The South Korean satire-thriller Parasite is emerging as a major contender this awards season. It’s on the Oscars shortlist for best international film, while writer-director Bong Joon-ho received Golden Globe nominations for best director and best screenplay, and the movie’s cast is up for best film ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards.
The recognition the movie is receiving for its searing portrait of inequality is well-deserved. And in the wake of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—this past year’s big award-winning foreign film—it’s continuing the recent streak of international movies that focus on the complex relationships and moral ambiguity that surrounds hiring household help.
For the uninitiated (spoilers ahead!), Parasite tells the story of the Kims, a poor family whose fortunes begin to turn when they connive their way into working in the minimalist-modern mansion of the wealthy Parks. In order to get on the rich family’s payroll, the Kims must appear more educated and accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the upper class than they actually are. The son pretends to have a prestigious university degree in order to get hired as an English tutor; the daughter claims she studied in the US and spouts a lot of pretentious mumbo-jumbo in order to pose as a trained art therapist. The parents, meanwhile, invent lengthy employment histories as a highly sought-after driver and housekeeper.
Yet even as the Kims disguise themselves in order to meet the Parks’ standards, polishing not just their personal histories but their speech patterns, appearances, and mannerisms, they must also respect what Mr. Park, the head of the family, refers to repeatedly as “the line”—the boundaries that mark them as employees in a hierarchical relationship, the terms of which are defined exclusively by the Parks. It’s fine for Mrs. Park to intrude by expecting the Kims to come to work on their day off to put together a last-minute birthday party for her son. But it’s unacceptable for Mr. Kim to talk too much about himself as he drives his boss home at the end of a long work day.
The Kims may be the wealthy family’s intimates, even confidantes, but they are never to think of themselves as equals.
This dynamic rings true to the real-life experiences of many domestic workers, according to Megan Stack, a journalist and author of the book Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home.
“Power imbalances tend to manifest most frequently like this,” Stack writes to us via email. “The house becomes both an intimate family setting and a job site at the same time. But employers are the ones who have the power, and they end up getting to decide (often without being conscious of it) whether they are approaching the employee in a way that corresponds to an intimate relationship (‘Oh, I know how much you love the baby, you’ll come in Saturday night even though I told you it was your night off, right? You don’t mind?’) or in a way that corresponds to an employment relationship (‘You’re 20 minutes late, this is not professional.’) So the employee is in the deeply unfair position of having to navigate both a faux family relationship and a job where basic labor rights can be granted or withdrawn on the whim of an unreliable manager.”
Stack herself hired domestic workers while living in China and India, a decision that she says was essential to allowing her to continue working as a writer after becoming a mother. But she’s aware of the privilege that made her decision possible, and the fact that the availability of domestic workers relies upon structural inequality.
“It’s a job arrangement rooted, if you go back to its origins, in ancient systems of slavery and feudalism, and it still depends on a wide gap between haves and have-nots,” she explains. “Without that gap, it doesn’t really make sense economically for families.”
Conversations about this reality often center around structural solutions. Stack, for example, says that women shouldn’t feel guilty about hiring household help so they have time to work, but that they should concentrate their energy on pushing for regulations that ensure domestic workers are earning fair wages and working under non-exploitative conditions.
While this is no doubt a necessary step toward ensuring that household workers are treated well, the problems that Parasite lays bare aren’t only about paychecks and sick days. The movie also exposes the toxicity of the Parks’ expectation that they can pay domestic workers to care for them without caring about the workers in return, or even seeing their employees as fully human.
Inevitably, this takes a psychological toll on the Kims. In one painful scene, Mr. Kim overhears his employers complaining about the way he smells, shortly after he’s praised them to his own family for being “rich but still nice.” He’s overwhelmed with shame that will later morph into anger, not least because the comment about his smell is a reminder that his employers see him as inferior; they will never return his respect.
Of course, many families have far warmer, more considerate, and lasting relationships with the people who work in their homes. But Stack points out that there is, nonetheless, “a deep unfairness in the notion that employers get to decide where that line between intimacy and work is drawn—and, usually, it keeps shifting around.”
Take, for example, the role of in-home childcare workers. Cameron Lynne Macdonald, a sociologist and the author of Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, suggests in her book that there is a paradox inherent in the task of forming a genuine, caring bond with a child without ever coming across as a threat to the parent. Nannies, she says, are asked to be “simultaneously present and absent in children’s lives”—and to be sensitive enough to know when to negate themselves in order to preserve their boss’s feelings.
This isn’t meant to condemn those who hire household workers. As Ephrat Livni writes for Quartz, “Neither the hired help nor the women who hired them created the labor dynamic that relies on the existence of an underclass, and they can’t solve the problems alone.”
But Parasite, like Roma before it, makes it impossible for audiences to ignore the uncomfortable ways in which household labor has been constructed to prioritize one group’s emotional life over another—and suggests that money is not all that’s owed to the people who power middle- and upper-class homes.