Cleo is young Oaxacan woman who works for a rich family in 1970s Mexico City. She’s also the axis around which her employers’ lives evolve. She spends her days hanging up laundry, cleaning after the family dog and shielding the children from their parents’ increasingly tense relationship. Her daily acts of heroism are completely unremarkable. But the courage and longing in her face tell a different, and more complicated story.
Cleo is the protagonist of Roma, the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to his real-life nanny Liboria Rodríguez. She’s played by Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actor studying to become an early childhood teacher, who is nominated for an Oscar for her debut role. Cleo is also an anomaly in a culture that’s always celebrated a certain type of female protagonist — the kind whose heroism is almost always related to their ability to navigate a glamorous, high-octane profession or exercise their power in a public way.
There’s the impossibly stylish magazine journalist who negotiates the trade-offs between love and a career that’s somehow conveniently exempt of deadlines (The Devil Wears Prada, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days). There’s the CEO who’s constantly at risk at being ousted from her company while living in a mansion with a doting husband (The Intern, I Don’t Know How She Does It.) Even Crazy Rich Asians’ Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who falls in love with a Singapore real-estate scion begs the question of whether or not female power that isn’t tied to exceptional achievement — or doesn’t wear ruffled Marchesa ballgowns — is really power at all.
The women whose journeys are the most culturally invisible are also the women who’ve historically had fewer protections and rights
This celebration of high-status women mirrors the types of stories we like to tell about real women’s lives. Corporate feminism has abandoned Sheryl Sandberg's edict to 'lean in' but still clings to pricey networking breakfasts. The visual language of the gig economy focuses more on the kind of women who can afford to #hustle at a millennial pink co-working space like The Wing then, say, the single mother bidding $10 an hour to clean houses on Airtasker.
The Latin root of “status”’ once referred to a person’s legal and later, social standing. It’s little surprise, then, that the women whose journeys are the most culturally invisible are also the women who’ve historically had fewer protections and rights. The 2017 HILDA Survey found that 34 percent of single women in Australia will live in poverty by the time they are 60. Last December, a UK study found that sex workers were three times as likely to experience violence at the hands of a client in places where their trade is criminalised.
And a February 2019 BBC report found #Metoo had yet to touch the lives of women employed informally in places like India. A 2018 survey of domestic workers in Delhi found that nearly one in three has experienced sexual harassment at work — even if social and economic precariousness prevents them from reporting it.
There’s a reason that women without traditional access to power often escape our radar — especially in a culture that often defines power in terms that belong to the realms of the masculine and the public (as opposed to the feminine and domestic).
We applaud the women whose achievements are visible. But those whose journeys are less visible are no less remarkable for it
But a trickle of stories about the lives of women who’ve been culturally invisible is starting to shift this lens. The 2016 film Hidden Figures celebrates the contribution of the West Computers, a group of African-American women whose behind-the-scenes calculations were central to the space race. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkin’s poignant new adaption of a 1971 novel by James Baldwin is told from the perspective of a pregnant, black department store employee living in Harlem. And a December 2018 New York Times article follows Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant who offered her account of life in Trump’s White House, even if she risked deportation in the process.
Near the end of Roma, Cleo jumps into the ocean to rescue the children she looks after — even though she’s terrified of the water and can’t swim. We applaud the women whose achievements are visible. But those whose journeys are less visible are no less remarkable for it. Their courage might be quieter, but it deserves to be celebrated, too.
This International Women's Day (March 8) watch our Fearless Females collection on SBS On Demand.