Why I’m Not Looking Forward To The Help

I picked up a copy of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help at an airport bookstore. I figured the four-hour flight to Texas would be enough time to absorb 544 plot-driven pages, and reading the novel during one of my frequent trips south seemed appropriate. For some readers, The Help calls up memories of being nurtured and cared for by black women who might have been more like mothers to them than their own white birth mothers. The story conjures for me, however, the labor–and, at times, humiliation–those domestic workers endured.

True, some of those black women also no doubt felt genuine affection for the white families they worked for. But the dictates of race and class strained those emotional ties. Black women entrusted with the care of white households and children were often still forced to enter back doors and use separate facilities. Like it or not, this vexed dynamic of interracial intimacy and dehumanization is one of the founding stories of our nation.

Many black people claim mothers, aunts and grandmothers who were (or are) maids and caregivers for white families. When I was a little girl growing up in California, I’d spend summers in Texas with my great aunt who worked for the Blankenships. Some mornings she’d pile me, sleepy-eyed, into her car and drive to one of her small town’s more affluent white neighborhoods. I’d color, draw or doze in the den that doubled as young Matthew’s playroom while my aunt would brew coffee and polish the already-clean-looking kitchen to a bleachy, scented shine. When Matthew awoke, we’d play together. Though my aunt worked for his mother, we were still too young to understand the boundaries of race and class that separated them and us. I still found it strange that my aunt called his mother Mrs. Blankenship while the younger white woman called my aunt by her first name. In a small act of rebellion, I refused to adhere to the southern custom of saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”

Stockett admits in “Too Little Too Late,” her afterword to The Help, that in writing the book she was trying to understand what it was like to be a black maid in 1960s Mississippi, even though that experience is not “something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck” can understand. And yet throughout the novel, Stockett does presume to have knowledge of black domestic workers’ inner worlds by speaking from their points-of-view (and in a black Southern dialect that has raised the ire of more than a few readers).

Unlike the book-within-a-book by her heroine, Skeeter, an aspiring writer, Stockett’s narrative doesn’t consist of stories told to her or written down for her by black housekeepers. Though she interviewed some white and black Southerners for her book, she chose to write a work of fiction rather than an ethnographic account of housekeepers’ experiences (as has been done by Tamara Mose Brown in the excellent Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community).

Instead, The Help claims to represent an “untold story” through the genre of fiction. That’s a surprising claim considering that black women’s fiction–such as Ann Petry’s The Street, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Alice Childress’ Like One of the Family, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, among others–has long been concerned with the experiences of black domestic workers. Bringing in the history of slavery, these novels explore how the interconnected systems of sexism, racism and classism enable the exploitation of black women. They look too at the fallout: how the integrity of black families and the safety of black women domestic workers are compromised.

In contrast, though it is set in the era of civil rights, The Help softens the violence of the period with a melodramatic plot and stock characters. The black “help” are represented by the long-suffering Aibileen and sassy Minny; the white Southern women by the spunky and awkward Skeeter and arch-villain Hilly. Readers can laugh, cry and cheer as the “good” Skeeter triumphs and the “bad” Hilly gets her just desserts. The civil rights movement becomes a backdrop; the shooting of Medgar Evers and the murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing serve to underscore the risks the Mississippi maids are taking to tell their stories. However, the irony of Skeeter’s project–and by extension Stockett’s novel–is that the testimonies of the maids don’t improve their conditions or challenge race relations in Mississippi. Rather, they serve as a conduit through which Skeeter emerges as a feminist heroine; instead of marrying her love interest, she scores a book contract and a job in the big city.

As Hollywood has long profited from films that foreground friendships between black and white characters but manage to uphold class and racial hierarchies, the movie version of The Help will likely be as popular as the novel. Think John Stahl’s film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, in which maid and single parent Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) comes up with a pancake recipe that provides wealth and independence for her white employer, single mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert).

The Help is being marketed as “a human story” that affirms that we are all the same underneath; as such, it should offer the perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America. Those filmgoers can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past, even as the recession deepens already profound racial gaps in wealth and employment.

Promotional poster for The Help.

Comments

  1. I love the rigor of this blog, and I thank you Jennifer Williams. You have nailed it. And as a result, instead of going to the movie I’m going to read one or more of the books you listed. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I had discussed THE HELP with the author of TALKING ABOUT RACE (www.LTAR.biz), who, amazingly foresaw the nuances you articulated prior to reading the book,but your blog is truly masterful, a real gift, and I will pass it on.

    • @ Catherine McCall. Please do go see the movie; have the experience that other viewers have shared and then mull it over. I came to this page on-line through another page and it is twice now that I have heard the recitation of Lorraine Hansberry’s name among other Black women-writers. I arrived in New York, the year that the auditions began so it took me awhile to pin down more insight into the playwright who had studied locally at the “Teachers’college of the University of Wisconsin and whose father was a realtor during the open housing marches led by Fr. James Groppi. I realize also that the above article is concerned with a particular genre written about women but, when it came to Toni Morrison, it may have been better to cite what is nearly my favorite tale known as,Love. That has been crying out to become a movie for some time. Set in a resort hotel of another day and the bevy of women guests who are attracted to the proprietor Mr.Cosey; some of whom end up not only living together in the former vacation spot but being the domestic help to each other.

      Certainly,in The Help, the interaction of the women “domestics” as they deal with and cope with the real story is more important than any other relationships we chance to evesdrop upon. I am surprised how quickly I recognized Cicely Tyson when she came forward called up by the need of the child she raised.

