Television

Would Maid Be a Hit if Alex Were Black?

The Netflix hit’s success speaks volumes about which stories we embrace—and who we don’t.

Margaret Qualley and Anika Noni Rose on Maid.
Margaret Qualley and Anika Noni Rose on Maid. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

Maid will make you cry. I definitely found myself having a cathartic sob session by the end of the 10-hour the series, which has become one of Netflix’s most-streamed releases in just over a month. I’m not just particularly sensitive—generally far from it—but Maid is absolutely a show designed to get your tears flowing: It’s a sentimental-but-not-saccharine, depressing-but-not-hopeless watch. The trials and tribulations faced by single mom Alex, played by a magnetic Margaret Qualley, are both relatable and fully not—just intimate enough to touch the similarly skinny, white brunettes who are likely helping keep this show afloat. Because despite Maid tackling both the domestic service worker industry and the bureaucracy attached to poverty in this spiteful AF country with a surefire mix of pathos and patience, it also tells a particular version of that story: the white woman fairy tale version.

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Brass tacks first: Maid tells the story of Alex Russell, a twentysomething living in Washington with her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend. Alex takes her 3-year-old daughter and flees their dangerous home, seeking out safety and a better life in a shelter for domestic abuse victims. From there, she experiences custody battles, homelessness, constantly diminishing funds, and dependence on fair-weather figures, like her parents and a friend who wants to be much more. But Alex also enjoys numerous breakthroughs: She meets kindly women willing to hire her to clean their homes—to be their maid, as they call it, even if these jobs are usually one-offs. The shelter that she returns to after she leaves her boyfriend a second, final time takes her in with open arms, offering her stability, new clothes, a new phone, safety, and child care. All the while, Alex is writing her memoirs about being a woman finding a new path—just like Stephanie Land, whose memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive inspired the series. Just as Land’s knack for writing got her out of her similar situation, Alex manages to gain acceptance into a college writing program in Montana, where she secures financial aid, child care, housing, and employment for herself.

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It’s a satisfying ending for a character whom we’ve grown to care for over the course of the show’s 10 episodes. I quietly rooted for Alex to find a better life for herself and her daughter, breaking the cycle of abuse that ensnares her family so that she can progress in ways her mother—or real-life women in similar situations to hers—could only dream of. Alex’s reality, although based on a true story, is not one that is achievable for many people in her situation—especially those who look less like Alex and more like the women whom she cleans houses for.

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But Alex benefits from privileges of her own. She lived a ferry ride away from a wealthy town, in which she was able to find regular work and support from well-off women who empathized with her plight. Even gaining acceptance to an MFA writing program, the key to Alex getting out of the Pacific Northwest and starting a new life out in Montana, is incredibly rare. Getting into or affording to go to college is far from a given in this country, especially a specialized program; fine arts programs typically offer sub-10 percent acceptance rates. Financial aid? Housing? Day care? These are accommodations that are even further from guarantees. But there is no Maid without Alex being guaranteed them—there is no way for this show to succeed, even exist, without Alex having an independent dream life waiting for her on the other end.

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The people that help guide Alex to that other end—the ones who employ her, provide housing for her, and befriend her at the domestic violence shelters she stays in, serve as fairy godmothers—notably ones who are of color, as if to hammer home that this is a series that is actively trying to subvert the racial elements regularly part of real-life versions of Alex’s story. There’s Denise (BJ Harrison), the Black director of the shelter who provides Alex safety, confidence, and therapy, and teaches her about how to manage the bureaucracy of programs like SNAP and financial assistance, which none of the white people in Alex’s life could help her with; Tara (Mozhan Marnò), the one lawyer willing to take on Alex’s case and actively fight for her to get solo custody of Maddy; and Anika Noni Rose’s Regina, who opens up to Alex about her marital strife and fertility struggles, developing a close relationship with her that nonetheless began with a Black woman threatening to call the cops on white woman Alex for stealing her dog, in a weird scam constructed by Alex’s Latina friend. A Black woman feeling this comfortable calling the cops is something that feels distinctly native to this rendering of society, making me, a nonwhite woman, yearn for a white woman to be granted the same privilege as her Black and brown benefactors. This dramatic inversion of racial privilege is not unique to Maid, but it’s both crucial to its success and also what’s unnerving about it. It feels as if the show is assuming that the person watching looks more like Alex than Regina, that it’s much easier to believe in a white woman becoming a success as long as the people of color have celebrated theirs off screen.

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It would be unpalatable, most likely, in its commonality, or assertion to Netflix’s majority white viewing base that this is how people of color live around this country too—that research shows more than 61 percent of domestic workers are nonwhite, despite making up less than 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, and more than half of Black and brown domestic workers live in poverty. Not that Netflix is afraid to showcase people of color who live harsh lives of all kinds. The platform is rife with content about life behind bars, or in poverty, or amid injustices. And, to be fair, there are also Netflix shows that celebrate diverse people’s diverse experiences. But, then, those are not the shows we are talking about as among the most-watched miniseries Netflix’s ever produced. (It’s telling that the show Maid has usurped at the top is The Queen’s Gambit.)

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A story like Alex’s is a white fairy tale that runs counter to plenty of data we have on how this story is usually far from white, and far from a fairy tale. But would Maid have been this successful if Alex were a Black woman? If nothing else had changed, but our lead was Black? Perhaps the majority of discussion then would be about the lack of realism—that it is harder to stomach a person of color persevering under systems made to ground her down than it is a model-thin white woman. Therein lies the challenge, I suppose: finding the middle ground between fidelity to the reality of being a lower-middle-class American of color and the predominantly white executives and creatives’ ability to tell those stories with the same empathy and hopefulness that Stephanie Land’s memoir received in its dramatic translation. Maybe it shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds. But maybe Maid and its core whiteness tells us otherwise.

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