What Netflix’s ‘Maid’ Can Teach Us About Domestic Abuse

December 20, 2021

What Netflix’s ‘Maid’ Can Teach Us About Domestic Abuse

In October 2021, Netflix released the 10-episode miniseries, Maid. The show follows a young woman named Alex, who is fighting for independence for herself and her two-year-old daughter from an abusive partner. She does so by becoming a maid, and writes about her experiences cleaning the homes of some of the richest people she’s ever met. The series, based on the memoir by Stephanie Land, earned universal acclaim and exploded in popularity.

An important aspect of the show was its portrayal of domestic abuse, which was lauded as an accurate and sensitive representation of a subject not often talked about. Maid served as a catalyst for the public’s deeper understanding of domestic abuse, as the series skillfully navigates the complex issue while being both gripping and educational.

Below, we break down three of the most common misconceptions about domestic abuse, and how Maid helps shed light on them. We also speak to Wendy Lipshutz, LCSW, Program Director of Jewish Family & Career Services’ Shalom Bayit (“Peace in the Home”) domestic violence program, with 38 years of experience serving as a champion and educator for issues of abuse.

Not all domestic abuse is physical.

When people think of domestic abuse, they often think of punching, hitting, and bruises. But most abuse starts slowly and gradually, beginning with subtle put-downs and other emotionally manipulative tactics. Abuse is often minimized and sometimes is not easy to recognize. An abuser can cause a victim to doubt themselves and their reality, leaving the victim vulnerable and susceptible to the abuser’s emotional manipulation.

"Often times, abuse starts slowly," says Ms. Lipshutz. "This may include belittling comments from the abuser towards their victim, calling them stupid or ugly, or saying they can’t do anything right. It is difficult for anyone who is belittled to that degree to not internalize those self-doubts."

In the show, Alex initially flees Sean in the middle night, due to fears from his emotional abuse. But, due to institutional minimization of the threats and other emotional abuse, which was not defined as domestic violence in her community, because she was not physically abused, she did not receive protection from the legal system. She did not file a police report about the incident because she was focused solely on escaping. The legal system used technical loopholes to allow Sean to take custody of Maddy temporarily despite his abusive behavior.

Ms. Lipshutz continues that a lot of people minimize and tolerate the abuse they face because it isn’t overly physical. “They often minimize the abuse,” she says. "They may indicate that 'All he did was block the door,’ if this is one of the tactics they have been forced to tolerate to stay safe. Abusers often find subtle ways to manipulate their partners, including cutting off support, controlling finances, taking away car keys, or insisting that they spend all their time with them and do not spend time with their families. They will use manipulative appeals like ‘We are so special, we need to spend all of our time together.’ This is often the beginning of an abuser cutting off a victim’s resources."

Until there is more education and comprehensive understanding about signs of abuse, abuse will continue, unacknowledged and unnamed.

Another tactic that abusers use to reel victims back in is “love bombing” and apologizing whenever they perpetuate their abuse. This “looks like” the abuser acting sweet, charming, and endearing, promising that they will never behave that way again.

Acknowledging that the “roses and charm” are “the other side of the coin of the controlling fists and threats,” Ms. Lipshutz recalls when she worked in a domestic violence shelter, counseling women to prepare for how they would respond when their abusers coerced them with roses and begged them to come back.

Those experiencing domestic abuse often don’t have the resources to leave.

In the show, we watch Alex struggle to obtain assistance and support for herself and Maddy. She, like others in her situation, deals with confusing legal proceedings, long and contradictory paperwork to apply for benefits, and a lack of resources to meet her overwhelming needs. Every time Alex seems to catch a break, something else happens that sets her back. She even faints from hunger in the middle of cleaning a house because she doesn’t have enough money to buy food.

Many tell those living with domestic abuse to “just leave,” but it’s not always that simple. Abusers often cut their partners off from their family, friends, and financial resources over time. In the show, Sean goes behind Alex’s back and returns the car a friend gave her. This leaves her stranded, with no way to get to her job or her friends, effectively cutting off her financial and emotional support. While isolating Alex from her support system, Sean resumes his alcohol abuse and his abusive behavior towards Alex. This results in one of the most disturbing scenes in the series, where we see Alex physically sink into the couch and disappear as she slips into a deep depression.

Alex echoes the experience faced by many women living in abusive environments today. Many find themselves in situations where they are unable to leave, and even if they do leave, they face retaliation from their abusive partner. It takes a person, on average, about nine attempts to leave an abusive relationship permanently.