  2. This is a very interesting analysis. And now I’m conflicted. I had really wanted to see the movie, but I see all your points. Do you recommend other summer flicks?

  3. Thanks Catherine! Thanks Dodge! I haven’t seen any good summer flicks yet but am looking forward to the Sept 9th theatrical release of The Black Power Mixtape documentary.

  4. Thank you for this clear-sighted blog Ms. Williams. I wondered about the book and the movie. Having seen the ads, I was not drawn to either. I will be re-reading Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” instead. ~ Kaolin, “Talking About Race: A Workbook About White People Fostering Racial Equality in Their Lives.”

  5. Thanks for this post. This is exactly why we chose not to carry this book in our store, in spite it’s being touted by the “indie bound” program as a great read.

  6. There is another blog about it in GOOD Magazine. Similar perspective as yours, though not the same caliber of writing or depth of analysis. http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/08/why_im_jus

  7. Thank you so much for this! I was curious about the film, but then wondered whether the author of the book had actually talked to the black women she portrays. That’s always a concern when any member of a socio-economic majority attempt to “do good” on behalf of a minority, without actually asking the people they’re “helping” how they want to be helped, or by keeping them silent in the process.

  8. It would be interesting to see the movie and then read the books. Our progress inadvertently insulates society from the past.

    We resort to drama and stock characters, not to be ‘offensive’ but as teaching tools. It is true a person cannot truly talk about a time unless they’ve lived through it. But what would this then mean for history as a profession?

    Comparing the perspectives would provide the most powerful discussion.

  9. I’ve known from the start that I wouldn’t read the book or see the film. In addition to the smart critique Jennifer offers here (thanks for all the suggestions about other books we can be reading), I am just BORED. TO. DEATH of these kinds of stories. The only “new” thing here is that Viola Davis’s performance will earn her at least an Oscar nomination, if not the golden statue itself, for playing a maid. Oh wait, that won’t be new either. Hattie McDaniel won an award for playing the “mammy” in “Gone with the Wind” in 1939.

    Sometimes, as a black woman in America, I get really confused. On the one hand, you have scores of people telling me to “let go of the past” and to stop fixating on old wounds. And then I’m urged to support warm-fuzzy nostalgia books and films about the past. I’m guessing that the so long as white people are heroes, it’s okay to visit our racial past. Otherwise, we’re just supposed to let it all go.

    I can’t help but wonder if the producers of “The Help” offered financial support to black groups in order to secure their endorsement.

    • I’m a white woman. I read the book. It is a work of fiction. I understand that but I think the author brought out a very important fact of racial workings of that time and even for today. The author spoke of the fact that when a Black indivdual upset/angered a white woman it was a death sentence for the Black person. White women didn’t necessarily go out and kill them but they made sure that they would either be killed or slowly marginalized and brought into great economic hardships and other hardships were visited on them. I don’t know if many white women would acknowledge that fact or not. I do. I’ve been in positions where older/elderly African Americans treated me and my children with soooooooo much defference that my children asked me about it. I sadly had to explain to them that their was a time when interactions with white women was an extremely dangerous moment in African Americans lives– especially if they were male. I know that there are many other books that would give white people better perspectives of African American life/experiences but I think for some that this might be a good jumping off. I really like Zora Neil Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God because I think it has a lot in it that goes for any race/ethnic group. She really speaks to me as a woman. Richard Wright’s Black Boy is a perfect book for whites to read to get an African American perspective on life and it is set in the Civil Rights movement (kinda pre-Civil Rights) I guess my premise here is for some whites they need a small jump before getting hit with the heavy stuff.

  10. So should writers stick solely to their races when writing fiction?

    • Not all writers, maybe just the white ones.

      All facetiousness aside, that question is an old tactic designed to divert focus from the real issues.

  11. An interesting post Jennifer, and one that raises a lot of important questions. I actually felt uncomfortable when I saw the poster for the new movie (still do a bit). I can’t really put my finger on why, but I think a part of me wonders how much this film/book tries to excuse what’s gone before, or make it seem “fun”. I enjoy fictional works that honestly depict our past, and make an effort to show the genuine point of view of the underclasses, who didn’t have a voice at the time, while not shying away from the hard questions. I think white authors can write non-white characters and can write them well, but there is a very careful line to tread to avoid stereotyping and rose-tinting the story.

    • Alexa…

      This is the first time I’ve seen the poster, although I’ve seen quite a few ads on TV. As for why the poster is unsettling, I could think of one thing right off – the black “help” are standing (like they may very well have been doing all day already), while the white women are sitting down, relaxing.

      Also, the tagline at the top could be confusing – “Change begins with a whisper”.

      As I don’t know the book, I don’t know who’s doing the whispering. In the picture on the poster it could be the “help”, although it looks more like they may be (stereotypically) gossipping.

      In my own experience, growing up as an only child in a lower middle-class white home in the Northeast, we had a black man who came by to help my mother with gardening. He was someone who knew my parents when they all worked together in a hospital kitchen. He was always treated like a regular person, and never called the ‘help’ – we always knew him by his first name. And occasionally his wife would come over and we would all have dinner together. The only possible negative thing was that we never went to their house to eat dinner, and I don’t really know why that was. We lived most of those years fairly near the ‘black’ part of town, and I don’t think my parents would’ve had any qualms about going there (we regularly drove through there), so that’s the one thing I don’t know about(the black couple and my parents are all dead, so I have no way of finding out anymore).

