story/Maddy is frequently ill because of the mold that infests the tiny home her mother has to scour at the end of her working day—for love this time, not money.
In 2019, on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were an estimated 100 million paid domestic workers in the world, the vast majority women, a fifth of them migrants. Most, perhaps all, of this vast workforce concurrently worked in other households for free. Most women do; Stack argues that unpaid domestic workers make up “half the population.” Even as the “manager” of a home that serves as the job site of both a cleaner-nanny and a cook, she clearly, and probably rightly, includes herself in this half. Women’s Work convincingly depicts the wicked, infinitely expanding nature of domestic work: it’s a weight that can crush even a “ma’am” like Stack who is surrounded by the neocolonial equivalent of “ayahs” (the nursemaids retained by memsahibs during the British Raj). Stack is “tripped up, again and again, by the very things I was writing about.” Tripped up because, as a woman—high-flying reporter or not—your labor is cheaper, your non-domestic work more dispensable than your husband’s.
While Maid shies away from allowing readers and viewers to experience the pleasures of class revenge, Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Stack’s Women’s Work share a preoccupation with housework’s potential to brutalize.
Having fled her bartender boyfriend and his mobile home, the protagonist of the Netflix miniseries Maid has signed on as an associate at Value Maids, a business run out of a storage container behind a laundromat in Washington. After leaving her boyfriend, she and her daughter Maddy live first in her car, then on the floor of a ferry terminal, and finally in a battered women’s refuge. A local welfare officer refers Alex to both the job and the shelter after she shows up at Social Services, desperate and with a small child on her hip. She still has to be persuaded to accept the room though because, in her opinion, she has not been truly abused (he only punched the wall next to her head).
Alex’s reticence to think of herself as a victim—or her partner as an abuser—is heartbreaking, and reflects an all-too-common reality. But it is also painted as ethically honorable. As befits an offering from the team behind Promising Young Woman (2020)—that singularly pro-martyrdom and counterinsurgent #MeToo movie—the protagonist of Maid is not angry. At anyone. At least, she does not act on her anger. On Alex’s first assignment, the homeowner, a vicious ultra-rich Black boomer, orders the meek young drudge back on her feet mere seconds after she has fainted from hunger. She then refuses to pay Alex the $37.50 she is owed. Even so, in marked contrast to many stories about badly used laborers (Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 film Parasite comes to mind), Maid’s Alex incubates no retaliatory violence, no hate, no revenge fantasy. When her far more class-conscious shelter buddy kidnaps the lady’s dog to provide Alex with leverage to combat this wage theft, Alex confesses to the crime and—although she manages a “You can go fuck yourself”—she returns the dog without even asking for her money. And toward the end of the series, this lady later becomes Alex’s pseudo-friend, savior, and benefactress, graciously hooking her up with a fellow elite boss-bitch, a lawyer who extricates Alex from her custody battle.
Kidnapping a dog—for all of five minutes—in order to extort wages due to you from a millionaire: What does that make you? It’s a slippery slope, we are perhaps supposed to think. Next thing you know, you’ll be expropriating the expropriators, all in the name of, you know, putting a roof over your daughter’s head, feeding yourself, et cetera. Much better to be sympathetic to the ruling class you serve: Alex listens interminably to Regina’s existential pain—she has spent $300,000 on unsuccessful fertility treatments—and returns a cashmere cardigan she tried on while working on Thanksgiving. Regina says, “Keep it.” Alex says, “No. I will buy my own one day.” Regina tells her the price of the cardigan. Alex swiftly takes the cardigan. Ha, ha! Gal pals! Likewise, the relatively affluent acquaintance, dreamboat, care virtuoso, and would-be boyfriend of Alex, Nate, must be rejected by her on the grounds that she won’t accept “charity” or “prostitute” herself. Alex does not want handouts. She does not want a sugar daddy. She is a paragon of hardworking white American womanhood, suggests Netflix, and a dementedly devoted mother.
While Maid, in both its book and televised formats, shies away from allowing readers and viewers to experience, even fleetingly, the pleasures of class revenge, Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Stack’s Women’s Work share a brooding preoccupation with housework’s potential to brutalize.
