Lifetime's Latina-focused Devious Maids raises the question: Where is line between exploiting a stereotype and exploding it?
Imagine a major TV outlet debuting a soap opera-style drama about five young, contemporary, beautiful African American women. Who work as maids.
Then try to imagine the NAACP, Urban League and Will Smith standing up to defend the program, saying it was an important look into the lives of black servants which would give great roles to black actresses.
That’s something like the controversy playing out over Lifetime’s new soap opera Devious Maids, a show created by Desperate Housewives mastermind Marc Cherry. Well-respected Mexican-American TV star Eva Longoria is also on board as a producer, bringing endorsements from civil rights groups such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
Arguments over the show boil down to a simple question: Where is the line between exploding a stereotype and indulging one?
Devious Maids centers on five Latina maids in very different circumstances: from a college-educated woman investigating a murder at the house where she works, to a mother-daughter team whose younger half has fallen in love with the boss’ son. (See the pilot episode by clicking here.)
Longoria, who has a long record of advocacy for Hispanic causes, has enlisted support for the series from groups such as the NHMA, the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“This is a benign show,” said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the NHMC. “ I's a soap opera for chissakes. If these were negative stereotypes, I would be the first to criticize. But they’re working women who are more human and more clear about what their lives are about, versus their bosses.”
After watching two episodes, I can say Nogales is right on that score. The maids are shown as more compassionate and humane that their high-strung, often selfish bosses, valuing friends and family more than the brittle, mostly white people who employ them.
But the women also have little control over their lives, forced to serve these emotionally crippled people. Despite the fact that the show is about the maids, we rarely see their home lives or families away from the white folks’ mansions.
And no wealthy Latina characters have yet shown up; the one hispamoc boss is a male, unmarried pop star who is rarely around. (Though Devious Maids is based on a Mexican, Spanish-language “telenovela” soap opera, on the original show, both the wealthy bosses and the maids were Latino.)
“This wouldn’t be an issue if there were 15 other Latino shows on television,” said Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latinorebels.com, who wrote a tart commentary about the groups’ support of the show titled “A Sad Inconsistency.”
“I have tons of respect for Alex and MALDEF and La Raza, but the online community is saying something,” he said. “Do all Latinos have to support a show just because a Latino helped create (it)?”
The visuals alone are troubling. One promotional image for a Miami screening featured a picture of the show’s cast – all beautiful women in glamorous dresses – holding a broom and mop and standing on a bucket.
Is this what it takes to get a show starring five Latinas onto American television?
“The optics are terrible,” said Varela, noting that well-known writers such as Michelle Herrera Mulligan, editor-in-chief of Cosmo for Latinas, have also criticized the show. “Bilingual, bicultural assimilated Latinos; I really doubt they’re going to support a show about five Latina maids.”
It is telling that Cherry, a man who spent eight years writing and controlling the stories told about the complicated women at the heart of Desperate Housewives, felt the need to bring on his friend and former Housewives castmember Longoria when the time came to make Devious Maids.
“There is no such thing as a wasted opportunity,” wrote Longoria in a column for the Huffington Post. “Stereotypes are constructed and perpetuated by those who believe in them. I choose not to.”
Unfortunately, Longoria’s wrong. Anyone can perpetuate stereotypes – just ask leading African American star Tyler Perry about the black folks who accuse him of building popular movies and TV shows around demeaning characters.
As a New York Times article outlined last year, network television executives see 50-million Hispanics in America -- a youthful, growing demographic -- and are desperate to tap that market.
But Spanish-language programming unites many different Hispanic cultures through language -- something U.S. media struggles to achieve. And as late TV writer David Mills once told me about stereotypes in TV shows; evoking stereotypes in a series might make sense, if the creative result is groundbreaking enough to justify the transgression (think Italian stereotypes and The Sopranos)
“There still hasn’t been the Hispanic equivalent of The Cosby Show,” wrote Bill Carter and Tanzina Vega in the story, “Stuck on Stereotypes.” “(That’s) a show that deals with Latino culture in a way that doesn’t offend viewers with crude stereotypes.”
If the Cosby Show is the goal, the networks have an obvious template. Cosby was controlled by its star, Bill Cosby, an African American showbiz legend, who built the sitcom around an upper middle-class black family which broke a load of stereotypes.
But John Leguizamo, a Colombian-American comic, actor and producer, just saw ABC pass on a pilot he created based on his family. And there are no new network TV shows this fall featuring a Hispanic performer as the sole star.
A report released in March by the Writer’s Guild of America found Hispanic writers were just 4 percent of TV series staffs during the 2011-12 season, an underrepresentation of 4 to 1. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that Hispanic characters were just 4 percent of all roles on broadcast TV during the 2012-13 season, despite being 16 percent of the population.
On this point, Nogales and Varela agree: too little involvement by Hispanic people in the TV industry has brought serious underrepresentation.
It's hard to imagine and activist like Longoria would have developed a show on her own depicting Latinas as maids. And debate continues about whether network TV's other Latina star, Modern Family's Sofia Vergara, isbreaking boundaries or reinforcing stereotypes by playing a hot-tempered, sexy Colombian woman married to a much older white man.
I say, Hispanic TV audiences shoudln't settle.
Shows like Devious Maids are a step backwards, disguised as a step forward for diversity on TV.
Devious Maids debut at 10 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime. See the pilot episode early by clicking here.