Housemaids. Directed by Gabriel Mascaro. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2012. 76 minutes.

Promise and Unrest. Directed by Alan Grossman and Áine O’Brien. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2010. 79 minutes.

Reviewed by Radha S. Hegde

Narratives of Gendered Precarity

In recent years, increasing numbers of women are being forced to move across national borders in search of work. Relying on the invisible labor of a highly vulnerable and gendered workforce, this predatory global capitalist system has reinforced hierarchies and class divisions that situate women workers in impossible intersections of class, gender, and nationality. This new global precariat is forced to navigate transnational labor conditions that profoundly complicate both their identity and family relationships. As a result, the lives of immigrant women reveal much about the impact of globalization and the ways in which economic and political exigencies shape pathways of immigration, demonstrating the ongoing tensions and contestations between transnational forces, local conditions, and the demands of everyday life. In the domain of gender, it is imperative to show how concepts and categories deemed stable, such as identity, family, motherhood, and intimacy, are continually in a process of difficult re/negotiation. The two films reviewed here, Housemaids and Promise and Unrest, are helpful in this regard because they document the lives of migrant women and their labor as domestics working with families and the elderly even as they are separated from their own families.

Director Gabriel Mascaro works with seven young filmmakers to create Housemaids, fusing together the stories of domestic workers—six women and one man—in various Brazilian cities. The filmmakers ask probing questions of the domestic workers and depict some of them as they go about their routine tasks. Each worker speaks about the complicated set of circumstances and intersecting race, class, and gender hierarchies that frame their labor experiences. Capturing their subjects’ lives with great detail, the film records resilience as these laborers endure mundane yet difficult jobs with a sense of cheer and humor. They also talk about the missed time with their own families back home, the domestic abuse they have endured, and other issues of personal stress and depression. On account of their presence and service in affluent homes, all are completely immersed in the everyday lives of the families with whom they live. In some of the cases, the filmmakers or the employers who are interviewed state that the care providers are like members of the family. Often employers have known the families of the workers over generations, in one case describing an employee as “like a grandfather.” The portrayals show how blurring relational lines perpetuates forms of benign and violent power that frame the labor of domestic workers.

This succession of filmic narratives allows Mascaro to drive home the fact that violence and trauma cut across the lives of domestic care workers. No doubt, there are overlapping issues shared by the people portrayed in the film. However, there are also deep differences that distinguish these experiences, and this contextualization is missing. Nevertheless, it is precisely these gaps that can be addressed in the classroom.1 The film opens up several interrelated issues regarding labor, affect, identity, and power that can serve as points of departure for discussion and dialogue.

Alan Grossman and Áine O’Brien’s film Promise and Unrest is a powerful documentary about the life of Noemi Barredo, a Filipina woman who works as a caregiver for the elderly in Dublin, Ireland. Engaged in care work that is often devalued and unrecognized, the laboring bodies of women like Noemi become infrastructural resources to support the flow of capital and prop up national economies in multiple ways. Moving between Ireland and the Philippines, the film visually captures the vast divides that define Noemi’s transnational existence. While she works abroad to support her family, her own children are left in the care of her sister and parents in the Philippines such that her parenting, as poignantly depicted in the film, becomes a mediated experience resting on access to technological connectivity. While these forms of domestic labor support the social reproduction of family structures in the West, the familial relationships of these workers are deeply disrupted. For Noemi to show her love and express the depth of her parental commitment, she needs to leave her children and move across the world. With its rich visual detail and nuanced ethnographic touches, the film captures both the isolation and the contradictions in Noemi’s life as a transnational care worker.

Both Housemaids and Promise and Unrest speak to the ways in which globalization places migrant women in a zone of precarity and instability. Immigration is often viewed in voluntaristic terms and contained within the scope of individual decisions. Instead, these films show very clearly how larger structural factors create the conditions for these difficult journeys and undervalued jobs. The lives and labor presented in these films will jumpstart a robust dialogue in the classroom about global migration, labor markets, patriarchy, and women’s laboring bodies. Such a discussion can be further supported by texts that emphasize the intersectional nature of transnational hierarchy.2

1 See, for example, Mirca Madianou, “Polymedia Communication among Transnational Families: What Are the Long-Term Consequences for Migration?,” in Family Life in an Age of Migration and Mobility, ed. Majella Kilkey and Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 71-93.

2 See, for instance, Shirlena Huang, Leng Leng Thang, and Mika Toyota, eds. “Transnational Mobilities for Care: Rethinking the Dynamics of Care in Asia,” special issue, Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs 12, no. 2 (April 2012).

Radha S. Hegde is a professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the author of Mediating Migration (Polity, 2016) and coeditor of the journal Feminist Media Studies.