Domestic work on TV and in movies bears little resemblance to reality, according to a new report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center.
Advocates say the misrepresentation has sweeping implications for the people doing domestic work in the real world, the majority of whom are women of color.
An analysis of 47,000 keywords from over a hundred movies and TV shows from 1910 to 2020 shows a workforce that is much whiter and with fewer immigrants than exists in real life. White domestic workers had more dialogue than domestic workers of color, as well as more complex dialogue with more and different words used. One in three domestic worker keyword mentions were pejorative, although language has improved since the 1970s.
Erica Rosenthal, director of research at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, co-authored the report. “Representation matters,” she said. “People learn from entertainment. They learn about how the world is and how the world should be. … When [domestic workers] are portrayed in stereotypical or dehumanizing ways, then audiences are more likely to dehumanize the actual domestic workers who work for them or that they may come across in their lives.”
Domestic workers have historically, disproportionately been women of color. Race was a factor in the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers from the National Labor Relations Act and other New Deal programs.
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Rosenthal points out that not only are white domestic workers over-represented in entertainment media, but also they are portrayed with more complexity than their counterparts of color. About 80 percent of domestic workers in larger speaking roles with greater and more complex dialogue were white. In reality, only 40 percent of domestic workers are white.
“There’s really two types of domestic workers being portrayed. You might see white workers in fully fleshed out roles, like “The Nanny” for example. And then we have another class of domestic workers of color, who are more likely to be background characters and not fleshed out. They’re defined by their status as somebody’s worker instead,” Rosenthal said.
The results came as no surprise to Kieran Clarke, a domestic worker living in New York City who is part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s new pop culture council, which hopes to improve media representation. The alliance partnered with the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project to commission the research report.
Clarke described the media’s portrayal of what she does every day as “degrading” and “dehumanizing.”
“What you see on television is usually only child care and house cleaning. And that representation is mostly white. The people doing those jobs [on television] aren’t the Black people doing the jobs in real life,” she said.
Clarke is originally from St. Lucia. Like over a third of domestic workers, she is an immigrant, and like over half of domestic workers, a woman of color.
Clarke has worked as a domestic worker for over two decades as a nanny and a home health aide for people with dementia. She also works as a doula. “I’ve cared for people from birth all the way up to 100 years old,” she said.
The report also indicates that there is little representation of the homecare workforce (6 percent of media representation), compared to other forms of domestic work like house cleaning and childcare. According to the Domestic Policy Institute, approximately 62 percent of domestic workers are employed as home care aides to seniors and people with disabilities.
Clarke bristled at the portrayal of domestic work, especially care work, as unskilled or low effort.
“There’s skill involved. A baby or a child or an individual is not like a brick. They come with human emotions. They have issues and problems. You have to navigate all of that to get the job done. You have to be patient and empathetic,” Clarke said.
The report does have some positive news: Derogatory language for domestic workers appears to be on the decline. Words like “servant” and “the help” appear less frequently today than they did before 1970, for example.
“There’s still a long way to go, but pejorative terms are becoming less common,” Rosenthal said.
Clarke’s advice for improving media representation of domestic workers is straightforward: “Speak to a domestic worker. … We want people out there to understand that our stories matter. Our work matters. We do the work that makes all other work possible.”