Television

Where Maid Misses the Mark

Netflix’s breakout hit is a tough tale of economic desperation and domestic abuse, but there’s one place it’s hopelessly idealized.

Margaret Qualley and Rylea Nevaeh Whittet in Maid
Margaret Qualley and Rylea Nevaeh Whittet in Maid. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflx

The Netflix hit Maid, which after only a few weeks has already vaulted into the service’s all-time Top 10, seems to have come exactly when it’s needed. Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, the 10-episode series is striking a chord so often left unstruck, a deeply moving exploration of domestic and emotional abuse, generational trauma, and the infuriating catch-22s of government systems built for failure. Its raw, unflinching depictions could have pushed viewers away, but the response tells a different story. Countless women see themselves in Alex (Margaret Qualley), her struggles to first define and then prove the emotional abuse from her boyfriend, and the so-big-you-could-drive-a-truck-through-them holes in any safety net. As the pandemic continues to expose the spit-and-glue foundation of many societal systems, particularly for mothers, Maid is a tough but ultimately inspirational tale of a woman’s ability to not only navigate those systems but ultimately triumph over them.

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The brutal clarity with which Maid depicts the realities of poverty and abuse, however, falters when it comes to Alex’s parenting skills. Alex is, as she should be, a complicated individual, one who’s allowed a degree of ambiguity in nearly all of her relationships. It’s enraging and heartbreaking, purposefully so, to watch her return to her abusive boyfriend after working so hard to escape him. It’s devastating to watch her ping-pong between being caretaker to and dependent on her own mother, Paula (Qualley’s real-life mother, Andie MacDowell), who struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and the lingering effects of the abuse Alex’s own father inflected on them both. But as a mother, Alex is almost blindingly perfect, with unlimited patience that borders on magical. She never loses her temper, reacts with frustration, or really does anything one would expect a parent of a toddler to do—especially one facing such incredible uphill battles.

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Instead, Alex is presented as a mother who can flawlessly shepherd toddlers and infants alike, a rugged Maria von Trapp with skills unparalleled not only by any other mother in the show, but any mother in real life. Alex is able to seamlessly transfer a sleeping infant from car seat to crib; Alex can pull her toddler away from cartoons on her tablet without even a whimper of protest. (Watching the series with a sleeping 3-month-old on my lap and a 3-year-old glued to her own tablet, I almost laughed out loud.) Alex is tired and frustrated and overwhelmed at her circumstances, but she is never tired and frustrated and overwhelmed with her child. The only hint of a raised voice comes in the first episode when, fleeing her abusive boyfriend a second time, dealing with a boss who will not stop calling, and fielding irrational demands from a child who’s pestering her about a lost doll, Alex’s voice pinches in anger and vague annoyance flashes on her face. But that brief moment of peevishness ultimately only serves to underline Alex’s perfection. The episode ends with an act of wholesome, motherly compassion: Alex stopping at a dollar store to replace the lost doll.

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In the world of Maid, questionable mothering is reserved for other characters: Paula, swinging wildly between love for her daughter and her own spirit and needs; rich and nasty Regina (Anika Noni Rose) who, after separating from her husband, isn’t sure she wants the newborn she thought she’d desired; even the one-scene character in Alex’s writing group who sheepishly admits that, asked to write about one of her happiest moments, describes a girls’ night out and not a day with her children. That throwaway line speaks volumes, not only about America’s expectation that women who become mothers should derive their joy primarily from caregiving, but also the show’s.

The message echoes even through Netflix’s marketing for Maid. “A mom will endure even the most difficult, humbling experiences to provide better for her child,” reads one ad, and the trailer builds to Alex’s declaration, “I live for my daughter.” Alex continuously voices and acts on the idea that she wants a better life for Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) , but rarely mentions wanting a better life for herself. Even when she fantasizes about a near future in which she’ll attend college and learn to be a writer, it’s to create a “whole new world” for her daughter. In the place she’s back-breakingly created, it’s not even clear how much Alex is present.

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Much has been written in the last year about how the pandemic has irrevocably changed motherhood, and much has been written about how it disproportionately affects low-income people, but the overlap in that Venn diagram hasn’t really been investigated. Maid misses a vital opportunity to explore the raging anger of mothers who have had systems that were already stacked against them break down, and the bleak truth over which mothers are allowed to make mistakes. On a recent Grey’s Anatomy episode, two mothers confess to each other the way COVID has exposed the drudgery and darkness that is day-in/day-out parenting. But financially stable surgeons can falter in their mothering, while mistakes are often devastating for single mothers, low-income mothers, and mothers of color—both on and off screen. Maid scratches the surface of these inequities, but it misses a crucial chance to explore the cruel systemic ways low-income mothers face an increased risk of having their children removed from their custody, by agents whose job is ostensibly to protect the family.

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It’s exciting to see a show like Maid succeed, especially since its success comes on the heels of last year’s record-setting The Queen’s Gambit, both of them shows centering on complex and complicated women that likely would not have gotten a green light even a few years ago. Unfortunately, Maid’s portrayal of Alex’s perfection as a mom doesn’t show this progress. At a time when women’s discontent has gone from “the problem that has no name” to a primal scream, Maid fails to show a place in between, one where mothers are given a voice without having to be perfect.

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