Slimani sympathetically imagines the exquisite depths of debt and misery into which the white domestic worker from the banlieue sinks, bit by bit, before reaching for the kitchen knife. The diabolically rigged nature of that nanny’s struggle—the inexorability of her plight—is captured in Slimani’s novel with a force reminiscent of Maupassant’s nineteenth-century fable “The Necklace” or indeed Hwang Dong-hyuk’s new Netflix hit Squid Game.
Kidnapping a dog in order to extort wages due to you from a millionaire: it’s a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you’ll be expropriating the expropriators, all in the name of putting a roof over your daughter’s head, feeding yourself, et cetera.
By contrast, Stack—despite her subtitle (A Reckoning) and unearned critical praise for being “unflinching”—anxiously dances around the possibility that she might be, actually, the only “monster” in her homes. Women’s Work chronicles the trials and ethics involved in maintaining a career as a prestigious American writer living in the capital cities of India and China, sharing space not only with her husband—a far more successful foreign correspondent—but also with Xiao Li, Mary, and Pooja: a changing cast of cheap brown nannies (themselves mothers) who cook, clean the property, and cherish her small children. For Stack not to be reprehensible in her own eyes, she has to paper over the antagonism of class in her household, and center instead sexed solidarity. To see herself as a good mom, she has to believe that these women—just like her, presumably—wish her sons no ill. It is instructive to compare this with A Promising Young Woman’s seeming insistence that women are nonviolent, as well as with Maid’s determination (in both its incarnations, television and print) to promote a view of white working-class single motherhood’s escape from poverty as innocent, decent, and pure of heart. It is not only ethical but safe to hire help! It is as though Stack were subconsciously writing against the defense mounted in nanny Louise Woodward’s trial for child manslaughter in 1997: if you didn’t want something to happen to your kids, you should have taken care of them yourself. But that argument betrays a rosy view of motherhood, anyway (as only Slimani dares point out). “Biological” mothers kill babies too, after all.
Refreshingly free of sentimental ideology about the eternal maternal, Slimani has been fairly open in interviews about the parallels between herself and the well-heeled Franco-Arab Miryam who employs Louise, the protagonist of A Perfect Nanny. Miryam hides from Louise, in cloth bags, the clothes she buys for herself and the children, opening them only when Louise has gone home. For this, Miryam’s once-leftist husband Paul “congratulates her” on her tact: “Louise had turned him into a boss. He hears himself giving his wife despicable advice. ‘Don’t make too many concessions.’”
Louise’s interactions with her employers leave her simultaneously infantilized and desexualized. When notices of Louise’s unpaid debts get sent to Miryam and Paul, they give her a parentally stern talking-to—yet at the same time, Miryam “thinks Louise wise and kindly.” Paul assumes (exactly as the señora does in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma) that the nanny will want to come on holiday with them—and then “blames Louise for bringing her poverty, her frailties all the way” to Greece. All the same, a photo from this holiday gets hung in the living room because, says Miryam, Louise is “part of the family.” Soon enough, however, Miryam has revised this completely: “She’s our employee, not our friend.”
“I claim,” Slimani declares in her real life, without apology, “the fact that it’s sometimes boring to play with my son.” Likewise, the character of Miryam thinks, prior to hiring the nanny, that she is “dying because she ha[s] nothing to talk about but the antics of her children”; the children, she says, are “eating me alive.” Her friends, she is certain, have surely done the same: “watched their child sleep and wondered how they would feel if that little body were a corpse.” Now and then, contemplating her children, Myriam “feels a frenzied need to feed on their skin,” to “squeeze them against her until they were dizzy. Until they struggled.”
All of this unmistakably mirrors Louise’s similar impulses—which coexist, Slimani is clear, with real affection, real devotion, real love. In other words, the noir joke at the heart of The Perfect Nanny is the notion that, if domestic labor is about doing someone else’s dirty work, then these duties might include butchering the children the lady of the house routinely wishes dead. We learn of the bite marks Louise leaves on the children’s flesh and then lies about; of the sinister pleasure she takes in their panic at not being able to locate her during hide-and-seek; and of the fact that “sometimes she wants to put her fingers round [the boy’s] neck and squeeze until he faints.”
