Netflix’s scripted series Maid, based on a memoir of the same title by Stephanie Land, sparked curiosity, empathy, and powerful online discussions the second it premiered on October 1 — and those conversations haven’t stopped. Perhaps you see yourself in Alex, the main character who works as a maid while escaping an abusive relationship. Maybe the mothers she comes across remind you of women in your own life. Original shows like Maid — provoking critical conversations about race, gender, class, welfare, and more through the lens of mothering — challenge our worldview and it’s up to us to push for more content like this.
What Maid pulls from a viewer is powerful. Watching, we feel a maze of choices when being faced with emotional abuse, homelessness, food insecurity, financial instability, and more. When young mom Alex Russel (played by Margaret Qualley) spends money and her eyes sink, we literally see dollar totals dwindling with each purchase. When she is stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship and loses access to her car, money, and a phone, we experience the feeling of being trapped. In one vivid scene, metaphorical woods close in on Alex, as she physically sinks into a couch and lands in a black hole.
The power of a show like this is not merely that our lived experiences are captured on screen, but that those depictions can evolve into therapeutic spaces for healing or joy outside of the storyline.
The imagery is potent, and we’re still talking about it. On social media, women are sharing stories and commiserating about broken systems and emotional and physical abuse. The power of a show like this is not merely that our lived experiences are captured on screen, but that those depictions can evolve into therapeutic spaces for healing or joy outside of the storyline. It’s not a coincidence that the month Maid premiered, the Domestic Violence Hotline received a record number of calls.
The shows we choose to engage with can do two things: prove that complex stories about women and mothers are valuable to audiences, and deepen our conversations about critical, cultural topics.
Maid represents both the difficulties of parenting with government assistance and the grace audiences might extend to characters like Alex that we don’t also give to many women of color in similar circumstances.
In one episode, Alex says her journey through the welfare system included “338 toilets cleaned, seven types of government assistance, nine separate moves, one night on the ferry station floor, and the entire third year of my daughter’s life.” Instead of asking why Alex makes certain decisions, we are able to see that there are limited — or zero — choices actually available to her.
Maid represents both the difficulties of parenting with government assistance and the grace audiences might extend to characters like Alex that we don’t also give to many women of color in similar circumstances. More than half of the 2.2 million domestic workers in the United States are women of color. They are more likely to be living in poverty and most do not have employer-supplied health insurance. Despite this reality, Maid centers the experience of a white domestic worker in America, while many of the mothers who support or employ her are women of color. Her triumph, however empowering, also speaks to how we discuss broken systems when the impact is framed by whiteness. Black audiences, in particular, have long-advocated for characters of color to be treated with the kind of nuance this show brings. We not only need more shows like Maid, but we also need to recognize the barriers to stories like this, and the other ways race and motherhood have intersected on screen.
Alex’s journey is not the first time audiences have grappled with these dilemmas. Florence Johnston, played by Marla Gibbs, was a central figure as a Black maid in the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons. In one episode, she rallied other maids to discuss forming a union for equitable benefits like paid sick leave and overtime. More recently, the 2020 Hulu original Little Fires Everywhere features two mothers from very different backgrounds; Elena (played by Reese Witherspoon) is a white, privileged housewife and Mia (the incredible Kerry Washington) is a Black, working-class single mother. In this series, based on the book by Celeste Ng, Mia works as Elena’s maid for a short time, and she is often confronted with racial microaggressions while simply existing on her own terms. In a pivotal scene, as they argue about the decisions they’ve made as mothers in their children’s lives, Mia fires at Elena, “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.”
Does our system really help moms like Alex or simply make their roads to stability that much harder? Do our conversations about who accesses welfare or pursues artistic careers mimic the lives of Alex and Mia?
Shows like Maid and Little Fires Everywhere challenge us to view motherhood differently. We ask questions about ourselves and the systems we hold up as aids for struggling parents. Mia supports herself primarily through her artwork, while Alex seeks welfare assistance. In order to qualify for housing and food stamps, Alex needs a job. The only job available requires her to buy her own supplies and travel for work, both of which are much harder to do if you are a single parent with very little money. Does our system really help moms like Alex or simply make their roads to stability that much harder? Do our conversations about who accesses welfare or pursues artistic careers mimic the lives of Alex and Mia?
Maid gives us raw and complex images: Motherhood is wealthy and motherhood is single, driving around for hours because it’s the only way the baby will sleep. It's at the intersection of freedom and mental health; a tug of war between a sense of stability and parenting your parents. It’s parting with the things that crowd our lives so we aren’t left to exist in cracks that remain; it’s counting down the miles to a new beginning. Sometimes we get to give our kids a happy ending; other times we find happiness in different ways.
As Alex says, “Being a mother looks like all kinds of things.”
Rarely do we see our whole identities on screen. But in the last few years there’s been a shift, and in addition to Maid and Little Fires Everywhere, we’ve gotten shows like Handmaid’s Tale, Bridgerton, Insecure, and more — all providing complex visions of women and motherhood, and prompting us to talk about real issues. They invite us to think about why things are they way they are, and how they could be different, if we allow ourselves to imagine it: The casting of Netflix’s Bridgerton, a period piece set in the 1800s, gave us a Black duke as the most desirable bachelor and a Black queen showing off her afro. These images matter.
Some platforms give emerging creators more opportunities to share better stories. In Red Table Talk, created by Jada Pinkett Smith on Facebook Watch and featuring her mother and daughter, three Black women from different generations sit down and discuss topics like health, identity, and relationships, inviting guests to add their voices as well. It is Facebook’s most popular series.
What shows are we watching that spark critical conversations? Which ones move us to examine our own worldviews? Which streaming platforms are curating this type of content?
The more we ask those kinds of questions, the better choices we can make about where to invest our time, energy, and money on rapidly fragmenting streaming options. Consider not only the access and content available, but also the real dialogue that is present — or missing — when we dive into an original series. While Maid is certainly not the first of its kind, we have an opportunity to ensure that it isn’t the last.