The Terrible, Awful Sweetness of The Help

If Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help was an angel food cake study of racism and segregation in the 60’s South, the new movie adaptation is even fluffier. Like a dollop of whip cream skimmed off a multi-layered cake, the film only grazes the surface of the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender and geohistory.

Let me admit that I was, in contrast to Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly compromised by a Christmas-chocolate-induced haze).

I maintain the novel is a good read. But its shortcomings–its nostalgia, its failure to really grapple with structural inequality, its privileging of the white narrator’s voice and its reliance on stock characters–are heightened rather than diminished in the film.

While the civil rights movement was a mere “backdrop” in the book, in the film it is even less so: a photo here, a news clip there, as if protagonist Skeeter, with her intrepid reporting, discovers that wow, racism exists–and it’s ugly! And even with these occasional hints that the nation was sitting on top of a racist powder keg, overall, civil rights are miscast as an individual rather than a collective struggle. To judge by The Help, overcoming inequality requires pluck (Skeeter), sass (Minnie) or quiet determination (Aibileen), not social movements.

Also gone is the book’s suggestion that male privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise women in the same way white privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise people of color. While admittedly the novel problematically framed black males as more “brutish” than whites, at least it nodded towards the ways in which hierarchies of race, sex and class intersect and enable each other. The relatively powerful white wives are “lorded over” by their husbands (or, in Skeeter’s case, her potential husband), then turn around and tyrannize their black maids in much the same fashion. The movie, in contrast, puts an even happier face on men/women relations than on black/white ones.

Simultaneously, it frames Skeeter, Minnie and Aibileen as a trinity of feminist heroes, but rewards only Skeeter with the feminist prize at film’s end–an editing job in New York. In the meantime, Aibileen has lost her job but walks the road home determinedly, vowing she will become a writer, while Minnie sits down to a feast prepared by Celia Foote, her white boss.

The audience is thus given a triple happy ending. The first, Skeeter’s, suggests it only takes determination to succeed–white privilege has nothing to do with it! The second, Aibileen’s, implies that earning a living as a writer was feasible for a black maid in the Jim Crow South. The third, Minnie’s, insinuates not only that friendship eventually blossomed between white women bosses and their black maids, but also that such friendship was enough to ameliorate the horrors of racism.

Thus, if the book was “pop lit with some racial lessons thrown in for fiber” as Erin Aubry Kaplan’s described it, the film has even less bulk. Instead, it’s a high-fructose concoction as sweet as Minnie’s pies. And like Minnie’s “terrible awful” pie, with which she infamously tricks the villainous Hilly into eating shit, the film encourages audiences to swallow down a sweet story and ignore the shitty Hollywood cliches–as well as the shitty reality that racism can’t be “helped” by stories alone.

As Jennifer Williams predicted, the film indeed offers:

The perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America, [where] 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.

To put it another way, viewers can tuck into this terrible awful slice of the past, forgetting how the ingredients that shaped pre-Civil Rights America have a seemingly endless shelf life and, even more pertinent, still constitute a mainstay of our diet.

Further Reading: For an in-depth analysis of the film in its historical context, check out An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help by the Association of Black Women Historians.

Image from Flickr user StuartWebster under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. I have no doubt that this movie would present a rather fluffy and dishonest approach to this particular history (what Hollywood movie can we think of that has done it justice?). However, I must challenge this particular statement:

    In the meantime, Aibileen has lost her job but walks the road home determinedly, vowing she will become a writer … [which] implies that earning a living as a writer was feasible for a black maid in the Jim Crow South.

    Are you not aware that some of our most cherished American writers – think Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker – emerged from such environments or at least were raised by such black maids? Heck, where do you think Oprah Winfrey came from?

    There’s nothing wrong with Aibileen dreaming big! As a matter of fact, it was such dreams that came out of the Civil Rights era that gave us Motown, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, even the Obamas!

    In the interest of highlighting the “terrible, awful sweetness” of a Hollywood movie’s inadequate depictions of race relations, let’s not make wholesale assumptions that it’s depictions of black ambitions beyond Jim Crow segregation limitations is equally “unrealistic.”

    • Janell,

      I completely agree with your critique, and should have worded that statement more carefully. In fact, I thought of many of the writers you mentioned while viewing, and then writing, the post — what I intended to convey was that for women like Skeeter becoming a writer or landing a job in NY as an editor was more likely than for the women Aibileen represents. I think “feasible” is the wrong word choice though,and I should have teased this out more carefully. What I am suggesting is that it would be harder road to become a writer for Aibileen than for Skeeter – not only because of race/skin color, but also because of Skeeter’s class status, education, and so on.

