So, by now many of you have watched MAID. The new limited series on Netflix based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. When my friend Nana Serwaa recommended the show to me and gave me a brief summary of the plot, I was stressed out watching it. 1. Because violence against women in any form triggers me, and 2. I honestly was just looking for some light-hearted entertainment that day. So, I pushed watching it back a whole week and quite frankly I am glad I did. This show is an entire trigger warning on its own; every episode until the last.
The show starts with a 25-year-old Alex slipping out of a trailer she’s called home for two years into the night with her 2-year-old in the dead of night trying to escape her emotionally and financially abusive boyfriend. After this, there are a series of common dynamics that play out no matter where you come from or where you live in the world. First, there are unreliable “family and friends” shown when she runs to her best friend’s trailer who in some misguided attempt at family counseling and peacemaking, calls her abusive boyfriend and discloses her location. In true generally homoerotic, man-loving, bro code, toxic fashion, his best
friend calls her (Alex) a bitch for leaving his abusive friend. Can we even be surprised by the men in this show taking each other’s side in the oppression of women? Is this not their work and modus operandi since the beginning of time?
After realizing these people would not give her the help she needed, she escapes their home before her now ex can get to her. I remember thinking, “this is why male-centered women will always be just as dangerous to all women including themselves.” But I digress. Then we move to her going into the social welfare office after spending the night in her car.
Obviously, the rigged system, where education as a function of class plays a huge role in how and if the system can realistically and effectively lift women out of poverty. This is seen where her social worker explains to her that even though she is destitute, alone, and traumatized, she will need to get a job and proof of income before she can be assisted by the state, to which she responds, “I need a job to prove that I need daycare in order to get a job? what sort of fuckery is this?” and rightfully so, because in what world does that even make sense? She has to go to job interviews without her child otherwise they won’t hire her, therefore proving that she needs daycare. But, in order to gain access to daycare, she needs a job first, and without the job, she also cannot get access to subsidized housing from the government? This makes you think long and hard about the whole bootstrap theory, doesn’t it?
Then the show highlights how families get trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse for generations and how families that have experienced long cycles of abuse can harm younger ones themselves. This is evidenced by the erratic behavior of her manic mother and her inability to humanize her own daughter long enough to empathize with her struggle. When Alex takes her daughter to her mother as a last resort in order to go for a job interview, effects of years of abuse, and mental health issues coupled with extreme male-centeredness and narcissism leads her mother to give her yet another reason to not leave her child with her.
MAID gives us a raw, riveting, and loosely realistic view into gendered poverty in a first-world country. Its characters are multi-dimensional and complex which adds more depth to the story and takes it away from the stereotypical cut and dry characters in many works of art we see in which poor women are the main characters. It is the answer to the age-old question “why didn’t you just leave?” as it shows us the plethora of barriers and hurdles women must face in their journey after leaving abusive situations.
Although I could relate to many of the difficulties the main character, Alex faced in her fight to survive, to provide better for her child and herself. I don’t live in a first-world country so this is not going to be that kind of article.
As a Ghanaian woman, who also happens to work with survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, I couldn’t help but wish for what Alex had access to for the hundreds of women I’ve worked with. Sounds crazy huh? Yeah, it took me a while to understand the different emotions I was experiencing while watching the show too. I empathized greatly with the struggle. A feeling of despair seeing her unable to acknowledge what was happening to her as abuse is all too real. Many survivors of domestic violence be it emotional, physical, or otherwise struggle to come to terms with what’s actually happening to them, and the scene in which she flippantly mentions it to her social worker is one I am all too familiar with. Her social worker having to do the work of passively-aggressively pointing out her situation to her is a harsh but necessary reality.
But wait oh! The social worker then refers her to a safe house that provided actual clean, well-equipped complete apartments for women who were fleeing violence. A safe house that had a car service to pick up survivors, a boutique where the women and their children could get free thrifted clothes, food, running water, safety, and therapy. Jesu!!! In which country? Ghana? Nigeria? Where? I thought back to the hundreds of women I’ve had to drive to the homes of private volunteers, the lack of funding for those of us who do this work in Ghana, Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa. The number of times activists have to come out of pocket to provide clothing, shelter, food, health care for survivors and their children. Don’t get me wrong, this is fulfilling work, absolutely! But good lord, would it not be great to have government assistance in getting respectable housing for these women we work with?
