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Throughout history, there have been stereotypes that certain ethnicities are more prevalent in menial labor such as maids and farmhands. This stereotype is often an exaggerated case of the truth: Certain minority groups have
indeed been over-represented in menial jobs due to a variety of factors. In Politically Correct History
this will be carefully sidestepped, but in accurate or exaggerated Period Pieces
and Historical Fiction
, the older versions of this trope can still be found.
In modern incarnations, the ethnic group is often a kind of Acceptable Target
In the United States
The Irish Laborer
Irish immigrants to the United States were often considered "backwards" and only fit for menial labor. This led to many of them having no choice but to accept such jobs. Female immigrants often worked as washerwomen or maids; the term "bridie" or "bridget" meaning "maid" stems from their prevalence in that field. Males worked on farms, on the railroads, and at similar, back-breaking tasks. They continued this role far into the next period, working alongside the Black slave and later Black Laborer. (In the ante-bellum Deep South
, they were hired slave overseers.)
It wasn't until the early part of the 20th century that the Irish were finally seen as "white" (for centuries they were seen as a completely different race from the English) and thus finally began to cast off a lot of the explicit racism held against them (many businesses had so-called NINA rules, an acronym for No Irish Need Apply). Like many previously discriminated communities facing a new level of upward mobility, the Irish joined the police force in record numbers in the hopes of improving their reputation in the community — Officer O'Hara
is a subtrope of this; it's also the reason older media refer to police cars as "Paddy Wagons."
In Britain, a similar stereotype for the male Irish workman emerged, as most of England's canal network in the Industrial revolution was made by Irish labour teams (as it was cheaper). The slur "Navvie" refers to this stereotype and is highly insulting to many Irishmen today.
Only very old media covered this trope at the time, although you can still find it in Historical Fiction
and Period Pieces
that are trying for historical accuracy.
The Chinese Laborer
Discrimination relegated most Chinese immigrants to menial labor after they entered the United States. This trend was mostly contemporary with the Irish Laborer. The Chinese suffered especially hard in the 1870s, when legislation denied them the basic rights of citizenship based on their ethnic origin.
Some of this can still be found to this day with the Chinese Launderer
. The most commonly seen historical figure is the Chinese Railroad Worker, although the girl illegally imported and sold into prostitution can be seen in media representing the early 20th century, as well.
The Black Laborer
Black Americans released from slavery often had to accept positions as menial laborers. The reasons for this were both a lack of training and deep-seated prejudice that kept them from rising higher in society. This would continue until after the Civil Rights Movement.
Literature from this period will often evoke this trope.
One recurring figure from this period is the Mammy
, a nursemaid who would continue to provide an important mothering role well into adulthood. The Black Maid, Black Farmhand and Black Railroad Worker are also common. There are a lot of parallels between Mammy
types and Magical Negroes
The Hispanic Laborer
A combination of political correctness
and a movement toward this ethnic group genuinely become overrepresented in menial labor has shifted modern media to the Hispanic Laborer. Latin immigrants to the United States tend to be poorer than most, and thus rarely have the education necessary for jobs above the service industry. For illegal immigrants
, their choices are even narrower: They must take jobs that can be paid under the table. This has led to a disproportionate number of Hispanics in jobs involving manual labor, especially in states bordering Mexico. Since California is where most of those movies and TV shows are made, this trend is carried over into modern media, though good luck finding any Latin characters even in shows that are set in L.A., a city that now is more than 50% Hispanic.
Hispanic Laborers will always have a thick Mexican accent and will be prone to sprinkle their (sometimes unusually precise) English speech with Spanish words or sentences. Alternatively, they will not speak English at all. The most common variant is the Hispanic Maid. Also often seen are the Hispanic Pool Boy, Hispanic Farm/Ranch Hand, Hispanic Busboy/Dishwasher and Hispanic Gardener.
Note that if the employer is Hispanic, the laborer will be of any ethnicity but
Eastern European Laborer
Britain, by virtue of having one of the most open policy toward immigration from the 2004 EU entries (second only to Ireland and Sweden), also has a lot of manual labourers and tradesmen from Eastern Europe, mostly Poland but with a sizable minority from Lithuania and Slovakia. Contrary to popular belief, most are expatriates rather than immigrants, arriving in the country with the intention of working for a few months and then returning home. At one point there were believed to be more than a million migrant workers in the United Kingdom; there are fewer nowadays as the source countries have become more prosperous, making it less profitable to work here. They show up or are referenced in quite a few works set in post-2004 Britain; fictional examples are almost invariably Polish.
