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 that 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, with well-respected Mexican-American TV star Eva Longoria on board as a producer and endorsements from civil rights groups such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
As the debate heats up, a central question emerges: Where is the line between exploding a stereotype and indulging one?
Devious Maids centers on five women 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.
"This is a benign show," said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the NHMC. "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 more compassionate and humane than their high-strung, often selfish employers. And they're played by a roster of accomplished Latina actresses: Ana Ortiz (Ugly Betty), Judy Reyes (Scrubs), Dania Ramirez (Heroes), Roselyn Sanchez (Without a Trace) and Edy Ganem (Rob).
But the women also have little control over their lives. We rarely see their home lives or families away from the white folks' mansions.
And we see no wealthy Latinas. The one Hispanic boss is a male, superstar musician, rarely around. (Devious Maids is based on a Mexican, Spanish-language telenovela where both the wealthy bosses and the maids were Latinos.)
Echoing stereotypes to make a creative point is one thing; evoking them to serve an empty soap opera is another.
"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 titled "A Sad Inconsistency" on support of the show. "I have tons of respect for Alex and Eva … but the online community is saying something here."
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?
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"The optics are terrible," said Varela. "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 controlling the stories told about women at the heart of Desperate Housewives, still brought in his friend and former Housewives castmember Eva Longoria for Devious Maids.
"There is no such thing as a wasted opportunity," Longoria wrote 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 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 television often unifies Hispanic people across nationalities and cultures; American TV networks have not yet learned how to draw similar audiences with English-language shows.
"There still hasn't been the Hispanic equivalent of The Cosby Show," noted the New York Times story, "Stuck on Stereotypes." "(That would be) a show that deals with Latino culture in a way that doesn't offend viewers with crude stereotypes."
Cosby was controlled by its star, Bill Cosby, an African-American showbiz legend who built the sitcom around an upper middle-class black family that broke a load of stereotypes.
But John Leguizamo, a Colombian-American comic, actor and producer, just saw ABC pass on a pilot he created about his family. And there are no new network TV shows this fall featuring a Hispanic performer as the sole star.
The Writers Guild of America found Hispanics filled just 4 percent of TV series staff jobs during the 2011-12 season. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation noted Hispanic characters were just 4 percent of all roles on broadcast TV, 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.
The only question left: Are shows like Devious Maids a step forward, or a step back?