The Netflix hit Stuepige, who after only a few weeks has already vaulted into the service’s top 10 of all time, seems to have arrived exactly when needed. Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoirs, Maid: Hard work, low pay and a mother’s will to survive, the 10-episode series hits a chord, so often left unaffected, a deeply moving exploration of domestic abuse and emotionally, generational trauma and the annoying catch-22s in government systems built to failure. Its raw, unshakable depictions could have pushed the viewers away, but the answer tells a different story. Countless women see themselves in Alex (Margaret Qualley), her struggles to first define and then prove the emotional abuse of her boyfriend, and the so-big-you-could-drive-a-truck-through-them holes in any safety net. While the pandemic continues to reveal the saliva-and-glue basis for many societal systems, especially for mothers, Stuepige is a harsh but ultimately inspiring tale of a woman’s ability to not only navigate these systems, but ultimately triumph over them.
As a mother, Alex is almost dazzlingly perfect, with boundless patience bordering on magical.
The brutal clarity with which Stuepige depicts the reality of poverty and abuse, but falters when it comes to Alex’s parenting skills. Alex is, as she should be, a complicated individual, one who has allowed a degree of ambiguity in almost all of her relationships. It is outrageous and heartbreaking, purposeful, to see her return to her violent boyfriend after working so hard to escape him. It’s devastating to see her ping-pong between being a caretaker and dependent on her own mother, Paula (Qualley’s real mother, Andie MacDowell), who struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and the long-term effects of the abuse Alex’s own father inflicted. both of them. But as a mother, Alex is almost dazzlingly perfect, with unlimited patience bordering on magical. She never loses her temper, reacts with frustration or really does something you would expect a parent of a small child to do – especially one who faces such incredible uphill battles.
Instead, Alex is presented as a mother who can flawlessly shepherd both toddlers and infants, a robust Maria von Trapp with unparalleled skills, not just by any other mother on the show, but any mother in real life. Alex is able to seamlessly transfer a sleeping infant from car seat to cradle; Alex can pull his toddler away from cartoons on his tablet without even protesting. (When I saw the series with a sleeping 3-month-old on my lap and a 3-year-old sticking to his own tablet, I almost laughed out loud.) Alex is tired and frustrated and overwhelmed by his circumstances, but she is never tired and frustrated and overwhelmed by his child. The only hint of a raised voice comes in the first paragraph, as Alex flees from his violent girlfriend for the second time, deals with a boss who will not stop calling, and makes irrational demands from a child who is harassing her about a lost doll, and Alex’s voice narrows in anger and vague annoyance flashes in her face. But the brief moment of annoyance ultimately serves only to emphasize Alex’s perfection. The episode ends with an act of healthy, maternal compassion: Alex stops at a dollar store to replace the lost doll.
In the world of Stuepige, questionable motherhood is reserved for other characters: Paula, who swings wildly between love for her daughter and her own spirit and needs; rich and ugly Regina (Anika Noni Rose), who, after leaving her husband, is not sure she wants the newborn she thought she had wanted; even the one-scene character in Alex’s writing group, who sheepishly admits that she’s asked to write about one of her happiest moments, describes a girl’s night and not a day with her children. That waste line says a lot, not only about the U.S. expectation that women who become mothers should primarily derive their joy from care, but also the series.
The message resonates even through Netflix’s marketing too Stuepige. “A mother will endure even the most difficult, humiliating experiences to give her child better,” reads an ad, and the trailer is based on Alex’s statement, “I live for my daughter.” Alex constantly speaks and acts on the idea that she wants a better life for Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), but rarely mentions that she wants a better life for herself. Even when she fantasizes about a near future where she wants to go to college and learn how to become a writer, it is to create a “whole new world” for her daughter. In the place she has created, it is not even clear how much Alex is present.
Much has been written in the last year about how the pandemic has irreversibly changed motherhood, and much has been written about how it affects low-income people disproportionately, but the overlap in that Venn chart has not really been investigated. Stuepige misses a vital opportunity to explore the raging anger of mothers who have had systems already stacked against them shattered, and the grim truth that mothers are allowed to make mistakes about. On a recent grey’s Anatomy section, two mothers confess to each other how COVID has revealed the wear and tear that is day-to-day-in-parents. But financially stable surgeons can falter in their motherhood, while mistakes are often devastating for single mothers, low-income mothers and colored mothers – both on and off screen. Stuepige scratches the surface of these inequalities, but misses a crucial opportunity to explore the cruel systemic ways in which low-income mothers face an increased risk of having their children removed from their care by agents whose jobs allegedly is to protect the family.
It’s exciting to see a show like Stuepige succeeds, especially as its success comes in the heels of last year’s record setting The Queen’s Gambit, both shows centered on complex and complicated women who probably would not have been given the green light even a few years ago. Unfortunately, Stuepiges portrayal of Alexs perfection as a mother does not show this progress. At a time when women’s dissatisfaction has gone from “the problem that has no name” to a primary cry, Stuepige fails to show a place in between where moms get a voice without having to be perfect.