      As for the film, I like both Viola Davis and Emma Stone, and they would be my main reason for going. I was conflicted before, and still am now, but leaning towards not going. Thanks for this cogent review.

  12. Nina Rose says:

    So Right On Doctor!!!! You hit every point! Bam!

  13. I’d like to echo Catherine’s comment about loving the “rigor of this blog.” When popular books turned blockbuster hits take up historical tensions within this country, the human story often favors the oppressor. I see the value in that work, but not to the detriment of the classes of women who suffered, and continue to suffer.

    I was flipping through the channels the other night and George Lopez (I know I know) made a joke about black and white women flocking to the movie theaters to watch this film together, while Latina women stayed home with their (specifically white women’s) children… Progress.

    Thanks Jen for highlighting the timeliness of this movie. The myth of post racial America needs to be constantly challenged. Though the novel/film was interested in a group and time in history- the help still exists, and many brown, black, immigrant, and poor women continue to be exploited.

  14. Excellent post, Jennifer. Your description of spending summers with your great aunt particularly resonated with me, even though I’m Canadian, it was my aunt who was the domestic, and I was old enough (aged 10) to recognize both the racial and class dynamics at play (possibly because I was growing up in a white middle class neighbourhood similar to the one where my aunt’s employers lived).

    It’s both funny and sad that, when I first saw a promo picture for the book, I was immediately suspicious that it was yet another one of those “magic Negro” narratives that mainstream readers (and now, moviegoers) love so much. I didn’t really have plans to see the movie, but now, I think I’ll follow Kaolin’s lead and re-read “Playing in the Dark” instead.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Though I haven’t seen the movie, I did read The Help, and I really liked it. I am a black woman, a southerner, and the descendant of slaves and domestics who worked for white families before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. While this post is a cogent criticism of the book, most of the criticisms I’ve heard were made by people who haven’t read the book (like almost everyone who responded to this post), and therefore don’t really have any basis on which to critique it. I was not offended by the content of the book, or the dialect in which the black protagonists spoke (indeed, I still know many people, black and white, who speak in a similar way–that’s the south for you). I did not find the black female characters in the book to be portrayed in an offensive way. On the contrary, I thought Stockett depicted them as incredibly intelligent, loving, brave, women who navigated the bigoted, dangerous, and often humiliating waters of an ass-backwards society with integrity and courage. No, the book was not entirely accurate with regards to certain historical events of the Civil Rights movement, but that’s not really what it was about. The crux of the book is the complexities of the relationship between white children/young adults and the black domestics who were basically their surrogate mothers.

    At the end of the book Skeeter gets her dream job and jets off to New York City while Abilene, Minny, and the rest of the maids are left in Mississippi with their situations essentially unchanged, and many people didn’t like that. But my thinking is, well, duh–what other outcome could have been? If this had actually happened in 1960s rural Mississippi, the maids who contributed stories for Skeeter’s book could never have openly admitted to doing so, because they would have been imprisoned or lynched. It’s a shame that the maids couldn’t get any recognition for telling their stories, but it’s also realistic. That’s the way things were back then–black people who dared to criticize white people publicly risked death, and hardly any black woman with young children (like the maids in the book) were willing risk leaving their kids without a mother.

    To criticize the story for implying that we live in a post-racial society is just ludicrous. The book says nothing about race relations in present-day America, and to my understanding, only emphasizes the oppression of blacks by whites in the 1960s.

    Kathryn Stockett’s book did not offend me in anyway. It is just one of many in a genre that tries to capture the injustice suffered by black people in the past, and the demented rationalizations of white people who perpetrated that injustice. What does offend me is the way black people were (and in some instances still are) treated by racist people who believed them to be sub-human.

    • Well written! As a student of black and women’s history, I found the moving fascinating. It exceeded my wildest expectations, which were bludgeoned by the feminist blogosphere. In spite of being a Hollywood creation for an audience that never considers ideas such as “patriarchy” and “privilege,” I thought it provoked MANY questions not only about race but of women and of power dynamics that plagues all of society.

      The narrative here was clearly one of black women who acquired courage in the face of many personal adversities to tell it like it was for them, not necessarily for the country or even for all black women. This anecdotal approach did not attempt to do more than it could. It was just enough, and it paid a reverent tribute to the silent voices of history that were not recorded in oral histories or photographs.

      My biggest concern is that too many of us are proud and obstinate in our ignorance. See the film before kvetching! Bemoaning the film before watching it is the height of irony for those who read a blog about anti-racism and anti-prejudice. Lamenting before knowing is a form of prejudice.

    • I got the same out of the book. What really touched me was how Stockett actually casted white women as almost evil in the ways they would make life hell for those African Americans that dare cross them. It happened. White women made the phrase “Hell have no fury like a woman’s scorn” so true. That protrayal alone makes it a good book.

    • Anonymous2 says:

      Thank you Anonymous for making some great points. I was beginning to wonder if I’m the only person who feels this book has some merit. I agree that Jennifer Williams makes some very valid points. However, at the very least this book may spark conversations as well as bring this subject to the awareness of more people who may not read Petry, Childress, Morrision, etc. I have not seen the movie version but I did not find this book to portray the situation of the black maids as “fun” (as one reader here expresses concern about)in any way, shape, or form. If it gets more people talking about issues of race in our country, I think it’s valuable.

