Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Maid (2021): Emotional abuse IS abuse

Maid. Photo: Netflix

WARNINGS: The review contains spoilers; the limited series portrays domestic violence.

*I used the pronoun he/him to refer to the abuser because of the statistics that show us that domestic violence is mostly perpetrated by cis men.

Maid is a ten-part series from Netflix, created by Molly Smith Metzler, and inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. The streaming drama follows the journey of Alex (Margaret Qualley) leaving an abusive relationship and fighting for a better life for her and her two-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). Early on, we were faced with the type of abuse committed by Maddy’s father, Sean (Nick Robinson). Emotional abuse is still not perceived as abuse by many survivors. When Alex leaves Sean’s house and seeks help from social services, she refuses to admit that she is a victim of violence, since the message “But he never hit me” is internalized as a justification for excusing nonphysical aggression, which we don’t perceive as aggression.

Sean screams and points his finger in Alex’s face, breaking glass so close to the mother and daughter that left shards of it in the girl’s hair — and uses his problem with alcohol as an excuse. Alex was also financially dependent on him, escaping his trailer home in the middle of the night with the child and less than twenty dollars. It’s important that Sean is referred to as Maddy’s father and not as Alex’s partner/lover, because only the former is a permanent title, and it keeps us from romanticizing their abusive relationship. There is a scene in which Alex remembers how he treated her at the beginning of the relationship and this is very important to understand how the abuse is normalized. First, he’s a prince, then a monster. That’s why a lot of women feel like they’ve done something wrong to alter the abuser’s behavior. And it’s easy to cling to what ‘existed’ wishing for it to come back. I say this from a personal experience, and that’s why I thought I should write about the series. I was also stuck in an abusive relationship for years with someone who constantly threatened me, making me sink deeper into a well, forgetting who I was — you might remember now that sinking-into-the-couch scene on the show. Every time they take a piece of us, we sink further and forget who we are and our values, working through the mechanisms of the abuser.

The first step the protagonist takes is to seek her financial autonomy, and the fact that this is Maid’s focus is that it is one of the main reasons why women are not to be able to get out of abusive relationships. Margaret is so devoted to her role that her facial expression screams “I’ll do with anything not to go back to that place”. We see that much of Alex’s resilience is built through the huge failures of the US system to assist solo mothers, victims of abuse and unemployed people living in extreme poverty. This is especially evident when Alex’s spending calculations appear on the screen. She ends up working for the Value Maids company, where she cleans houses for a salary that barely covers rent and basic necessities, and the places hide something very human that Alex gradually discovers and jots down her observations in her notebook. The young woman had a dream of studying creative writing and had to take a break because she had discovered pregnancy at the time. When she tells that to Sean, he reacts negatively, refusing parenthood, which is a very common scenario. Often the father leaves the mother alone, and when he doesn’t, he uses the child to keep the mother dependent, which happened to Alex. She lives temporarily in a shelter for victims of domestic violence run by Denise (BJ Harrison) who was also a victim. I believe her character was essential for victims of violence who were watching Maid feel valid. She represents how we would like society to treat us in these moments of extreme vulnerability and sends the message that the world needs more people like Denise who will understand us and provide us with the means to put ourselves back together. It is the humanizing touch that the bureaucratic system needs.

At the same shelter, Alex meets Danielle (Aimee Carrero) who also has a child. She is the one who lifts Alex off the ground when she felt powerless to fight for custody of her daughter, and she would only have a week to prove to the court that she could afford to keep Maddy. And here’s the question: how do you prove psychological abuse if you don’t have body marks? Would Alex’s word not be enough? When Alex meets mutual friends with Sean, one of them tells that she heard his side of the story. This shows how much the abuser’s word stands out, even more in cases of emotional abuse and when they are friends with women since women claim that the abuser never did anything to them, then there is nothing to condemn him for. I believe what lacked in the series was Sean being held accountable for the abuse and clarification on the fact that alcohol or nothing can be an excuse for violence. Anyway, Maid has done what it could for the issue of abuse.

Danielle represents the bond of sisterhood because she had been there and knows how it is, and many victims end up bonding because there is no empathy from other people who have never been through this trauma. The character ends up leaving the shelter and returning to the abuser after receiving constant calls, which certainly flags emotional blackmail, and this is not because “women go back because they like to suffer” or other stupid allegations we hear so often, but because it is difficult to break the abusive cycle, especially when you have children.