This stereotype can also be seen in the United States with the au pair
nanny, who is not menial in reality, but is often treated so in fiction. She is a young European girl, usually Swedish, Norwegian, or Finnish, for some reason. Occasionally she'll be German or French (or some flavor of Caribbean). Germans and French were more common in the post-World War II period through the 1970s, as those countries were still rebuilding their ruined economies and a trip to America was a good way to get ahead.
North African Laborer
By virtue of the proximity of Spain, France, and Italy to North Africa, and the colonial links between them (Algeria and Tunisia were French colonies, Morocco was a joint French and Spanish colony, and Libya was an Italian colony), the stereotypical immigrant laborer in these countries is an Arabic-speaking North African. Many of them are illegal immigrants, but most are in the country legally; many are there on temporary work visas and intend to return home rather than stay permanently. Stereotypes of these are a peculiar mix of what Americans think of menial black labor and general Arab/Muslim stereotypes (i.e. covered women, bearded men, and general religious fanaticism), although the latter bit is only true of a small segment of the population.
, a maid who is invariably the same race as her employers (or at the very least some flavor of Japanese).
- In a rare modern example English actress Alice Eve played an Irish nanny in the second Sex and the City movie.
- In an episode of The Simpsons Marge is cleaning her house because she's afraid that a hired cleaning lady will gossip about how dirty it is. In her imagination three cleaning ladies with extremely sterotypical Oirish accents do just that.
- As noted below Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom And Jerry was redrawn (and voiced) as an Irish maid.
- Hattie McDaniel played the role of many a Black maid, including Scarlett O'Hara's mammy in Gone with the Wind. She reputedly said that she'd rather play a maid for a weekly wage of $700 than be a maid for a weekly wage of $7.
- Miracle on 34th Street features a housekeeper named Cleo early in the film whose entire purpose is to tell Dorothy Walker where her daughter is and then never be seen again. She's later referenced by Mr. Gailey when he takes Susan up to the store, but that's the last reference to her. She was played by an uncredited Theresa Harris, who had a long acting career of mostly bit parts, a great deal of which were maids.
- A particularly insulting "Mammy" example can be seen with Eulabelle in Horror Of Party Beach, which was mercilessly called out in the episode of MST3K that featured it — Eulabelle is obese, speaks in "Oh Lawdy!" colloquialisms, and is convinced that the monster is a case of bad voodoo. The actress was named Eulabelle Moore, and her few acting credits have her playing the same type of role, though this was the only one to use her real name. Amusingly, Eulabelle is one of the only characters in the film to display any sort of common sense about the eponymous horror: when one of the white "heroes" gives up looking for sodium to kill the monster after calling only one warehouse, Eulabelle berates him for giving up so damn easily.
- Bart, protagonist of Blazing Saddles, starts out as a railroad worker. He later comes back for the other laborers so they can build a fake Rock Ridge to trick the bandits, in exchange for some land to grow crops. While Bart is black, Chinese, and Irish workers also show up.
Howard Johnson: All right. We'll take the niggers, and the chinks. But we don't want the Irish. [the assembled laborers turn and act as if they're about to go home] Oh, prairie shit. All right. Everyone!
- Calpurnia in To Kill A Mockingbird, yet unlike many of these examples, her station in life was another part of the book's dissection of racism in America. Calpurnia was treated as an equal member of the family and was written as a fully-fleshed out human instead of as the flat "Mammy" stock character. She has a much bigger part in the book than in the film, which had to cut many scenes and subplots for time and many of Calpurnia's scenes were too. But her sensitive and important portrayal makes her one of the few examples of this type of role that does not create Values Dissonance today.
- The black nanny (at one point called a 'stand-in mother') in The Secret Life Of Bees, who has 'mammy' written all over her.
- Clare's childhood maid in The Time Traveler's Wife.
- Sam and Dinah Johnson, the resident handyman and cook of The Bobbsey Twins respectively.
- The whole point of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and it's 2011 film adaptation.
- Dilsey and her extended family serve the Compson family in Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury. Like the above examples, she is a fully realized character, and offers one of the only morally and mentally sound perspectives in the whole book.
- Martha Jones is stuck as a maid in the Doctor Who two-parter "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood". But it seems a little bit different in her case, in that she's basically the undisputed protagonist for those episodes, the other characters are blatantly prejudiced toward her and she tries to demonstrate to them how wrong they are, and she's usually a med student.
- Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom And Jerry is a more controversial reminder of the time when the original shorts were filmed. She was a heavy-set black housekeeper who often had to deal with the title characters' antics. Attempts to get around this have in the past included redrawing her as a slim white woman with an Irish accent, or more recently by redubbing her original performance to remove more offensive dialect from her lines (but not changing her race). A recent revival replaced her part with another slim white woman explicitly referred to as Mrs Two-Shoes. The character was apparently inspired by Hattie McDaniel and not surprisingly, Lillian Randolph, the woman who played her, was also frequently cast as a maid.
- Actress Lupe Ontiveros estimates she's played over 150 maids in her acting career (including Rosalita in The Goonies). Ontiveros is a graduate of Texas Women's University, with majors in psychology and social work. She narrated a documentary called Maid in America.
- The eponymous character in Maid In Manhattan
- Blanca from Fun With Dick And Jane
- Meet The Fockers has Isabel, the Fockers' former housekeeper who runs a catering business. When she was working for the eponymous family, main character Greg lost his virginity to her. She also has a son, which leads to Jack (the father of Greg's fiancee Pam) trying to find out if Greg is the father of said son. He isn't.
- Baz Luhrmann's modern-day version of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet turned the nurse Hispanic.
- Carmen the house maid in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
- Enrique the gay pool boy in Legally Blonde
- It seems that the entire crew of Rocky's restaurant in Rocky Balboa is Mexican, judging from the ranchera music they hear.
- Machete centers on migrant workers, including the title character who seems to be just a day laborer.
- In the Adam Sandler film Jack And Jill, Jack's family has a stereotypically Hispanic gardener.
- In Pasadena, two of the three maids portrayed on the soap were Hispanic.
- Rosario on Will and Grace
- Celia on Dharma and Greg
- Catalina from My Name Is Earl, is a bit lower class version.
- Elliot from Scrubs had one before the show.
- In a 3rd Rock From The Sun episode, Strudwick's family was shown to have a Hispanic pool boy.
- The cleaning woman that George falls for in one episode of Seinfeld mentions that she grew up in Panama.
- Lupe, Lucille's put-upon maid, in Arrested Development. The stereotype is subverted in "Staff Infection," where (via one of the series' trademark chain of events solely subject to Finagle's Law) Lindsay tries to put an end to a strike using Latino scabs, who turn out to be Lupe's family (whom Michael had directed to meet their bus for their Catalina Island family reunion at the Bluth Company's parking lot), one of whom is a university professor.
- In Home on the Strange, one of the characters gets a Hispanic maid...who turns out to be a middle-aged man.
- Lupino on King of the Hill
- Parodied on Family Guy .
- In The Boondocks episode "The Itis," all of the kitchen staff in Granddad's soul food restaurant are Mexicans. They're the only employees left over from the previous restaurant in that location, because Ed Wuncsler Sr. fired everybody except the illegal Mexicans.
- Played with when Chico, one of the line cooks, takes Huey's side in an argument with Granddad about the value of soul food, and expounds on how soul food was a survival technique for slaves who had no other choice but to eat the parts of the pig that the masters wouldn't eat. Huey and Granddad reply with open-mouthed stunned stares, to which Chico says: "What, I can't take an Afro-American Studies class at the community college?"
- Also played with on South Park, where one can hire the Mexicans at the Home Depot to do your (home)work. Twist is, they are quite competent when it comes to writing English essays on Hemmingway (just be clear when you ask them to write the essays), or teach math.
- Whenever a gag calls for a maid on Archer, it's always a Hispanic woman. But Mallory treats all her menials equally.
Eastern European Laborer
Anime and Manga
- In Axis Powers Hetalia, there was a series of comics in which Lithuania lived with America and was hired to help take care of his house. This was to represent American outsourcing to Lithuania in that time period. Lithuania himself was pretty happy with the arrangement (it meant no longer working for Russia), but had to go back to his old job after America causes a depression.
- Eva Starzia Schnorbitz Melitzskova in British sitcom Baddiel's Syndrome.
- Magda in British sitcom Lead Balloon.
- Pete Campbell more or less rapes his neighbor's German au pair in Season 4 of Mad Men.
- Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was all about workers in Chicago, but the main character Jurgis was Lithuanian. Poles and Slovaks were mentioned extensively (as were the Irish, but the Eastern Europeans had mostly displaced them from the most menial jobs).
- Matya the Hungarian nanny in Capital, despite her degree in mechanical engineering. Lanchester has said he was writing about the real-life social phenomenon of highly educated Eastern Europeans coming to do menial jobs in Britain in search of higher wages and the 'London dream'.
- Sequential Art has "Crazy Sven". Though he's actually a taxicab driver.