    • Nancy Owen Nelson says:

      Thank you, Anonymous, for this strong and solid response. The novel, its oral rhythms, resonates with me as a (white) person who spent part of her childhood in the South and experienced black-white relations in the 50s and 60s. I think we’re being too critical of a writer’s effort at fictionalizing (from realistic context) the stories/lives of black women maids at this time. Fiction is about telling the truth with stories that did not necessarily happen in the exact way portrayed by the author.

      The key here is that you hear and feel the authenticity of voices in the novel. I was hoping a black woman from the South would respond. Thank you!

    • I agree with you!

      Almost every critique I’ve ever encountered of the book was from someone who hadn’t read it and just made presumptions.

      I’m a Black woman from the South as well, and I swear I heard my grandmother’s voice as I read. The storyline was great, and because it was a novel, it didn’t attempt to educate. It was meant merely to entertain. Furthermore, consider this. As an introduction to domestic workers’ plights in the 1960′s, it was a great start. Anyone interested in learning more can certainly look it up.

      I addressed the most outspoken attacks of this book on my blog as well!

      http://www.awordorthree.com/2011/08/dont-be-rude-

  16. ambguitygreen says:

    I acknowledge that there are people and places that are “post-racist,” yet I know that most places are not. This story will, I hope, help me to begin a conversation with some folks I know. It’s certainly not the end of the story . . . Thank goodness! I was left with the idea that Skeeter was in the very beginning of a journey toward a wholeness in her life–that’s why she couldn’t see her friends’ racism for a very long time. Her eyes were just beginning to open–which is tragic, but every journey begins somewhere. I would love to have my group read Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, but this is a beginning of a conversation for some.

    • Where are these ‘post-racist’ people and places that you know of? how are you defining ‘post-racist’? and even you mean ‘post-racial’ my questions still stand.

  17. I have been hearing nothing but good things about this film and the book. Though I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’ve heard and read enough about it that I’m not itching to see it. I may check it out just to have an informed opinion. Your review touches on some of my concerns.

  18. I was concerned this would be a “magical negro” story as well, and in the start it seemed to have that, with a certain character having “powerful prayers.” But it didn’t go that route. The book is perhaps too forgiving of Skeeter, the white girl who misses the maid, Constantine, who raised her. The characters of Aibileen and Minny are so strong that it could have done without Skeeter, but she is well drawn for someone who’s an obvious stand-in for the author.

    I don’t know what the first draft of The Help was like. I was apprehensive when I learned that a large part of the story was about a white woman who records these stories, but I look at it like Alan Lomax recording the early blues. It isn’t too far from reality. If anything, it’s unfortunate that it took so long for these stories to be told. Jackson still has its problems, as any newspaper will tell you. And race aside, domestic help aren’t treated much better. Now their ranks tend to be recent immigrants and undocumented, and thus easily abused by their bosses.

    I don’t fault Mrs. Stockett for writing it. But I do fault the lack of courage in Hollywood the publishing that this kind of story took so long to be told, and that it had to be by a white writer looking back with both guilt and nostalgia.

  19. Thank you for such an insightful and well-considered review.

  20. I read this book AND I saw the movie. I don’t think it presents a “false feeling of security” about post racism in America either. As far as the poster who claimed to be “forced to embrace a touchy feel story ably the past” it seems you all are neglecting to realize this story isn’t as much ably the racism as it is about the women who endured it, with grave, class and unforgettable humiliation. Sdont criticize something you haven’t taken the time to read.

    As far as the economic state we’re in showing that these conditions (racially) still exsist I call balderdash on that. What the economic crush is showing is the strong division of CLASSES, not races … and the poverty and lower middle class is made up of all different races, and even in my rural southern area of the country, aside from the few complete morons (on all sides I might add) we are all struggling together.

  21. Hector raised an excellent question. In most MFA programs, students are encouraged to ‘write from experience,’ and to avoid writing across race. There’s a racist assumption implicit in this sort of encouragement (almost dictum), esp. because very few MFA professors say the same about writing across gender or class. Many MFA professors view color/race as the the primary, essentialized and unbridgeable marker of difference, discounting the ways that members of America’s shrinking middle class might have more in common with each other, regardless of their race, than with either poor whites, blacks or latino/as. If a woman can write about a man and vice versa (as countless authors of numerous races and ethnicities have done very well), authors should be able to write sensitively about people of other races. The key is sensitivity, no matter what lines one is crossing. I read The Help and was struck by how much Stockett lionized Skeeter, the white heroine, even while underscoring the courage of Minny. I was also struck by the way that the white characters’ speech wasn’t written in dialect, as if white people (I’m white) don’t have accents or dialects. Just yesterday, the receptionist at a dentist office couldn’t grasp that my name is Alice because she kept hearing me say Yellis in my south-side Chicago accent. If I were a character in The Help, would I have been referred to, in dialogue, as Yellis? Again, it’s fine to write in dialect, but it also helps to be consistent. I just hope that some of the posters to this blog are correct in thinking that this book will spawn dialogue about racial and social injustice, albeit mainly among whites who have, thus far and remarkably, been blind to such injustice.

  22. Marsha Abelman says:

    Very good blog, Jennifer. I have read The Help and all the other “black women’s fiction” you mentioned. Could be that many younger people have not read those older books, so The Help is good for raising awareness in this generation. And hopefully those of us who read your blog will share the other titles with our book club friends, thereby getting those authentic stories into the public conscientiousness. I’m afraid that the movie WILL try to make this a “fun” tale of “misadventures” rather than a serious treatment of racism and classism! Do you, and readers here, think perhaps the upcoming network series, The Playboy Club, will be similar? Glossing over the very real issues of sexism that existed (and grew exponentially) in the Playboy 60s decade? I’m thinking it’s going to be “boys just wanted to have fun” instead of showing the harsher side of the business about which that Gloria Steinem has written. I could easily write “I’m not looking forward to The Playboy Club” with the same fervor you have about The Help!

