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Why It's Worth Revisiting "Devious Maids"

Culture y Recuerdos: "Devious Maids" and Its Critics Deserve a Second Look

DEVIOUS MAIDS, (from left): Ana Ortiz, Edy Ganem, Judy Reyes, Dania Ramirez, Roselyn Sanchez, (Season 1), 2013-. photo: Jim Fiscus /  Lifetime TV /  Courtesy: Everett Collection

Eva Longoria's "Devious Maids" stirred up the Latinx community when it premiered nearly a decade ago. Here was this big, English-language cable show starring five Latinas but as the title reveals, they were all maids. So, did the Lifetime series replicate or challenge the stereotype that Latinas exist solely to serve better-off, Anglo families? The community hotly debated the show before it even came out, sounding off in the popular press and elsewhere.

"When you looked at the promotional materials that Lifetime put out for 'Devious Maids,' the actresses playing those roles were very sexualized in terms of their dress and in terms of their posture . . . And then also the maid again — why do we want to reify that?"

"It was largely dismissed for two reasons: the promotional materials and also the name of the show itself," says Dr. Jillain Báez, Associate Professor in the department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies at Hunter College and author of "In Search of Belonging: Latinas, Media and Citizenship."

"When you looked at the promotional materials that Lifetime put out for 'Devious Maids,' the actresses playing those roles were very sexualized in terms of their dress and in terms of their posture . . . And then also the maid again — why do we want to reify that?"

Dr. Frances Negron-Muntaner, Professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and Director of the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University shares how part of the show's success was in how it was able to bring in new viewership and not only Latina viewership. "And that demonstrated that a lot of the assumptions behind not hiring Latinas to play leads are wrong," says Dr. Negron-Muntaner. We're talking about Ana Ortiz ("Ugly Betty" and "Love, Victor"), Roselyn Sanchez ("Fantasy Island" and "Grand Hotel"), Judy Reyes ("Scrubs" and" "Jane the Virgin") and that's just some of the cast.

Two Latina writers cut their teeth on the show — Tanya Saracho who went on to make the acclaimed "Vida" and launched Ojalá Productions and Gloria Calderon Kellett, who's the force behind "One Day at A Time" and "With Love." So it's no exaggeration to say the show propelled a generation of Latina talent in the industry. Negron-Muntaner says stereotypes are too often "a prerequisite to have that kind of visibility — we need to give the audience something that they find familiar in order to introduce something unfamiliar."

"There's nothing wrong with being Latina and being a maid. I don't have a problem with that. My grandmother, my father's mother was a maid in Cuba. What's wrong is when you have an entertainment industry, which was what it was at the time, that says, 'this is all you can be.'"

Cultural critic and author of "The Dirty Girls Social Club" and a dozen other books, Alisa Lynn Valdés originally criticized the show in an op-ed for NBC Latino. "There's nothing wrong with being Latina and being a maid. I don't have a problem with that. My grandmother, my father's mother was a maid in Cuba. What's wrong is when you have an entertainment industry, which was what it was at the time, that says, 'this is all you can be,'" she recounts to POPSUGAR, "I kept seeing stereotypical treatments of us being greenlit and it was frustrating for me as a writer."

Valdés goes on to share that at the time when she was openly criticizing it, she hadn't actually seen the show. "I didn't know what they were trying to do and what she was doing. I think Eva Longoria has a lot more emotional intelligence than I do," she says. "And she was a lot more strategic . . . she was creating opportunity and doing what she could within the confines of a very fucked up business."

But limitations of the entertainment industry aside, Valdés began to appreciate the show after watching more of it. "I think it was very well done and I see what they were doing. I was much too literal in my interpretation of it," she explains. "They were [doing] almost exactly what I did with my book, now that I think about it, which is you give [the audience] what they think they want. And by the end of it, you prove that the thing they wanted doesn't exist. [Eva Longoria] took this stereotype of the Latina maid and then gave these characters great depth and humanity."

Of course, even all these years later, not everyone agrees. Michelle Herrera Mulligan, who now works in publishing, was the editor-in-chief of "Cosmopolitan for Latinas" when the show came out. She wrote an op-ed in HuffPost critiquing the show and still remembers the visceral experience she had watching the first episode.

"I almost threw up when I saw it, it was so deeply repugnant to me. I could not continue. I mean I barely could finish the episode," Herrera Mulligan tells POPSUGAR. Her top issue? A scene where Judy Reyes's character buys a maid's uniform for her daughter and tells her she needs to wear it because "those people in that house need to be reminded of what we're there to do."

"When I heard that, that was when I literally started seeing red because I was raised by my mother who was a maid. And when I was literally the age of that character, we had a similar [conversation]," she says. "And [my mom] said to me, 'you'll never wear this uniform. That's not what this is.' And that was always the narrative. Not just the narrative that I was raised with, it was also the narrative that everybody I knew that was a child of any kind of domestic worker was raised with."

Herrera Mulligan goes on to share how with her upbringing there was no way she could feel proud of seeing Latinas cast in such stereotypical roles. "I strongly believe that the audience who has now fallen in love with Penelope Alvarez's heart-driven, steadfast ambition on 'One Day at a Time," or Lyn and Emma's unapologetic messy search for self on 'Vida' are not going to look back at 'Devious Maids' as groundbreaking," she adds.

"I think the other side of it is, if you begin to actually watch this series, you see that the writers and the actresses are really kind of playing around with [preconceived notions of the Latina maid]," counters says Dr. Báez, "For example, one of the maids, Rosie is separated from her young son, who's still in Mexico . . . That immigration storyline was a really important one that got overlooked. And it now holds such tremendous salience."

In addition, it's worth remembering what the stereotype of that Latina maid is — nearly invisible. But "Devious Maids" turned that whole idea around by making Latina maids the main characters and exploring their lives, struggles, and survival tactics. As Dr. Negron-Muntaner says, its leads "were autonomous subjects that had their own lives and their own goals. Performing this work or taking on this identity or playing on the assumptions that people have about this identity were strategic decisions [the characters made], rather than essential or inherent characteristics."

The problem of the Latina maid on screen and how and if she should be represented isn't the only issue that presents itself looking back on "Devious Maids. Both Valdés and Herrera Mulligan faced extreme consequences for criticizing the show publicly. Valdés still hasn't been able to get "The Dirty Girls Social Club" turned into a film or series, despite books with similar sales numbers generally getting greenlit. As someone who's come to appreciate the show and Eva Longoria as "an intelligent chess player," Valdés now cites speaking up against the show as "a huge career regret."

Herrera Mulligan signed an NDA but she could share that "I felt that my job was in danger . . . and my standing, I felt, never recovered." Worse than losing her job, though, was how the community responded. "There were a lot of people who viewed me as being a traitor to the community . . . as being one of those people that acts like a crab in a barrel, that just tries to tear down any Latina who gets ahead in life," she says. It's a tough result from simply speaking her truth.

The thing about "Devious Maids" is that it used stereotypes to get in the door and then subverted them. Watching all four seasons, it is clearly successful at undercutting the idea of the subservient Latina maid. But for everyone who didn't watch it, who only heard of it and saw the promotional materials — for them, did it do more harm than good? That's something reasonable people can disagree on. And disagreeing isn't something anyone should be punished for.

Image Source: Everett Collection
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