Why Every Woman Should See Roma
Every woman has had a moment of feeling alone. It can be triggered by something as minor as needing another pair of arms to hold your crying baby so you can finally take a shower. Or something as dramatic as the situation Sofia—a major character in the widely acclaimed film Roma—finds herself in when her husband leaves her and their four children for another woman. Regardless of when or why it strikes, isolation can feel overwhelming, like there's no way out.
The magic in these moments arrives when, unfailingly, our sisters show up. The text from a girlfriend when you needed it most, or that heartfelt offer of an extra pair of hands. Right now, across the United States, women are showing up for each other on a scale like never before. Last year, women survivors who had felt alone for far too long came together and spoke truth to power as part of the #MeToo movement. Next came Time's Up, with a focus on elevating women in the workplace and stamping out those forces that keep them down and believing they are alone. During the midterm elections in Nov. 2018, women voters and women candidates came together in unprecedented numbers, standing up to an administration that does not represent our country’s values, to elect many new faces who do.
In this moment of women rising up to the challenges and the potential of claiming our power together, Roma is a must-see movie for women from all walks of life. And not just because it took home two Golden Globes — Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director, for Alfonso Cuarón (who was also nominated for Best Screenplay).
Roma tells the story of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico, with Cleo, a live-in domestic worker who cares for the family’s children, at the heart of the film. Based on the childhood memories of Cuarón, who wrote and directed the film, the drama unfolds as two women from two completely different backgrounds grapple with abandonment by the men in their lives. As Sofia’s husband callously walks away from his family, Cleo’s lover simply disappears after she reveals to him that she’s pregnant. Their shared reality is captured in one particularly memorable scene. When Sofia comes home drunk one night, Cleo holds the door open for her. As she enters, Sofia holds Cleo’s face in her hand and says, “In the end, we women are always alone.”
It is an intentional irony that Sofia shares her lament with Cleo, one woman who has supported her, steadfastly, through her abandonment. Sofia likewise disproves her own cynical statement as she unwaveringly stands by Cleo during her pregnancy: taking her to the doctor for prenatal care, reassuring that her employment is secure, and that her baby would have what it needed. Despite their individual expressions of pain and loneliness, through their lives as women in charge of a family, Sofia and Cleo are — in quite different ways — completely reliant on one another. They however occupy very different places in a hierarchical society defined by privilege, money, and power. Despite their intertwined and interdependent lives, the social order prevents them from acknowledging the true value and power of their sisterhood.
Through the lens of our protagonist, Cleo, we witness the complexity that her work, and all domestic work, has within society. Throughout modern history, domestic work, as both paid and unpaid work in the home, has been undervalued and regarded as “women’s work.” In the United States, paid domestic labor is overwhelmingly done by women, the majority of whom are women of color and/or immigrants. In Mexico, where the film takes place, it is often indigenous women who move from rural areas to big cities for these jobs. Globally, the domestic workforce is one of the most vulnerable in society, lacking workplace protections, confronting low wages and encountering high rates of abuse and harassment. Domestic workers take care of that which is most precious to us — our loved ones and our homes — yet they are hardly acknowledged, let alone valued.
Sofia and Cleo’s relationship reveals this complex dynamic. While Cleo’s working relationship with the family is presented as generally positive, we also know that she is the first one awake and the last one to go to sleep. She works long, hard hours caring for Sofia’s home and family, both physically and through immeasurable emotional labor. If Cleo weren’t present, this work would fall, in its entirety, on the shoulders of Sofia and her mother. Such a thin line separates them.
Drawn into the the world of the film, we wonder if Sofia’s promise to stand by Cleo is an example of an employer doing the right thing, or the act of a woman acutely aware of the struggle of being abandoned by a man. Today, in the U.S., it is almost unheard of that a domestic worker would be supported in the ways Sofia offers to Cleo. Despite the power hierarchies that are so clearly present between them — they are an employer and her employee, who are middle-class and low-income, rural and urban, indigenous and non-indigenous — they offer an entry point for us to reflect on what real solidarity between women could look like.
Although Roma is set in 1970s Mexico, it offers important insights for our historic moment here in the United States, where women are not only recognizing the power of our collective voice but are beginning to leverage it. Cleo and Sofia remind us to look for our interdependence and reach for one another. When women have done this, over the past two years alone, we have led the largest ever protest in American history, made #MeToo ubiquitous, followed it up with Time’s Up which is only growing in its second year, and elected more — and more diverse — women to office than ever before.
We must keep challenging ourselves to turn toward (not away from) the places where power and privilege undermine and disrespect women, where they leave us out of important conversations and gaslight us into believing we are alone; that no one shares our difficulties; that speaking up about them would be of no use. Every generation of women has had to confront this reality and has sought to bridge our differences in new and creative ways. Roma tells that story in 1970s Mexico, but its message should reverberate among women, today, in the United States. Each of us is represented in Cleo and Sofia, in their unwavering and unstoppable support for one another. Like them, our shared struggles have become our strength. And now, we are unstoppable, too.
Ai-Jen Poo is the Executive Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-Director of Caring Across Generations. Alicia Garza is the Strategy + Partnerships Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Founder of the Black Futures Lab.