George says 'no'
Cuz no-one but a Mexican would stoop so low
And after all, even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
Had to import Hebrew braceros."
Throughout history, there have been stereotypes that certain ethnicities are more prevalent in menial labor such as maids, nannies, 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.
The reverse trope is Foreign Ruling Class.
In modern incarnations, the ethnic group is often one of the Acceptable Ethnic Targets.
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.) They often did jobs considered too dangerous for slaves—after all, once the slave trade was abolished and the only way to get more was to breed them, a slave became a valuable investment, while Irishmen were dime-a-dozen, and more were coming over all the time.
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.
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. Latino Is Brown is likely to be played straight. 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 Hispanic.
The Hawaiian Laborer
Though rarely depicted in modern fiction, during the 19th century Hawaiian workers were widespread throughout the West Coast and into Canada; back when Hawaii was still an independent kingdom. Hawaiians came to the United States to work as fur trappers, sailors, cooks, cowboys, fishermen, miners, field hands, and many other jobs.
The Filipino Labourer
Also now rare in modern fiction (in fact, it seems to have been rare in any fiction unless written by Filipino-Americans), this especially became common in the early 1900s, when the U.S. invaded and colonised the Philippines (seizing it away from Spain), and many Filipino men came to work to the American mainland, mostly as farmers on fruit and vegetable plantations, but also as fish cannery workers, sailors, houseboys, and dishwashers and restaurant workers in existing ethnic enclaves like the various Chinatowns. Many of this early wave of Filipino labourers, now known as manongs (roughly, "big brothers" or sometimes "uncles"), were also drafted to work in Hawaii itself (then also a U.S. colony, like the Philippines was), thus producing a bit of overlap with the Hawaiian Labourer example, above. Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan's America Is In The Heart is a classic exploration of this labour class.
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 there. 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.
Contrast Meido, a maid who is invariably the same race as her employers (or at the very least some flavor of Japanese).
- The singer/activist U. Utah Phillips makes reference to Irish railroad workers in his re-telling of the classic "Shaggy Dog" Story "Moose Turd Pie".
- The Pogues' song "Navigator" is a sympathetic elegy for the Irish railroad workers - or "navvies" - in Northern England in the 19th Century.
The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights
- 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 stereotypical Oirish accents do just that.
- As noted below, Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom and Jerry was redrawn (and voiced) as an Irish maid.
- The Disney short adaptation of John Henry has Irish laborers (including an Irish foreman) working on the railroad alongside John and the black laborers.
- A minor character in The Sandman, Lyta Hall's black friend Carla, lives off the money her grandmother made by playing a maid, like Hattie McDaniel below.
- Fantasia's "Pastoral Symphony" segment includes two centaurettes, Sunflower and Otika, who are clearly designed to look black, while the rest are oddly-colored and Caucasian-looking. Sunflower is shown doing menial jobs like polishing the other centaurettes' hooves, while Otika serves as part of Bacchus' entourage. Both have been removed from later releases due to controversy.
- 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.
- Bubba's mother in Forrest Gump is depicted as a chef for an aristocratic family, from a long line of the same, likely back to slave roots. In the end, the trope is inverted: once Forrest cuts her in to the profits from Bubba Gump (since he was friends with Bubba, and the business was what he wanted to do with him after their military service), Bubba's mother turns the tables and hires a white cook.
Forrest: And ya know what? She didn't have to work in no one's kitchen no more.
- 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 The 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, and his overseer in the opening scene makes a specific reference to "when you was slaves". 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!
- In Dirty Pretty Things, Okwe - played by Chiwetel Ejiofor - was a doctor in his home country of Nigeria, but as an undocumented immigrant in London, ends up working as a cab driver and doing odd jobs around a hotel. A lot of the hotel's staff are immigrants, not all of them documented. At the end of the movie, Okwe gives a brief monologue about all the ways people like him are invisible and treated as subhuman, yet society would grind to a halt without the services they thanklessly provide.
- Beastly - which is a loose modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast - has a Jamaican cleaning lady as its equivalent character to Mrs. Potts. Instead of being cursed to spend her life as a sentient teapot, she is separated from her children, for whom she cannot acquire Green Cards. At the end, when Kyle's curse is broken and he's not beastly anymore, some Green Cards miraculously appear.
- The Shape of Water's main character, Elisa, is a cleaning lady at a secret government facility. She's white, but most of her coworkers aren't, including her Token Black Friend Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer). There's also a scene where the two of them smoke weed with some black guys who work in the facility's loading docks. This is contrasted with the science and security personnel, who are all white men in nice suits. The movie is set in 1962 Baltimore and spotlights the inequality of its setting.
- 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 is treated as an equal member of the family and is 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 its 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.
- Peter Grant's mother in the Rivers of London novels cleans offices for a living. Something of a subversion, in that she cleans very nice offices, so is reasonably well-off for a laborer, and her connections with fellow West African co-workers throughout London's cleaning industry actually prove very useful on occasion.
- Doctor Who: Martha Jones is stuck as a maid in "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" while undercover in 1913. 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.
- On The West Wing, when Josh is considering hiring Charlie Young as the President's personal aide, he is a little worried about hiring a young African-American man for such a position because of this trope. Leo mentions the situation to Admiral Fitzwallace (also African-American), who scoffs at the notion that there's anything wrong with it as long as the person is paid a fair wage and treated with respect.
- In What's Happening!!, single mom Mabel Thomas worked as a maid. The actress' objection to the portrayal was one reason why she eventually left the show.