The joke at the heart of The Perfect Nanny is the notion that, if domestic labor is about doing someone else’s dirty work, then these duties might include butchering the children the lady of the house routinely wishes dead.
If Stack has ever entertained such thoughts, she does not say so. She is “hopelessly ritualistic” in her attempts to ward off threats to her children. Her innate fear of catastrophe doesn’t come from having reported from war zones, she says, but from “the stabbing gut fear of motherhood.” More than once, she appeals, in this essentializing way, to the cosmic, trans-historic “rage of mothers”—an idea directly contradicted by her own observation that the maids who work for her in India harbor none of this rage. They, she observes, mother their own children differently: “This is parenting without privilege, I thought. This is how you prepare your children when you don’t have the illusion that you can protect them.”
Throughout Women’s Work, Stack documents the guilt, paranoia, self-deception, self-congratulation, ease, self-disgust, and, above all, ambivalence she feels after asking a poor Chinese woman, and later on two Nepali ones, “to come into my house, to help me take care of my children.” When one of these employees gets beaten up by her husband and starts drinking, Stack reflects grandiosely that “whatever Pooja’s troubles, I had a certain responsibility for them. . . . I had created them.” Pooja’s in-laws would disown her if they knew what her job was. “I am complicit. . . . And so, reader, are you.” At another moment, Stack asks: “Who am I to feel guilty for renting a mother away from her children? Who am I to feel guilty? Who am I? I’m not sure anymore because the women won’t say my name. Excuse Me. Madame.”
The delusions through which the bourgeoisie view their “help” are skewered beautifully—if often unintentionally—in all three texts (though, oddly, least cruelly in the only one written by, and not just about, a Maid). For example, when Stack and her husband, Tom, discuss how to manage their staff, she writes, “every time we talked like this—which was often—I disliked Tom and I disliked myself . . . it degraded our love affair and sullied our family.” Stack’s book positively swims in guilt, a condition she generalizes to include all expats: “We are all guilty—not quite guilty enough to do something else, but terribly guilty, all the same . . . we repeat incantations to banish the guilt.” When researching her book, Stack had to assure a host of defensive fellow Westerners that they weren’t “all just bitches” for employing native maids: “‘I have a nanny—’ I said. As if to protest, I am still one of you! I have not broken rank!”
Of her rationale for penning the book, Stack writes:
I didn’t want my family to leave behind a trail of forgotten women who once upon a time took care of our children. I didn’t want my boys to grow up and say, I had nannies once. They were like part of the family, as if the women only existed as a function of ourselves.
But this functionality was, inescapably, what was being bought. Pooja, with her unruly boozing and related “troubles,” makes the purchase kind of uncomfortable. Stack “stalked Pooja on Facebook,” she confesses, and then stalked her offline for good measure, not remotely trusting her. Conversely, Mary, Stack ruefully writes, was “the dream worker for a dystopian world”; “a migrant worker without yearnings. She’s “the one I trust,” yet, at the same time, “I can’t shake the feeling that I bought something from her that should not be for sale.” Mary, you see, was “a gun for hire, a mercenary mother.”
Stack is willing to entertain the Black lesbian feminist principle that every child has many mothers, but unable to follow through with a criticism of the class divide that means some families have the buying power to vacuum up as many other mothers as they choose.
There is more: “Mary was India. India was in my house.” Stack’s Orientalism isn’t a one-off: “This stout wise woman, this professional hoister of babies,” Mary, is described as dropping “small words stuffed with centuries of human truth . . . eyes downcast, a universal goddess enjoying a private joke.” Universal goddess? The other joke Stack isn’t in on is her own inability to refrain from adding something relativizing and self-exculpatory to her own statements. “Mary was a guilt-free tool of some lucky woman’s advancement—mine, as it turns out,” she writes. “Of course, it wasn’t only me, it wasn’t only us.” OK then! The ethical reasoning here is a mess, willing to entertain (without actually citing) the Black lesbian feminist principle that every child has, and every child deserves, many mothers, but unable then to follow through with a criticism of the class divide that means some families have the buying power to vacuum up as many other mothers as they choose (without however adding those women’s names to the kids’ birth certificates or property deeds), while poor and Black women are often compelled to co-parent by necessity. Stack is vaguely aware that something is structurally wrong, but wholly unwilling to fault capitalism for fear of seeming naive.
