At first glance, two of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, The Favourite and Roma, have little in common. In the former—an amalgamation of English palace intrigue, dark humor, and vibrant costumes—Olivia Colman gives a stunning performance as the fickle Queen Anne, while Emma Stone plays Abigail, her conniving servant. Roma, on the other hand, is a serious and methodical domestic story, raised to an epic scale, about a family in Mexico City and their maid, Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio). Nevertheless, the pair of movies, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and Alfonso Cuarón, respectively, share an important theme: They’re both, at their core, about the hired help.
History is full of male painters, writers, and filmmakers who have tackled the subject of women working for their own aesthetic and political aims. Portrayals of workers often suggest a larger economic message, advocating a more equitable society; it’s difficult to discuss such characters without thinking about class. From
, whose portrait The Laundry Worker
(1884–88) features a woman staring wistfully out a window, to J. Howard Miller, who created the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster, international artists and designers have tried to make the motif feel striking and new. Ultimately, while Lanthimos’s work is a surprising and rewarding entry into the canon, Cuarón’s falls short as he relies on tired tropes.