By Vanessa Verduga
As a screenwriter one thing I have come to learn is that you don’t tell people how to feel through your characters’ mouths. You don’t manipulate emotions or “tell” people your all-important message. Instead, you show.
And this is what struck me when I heard all of this controversy over the show Devious Maids. Is it just me or are we being asked to dislike this show because of supposed Latina stereotypes? Some anti-Devious Maids folks are telling us that this show — mind you one of the few shows that I can remember to actually have a feature cast made up of minorities — perpetuates stereotypes because the Latina characters are reduced to maid service and, as the title suggests, they are “devious.”
Of course this is a stereotype and it is/was a stereotype perpetuated by the oblivious white majority, as is often satirized in amazing social issue shows such as All in the Family, Soap, and even in modern times, Arrested Development, through the warped perspective of drunken socialite Lucille Bluth. So what we see from the wonderful world of television is that it’s not a bad thing to discuss the stereotype — after all, villainous white characters still refer to it.
It’s disturbing to think that a show like Devious Maids, which intentionally takes a Latina stereotype and seeks to deepen it, exploring these three-dimensional characters that society chooses to stereotype, is the one causing all the political controversy. Excuse me? Since when was the Latina archetype the property of white Hollywood? Do we as the Latina community not have rights to these stereotypes? Since they are all about us in the first place, why is it imprudent to use that stereotype, that negative perspective that we know exists, to tell our stories?
And why are we the viewers, who are capable of forming our own decisions and reactions to these fictional characters, being told that this show is offensive to our culture? I actually watched the pilot episode of the series and tried to leave my reservations at the door.
What I saw was a show that was truly hurt by Latina stereotypes that was really aching to tell a new story. Granted this wasn’t exactly deep, intellectual television. This wasn’t trying to be Breaking Bad or Law and Order. It was a show invented in the same vein as Desperate Housewives and all those other quirky dramedies that viewers like. What I was watching for was how the show handled the characters — what level of maturity the writers, producers and directors had for the culture, for the Latino voice, and for the ART for God’s sakes! When I see a show, I don’t watch it because I’m supposed to, or because it’s politically correct to tune in. I watch it because it’s entertaining, because it’s unpredictable, and because it’s telling me about lives, stories, that I haven’t seen on television before.
These are not Latina “maids” as a character description. They are fully realized, three-dimensional characters who happen to be maids. They are living a truth. How can we as a community deny our own history and culture? Are we supposed to pretend that Latinas have never taken a job as a maid just to struggle and get by? Are we supposed to pretend that just because every predominantly white show on TV right now has a sassy, sexy, hot-headed Latina supporting character in their cast that THAT’s how Latinas really act? That we’re shallow, funny, and annoying support players to all our white friends?
That’s kind of what it feels like when I see white shows that use Latinos as a prop device. I figure, why bother including us at all if our characters are shallow, vapid and exist just as eye-candy? Isn’t that the real stereotype?
Speaking of culture, I have to mention my mother as a paragon of “Latina attitude”. Sure, she’s a proud feisty Latina woman. But at one point she too was a maid. Now my mom came from a wealthy family in Ecuador. She grew up in a household that employed maids and nannies to look after her and her siblings, but she was faced with a tough decision in a not so perfect world. For personal reasons that I respect, she didn’t want to go back to Ecuador so she had to make ends meet as a single mother raising me and my brother who is autistic in the Bronx and that meant — guess what — getting a job as a maid.
Now I ask you, is it politically incorrect to say my mom worked as a maid? Is that the kind of bad Latina representation that should be censored off of TV? In my mind, that made mom a hero! She was willing to accept a job she didn’t particularly love for her family, to make a better life for her kids. I actually watched the first episode of Devious Maids with my mother, halfway expecting the show to be a crass exploitation of Latina caricatures — just because that’s what everyone was saying the damned thing was. Instead, what we both saw was a show with a heart. With a brain. And with an agenda.
Yes, the depiction of Latina characters in prime-time! How often has this happened? You know, in the Mad Men era of television, where it’s cool to be rich, white and powerful? If you want a real hard opinion from a Latina hot-head, I can give you one. I think this whole “controversy” just shows how out of touch certain white people are about race, ethnicity and culture.
They seem to like the idea of Latinas — of the bodies, the cute faces — but seem uninterested in hearing their stories. They are less than flattering, real-life stories, that, let’s face it, aren’t as glamorous as Mad Men.
And this is insulting to me. Because I am not one of these people who believes in cultural genocide. You know, as in forget who you are and just be a happy American. No, it doesn’t work that way. We are all different and that’s what makes us beautiful.
And in the Latino community, we embrace our culture, our history, and the lives of our extended family. That’s what makes it interesting to see stories about people we know—people we can relate to, something close to our hearts.
