A Man Needs a Maid: DSK, Arnold and the Invisible Women
I spent the summer I turned 21 working as a hotel maid, cleaning up other people’s messes. Having started my work life at age 14 in a frozen banana factory before progressing up the chain of summer jobs to bus girl, waitress and fast food shift supervisor, I was no stranger to exhausting and messy physical labor. Yet nothing prepared me for how it felt to literally clean up other people’s shit.
If you’ve never worked such a job, you may be shocked to learn that many people think nothing of leaving disgusting items for “the maid” to deal with, conveniently eliding from their consciousness the fact that a real human being will be scraping and scrubbing their bodily excretions off various surfaces as well as erasing any other havoc they’ve wreaked. I knew I was signing on for some dirty work, but I was still horrified to find out I’d have to deal with regurgitated food on the furniture and even a large pile of excrement left for me on a shower floor.
You may assume I’m referring to some seedy motel where drug dealers hung out, but in fact I worked as a maid in a family vacation center frequented by affluent couples who came to play tennis, swim and party with their friends while their children were entertained and supervised by the staff. The home addresses on the magazines they left behind included such places as Malibu and Beverly Hills, leading me to suspect that many were used to having someone clean up after them without a whisper of complaint.
As is true of two famous men making headlines for their treatment of women in such jobs.
The nearly simultaneous bombshells about these two powerful figures and the women who served them are eerily similar and yet quite different: Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to a consensual sexual relationship with the long-time family housekeeper, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn stands accused of (but strongly denies) sexually assaulting a maid sent to clean the luxury hotel suite he’d spent just one night in.
While the particulars of the latter case are still shrouded in mystery, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer has intimated that the defense will not deny the sexual contact, but claim that it was consensual. A reasonable argument in many sexual assault cases, but which this time requires you to believe one of three possible scenarios: That a 32-year-old maid assigned by chance to clean a hotel room found a pudgy 62-year-old man sexually irresistible at first sight, or was spontaneously offered and accepted payment for sex with a stranger, or is the Mata Hari in an elaborate political plot to derail Strauss-Kahn’s political career, and has not only played him sexually but fooled hardened New York City detectives into believing her story. None of these scenarios squares with the accounts of her as a religious woman and exemplary employee of the hotel, toiling away at a low-level job for years to support herself and her child.
Even if the alleged sex in the Strauss-Kahn case is found to be consensual under one of these scenarios, the fact would remain that a powerful and wealthy man saw a woman assigned to clean his room as a plaything to satisfy his desires. And frankly, when someone is responsible for cleaning the toilet you use, as well as dealing with any other horrors you’ve inflicted on the place, such a leap may not be so psychologically strange.
When we put people in the position of serving us in such an intimate and at least subtly degrading manner, it’s a challenge to think of them as human beings exactly like us. After all, if the person who cleans up after me feels exactly as I do, how can she bear to do this job, which I don’t want to do myself? And how can I bear to have her do it? It requires a certain dissociation to even allow such a transaction, requiring the person being served to see a function rather than a person standing before them. (A complaint I’ve heard from more than one exhausted mother about how her children view her, as a consequence of similar domestic service.)
Even greater familiarity doesn’t seem to change the equation, when this disparity of power is in play. Schwarzenegger dallied with the family housekeeper, despite the risk of detection and marital disaster, thus begging the obvious question of why a world-famous movie star didn’t find a more suitable person to satisfy his extramarital desires. Was the famously ambitious Schwarzenegger really so lazy that he simply settled for what was convenient? Or did he see it as all part of the service due to him as master of the house?
An outlandish scenario, you may argue, yet wives have been treated precisely that way for most of human history. In societies where such behavior is no longer acceptable (especially when married to the formidable women that these two men are), some men may feel the desire for a maid, someone who will obediently serve them and then quietly leave without complaint.
On my own last day as a maid, the crew of college girls I’d worked with all summer went out for pizza and beer and one of my co-workers jokingly punched up a song on the jukebox with that very theme. As Neil Young whined about how a man needs a maid, someone to clean his house, fix his meals and then “go away,” I didn’t know that he was defining a very particular desire; I just felt liberated from the worst job I’d ever had. College graduation was still a year away, and I longed for work that didn’t require a long hot shower at the end of the day. My first post-college position as a secretary was in fact thrilling simply because I could work sitting down while wearing something other than a hot polyester uniform. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I made a dramatic vow that no matter how desperate I might get in the future, cleaning up after other people would be the last job that I’d ever do again.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the bodily excretions that got to me – years later, I was a volunteer caregiver for the dying and dealt with far worse quite happily. It was the invisibility of the position: I was the unseen creature required to come in while the room was empty and take care of whatever had been thoughtlessly perpetrated. Just as I removed all traces of what the guests had left behind, I was required to leave no trace of myself, coming and going like a phantom, as if the work made me not just untouchable but unworthy of even being seen. The restaurant work I’d done was just as exhausting but at least it required that people acknowledge me, even if only in the background, as a person who was serving them.
It's no surprise to me, then, that some people, perhaps including the men themselves, have trouble seeing Arnold's housekeeper and the Sofitel maid who encountered Strauss-Kahn as fully human as the famous, larger-than-life men they are linked to. Both women played a role in which invisibility and silence were required, something that these men may have counted on to a treacherous degree.
I was fortunate enough to get the college education that all those summer jobs helped pay for, and after that, to work my way up from secretary to professional staff to manager. Yet the residue of my job as a maid has stayed with me. The deep-seated feeling that people should clean up their own messes is why I’ve spent the past thirty years doing just that, no matter how busy or tired I was. It was only a few weeks ago that I hired a cleaning service for the first time in my life, after years of urging by the man I live with, who was tired of my gripes about housework. Having already fought down the urge to pre-clean the entire house, I nervously apologized for how dirty it was the moment the two women arrived. Then I took a deep breath, looked into their eyes, found out their names and thanked them for helping me.
Sometimes a woman wants a maid, too – although just to make the bed, rather than to chase around it.