  23. I agree with “anonymous” that to criticize this book/film for implying we live in a post-racial society is ludicrous.

    I have read the book and enjoyed it very much. The story is not only about the complex relationship between the white children and their black caretakers, but also about the relationship between those black domestics and their white employers. It serves an important role in exposing the humanity of the former and the inhumanity of the later.

    I will see the movie.

  24. Interesting post Jennifer. You are right, this book really does soften the violence done to black maids during this period. I was always curious whether to buy the book or watch the movie. I won’t buy the book, and I will think reaaallllyyy hard about seeing the movie. As one other poster here said, “The Help” still exists because black people, and especially black women, continue to be exploited. I wonder what the thoughts are of people who read the book and/or are going to see the movie. I don’t think many of them realize the racism that still exists profoundly in our society. I will definitely think hard about the upcoming movie.

    Jennifer, you totally nailed it.

    Great Job!!!!

    • The book was amazing. Borrow it from a library so you won’t feel like you’re supporting it, but you’ll still have the opportunity to find out the truth for yourself.

  25. While I don’t disagree with many of the blogger’s main points about the book, she misses an important valid criticism about the plot that I’ve seen in other reviews, namely that it is unimaginable that a white woman would have written and published the book in The Help in the 1960s. That part of the story is simply not credible.

    As with blackness, there isn’t a single “authentic narrative” about The Help. I think about my 40ish daughter and her book club in Charlotte (very much the South) who liked the book. They, like I, thought the author did a good job of capturing the voices of black domestic servants in Mississippi during that time-frame. I was talking about the film today with two young black women nail operators while getting my nails done. Neither had read the book but knew about the story and wanted to see the film if for no other reason than to support Viola Davis. One woman, mindful of the criticism about the film even quoting Davis’ comments about playing the maid in the film

    Substantively the author, really doesn’t mince her words. She repeatedly reminds readers how vicious and vindictive white southern women could be if crossed (worse that white southern men); and about the economic instability of poor working class blacks. Yet there were “good” white employers in the deep South; and employers and employees who had genuine feelings for one another even though they did not stand on equal footing. To deny the complexity of these relationships which the author admittedly belated recognized, diminishes the work of these women. It smacks of ignorance and is afro-centricity of the worse kind.

    Finally the blogger’s reference to Tamara Brown’s book about domestic workers seems strange since the book is about contemporary women in Brooklyn not the south. There are other books written by black women about domestic workers in the south, notably Elizabeth Clark Lewis’ “Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C.: 1910-1940″ and Jacqueline Jones, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present”. In addition, Stockett in her afterword indicates that she looked at black women’s narratives from a book published closer to the time frame of the book.

  26. I really enjoyed Jennifer William’s piece, and I agree with almost all of it, especially the comments about the illusion of a post-racial America (I expressed this in an earlier post). I would only caution against attacking any fiction that tries to celebrate a ‘human story’ and against suggesting that we’re not the same ‘underneath.’ (see last paragraph of Williams’ piece) I’m not having a Rodney King moment. There are all sorts of reasons people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds have radically different experiences of life in our so-called ‘post-racial’ society. I like to think those reasons are about the social, cultural and historical meanings attached to color, and little related to what’s ‘beneath our skin.’ (again, see last paragraphs of Williams’ piece) Do we need to chuck any notion of a shared humanity in order to (as Williams does astutely, for the most part) condemn racism and its ugly affects? I hope not. If we dispense with the idea of ‘humanity’ or shared ‘human’ stories, there is no reason to end war or combat racism. If there is no hope for a shared humanity, we’ve lost any grounds for demanding equality or social justice, as women, as non-gazillionaires, as members of the LBGT community, and/or as members of minorities. Why can’t we talk about humanity and social difference/racial inequality at the same time? I hate to quibble about a sentence or two in an otherwise wonderful piece, but we’re on REALLY dangerous ground if we dispense with any idea of a shared humanity. We risk losing our humanity.

  27. Rosaleen Draper says:

    I read this book at least two years ago and believed it would make a good movie. It was a book from our local book club. At that time I found it a very engrossing story. Yes I lived thru that time(when the Civil Rights movement was being born)it was a Revolution that was needed. Thank the Kennedy Presidency for this. I believe all young people should see this movie or better still read the story: they will realize how good life is today. Let us go Forward:for we cannot relive the Past. We only go back when it is History, and this way of life is History. Let us not harp on what was:but what is Now. Life is what you make it

    • Thank Kennedy?

      What about the brave people, black and white, who were part of the civil rights movement? The movement began before Kennedy was elected.

  28. The “black Southern dialect” referred to in this review is such a part of Southern life for those of us brought up there that it seems abnormal not to read it or hear it. The Uncle Remus stories (and I am a Georgia Chandler descendant) may be hard to decipher for those born above the Mason Dixon line but is classical dialect to true Southerners. This is the only defense I can offer on the classic sexist/racist attitudes that continue to be prevalent today, not only toward people of color but toward any woman who allows it. The dialect is a part of human culture, just like the dialects in China are totally different from one another but part of the whole. Appreciate it and get on with accepting that we all have our differences, yet it doesn’t mean one is better than another.