I cried ugly tears when she had to apply for government assistance. Although it was grueling work to get the forms filled, delivered while trying to juggle substandard child care and finding a job, this was an option for her. Subsidized housing (albeit reprehensible structural conditions in that halfway house) but oh my god, there is an option! This is something that hurt me for the millions of poor survivors living in my part of the world. Those of whom may never know what it feels like to have a safety net where the government can actually give subsidized food, subsidized housing? Not just privately funded, but government-funded as well. All I kept thinking to myself was “kai this life no balance at all.” The very obvious systemic disparities between women from there and those from here were so glaring. Like sis! You know it’s really messed up when you’re comparing domestic violence survivor notes. And this is exactly what I kept doing for most of the show.
Noticing the various options, she had at her disposal while also being extremely triggered by her struggles especially having to watch her fall back slowly but surely into the cycle of abuse, and shouting at my tv screen “Alex what the hell are you doing?” as I watched her battle the need to take responsibility for her abuser’s behavior and see her empathize with him even while he destroyed what little progress she had made. All these things happening almost at once made it so clear the very real impossibility that survivors face. And all the while I kept thinking at the back of my mind, but she still has a system to fall back on no matter how messed up. And then it would hit me again how similar parts of our societies are when even with the options she had at her disposal, I’d see how those who work within these systems profoundly fail those they are charged with protecting. Watching the way Alex galled landlords, her employers, daycare workers, family, etc. by simply existing in what can only be described as an inevitably difficult state. Maddy “needs you to do better,” a doctor chides her when her apartment (through no fault of her own) is riddled with black mold. She is told by a condescending court-mandated parenting class instructor “Parents do not get a day off.” As if she was just supposed to suddenly become superhuman. This is what society is always expecting single mothers to do, even though fathers can generally choose when they will parent and when they will not. This is evidenced when her baby’s father (Sean) constantly shirks his responsibilities and relegates his daughter to the “As and When” folder of his life.
Yet still, this show gave me a peek into what our futures could look like if our societies take women a bit more seriously. If they valued us a bit more, if they actually walked the talk instead of the countless dry speeches we get from ministers, and other political leaders who claim to care about women and girls, but whose idea of revolutionary change in infrastructure for these women consists of one public toilet every five years in one market somewhere in the hinterlands of our countries. Let me be clear, I am in no way propping the US on a pedestal as a bastion of women’s rights because, for the self-proclaimed wealthiest nation in the world, the gaps in that system are actually embarrassing. I am however banging my head on a wall trying to figure out how we have let these people fly under the radar calling themselves leaders while completely ignoring one of the most endemic struggles women face on the continent.
The complexity of the characters, especially that of Alex (the main character) is essential to breaking us away from the stereotypes poor women are usually depicted in, and gives us insight into how unrealistic our perceptions of poverty and bootstrapping have been for decades. The lies we’ve been fed that just working hard will bring you out of poverty and that if this has not happened, then it is not the government’s fault for failing to build infrastructure and systems that actually benefit the majority, but all this is inherently the fault of the most vulnerable in our society for just not being hard-working enough. Shows like this are important, as they show us and others who have different experiences that the unvarnished, lives of average women like Alex are just as important, just as valid, and just as real.
All in all, MAID is a great show, and even those whose socio-cultural experiences are quite different will see their society in it. The ending of this show, similar to the book it is based off, ends well because Alex goes on to get a scholarship and becomes a best-selling author. While this is an amazing end to a sad story, to be very honest, I walked away from this thinking to myself, “African governments, how are you letting the ghetto of the West beat you at taking care of women? Are you not embarrassed? Haba! Do Better!” And then I cried again because what wouldn’t I give for every region, every state, every province to have at least two domestic violence shelters as a start. AFRICA WHEN???