Even so, it remains easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family. Land’s abandonment and neglect by her parents and stepparents neither prevents her investing normatively in the idea of “a real family,” nor alters her conviction about what “a mom” is. It is Stack, weirdly, who comes closer to undermining the universal family, with remarks that threaten to split the classless universal of her title—Women—in two:
Mary was an ideal household employee because she had no real regard for households and therefore no desire for one of her own. She came free and unattached—give her money, she’d stay and work. She’d convinced herself that parents were superfluous, and so she didn’t torture herself for leaving her children behind.
This “lack of guilt or emotional conflict made it easier for me, and for my family,” Stack continues. “If Mary didn’t mind, why should we?”
The confessions are now coming thick and fast: “In some ways, I was a bad boss. . . . When one person has power, it’s not a fight, but something closer to abuse.” Are we to award her points for knowing it? But, according to Stack, it’s not the fact that “they don’t love you” that makes it that way (do family members always love each other?), but that “you can’t snap at employees the way you might snap at a family member” (are there no power asymmetries in families then?). As Stack is sometimes aware, not being known by name, not being loved, is part of the charm of commodified housework: “With Mary, it never felt like love. We were her duty, nothing more but also nothing less.” Which is worse, dereliction of duty or of love?
The closest Land comes to dereliction is a moment of brief temptation to throw down her scrubbing brush and walk out on a “move-out clean” in a house so filthy it made her boss “gasp.” She also gives the middle finger to another unsavory house as she leaves. Land has tattooed hands and arms, but you’d never guess it to see her author photo on Maid’s jacket, in which she looks almost Victorian in a lacy collar. (The character in the Netflix adaptation is likewise untattooed, wide-eyed and childlike—the actor, Margaret Qualley covered up her tattoos for the part.) In Land’s very last pages, she declares that hippies have always been “her people.” But the anti-productive, anti-disciplinary, poly-familial hippie subculture was nowhere to be seen at the beginning of her book when she got pregnant and bade farewell to a life of waitressing and dancing:
I would do what parents do, what parents had done for generations—I’d make it work. There was no questioning. No other option. I was a mother now. I would honor that responsibility for the rest of my life. I got up, and on my way out, I ripped up my college application and went to work.
This sacrifice is crushingly unjust. But toward the end of her book, Land retroactively decides that there was love in her years of miserable vacuuming and polishing, punctuated by panic attacks. Her mother’s role in the world, Land’s daughter Mia learns, has been to “help people.” In one stroke, this grueling, repetitive, mostly thankless, health-destroying work has been redeemed. The reasons for this are as straightforward as they are understandable. Few things are harder to accept than the idea that our suffering has been, not only unnecessary, but pointless.
It can’t hurt, either, that by the end of the book, Land is on her way out of poverty toward bestsellerdom. The demands of the genre insist on a particular answer to the riddle of what her labor has meant. Sheer contingency does not make for a satisfying explanation. It seems there has to be—narratively speaking—something else that accounts for why escape was offered to her, why she deserves it.
Land grasps that one of the perverting effects of capitalism was to make her feel that if she ever sat down, it meant she was “the sort of lazy welfare recipient I was assumed to be.” But she doesn’t vindicate her own, or anyone else’s, right to be lazy.
And, indeed, even as Land insists that we should support welfare claimants (“Without these government resources, these workers, single parents, and beyond would not be able to survive. These are not handouts.”), she is also clear that she has been more successful than other women in similar circumstances because she was “the hardest worker.” The hardest worker. A “ninja.” She grasps that one of the perverting effects of capitalism was to make her feel that if she ever sat down—just for a moment, out of sheer exhaustion—it “meant I wasn’t doing enough—like the sort of lazy welfare recipient I was assumed to be.” But she doesn’t vindicate her own, or anyone else’s, right to be lazy. “I had to work constantly, I had to prove my worth for receiving government benefits,” she writes. In other words, she can see—but does not disavow—the logic that makes the right to eat contingent upon individual work and tethers the right to be housed to a standard of moral “deserving.” To drive this point home in the book, we are given the literary foil of Angela, a fellow worker of unknown race who lives in a condemned trailer and whose chain-smoking, perceived laziness, and pilfering of snacks from clients’ houses Land finds morally outrageous. In the TV series, the woman who steals, Danielle, is Latinx.