  29. Well having read the book and now seen a screener of the movie, I have to say I agree with the review a 100 percent. The whole book and the movie even more so is how a spunky white, young privileged woman gets successful off the backs of the black women who raised her. You can sugar coat it but that’s what it is. Another commenter replies the black characters were so strong you don’t need skeeter but here’s the thing to the white author and the audience reading/watching this they do. Because it is she who is treated as the heroine and given the happy ending at the end. The black characters are there to serve her journey and her purposes just like black servants were seen as merely tools and appendages for their white employers.

    This is just more wish fulfillment by people that know that while the “magical negro” will be called out if it was set in the present time but putting it in a “historical context” the writer and the producers can get away with a tired trope.

    Others have point out to that most of the white women were portrayed as “bad” but skeeter was “good” but the reality is that also everyone at that time and especially for folks actually in these communities even the nicest sweet white lady was racist. period. As was entire society. This movie perpetrates the myth that people can be magically anti-racist without actually doing the work to unlearn all the racist beliefs our society still has and had even more then.

    Having grown up in the south as a white kids raised in these very circumstances the desire to sugar coat our history is understandable but must not be allowed to go unquestioned.

    • Thank you, Jack, for saying what really needed to be said.

    • Your comment would make sense if not for the fact that many white people fought and died along black people during the cvil rights movement. Who do you think rode in the freedom buses and protested through integration?What racists risks their lives to ensure that the freedom that they enjoy is extended to others? It saddens me that you would downplay the involvement of any individual willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow man.

  30. Elise Gayle says:

    Excellent analysis Ms. Williams, and resources for other books…However, notice that you are preaching to the “choir” and the “choir” are going out to get the books you suggest. The book & movie might reach some White folks who didn’t see this behavior (yankees or Southerners in denial). It is important not to lose the history — good and bad; it is important to keep telling the stories. One story for some White Women is that they were also powerless to change things and were forced to go along with those in power, even if racism wasn’t their value. Ms. Stockett & Mr. Taylor have brought it to film that will reach even more (not to mention those who watch movies and don’t read books) and there are some brilliant Oscar-worthy performances here also. and Oh, yeah — racism and pressure to conform alive and well. WE ALL NEED TO BE REMINDED THAT RACISM IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.

  31. Here’s another article that has some additional analysis, and I think is actually a bit more critical: http://www.artscriticatl.com/2011/08/film-review-

    • Well, I’ve heard or read this same critique three times by now; Melissa Harris Perry got in on this too. The article that you mention had blind spots which are usually caused by anger which does not produce critical thought. One of them had to do when the payment arrived in an envelope from New York and Skeeter immediately divides it and shares it with the women who told their stories. That payment included a bottom line about, “And, there is more to come.”, which continued to be shared.

      I find it very odd that there is no recognition of the fact that Skeeter has been raised among these women and cannot form and has not formed that break that allowed the other peer group of white women to get on with their local petty little lives since it was so essential to them to have social acceptance. They do wicked things because it is the token they must give within their society as their initiation like that of some primitive tribe. It is how humans divide the barbaric from what is acceptable. Several times in this movie, I reminded myself that in this case: the story’s context, the forgotten rationale of why this Southern club of women can rationalize their behavior is that “The Help” are in the direct line of slavery. Once that thought is put aside for card-partying and annual formal social gatherings devoted to charity involving the arts or vice-versa, the break is complete,history is gone from their memory but the damage remains on every hand.

  32. BoweryDoll says:

    As a weary, mid-40′s, mixed black and American Indian sister of color I must say, it’s really great to see such a deep discussion happening here. I for one remain disgusted and astonished by Hollywood’s blatant lack of concern for racial and ethnic diversity in the films and actors caught up in its system. I’ve lost complete faith in Hollywood films and television, for that matter, when it comes to seeing a consistent range of ethnic diversity. I only tend to watch foreign films and indie features anyway because I’m tired of being disgusted and tired with Hollywood. All I could say when I first heard the rumblings of this film being made was “Seriously??” UMPTEENTH action films, sci-fi, animated films, dramas, romantic comedies and the insane litany of movie remakes, ALL with white leads….and here we have a tired, familiar retread of a 50′s/60′s domestic melodrama that makes me think of the rabid retro-fashion fandom over the wardrobe and styling on Mad Men than anything that really has something powerful to say. You want to know what “retro” stories I’d love to see told?? How about period films on WW2 that show what it was like for black men and women in the segregated units and the slap in the face they felt while fighting hard for a country that held fast to jim crow laws and segregation? My dad was in a segregated unit in the army. It used to puzzle the hell out of him how so many glorious WW2 flms could be made that never once celebrated the contributions he and his peers made — including sisters of color who had proudly enlisted — or touched on the issues of racial segregation in the military. There’s simply no excuse.

    The true challenge lies in the art being made about our present and future. Where is the equality for actors of color who deserve to be in the SAME kinds of leading roles as their white counterparts?? Maybe in another 100 years things will finally catch up and we’ll see more diverse stories involving actors of color who won’t have to be marginalized to limited, one-flavor performances like Tyler Perry-esque films that truly don’t reflect the full spectrum of experiences by blacks and other folks of color. ALL economic and class groups…LGBTQ as well as straight…ALL education levels and family structures…Dignified, diverse roles…NOT just as comedic side-kicks speaking a “street” patois with neck wiggles and wagging fingers. When do we get to see young kids of color in major leads in a film like “Super 8″?? This thing was set in the late 70′s…how perfect would it have been to see Spielberg cast young kids of color as heroes in the film?? And not as wise-crackin’-jive-talkin’-comedic relief…but serious leads like the white kids in the film who carry it start-to-finish. How about female and male actors of color in serious, romantic lead roles?? Too soon?? Maybe in 100 years???? Til then, I’m trying to brace for the scary possibility that Hollywood might actually try to remake Gone With the Wind, Carmen Jones and Cleopatra Jones. I’m already feeling nauseous about the Lone Ranger film being made. I’ll stop my rant now. Thanks for listening. This thing really hits a major nerve with me.