      • Thanks for clarifying, Natalie. Like Jennifer Wilson, I too have misgivings about going to see this movie. The only compelling reason is to see Viola Davis, an actress who I admire and who knows how to bring new kinds of life into whatever character she’s given. If a character like Aibileen concludes at film’s end that she wants to be a “writer,” I would assume she would know what the perils are to prevent her from doing so and what she might have to do to keep pursuing it. Is that how Viola Davis portrays her?

        And how exactly was Ms. Davis’ performance in this? Is it worthy enough to check out this film, or is the material too flawed for her to transcend it?

        • Well, I love Viola Davis too, and she does a very good job, but I found the film version of her character less complex than in the book. I liked that in the book Aibileen uses her stories to teach “baby girl” about racism, using stories of Martin Luther King JR transformed into a green alien to offer a children’s tale about the ugliness of racism and colorism. These stories are missing from the movie. That being said, her and Octavia Spencer were definite highlights for me and do transcend the material to a point. Davis is an excellent actress, conveying worlds of emotion with one look or facial expression. Spencer, who is fabulous as Minnie, was strong in all the different facets of emotion her character had to convey. I especially appreciated the scene where she instructs her daughter how to be a “good maid,” though the scene is heartbreaking. For their performances, the movie is worth it, I think, but be prepared to be maddened and disappointed by many other aspects… Hopefully we can see each of them in other leading roles soon.

  2. Great presentation Natalie! Thank you for your insights.

    What really gets me is that the whole issue of race, gender and class relations

    is one presented as one big shit joke. Bathrooms and toilets and pie, oh my!

    It’s not a movie with a black feminist sensibility, (will we see that one day?) it a film warning white

    folk that dark-colored folk crap in your food, are dirty and can not be

    trusted in your home. Does exploring these serious “isms” really have to be a continual poop joke to sell tickets to the masses?

    The Help is once again a Hollywood story of the white knight/princess rescuing the downtrodden dark folk and then going off to enjoy the spoils of their victory. I enjoyed it in parts. It was good to see a full theater watching the movie. Maybe little steps are better than nothing. But why do we have to settle?

    For a look at the lives of the real women cooks, that a look at THE JEMIMA CODE, a blog written by Toni Tipton Martin: http://www.thejemimacode.com/

    And for a glimspe at her thoughts of The Help as book, check out the story of EMMA JANE JACKSON.
    http://www.thejemimacode.com/2010/05/12/emma-jane

    • Thanks LLF! Love your quote “Bathrooms and toilets and pie, oh my!” Thanks also for these useful links.

    • I’m 48 years old and was raised in Portland, Oregon. (yes there are black people here) I will be the first to concede that there is racisim in every state in the union, some more blatant than others.

      However, I think we are forgetting the words of MLK about judging people by the content of their character than the color of their skin. I have met some “Skeeters” in my life time. I have run across black folks that would not spit on me if I was on fire.

      Putting Skeeter down for wanting to say/do something about something she felt strongly about is reverse racisim. As an educated woman, she was looked down upon by a society that did not recognize women for anything more than their abilities to choose a maid and produce heirs. I think realizing how limited her own choices were, it dawned on her that there were others in her life a lot worse off. She decided she could kill two birds with one stone; start her writing career and expose an ugly little secret in Mississippi.

      Being in business for myself, I’m glad to have run across the “Skeeters” in my town and I am glad of that fact. I am also saddend by that fact because although there were those of color who were in a position to help me out, they did not, even when asked. So I choose my people by how they treat me, now by what color they happen to be.

  3. Surely you didn’t expect tht Hollywood would show Minny’s disregard for white people. I think not! As you perfectly state, by making Minny ‘friend’s’ with her white boss, hopefully it’s enough to ‘ameliorate the horrors of racism’. Thats just classic Hollywood.

  4. I am 65. Everyone in the south had her maid back then.

    Down here all these white chicks boohooing in the theater, grew up in families that treated the maid like the ingredient of the pie.

    Of course NOW they all claim they loved their maid… but it was just a transition out of slavery.

  5. What? One woman’s book about the lives of a few characters isn’t going to eliminate racisim? I’m shocked!

  6. For people who had no idea how servants were treated, the movie is a good start. Each of the households could now have their own story as the Civil Rights movement takes hold. Most of the country saw it unfold on TV, not up close. Right at the beginning of the movie there are Black people going up an outdoor staircase. They are going into the movie theatre. And I remember that this is because they were not even allowed to go inside the lobby, buy popcorn, etc. No, they have to sit in the balcony and then leave by the outdoor fire escape stairs. It is these small everyday indignities that add up as the movie spins along. This is what our audience reacted to, with gasps and shocked comments. Let this movie be the beginning of many that trace what happened and show how much more we have to do.

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