We should never belittle the violence of an abusive person even when we are not the target. Maid sensitively addresses the gradual layers of abuse so that we understand why victims are slow to leave or never leave the relationship. Gif: Tumblr

When Alex and Maddy leave the shelter, they are taken in by an acquaintance who always had a crush on her. Nate (Raymond Ablack), a stable and charming man and a good father, in other words, the ‘ideal’ guy, offers his car and his house to them, keeping them closer. However, when revealing his real intentions by sheltering them, Alex rejects him saying that they are not equal. Even though she was sexually attracted to Nate, he hoped that all the support would be paid back, and told her to leave even though he knew she had nowhere to go. He had just learned she slept with Sean, but he didn’t compute that she was going through so much on her own and that that made her emotionally vulnerable. Nate didn’t really care about helping her. Alex was wrong to leave Maddy with him and not let him know where she was for hours, however, that couldn’t justify kicking her out. Many Maid fans rooted for them to stay together and didn’t understand why she didn’t end up with the ‘nice guy’. A character like Nate shows us that controlling men can act in such subtle ways that we often don’t realize their true intentions. We’ve seen the same archetype in books and movies and we even daydreamed of it. We now know that it needs to be deconstructed. Both Nate and Sean have tried to control Alex because of her vulnerability, but she gets on the right path to be self-sufficient, and I want you to wonder what her life would have been like if she had stayed with Nate.

Alex tries to contact her mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell), an artist who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend, with whom our protagonist doesn’t get along. The first impression we can get of Paula is that she is a hippie who is stuck in the 60s and refuses to see what’s going on around her, especially when Alex talks about her issues, to which she doesn’t seem to listen. What gave the series universal praise was undoubtedly the nuanced and multifaceted characters. Paula’s steers clear from expected ‘mom tropes’ if we were only allowed to meet her as the exact opposite of Alex. While Alex is down to earth and lives for her daughter, her mother’s mind is outer space and she doesn’t listen to her daughter. However, there is a twist in Maid’s narrative that allows us to better understand the current relationship between Paula and Alex. When the protagonist has to clean the house of a wanted serial killer, she hears her mother’s cries for help coming from the basement floor where the serial killer was locked as a child as punishment from the mother and in which Alex has accidentally locked herself, and this triggers a memory of her as a child and hidden in the kitchen cabinet at home. Alex suffers a panic attack upon leaving, which adds an important touch of reality to the plot, as we rarely see characters showing signs of emotional trauma when going through extreme situations. Alex ends up discovering that her father, Hank (Billy Burke), with whom she doesn’t have a good relationship, beat up her mother in the past. When confronting her mother, Paula says she was not a victim, but she was in another abusive relationship with a con who took the mortgage on the house she had inherited from Alex’s grandma. Paula then has a nervous breakdown when she realizes that she lost the only thing that had power. At this point, Alex panics as she realizes how much burden she was taking on. Despite so much going on in her life, Alex feels for others. However, here is one intriguing question: Mom takes care of everyone. But who takes care of mom? When Alex collapses, Sean uses this breach to regain his control over her.

Andie MacDowell, a familiar face from classic 80s and 90s romantic movies, delivers a visceral performance. Her character is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and although Stephanie Land’s mother does not have the same condition, it is important that disorders are addressed more often the way it was in Maid in order to break stigmas. Despite the character’s opposition to the treatment, her euphoric phase of the disorder is the one we meet in the show, and knowing the character in her greatest vulnerability certainly changes our gaze. She made the right decision by running away with Alex from the abusive home long ago, and the connection between the two proves that abuse is generational and that Paula is stronger than we might have thought of her if there had been no room for her story.

Actresses Margaret Qualley and Andie MacDowell are mother and daughter in real life, which adds an intense emotional charge in these pandemic times when our personal connections have been impacted. Photo: Netflix

Another point for which the series deserves recognition is that during this pandemic, evidence has shown that domestic violence spiked. Many women have been quarantined and become more vulnerable to abuse. Reactions to the series from many women on social media confirm that it is triggering and that they either cannot watch it or are doing that slowly. It’s impossible not to feel different after finishing the ten episodes of Maid. It is necessary for all of us not only because it tackles issues that need an urgent change in our society, but also because it does so in the most realistic way. I don’t think Maid needs a second season because when we see Alex and Maddy moving on to a promising new trajectory, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel that many victims of violence need so that they can move forward themselves. The ending also makes us wish that everything will be all right for mother and daughter and encourages us to share the same empathy for the victims around us.

I give all my support to solo mothers who were/are or are not victims of domestic violence. You deserve to climb to the top of a mountain and claim a new world for you and your child/children. Photo: Netflix

A Portuguese version of this article can be found here.

If you are in crisis, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799-SAFE (7233) or www.TheHotline.org.

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