- Whoopi Goldberg has told a story about how the first time she saw an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series and noticed the character of Uhura (an early aversion of this trope), she called to her family to "Come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"
- Played with in All in the Family with Lionel Jefferson, a young black man who would come by the Bunker house once a week to pick up their dry cleaning. Archie, a cranky old racist, initially takes a condescendingly affectionate attitude towards Lionel, but it evaporates the moment he learns that Lionel's family owns the dry cleaner, make a lot more money than he does, and want to move into their neighbourhood. He eventually forms an Odd Friendship with Lionel's father, George, whose business skills and hard work he can't help but admire. And eventually The Jeffersons would get their own Spin-Off.
- In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Younger is a black chauffeur. He's making pretty good money, but he still feels like he's essentially a glorified version of this trope, and the play focuses on his and his family's different ideas of what they can do with the money, and how they can meaningfully improve their station in life.
- 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 fiancée 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. He seems to be from Spain, though, rather than one of its former colonies in Latin America.
- 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.
- El Norte is a grim tale of a brother and sister who flee political persecution in Guatemala, becoming undocumented laborers in the United States.
- Angel and Big Joe: Angel is a migrant farmworker. He forms a bond with Big Joe, a telephone lineman.
- CAKE has Claire's housekeeper/caregiver Silvana, who is arguably the Deuteragonist of the film. Claire also has a gardener named Arturo, whom she sleeps with in one scene.
- In The Big Lebowski, Walter and the Dude check in on a retired TV screenwriter who lives in North Hollywood. They find the guy trapped in an iron lung, attended by a Hispanic housekeeper named Pilar.
Walter: Does he still write?
Pilar: Oh no! He has health problems!
- Invoked in Knives Out. Marta Cabrera is actually a highly-skilled nurse attending to the aged Harlan Thrombey, but his family treat her like the maid. There are condescending conversations about how she's one of the "good immigrants", although nobody seems to know what country her family are actually from.
- In Pasadena, two of the three maids portrayed on the soap were Hispanic.
- Rosario on Will & Grace
- Celia on Dharma & Greg. She's a pretty standard case in most episodes, but when the main characters attend her niece's wedding we learn all sorts of surprising facts about her from her family and old friends, including that she worked as a sniper during her home country's civil war.
- 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.
- The main characters of Devious Maids are maids working for the wealthy elite of Beverly Hills, although it's inferred from their off-duty scenes that they live normal middle-class lifestyles and can afford stylish clothing. Only Rosie and Zoila are legitimate maids. Carmen is using the job to develop connections in the music industry and Valentina is using the job to get close to her object of affection. Subverted with Marisol, who's actually an English professor who's posing as a maid in order to investigate the truth behind the framing of her son for murder.
- One of Fawlty Towers' most memorable characters was Manuel, the bellhop/waiter from Barcelona, who spoke comically bad English and was generally unqualified for his position. This was generally played as not his own fault, however, and more evidence of hotel owner Basil's cheapness for hiring Manuel - presumably a refugee, since Generalissimo Franco was still alive when the show first ran - in the first place. Notably, in all of the attempts at remaking Fawlty Towers for an American audience, Manuel's equivalent character was changed to Mexican rather than Spanish.
- One episode of Gentefied focuses on Ana's mother Beatriz, who is overworked and mistreated at a sweatshop along with several other Hispanic (and some East Asian) laborers.
- In Modern Warfare 2, RAMIREZ being made to DO EVERYTHING has led to this going down as a meme. As one comment on this video says, "ive (sic) heard of cheap mexican labor, but this is ridiculous".
- In South Park: The Fractured but Whole, Professor Chaos hires illegal Mexican immigrants to be his Chaos Minions. They don't seem to mind the goofy and undersized uniforms made of bowler hats, t-shirts, and tin foil, since the professor apparently pays quite well (having been paid by the Big Bad).
- In Home on the Strange, one of the characters gets a Hispanic maid...who turns out to be a middle-aged man.
- BoJack Horseman: In her youth, Bojack's mother Beatrice had a Hispanic maid.
- On King of the Hill, Mr. Strickland has a maid named Lupino.
- 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 Wuncler I 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. They're also fairly decent private detectives.
- Whenever a gag calls for a maid on Archer, it's always a Hispanic woman. But Mallory treats all her menials equally.
- Parodied/Subverted in The Oblongs, as Pristine Klimer tries to talk to her housekeeper in broken Spanish.
Housekeeper: Ms. Klimer, I told you. My name is Nancy. I'm from Ohio.
- Similarly in American Dad!, one episode has Francine and Hayley get jobs as maids. Their employer acts like they're Mexicans, at one point threatening them with deportation, despite them neither looking nor speaking in any way Hispanic.
- Richard Henry Dana's classic memoir Two Years Before The Mast frequently mentions Hawaiian workers.
- The popular sea shanty "John Kanaka" is a tribute to Hawaiian sailors on American ships, known as Kanakas.
Eastern European Laborer
- 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.
- An important plot point in God's Own Country. The film is set on a farm in Yorkshire, and Johnny's family hires a migrant laborer from Romania, Gheorghe, as the elders of the family are getting old and need additional assistance. Johnny resents Gheorghe's presence at first and treats him with some xenophobia, but then they fall in love...
- 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.
- In the Doctor Who episode "The Sontaran Strategem" the Sontarans disguise their army of human clones as Polish migrant workers who can't speak English very well so that nobody will notice they're not capable of speaking any language very well.
- Top Gear (UK) has the Top Ground Gear Force special, in which Jeremy Clarkson and co. are assisted by Polish migrant workers. One of them gets wounded during the chaos the trio naturally caused and the rest promptly flee as Sir Steve Redgrave discovers his ruined garden.
- In an episode of Strong Medicine Lu rags on her colleague Andy for this regarding her nanny/housekeeper and supposedly exploiting the woman. Andy angrily informs her that the woman was a doctor in her native country, that she is NOT underpaying her, and she has filed all the necessary paperwork so that she doesn't get into trouble.
- 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".