The Help: A "Feel Good" Movie... But For Whom?

6 years ago

The Help, released on August 10th,  has been promoted as a "feel good" movie about strong women, both Black and White. But like the Kathryn Stockett novel on which the film is based, it's a story about a young White woman liberating her socially (and presumably, intellectually) inferior Black maids.  


Image Credit: DreamWorksPictures



Feminist Film?

While I have not seen the film, what has interested me about the several reviews and commentaries I read about The Help is how this film has been positioned in relation to how we view feminism. This “feel good” film seems to be about the relationships between women: Skeeter Pheelan, the main character and the Black housekeepers she interviews for her book; the relationships between the White southern belles, and also the friendships between the Black housekeepers. In addition to the inter-dynamics between the film characters, the independent nature of the young woman who is disillusioned by the roles – or lack thereof – her contemporaries have in her town. By her career choice and her desire to escape the small town to reinvent herself in New York City, there are a number of potential feminist themes that could run through the film.

One other issue that has been repeatedly mentioned by commentors in regards to the book and the novel is the use of dialect. While the story takes place in Mississippi, in the film trailer and the scenes I have watched, I cannot comprehend what Viola Davis is saying, yet the White actors  - with southern accents - are clean and clear. To be fair, I think that there was a concerted effort to differentiate class between the characters but many felt that dialogue like "you is kind, you is smart," was a bit far-reaching in trying to differentiate the intelligence of the Black housekeepers and to me, a tad Mammy/ Minstrel like for my taste. More for readers/viewers to laugh at, not with. Now, as the writer of the novel is a woman, it would have been nice for her to show some sensitivity towards the Black characters. So much for solidarity..........

So is it a feminist film? To me, the definition of feminism includes solidarity between women, regardless of ethnicity and sexual preference. I also believe that feminism means that one should make a concerted effort to not only strengthen the bonds between women, but to also support them in making their lives better. Based on my assumptions of feminism, this movie doesn’t seem like it’s much of a feminist film, as the ‘strong’ women in the novel and the film are the ones that are extremely limited in their rights as human beings? How can women be considered equal when one is patronized by the other? When they are not perceived as equals?”

However, this is a period piece, but its popularity makes me wonder if the general populace can watch racism as a ‘sentimental’ thing of the past than understand and act on present issues involving race, gender and class in the present. Seems easier to watch it on the big screen, right?

Who's Helping Whom?

The online response to The Help has been astounding. Writer Martha Southgate wrote an interesting article for Entertainment Weekly about the film and its revisionist history, not only about the Civil Rights era but also in relation to the continuation of the “White Savior” meme that is commonly used as an anchor to get White readers and viewer’s attention. The “Hollywood” film trailer, with its upbeat background music and farcical clips would like you to believe that despite the race and class differences, Skeeter, her white compatriots and the Black housekeepers are essentially ‘all the same’: Not necessarily so: 

''The backstory is cringeworthy: A young, white first-time author — inspired by her own childhood relationship with her family maid in Jackson, Miss. — sets out to write a novel from the point of view of black maids in the midst of the civil rights era.'' Cringeworthy indeed. Further, the plot of the book itself — young white woman encourages black housekeepers to tell their truth through the vehicle of a book the white woman writes — I found both implausible and condescending to those maids. 

You see, if it wasn’t for the writer, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) the Black housekeepers would never have the chance to ‘be liberated’ from their abusive employers  (and husbands). The black characters are only ‘seen’ and legitimized through white lens. We have seen variations of this in previous films like Driving Miss Daisy, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Corrina, Corrina and The Blind Side where the main character ‘rescues’ the socially and intellectually inferior Black protagonist from themselves or the “mammy” character saves / humanizes the white character(s). What is disturbing (in addition to the above) is that while The Help (somewhat) documents the social / political invisibility of Blacks, especially Black women during the pre-Civil Rights era, Skeeter is the one responsible for bringing them towards the light. Is it even possible for White and Black women to be regarded as ‘equals’ if one feels that it is their duty or simply just assumes that they must rescue or liberate the other?

The National Association of Black Women Historians released a statement criticizing, among other issues (like the inaccuracy of events during the Civil-Rights era) the inter–dynamics of the women characters in The Help:

In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.

I am reminded about the current slew of articles that have tried to, through bad statistics and straw-man arguments, position contemporary Black women as not being able to obtain the things that a ‘regular’ woman should have access to: A husband, children (with a husband in the picture), economic viability and sexual attraction from the opposite sex. All of a sudden mainstream news outlets have noticed that we exist, but decided to position us not only as a monolithic entity of desperate and ugly harpies, but have decided that perpetrating racial and sexual stereotypes is easier than looking at issues on an individual, case-by-case basis. In order to do so, physical, social, and economical comparisons between Black and White women are made, as White women are idealized as what is considered the ‘norm.’  

Timing is everything in Hollywood, yet I think that the decision to release this adaption in which (despite the high caliber performance from of Black Actress, such as Viola Davis) Black women are regulated to emotionally depend on a White woman half-their age for their physical and emotional liberation, is questionable. When Black women are chastised for not being good mothers, even though Hollywood can spend hundreds of thousands marketing a film about Black women whom, because of economics, give up their own children to mother others. From The Black Snob:

………if you want to make "The Help" a movie, that's fine, but what does Hollywood have against stories about black people where black people still have agency and they're equals with white people, or, as in many cases during the lengthy fight for equality, white people were actually following a black person……… I'd like to see a film that explores that, how complicated race relations in the South can get, where you're raising someone else's kids and spend more time in their house than you spend in your own. Where you can love the black woman who raised you, but you'll fight to keep other blacks separate from you. To see the power dynamics of that relationship play out in a film or literary work that explores both the common and uncommon ways these situations unfolded would do more service than turning pain into a pop confection of a past that never was. 

So while I’ve just torn down the film, what about the novel in which the film was adapted from? I haven’t read the novel, but one wonders when a woman who worked for Stockett’s family for several years filed a lawsuit against Stockett, arguing that the main Black character, Aibileen Clark is based on her personal (and private) experiences.  Also, in a 2009 interview with the New York Times, some took issue with this: 

She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.

(And got a movie deal!!!!!) It’s not that White folks should not write about ethno-cultural experiences outside of their own; but when they do it, they should do it right, recognizing the sensitivities and the current issues facing Black women today. 

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

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