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the help

Will Hollywood’s New Sympathy for The Help Extend to Latina Maids?

Emma Stone and Viola Davis in The Help.

Whatever you think of The Help, it's been a great thing for the formerly throwaway screen stereotype of the black maid, inviting us to see these supporting characters as leads, to follow them back to their own homes, and to begin a larger conversation about how they were mistreated during the Civil Rights era. It's clear from the runaway success of the movie that people are responding to its sympathy for once-derided domestics, but will its cinematic halo have any effect on Latina maids, who continue to serve as the butt of jokes on TV and in movies?

Aibileen and Minny from the sixties-set The Help have long been supplanted by the likes of Rosario from Will and Grace and Zoila from Flipping Out, whose rich employers don't go an episode without a quip about illegal immigration or a "can't be bothered" mix-up about which country their domestics are from. Though those jokes are meant to illustrate how wealthy and out of touch the offending character is supposed to be, the Latina maid is never significant enough to register as anything more than a punchline for a well-crafted zinger, and she rarely gets stories of her own or even a change of wardrobe. (In TV, Latina maids are as devoted to their maid uniforms as Sue Sylvester is to her Glee tracksuits.)

Sometimes, these jokes are small and seemingly innocuous ones, like a thickly accented maid complaining about the cleaning on MTV's Awkward. And then, on the other side of the spectrum, you've got Family Guy's Consuela, a maid who steals, mangles English, has a son in prison, and appears on the game show Are You Smarter Than a Hispanic Maid? (The Help author Kathryn Stockett and Family Guy writer/producer Mike Henry both modeled characters after their own maids, but suffice it to say, they each had a very different take.) Family Guy is supposed to be gleefully un-PC and an "equal-opportunity offender" — as though white people could ever be racially stereotyped to the same degree as minorities — but could it really get away with placing a black maid in these same situations?

If Latina maids are going to remain a staple of movies and especially television, perhaps it's time to give them their own The Help moment. It's not enough for the maids to simply serve as shorthand to demonstrate that their employers are wealthy assholes, because who are we more likely to sympathize with and aspire to be: the fabulously wealthy main character with all the good lines, or the nameless, put-upon maid the rich person cracks jokes about? The Help has inspired a lot of back-patting about how far we've come on racial progress (and indeed, its black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are considered to be Oscar front-runners), but when you take a look at how Hollywood has been treating Latina maids these days, it's clear that our current cinematic record is less than spotless.

Photo: Dale Robinette/DreamWorks II Distribution Co.