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‘Maid’: Let’s Start Talking about Domestic Violence
Netflix's new show, 'Maid', tackles themes of domestic violence and starts a discussion on the difficulty surrounding it.
16 November, 2021

Amidst a global pandemic that continues to ravage the world over, the last thing I thought I would choose to watch on Netflix was a series about a single mother who left an abusive relationship and took a job as a maid to (barely) survive. So, no matter how much Netflix had recommended the show to me, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it. But, lo and behold, my mother decided to play it. And, to put it mildly, I couldn’t stop. Based on a book about a true story, Maid begins with Alex picking up her three year-old daughter Maddy and leaving the trailer park home she shares with her boyfriend/father-of-her-daughter Sean in the middle of the night. With nowhere to go, Alex and Maddy spend the night in her car.  Further along the episode, we see a flashback of a huge fight between Alex and Sean. The fight ended up with Sean throwing a glass bowl at the wall next to Alex, and shards of glass ending up in Maddy’s hair which Alex later had to remove. With this, it is clear to the audience that Alex’s relationship with is at least toxic, if not abusive. However, as we later see as one of the major themes of the series, it is not so easy to leave a situation of domestic violence, and the blunt force of the law is not always helpful. 

On Domestic Violence and Coercive Control

Maid is a great starting point to begin a conversation about domestic violence and the persistent project of the law to address it. In England and Wales, the offence of Coercive and Controlling Behaviour was enacted in 2015 to attempt to criminalise non-physical harms that occur within domestic and intimate relationships. As we see in Maid, at no point does Sean ever harm Alex or Maddy. But as has been defined by scholars in criminal law, domestic violence seeks to undermine another person’s freedom. It is the subjection of one’s freedom to the arbitrary control of another. Intimate partner violence has been shown to manifest in many different ways – instances such as gaslighting, ‘love bombing’, and others are all captured – in theory – under the offence of coercive control. In the show, Alex meets a friend who is also in the Domestic Violence shelter, Danielle, who tells her that ‘before they bark, they bite.’ As we see in flashbacks, and as Alex says on the show, Sean had trapped her in so many ways. She did not have an ATM, no phone line that was not tied to Sean’s, and she was not allowed to have a job. Alex’s individual identity was slowly being diminished by Sean, and in many ways, this was domestic violence. 

I’d really hate to take a bed from somebody that’s been abused for real

What’s difficult about domestic violence is it’s hard even for its victims to recognise that they’ve been abused. In one scene, Alex is reluctant to agree with the fact that she has been abused. She defines ‘real’ abuse as being beaten up, or hurt. It isn’t until someone points out to her that intimidation and threats count as abuse that she starts to accept it.  

But even with the law’s recognition of domestic violence, it is still a difficult offence to prosecute. The criminal law is unique in its ability to symbolise a specific harm – it alone can tell a society that this particular type of conduct is harmful. But the justice system, relying on evidence, and a burden of proof that is beyond reasonable doubt, makes it very difficult for the victims (most of whom are women) to bring their case. It also fails to factor in the many different aspects of domestic violence. Many cases are not straightforward – a lot of cases involve children, or are women whom are unable to financially support themselves alone, are just some of the facets of domestic violence that make it difficult to understand. Alex, for example, has Maddy, and Sean seems to be a good father to her. Danielle, her friend in the shelter who supported her in her custody case against Sean, ends up returning to her husband who had strangled her. This is not followed further in the series, but as Denise (the head of the domestic violence shelter) tells Alex, ‘it took me five tries before I left for good.’ Domestic violence, because it involves the most intimate relationships in our lives, is never going to be black and white. 

‘If I saw anything, what I saw was a young couple going through a rough patch

The show reaches a point where Alex is left with no choice but to file a domestic abuse complaint against Sean. As her lawyer (provided by her old boss, now friend) says, her particular State does not fully recognise the offence of domestic violence. It is especially difficult because the case will go down to a he-said-she-said, and while Sean denies that he abused her (and a lot of their friends agree with him), Alex has no choice but to ask her father to write a testimony (he had seen Sean threaten and intimidate her during dinner one time). He flat out refuses, saying that what he saw was not domestic violence. That it was normal. And while we scoff with disbelief (she cuts him off after this, and we say good riddance!), it is sadly an unfortunate reality. Scholars have found that it is difficult to draw a line between domestic violence and the normalised gender norms. Male dominance has been, to a certain extent, naturalised because of the patriarchal society we live in. Which is, yet again, another reason why this type of behaviour remains to be difficult to capture and criminalise. Alex’s father refused to believe that the way Sean acted towards Alex was anything criminal and, while he is probably my least favourite character, there is something to be said about the need for the public’s understanding of what constitutes domestic violence to move forward in tandem with the criminal law’s response to it.

Despite its heavy subject matter, Maid is watchable because it remains detached – the scenes play out almost clinically, with a neutral observation of the events of Alex (and Maddy’s) life. Maybe unrealistically, Maid has scant scenes featuring Alex crying or breaking down due to her circumstances – it is almost as if Alex is watching the events in her life unfold from outside of herself, just letting it all wash over her. At one point in the show, Alex returns to the domestic violence shelter and lies on the floor, unfeeling, after a court decides to give Sean custody of Maddy for a week. In another scene, Alex has returned to Sean, believing (at least we assume) that he has changed, and has found herself under his control once more; upon realising that he hasn’t, Alex crawls into herself, descending into a metaphoric pit, unable to reconcile how she had made strides to improve her situation, both for herself and for Maddy, yet somehow has found her way back into the very situation she fought so hard to leave. Anyone who knows me knows that I cry at the slightest emotional nudge (I am definitely that person who cries at sad commercials), so the way that Maid told Alex’s story was an organised showcase of how a young woman navigates the system with the odds stacked against her to finish triumphant. Maid shines exactly because it knows it does not need to be overt to be felt – it’s a story that happens all too often enough that the audience doesn’t need it to be laid on too thick. Maid realises that real life is difficult, and most of the time we, as its main characters, don’t have time to break down at every devastating moment. Life is sad enough on its own, we don’t need to announce that it is. In the end, Alex pulls herself out of her situation and is able to get her life together – the parts of the system she found difficult to navigate at the beginning of the series, she handles with ease and efficiency. Sean agrees to give full custody to Alex, allowing them to leave so Alex can finally attend college. It’s a happy ending for Alex, but because the series has a light touch on the sad days in her life, it uses the same for the beginning of her happy days. I enjoyed watching Maid, not in the least because it allowed me to start a conversation with my own mother about the realities of domestic violence, but for Alex and Maddy’s sake, I hope there’s no season two. 

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