Netflix’s Maid Offers a Rare Portrayal of Low-Wage Domestic Work

Adeptly exploring the compound effects of low-wage work, unsupported parenthood, and our broken social support system, Maid rings true for millions of working-class women.

In Maid, Margaret Qualley plays Alex, a single mother working as a house cleaner. (Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix)

In the United States, more than two million people, mostly women, clean and care for the sick, elderly, and young in the homes of others. Their median pay is $12 an hour, and only one in five domestic workers have employer-provided health care. It’s extremely rare for them to have other benefits like retirement or paid time off, and they are excluded from most labor laws, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Just over half of all domestic workers are people of color, and 35 percent are immigrants.

Domestic work is “the work that makes work possible.” But the women who perform it are basically invisible, their stories seldom told. They rarely appear in movies and on television even as background characters; the homes on TV are magically, spotlessly clean. Thus, it’s notable that Stephanie Land’s book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive was made into a new Netflix miniseries — and a popular one at that, with Maid clocking in at number three on Netflix last week.

Maid is a rare piece of entertainment foregrounding domestic work, but its scope is even bigger. Its true focus is on the nearly unbreakable loop of poverty, homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, and mental health issues. Based on Land’s real life, the show follows Alex and her toddler, Maddy, as they work to escape Maddy’s father, Sean, an emotionally abusive alcoholic.

Alex searches for support from her mom and best friend and, finding none, attempts to navigate the paltry social services on offer in Washington state — all with only a few dollars to her name. In need of housing, daycare, and work, Alex is entered into a senseless and dispiriting maze: she’s not qualified for any kind of subsidized housing or childcare without proof of employment, but she can’t get a job without childcare or housing.

Alex asks her social worker what countless working-class people have wondered before her: “I need a job to prove that I need daycare in order to get a job? What kind of fuckery is that?” The social worker slips her a business card for a housecleaning service, Value Maids.

The story hinges on Alex’s attempts to secure government support, which theoretically exists but is basically impossible to access — an intentional strategy to balance austerity budgets and manage the supply of cheap labor. No matter how hard she tries, she ends up in the same place: broke, homeless or on the verge, and grasping at straws.

There’s a glimmer of hope when Alex is able to cobble together childcare for Maddy and finds temporary housing at a domestic violence shelter. But the odds are still stacked high against her. The owner of Value Maids doesn’t want to pay for benefits, so she caps all employees at thirty hours per week. She also forces employees to pay for their uniform and supplies, and there is no cancellation fee if cleaning clients flake.

Between low wages, limited hours, no benefits, and out-of-pocket expenses, Alex finds it impossible to save money. She bounces between the shelter, a halfway house, and friends’ and parents’ homes, only to end up back at Sean’s, where his drinking and abuse continue.

Denise, who runs the domestic violence shelter, tells Alex that, on average, it takes victims seven attempts to leave their abuser. In part, that’s due to shame and fear, but it’s also due to a lack of meaningful material support. Because of our skeletal welfare state, Alex and survivors like her must jump through hoops to prove that they are worthy of help — and even when they prove that, the support itself is often meager and temporary.

Margaret Qualley in Maid. (Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix)

It’s possible that Alex would have left Sean sooner if she had received housing, daycare, and full-time work immediately after her first attempt. But as it stands, the powerful and exhausting pull of poverty brings her back, despite her desire to secure a life free from abuse for herself and her daughter. Eventually, she has the courage and means to leave Sean again, thanks to support from Regina, an extremely wealthy cleaning client with whom she forges an unlikely friendship.

Regina’s intervention sets Alex’s — and Land’s — story apart. But aside from the happy ending, the contours of the story will be familiar to millions of viewers. Nearly 50 percent of people in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner, and more than one in three women and one in four men will experience physical violence, including rape or stalking, by an intimate partner. Domestic violence is not uncommon, and it disproportionately affects poor women and women of color. Poverty — of the type virtually guaranteed by low-wage domestic work — is both a cause and a consequence of abuse, as financial strain and stress can exacerbate aggression and violence, and victims are often unable to escape its trap due to lack of resources.

With tenacity, ingenuity, and more than a little luck, Alex is finally able to get out. But escape from poverty and abuse shouldn’t be so hard. Alex’s life — and all our lives — would be infinitely safer, healthier, and more fulfilling if we lived in a society that had stronger workers’ rights and a functioning social safety net. If domestic workers’ labor were seen as important, and if they were better compensated and protected on the job, they could have stability for themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, if victims of domestic abuse knew they could walk to their neighborhood welfare office and receive housing, childcare, and work in which reliable hours and fair pay were guaranteed, it would be much easier for those people to leave their abusers. And perhaps abuse itself would become less common. The show reveals that Alex’s bipolar mother faced abuse from Alex’s father, and that Sean also grew up in a dysfunctional home rife with addiction, becoming an alcoholic himself at age nine. The cycles of addiction and abuse flourish when working-class people have no other options: no stable employment, no stable housing, no hope.

Maid does an honorable job portraying the dizzying difficulty of life as a single mother, domestic worker, and abuse survivor in America. It is surprising and refreshing to see a popular television show so adeptly explore the consequences of low-wage work, unsupported parenthood, and our broken social support system, with a sensitivity it surely owes to the memoir from which the story is sourced.

It is, however, also worth noting how much harder things would be — and are for many real people — if the main character weren’t white, or if she didn’t speak English, or if she wasn’t a citizen and was thus ineligible for most social services and public benefits, or if a sympathetic wealthy woman hadn’t come to her rescue. There are millions of people like Alex, trapped in hellish situations, who don’t have a way out. Their suffering isn’t inevitable. Better pay, more protection at work, and a stronger social safety net would go a long way toward ending it.