"People frequently ask ‘Why don’t they just leave?’" says Ms. Lipshutz. "I would challenge them to instead ask the question ‘Why does the abuse continue?’ It’s important to believe and be supportive of those facing abuse, and not to blame them for the abuse. Ask how you can help and offer resources for safety. Domestic abuse is a conscious decision of the perpetrator who is solely responsible for choosing to abuse. There are plenty of reasons it takes a long time for someone living with abuse to leave. Abuse is about power and control; abusers use multiple tactics to maintain control, making escaping abuse difficult, if not dangerous. This includes use of physical violence, threats, and emotional abuse, including isolation from friends, family, and resources."

Besides the domestic violence shelter and government resources, Alex has a minimal support system. Her mother, Paula, is mentally ill and often out of touch with reality. Her mother also lacks the ability to provide financial support, as she is in and out of work and lives in a trailer with her boyfriend Basil. She later marries Basil, who then disappears with their trailer. We then find out that he was renting out Paula’s childhood home on Airbnb under his name, and instead of paying the mortgage with the earnings, was using the funds to gamble. He has lost all their money and the house is going into foreclosure.

This causes Paula’s mental health to take an even deeper nosedive, as Alex and Sean find her trying to break into her childhood home, her arm severely cut from breaking the glass. Paula then begins expensive care in both a hospital and psychiatric hospital, leaving her unavailable emotionally or financially for Alex and further straining Alex’s limited resources.

Domestic abuse is a learned behavior.

Alex is estranged from her father, Hank, because he physically abused her mother. Hank is eager for a relationship with Alex and Maddy, and Alex accepts his help temporarily out of desperation. However, Hank does not acknowledge or take responsibility for his abuse of Paula, instead blaming Paula for his violence and denying responsibility for his struggle with alcohol.

Domestic abuse often occurs in cycles. Survivors of abuse, especially from a young or impressionable age, may repeat familiar relationship or family patterns, consciously or unconsciously, because it feels comfortable to them. Ms. Lipshutz emphasizes that survivors are not responsible for the domestic violence.

Domestic violence will end only when societal structures recognize abuse and hold abusers accountable, and perpetrators take responsibility for changing their behaviors. Therapy, education, and proper resources can help survivors to build strength to live free from violence, to heal and lead safe and fulfilled lives.

"We are used to things we know, and we are all products of how we were raised,” Ms. Lipshutz said. “However, growing up in an abusive home does not guarantee a person will become abusive, or seek out an abusive partner. Some survivors of abuse from childhood become perpetrators of abuse. Other survivors commit to healing and preventing abuse. If you have been brought up in an abusive environment, or experienced it in the past, I recommend counseling to heal from the traumas. Healthy and safe adults contribute to health and peace for their families, friends, and future generations.”

She goes on further to say that abuse is systemic, and ending it requires action from everyone, not just those personally affected.

“Abuse is bigger than individual perpetrators,” she says. “It’s a systemic problem that is allowed to continue. For domestic violence to end, we must name it, and acknowledge that it can happen to anyone. Clergy, lawmakers, and community leaders need to take a hard stance against abuse. There need to be consequences for offenders. We need more education, legal resources, and adequate financial support."

What can we do about domestic abuse?

Shows like Maid are a good tool to raise awareness of domestic abuse. While it starts a dialogue, there is still much work to be done. We can prevent domestic abuse by spreading awareness and education on warning signs, providing adequate financial and emotional resources, providing greater compassion and understanding, and advocating for laws and practices that support the needs of domestic violence survivors.

The Shalom Bayit (“Peace in the Home”) program at JF&CS aims to help individuals from all backgrounds impacted by abuse, whether presently or in the past. The program also works to dispel the myth that abuse does not happen in the Jewish community. We provide short- and long-term assistance, including individual counseling, longer term therapy, safety planning, referrals, and support groups. Our agency also provides career services and emergency financial assistance for individuals in need, including those living with, escaping or impacted by abusive situations, plus access to food via our food pantry.

If you or someone you know is being abused, you are not alone. For a confidential appointment or more information about Shalom Bayit counseling and education programs, call 770-677-9322 or shalombayit@jfcsatl.org. For 24 hour domestic violence assistance, call the national domestic violence hotline 800-799-SAFE (7233).

To support our efforts to stop domestic abuse, please consider making a Tribute donation to Shalom Bayit, in honor or memory of someone or donating to the agency’s general funds.

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