Like Land, Stack concludes her book with meditations on how blessed she is by her nuclear family. But unlike Maid, Women’s Work reaches for a universal concept of sexual difference to frame its final words. Women, Stack writes, “pay for their families with great hoardings of time. They pay—we pay—with life itself . . . every mother has already given her life for her children. That is the first thing that happens.” She seems to think that gender is somehow separable from, and trumps, class: “In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work! Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth?” Stack knows the answer, and gives it. She understands that the demand for these tasks to be shared by men and women of all classes—distributed, minimized, rendered just—is enough to “blow our households to pieces . . . take our families apart . . . spoil our great love affairs,” to “destroy almost everything we hold dear.” Even so, the prospect of overcoming the gendered division of labor seems realistic to Stack, while overcoming capitalism does not: “I’d been all around the world, and I never yet found a place where women aren’t hit and exploited and hated.”
The Netflix version of Land’s memoir handles the topic of partner abuse with sensitivity, and, like Stack, insists that collective feminist solidarity is everything in the struggle against domestic violence (and, by implication, the violence of domesticity). But it also preserves Maid’s structure as a Cinderella story, complete with evil step-matron, without offering any obvious reflections on the political consequences of such tales. It does not help that the Netflix series released on the heels of a new Amazon Prize adaptation of Cinderella starring Camila Cabelo, Billy Porter, Minnie Driver, and Pierce Brosnan. In that adaptation of the fairytale, directed by James Corden, Cinderella is a girlboss who rejects the prospect of a life of relative relaxation (playing wife to a prince) in favor of a hardworking “forever after” of entrepreneurial hustling in her chosen profession of haute couture. “If it’s a million to one, I’m going to be that one,” Cinderella sings at the top of her lungs. What neater encapsulation of union-busting, anti-solidarity ideology could one find—well, other than Maid?
In the immediate aftermath of Land’s escape from poverty—via a book advance, a Pell Grant, and a fellowship with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship—she continually posted on social media about how, back when she was scrubbing toilets, she would never have dreamed that one day she’d live in a big, beautiful house of her own. Now, with all ten episodes of Maid out in the world, and the big house locked down, it appears as though a slightly more secure—even mildly self-critical—tone has started creeping into Land’s interviews. Her life story, she now goes out of her way to insist, was not “the American Dream myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. I got incredibly lucky and a lot of that luck came from privilege.”
Stack understands that the demand for housework to be shared by men and women of all classes—distributed, minimized, rendered just—is enough to “blow our households to pieces.”
Should maid work exist? It is unclear what Land thinks. Her “politics” talking points, such as they are, remain well within the purview of the “dignity”-based policy demands of today’s mainstream domestic workers’ campaigns in the United States. Yet it seems possible, amid the care crisis that COVID-19 has so fatally highlighted, that the prevailing question raised in connection with Maid’s celebrity might become something more probing. In other words, not just What about the other maids? (though that is certainly a starting point) but also What about the institution of maiding itself? They say it is love. Together, we can insist that a better love is possible.
What isn’t possible—as the authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. (2022) insist—is reform of the neocolonial class relation that twenty-first-century critical race feminists call the “stratification” of reproductive labor. Will a conversation about class be allowed to unfold around the Maid miniseries, Squid Game, and their inevitable successors, or will the emotionally winning commercial formula of the rags-to-riches narrative sit, celebrated, uninterrogated? In a recent interview, Land has talked about building a “she shed” (a new homeowner trend, providing a cozy retreat “for her”), with her husband’s help, in their back yard. No one appears to have asked, though, if they hire outside labor to do the cleaning at their property.