  33. I did not like the book, so I will not be seeing the movie.

    The maids really had no other employment opportunities at that time.

    In the area where I lived maids were underpaid, but given old clothes and old food; lucky for the employers the “sell by date” did not exist then. In other words maids were also doing the garbage collection for some of their employers, having to lug this junk to the bus stop.

    Is Ms. Stockett giving any of her profits to the still living maids of the time who had no social security paid in in their name? If not the book and the movie are simply about money in my opinion.

  34. C Angelina says:

    I was waiting of the damning criticism. Williams complaints are sound and more subtle than I expected – but one thing that caught me was this sentence: “However, the irony of Skeeter’s project–and by extension Stockett’s novel–is that the testimonies of the maids don’t improve their conditions or challenge race relations in Mississippi. Rather, they serve as a conduit through which Skeeter emerges as a feminist heroine; instead of marrying her love interest, she scores a book contract and a job in the big city.”

    And I have to say, that I find that entirely realistic, fluff piece of not.

    I did ethnographic fieldwork, and worked with people who were happy to inform us on all manner of things, even though it put some people at risk. They said they wanted to help us because no one had ever asked them these things before, and they felt they had an obligation to share their story. These kind and brave people never received credit, thanks, assistance or attention for the plight. I was very junior to the people I was with and large gaping language barriers and cultural differences kept me from explaining what the outcome would really be – hell, I was only just beginning to understand it myself. What I wished I could have explained is that “applied anthropology” could take the information they provided and create a framework for recourse and change. However, applied anthropology was not prestigious, and the people I was with were interested in pitting these stories against existing theories of human universals and making a very lucrative tenured careers off of the 200 professional peer-reviewed articles that would result in an endless series of banter about these theories, and the implications of the ethnographic “data”. Not even the American people would have access to this body of information – even though ethics (and federally funded grant programs) dictate that it should be disseminated broadly. Their stories would not be told in story form. They would trickle out in the empty rooms of academia, one word or line at a time, as needed, to prove a useless point about theory over the course of 20 years.

    So, Skeeter cruising off to break the glass ceiling of the publishing world while blowing a kiss of gratitude to the women who shared a lifetime of hard experiences, *not* so that she could further her personal goals, seems entirely realistic to me.

    And I will defend an an author’s prerogative to write fluffy happy novels, with only hints of big trouble in the world at large. You can’t make someone tackle tougher uglier truths if their heart isn’t in that frame. More cynically, if you are an author who wants to write books that invite a screenplay option – that is the only way to go. And at least the author had the good sense not to try to make the central character someone with whom she could not relate at all, someone black and female and underclass in the American South in the 1960s. I think it would have been a horror show if she had tried to write a feel-good book from one of the characters fitting that description’s point of view. Then again, she did entitle the book, ‘The Help’, which implies that the books turns on the care-givers.

    But all fiction has a cardinal rule: to lend a message to one of the many themes that underly our stories (man against man, man against nature, etc.) And this book sounds like it fell short, which is a shame because a soft-edge story could have been told in a way that left us with nothing to harp on. For example, I really liked ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, which serves as an example of good film making done with a glossy soft lens, but a slow burn. The story is acknowledge the class issue. Character June, doesn’t want young Lily being treated as a guest. To June, she is a constant reminder that their mother spent her life in service to her family.

    So although, this book and movie serve no one but the author and the studios, and the feel-good effect will only be tangibly felt by those whose consciousness is untouched by race or classes issues, I have to say, that niche is pretty big. Like I said, we have an entire Academic institution making their bones on that type of thing. I think the author, J Williams, has the right approach in her more subtle criticism, and her implicit suggestion that this movie is nothing to run out and see. But we should acknowledge that this book’s standpoint is still in some ways a realistic picture of profit and loss by distinctly separate communities. And if you want Hollywood to stop celebrating that more privileged perspective while turning a blind eye to the unpolished other side of that coin, don’t pay to see the fluffy feel good movie.

    • @ C.Angelina.

      Here comes the, “Yes, but…”.not going to the reality as yet unseen would then deny the earning of a living to several major Black American players who are women and not needed so much or so often in the scheme of things. Though heck it was kind of evenly divided this round with Sissy Spacek and Allison Janney as white women past their time, and an ironic Mary Steenburgen. But, as I said before, would I deny an opportunity of income to somebody like Cicely Tyson along with the other more recently discovered divas who have followed after her to be seen in this film? Nope. Not on your life would I deny these women their right to earn from their craft.

  35. Being a white woman from the north who had white “maids” from local farms, I winced at the book in so many places. The same lack of empathy for the maids who were considered profoundly different from the employee class was part of these relationships. Racism surely deepens those

    estrangements making them so dangerous with the white assumption that persons of african descent were subhuman. That is clear. As I read the book initially, I thought to myself, “Well,

    our mothers weren’t nearly so cruel.” I suppose I reasoned that this was so, due to the lack of the

    racist element.

    After seeing the movie, the wincing returned. The actors portraying the maids were wonderful.