I really think that we as a community need to be more supportive of each other. So whenever someone mentions to me the travesty that is Devious Maids, I always ask them, “So what other Latina shows do you like? What else is on TV that really speaks to you?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all Latino shows need to look like Devious Maids. I’m saying we as a community should be embracing diversity, rather than caving into the pressure of big network executives who are trying to tell us who to be. I think it’s great that we want modern Latinas represented, and in my web series “Justice Woman” I play one myself. But am I so insecure of who I am that I can’t possibly stomach watching a show about some maids? That I’m so weak as a woman and as a minority that I can’t be exposed to this stereotype?
No, I actually think all of this is a great thing. Everyone’s up in arms right now and they’re drawing attention to a great show. Of course the name of the show is a stereotype and that’s what brings in the ratings. No one’s going to tune into a show called “Hispanic Maids Who Have Problems.” No, we want the controversy, the shocking image. Devious Maids gets attention. But we stay for a really good show, one that talks about important issues and characters who have dreams and ambitions.
I applaud Eva Longoria’s attempt to take this stereotype and expand upon it, giving mainstream audiences a glimpse into this world. What really sucks is that the press and certain “activist groups” (whoever these people) are going after Eva and her creative team and barking at her when she’s trying to do something prolific. I think Eva made a great statement when she defended herself against the unwarranted attacks coming from the media.
“I take pride in the fact that these characters are not one dimensional or limited to their job title,” Longoria explained. “As the minority becomes the majority and the United States becomes more diverse, it is important that the protagonists on television embody this diversity.”
And some media sources, including The National Hispanic Media Coalition, have come around. Alex Nogales, executive director of the coalition, said there is no shame in admitting that your background is less than perfect.
“If I came from a poor migrant experience, does that mean that story doesn’t get told? That’s silly.”
What would be the biggest shame of all, is not exploring a stereotype, but silencing a fresh new voice in television because it’s not white enough for the mainstream. It would be a shame if more Latino writers, directors and actors did not come out and produce their visions because of the fear they have of the mainstream media and even their own people who should be supporting them — not playing watchdog.
What really strikes me as annoying about this whole incident is the double standard some people seem to have. Within the last two years, we’ve seen movies like The Help and Django Unchained which could easily be called blaxploitation cinema by some overly PC-watchdog groups. But nobody accuses those filmmakers of perpetuating stereotypes or insulting the African American community. They allow those filmmakers and actors to produce their art, using cultural facts, history, humor, caricature, and even absurdity to prove a point.
Race was not an all blowout issue there. So why is race suddenly such a big issue when there is satire used in a show like Devious Maids? Here are my two cents on it. I really don’t think this is a race issue, I think it’s a race-feminist issue. A lot of the people that I know that really are “bothered” by Devious Maids are men — the Mad Men type crowd who follow male characters and prefer women to be supporting characters. So is it really a surprise that they’re nitpicking a show about strong and imperfect Latina women?
I mean heaven forbid we discuss male Latino stereotypes in Hollywood, which NOBODY ever seems to have a problem with. Nobody nitpicks on Tony Montana in Scarface. Nobody says anything about John Leguizamo and the dozens of stereotypes he uses to prove a point in his one man shows. Nobody would have the cojones to confront Danny Trejo and say, “Hey man, you’re bringing our people down!” No, the stereotypes are what make the mainstream watch in the first place. They make people laugh, they offend people, they grab attention — exactly what you want in a memorable pilot.
You want positive, upbeat perfect portrayals of Latino characters? Guess what? They’ve already been done and they’ve been canceled. The world doesn’t want to see perfection. They want to see real people. Flawed yet beautiful people wildly imagined, larger than life. But for some reason, some boys don’t want to see it coming from women. So kudos to Eva Longoria for “rattling the cages” (to borrow a phrase from my crime-fighting buddy Batman) and causing discussion.
We owe it to our audience not to “tell” anyone what’s what, but to show — to expand upon what the white media already thinks they know about us, and then create something that will blow their minds.”
In other words, we don’t patronize the audience with this politically correct nonsense. We tell our story and we do it well. If we succeed then the white media loves us for it. If we falter along the way then we’re part of the problem.
I hope Eva and her creative team survives this storm of unwarranted criticism and keeps on fighting. I know it will get easier too, because the “boy’s club” of Hollywood really gets friendlier once you pay your dues and prove that you are tough enough for a man’s world.
So in closing, yes I confess, I watch Devious Maids and I really like it.
So suck it Mad Men.
Vanessa Verduga is an American multilingual actress, writer, director, producer, singer and attorney committed to examining social issues for their impact on the underprivileged and disenfranchised. She’s the creator and star of the comedy-drama web series “Justice Woman”, which follows the story of an Assistant District Attorney, by day, who becomes a masked defender of truth and justice at night. Vanessa is also producing “H.O.M.E.”, a feature film that examines the loss of communication told through the immigrant’s perspective, and is in pre-production for a comedy feature film she wrote and will star in entitled “The Implications of Cohabitation.”