By now you’ve heard about the controversy over Devious Maids, a pastiche of a Mexican telenovela and Desperate Housewives, the primary vehicle for executive producer Eva Longoria, emerging Latina venture philanthropist. Clearly the set-up is problematic, since it involves a cast of five Latina maids, and domestic work is obviously a way that Latin@s are stereotyped. One wonders why a “leader of the community” would put their name on something like this.
The material motivation is Longoria’s successful working relationship with Desperate Housewives’ Marc Cherry, and the seeming justification is the Maids’ attempt to “turn the tables” and expose the snarky reality of upper-class snobbery and hypocrisy. After watching the first episode, this logic is exposed as self-serving. While the actors who portray the maids are not forced to engage in gross forms of stereotyping–for the most part they avoid being Latin spitfires and bimbos–their mere presence is a setback for Latin@s who envision themselves as something other than indentured servants.
The worst thing about Devious Maids is what a crashing bore it is. No one will be surprised that the super-rich are arrogant, self-entitled, and deluded about how devoted they are to their infant children. Its banality is troublesome because it normalizes the increasing chasm between classes in American society, accepting it as inevitable. The easy adaptation from the telenovela it is partially based on is a reflection of how US society is more closely resembling Latin American society, where domestic servitude is far more widespread, and, despite some gains in recent years in countries like Mexico and Brazil (and we’re seeing how things are turning out in the latter country), the middle class is rapidly eroding into debt slavery.
One of the more telling scenes is when the character played by Ugly Betty‘s Ana Ortiz. During an interview with a prospective employer, the wife remarks that her lack of a Spanish accent is an indicator that she is a college graduate. Ortiz thanks her, but we are left to contemplate the state of America where someone who goes to college can find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to find work as a domestic servant. You begin to understand what the Republicans mean that the super-rich shouldn’t be taxed because they create jobs. They’re just jobs of servitude.
I was reminded of the premiere of Devious Maids by its wayward cousin, LIfetime’s Dirty LIttle Secret, a quickly produced made-for-TV movie about the Jodi Arias case. Ads for Devious Maids ran continuously, emphasizing the blood-spatterd tableaux that opens the Maids show as if to mesh well with the fetishized graphic murder-foresnic investigation overhang of the Arias movie and much of network television. The Arias story is rich in Latino themes, but I guess because of the abhorrent nature of the story, they’re never brought up much. Arias is half-Mexican American and at one point in the story was so obsessed with the man she murdered that she moved to the town he lived, Mesa, Arizona, and immediately took a “job” cleaning his house. This of course was turned into a pretext for lurid sex scenes, but that’s besides the point. What got me was the eerie way she ditched her peroxide blond dye job for the final grisly scenes, carrying out the murder as a full-on brunette. Was part of her psychosis symbolized by her desperate attempt to appear “all-American” for her Mormon-devoted object of obsession?
Other Latino subtexts in this story include the police detective on the case, Esteban Flores, apparently “Hispanic,” and the prosecuting attorney Juan Martínez, who kind of looks like an uncle of mine. No mention was made of their ethnicity, but I suppose there was no reason to. The casting choices for their portrayal were a little off: Ugly Betty’s Tony Plana didn’t seem to capture the pit bull-esque nature of Martínez and the feisty boricua David Zayas (as Detective Flores) strutted around looking like an out-of-place New Yorker suddenly dropped into the Arizona desert.
The moral of these stories? I’m not sure we should hold our breath waiting for meaningful portrayal of Latinos on network television. Their objective is garnering the most eyeballs by using the least challenging or illuminating characters possible so that we can be bombarded with ads for Taco Bell and Downy fabric softener and the new Latino entrepreneurs can pitch their ability to capture the rapidly exploding Latino consumer buying potential. I guess that’s what passes for power these days.