    It was hard to see their defenses against this white culture on the screen. Their faces riveted me.

    It was similar to the resignation and accommodation on the faces of the maids in my life: Elsie,

    Marion, Ethel,etc. Denial is hard to grasp and face. It became impossible to forget that since they

    lived with us, they worked long, long hours. Family emergencies caused days off to be cancelled

    without notice; their lives were not their own. Racism makes it worse and different, but racism

    is not needed to cause cruelty, arrogance and total lack of empathy. This is the reason I agree

    with the final message from Alice. Inhumanity on the perpetrators’ part is a common denominator

    here. We need to see it wherever it exists. — That is among people of different races, sexual

    preferences, religions, etc. and among people of the same races, preferences, religions, etc.

    The word “dangerous” is not overstated. It IS perilous to overlook womans/mans inhumanity

    to other women or men throughout our flawed species.

    ‘Wellm

  36. Darlene Moak says:

    Thank you for a very well-written & insightful blog. Also thank you to all those who have taken the time to write some thoughtful comments. I don’t have time to read them now but I will come back when I can.

    In the meantime, I wanted to go ahead and share my own thoughts. I am a northern (NJ) white (gay) woman albeit one who has been living in the South (Charleston, SC)for the past 24 years. I also felt disquieted by the premise of this story. I saw a preview for the movie (interestingly, while watching the wonderful “Beginners” about a older gay’s man journey to self-acceptance) & there it was: young white woman (heroine) helps to bring stories of black women (oppressed) to light. The characters seemed very much stereotypical. I found myself squirming in my seat.

    On a somewhat more upbeat note, I have noticed that two new(er) TV shoes (“Memphis Beat” and “The Glades”) feature women of color in supervisory roles (the exemplary Alfre Woodard in the former and Michelle Hurd in the latter). In particular I am glad to see Michelle again; I admired her portrayal of a complicated, conflicted character on Law and Order:SVU. I have to be a bit encouraged by this development. Both shows are on TNT. I suppose the inclusion of these characters in the two shows could be interpreted as tokenism, but I don’t get that sense from either character. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in these otherwise discouraging times.

    Thanks to everyone again. My brain appreciates intellectual stimulation.

  37. Mary Murphy says:

    My Irish ancestors came to the United States as refugees from famine and the oppression they felt in their homeland-I know that their situation was less unalterable for them than for the Africans who came under much worse circumstances, but I was eager to read this book (and see the movie) because the two groups share a history of servility to the people who held them in their “place”. One of my great aunts would get up early every morning to go the house of “Mrs. C” where she would lay out the clothes for the day and start breakfast. I was always puzzled by the affection my elderly Aunt Rose had for the old lady who made her work so hard. Now I think of all of the health care providers who work for less than minimum wage in the homes of insured, affluent white people. It seems to me that our humanity makes us find the connection we need to be able to keep doing the work.

  38. Just wanted to say I enjoyed your commentary. I felt the same sense of unease reading the book. While I can see how the writing lends itself to a movie, that very style of expression reflects the book’s use of trite stock characters. I have read some of the authors you mentioned and felt such a deep, and more realistic connection than I did with The Help. I was also confused as to why Skeeter was created as the heroine at the conclusion of the book and its approach to the topic.

  39. As New York Press’ reviewer Armond White points out the main aim of this film is to entertain, which might explain the lack of engagement with the subject matter at a level that considers the changes that have influenced discussions about race, gender and power in America since the sixties. An approach that makes for a dated film that requires the audience to ignore the most important change; that black American women no longer rely on white spokespersons to voice their concerns. Abileen’s, Minny’s and Constantin’s primary function in this film, which does little to challenge traditional racial power dynamics, and which translates black agency into steeling and black pride into frying chicken, is simply to help us distinguish good whites from bad, coward and victim whites. I might have been too distracted by the shallow treatment of the complex subject matter and the blatant stereotyping (incl. Minny delivering one Chappellesque line about chicken after the other, among them “Frying chicken just makes me feel better about life. I just love me some fried chicken”) to notice all the fun, but regardless the film would definitely have gained from more nuance and less slapstick. (Full review on http://wordsofkatarina.blogspot.com/2011/10/white

  40. And I’ve watched the film as a white woman with epilepsy who herself faces cultural segregation, which does currently limit my own employment and life opportunities.

    I relate to Aibileen and Minny’s characters. They’re domestics not because it is fun or they like this work, but because this is ‘the’ only job which they are able to obtain. I can certainly understand this with my own current employment struggles. My own family members know I have epilepsy, but they choose not to acknowllege the laws and policies I have to use because of it.

    Constantly having to explain that I can only take a job which is public-transit accessible is very frustrating. These people lived with me my whole life. Talked down to/ignored because of the disability, I am also not considered an equal.

    The irony of Hilly Holbrook directing aid for African children while selectively overlooking conditions literally in her own backyard is another relevant issue. Not all women can be allies. And some women are even going to attempt undermining what position a person has in society rather than helping us improve it.

    The Help is a really powerful film, and I’m personally glad it was released in today’s economic climate.

  41. Ok , This its my favorite movie and book , I dont understand why people are taking it so seriously? It’s fiction , someone on here even said that the poster made them uncomfortable? Watch/read it for what it is…..Hollywood entertainment

  42. This is an interesting, well argued post. Many I already visit daily, but there’s some that I’d never heard of and am excited to check out! I admire you and your knowledge in writing.You make essay writing fun!! I’m loving this so much. Thanks :)

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