Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Controversy of The Help

I've been meaning to read The Help for some time, but the copy I borrowed from my roommate is still sitting on my bureau - actually, it's currently at the bottom of a stack of books I've been meaning to read. Shocking behavior from a creative writer and writing teacher, I know. But c'est la vie. Some days you do nothing but grade. I've been meaning to read it ever since it became a hot button controversy, all over the internet. And if the internet is any indication, it sounds like white women love, love, love the book, while most black women hate, hate, hate it. I'm not sure how accurate that assessment is outside of internet conversations, but either way, the controversy piqued my curiosity.

Apparently not enough for me to read the book, though, so I finally watched the movie last week, just in time for the Academy Awards this weekend. After watching the movie, I walked away with a very mixed reaction - on the one hand, I think it was a good movie that did in fact tell a story not often told. The actors all did a fantastic job, es evidenced by Octavia Spencer's best supporting actress wins at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Spencer's win seemed to leave even Racialicious with mixed feelings, at once happy that Spencer received well-deserved recognition and annoyed that Spencer's honor is rare for black actors and that she only won it by playing a maid in a film where a white actress was billed as the star.

But even more telling than Racialicious's brief mention - and most Womanist blogs I've seen mention The Help  have also done so mostly in passing - even more telling, is this statement released by a group of black historians, which criticizes both the book and the film as misrepresentations of Jim Crowe era life in the South and as nostalgia for the very era these works claim to criticize. So I'd like to consider these complaints.I'm obviously not speaking as an authority on this topic - I'm just sharing my thoughts on The Help. 

1. According to The Association of Black Women Historians, "The Help’s representation of these
women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy...  Portrayed as asexual,
loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America
to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where
employers routinely exploited them."

On the one hand, I see what they mean - if you look at Minnie's character, her happy ending [Spoiler!] is a lifetime guarantee for a job cleaning a rich white couple's house - oh, and cooking for them. When I watched the movie, this scene did trouble me a bit - it's the same kind of conundrum that happens when a middle class American goes to a country where domestic labor is cheap and faces the question of whether it's worse to put someone in a position that is - at least from our perspective - quite degrading, or if it's worse to not hire a domestic worker and thus deny someone a job opportunity. But the problem I see, both in The Help and in that rich world dilemma is that these isolated incidents where a person of privilege seems to offer a happy ending to an under privileged person at best overlook the systemic problems creating these isolated incidents, and at worst these "happy endings" can justify the systemic problems and create the sense of nostaligia for a racist era that the ABWH sees in The Help. 

At the same time, it's doesn't seem fair to only point out those positive moments between white employers and black domestic workers. While The Help did not fully portray the horror that women in this era were likely to face from white men and women, the film does in fact address much of the degradation these women faced. The women Skeeter (Emma Stone) interviews are open about how horribly most of their white employers treat them, and the movie is filled with scenes that depict cruelty toward black domestic workers. Did they portray the extent of the horror? No, absolutely not. Did they portray enough horror? Well, I'd say that's up for debate - the argument could be made that this movie is simply a lighter note in a national discussion of racism. So perhaps the fault lies not with The Help but with its overly zealous white praise. If this potrayal of Jim Crowe era working conditions is progressive for you, I would really like to know what you thought before reading or watching The Help. That white employers treated black domestic workers like crap really shouldn't be news to you. (That many domestic workers today are treated like crap - especially people of color - also shouldn't shock you).

But, moving on.

2. The ABWH argues that "Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture." On this issue, I have no clue whether the dialect in the book and the movie are historically accurate, so I can't respond to this issue intelligently. If it's historically accurate, I think we should embrace an authentic form of language that is in no way inferior to any other form of language. If it's not historically accurate, we have to ask ourselves what drives this false stereotype. Anyone know more here than I do?

3. The ABWH makes a strong statement about how black men are portrayed in both the book and the movie:  "We do not
recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters
are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent.  Such distorted images are misleading and do not
represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood. "

Now, it's possible that the movie depicted black men differently than the book, but I am going to agree that the movie's portrayal of black men was problemactic. Not because it's in any way wrong to depict abusive black men - plenty of people are abusive in any race or gender, so portraying abuse is just plain honest. So no, it wasn't the mere presence of Minnie's abusive husband (well, his voice at least) that causes this problem. The  problem is that he was the only husband of a black domestic worker who showed up in the film. And not only was he missing as a physical presence - disembodied, so to say - he also happened to be the greatest danger in Minnie's life. When she [Spoiler!] retaliates against Hilly with the poop pie, her fear is not that white people in the town will retaliate - no, she is terrified of what her husband will do to her when he finds out. And when she becomes unemployable and her daughter must join the other domestic workers to help with the bills, the narration places the blame on Minnie's husband, not on the very system that limits her work options. Hilly is the one who fired Minnie, and Hilly is the one making Minnie unemployable - shouldn't the narration also directly indict Hilly in what happens to Minnie's daughter?

4. Along a similar vein, The ABWH points out how the film sugarcoats working conditions by ignoring the sexual harassment and sexual assault that many black women faced as domestic workers, at the hands of white men. In their words: "Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers."

Not only did we see little to no evidence of white women physically abusing female domestic workers, but we saw no evidence of any white men directly harming a domestic worker. It's worth noting that the film focused on relationships between women more than relationships between men and women, but the only way to justify ignoring the historically-documented sexual abuse perpetrated by white men against black women would be to entirely remove any male presence from the screen - instead, the film mostly shows white men who are kindly at best and nonviolent racists at worst. Yes, there is a scene where a white bus driver forces black passengers off the bus after the street is blocked because an innocent black man has been murdered - so we know that white men are perpetrating violence against black citizens in the town. But that violence is only ever reported in conversation - it's never depicted. And that is the key difference - we see and hear Minnie screaming when her black husband comes home, and we hear him yelling at her, as well as hearing her continued screams over the phone as he beats her. We also see her bruises. So why don't we see the violence perpetrated by white men and women?

If the movie only reported (instead of potraying) all violence, this would be a different situation. As it is, depictions of violence are off-balance in a way that has repercussions. So, when it comes to how white men vs. black men are potrayed in the film, I've got to agree with the ABWH.

5. I'm going to end my discussion here, but I'd like to point out a couple other criticisms that the ABWH makes - I'd love to hear other thoughts on these criticisms, as well as the criticisms I've already addressed:
  • "The film... makes light of black women’s fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief." 
  • "The film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi."
  •  "Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness."
  • "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."

Ultimately, I see the movie The Help as a worthwhile contribution and as a flawed, incomplete representation of history. I admire it for what it attempts to do, but I also find its success at that goal very limited and problematic.

What do you think?


  1. I'm still reading your post, but about the dialect differences in the book: Someone in my class last semester did his big linguistics project on that very question. He used a grammar of Black English (apparently what to call that type of English is very hotly debated) and compared a few grammatical features in the book to those in the grammar. The writer was apparently... okay at some of the features, but definitely inconsistent. *Very* inconsistent. She also often used generic Southern dialect features rather than specifically Black English ones.

  2. Okay, now that I finished this, I'll just say that I enjoyed the book and the movie as an extension of the book. Of course, I didn't interpret the book as a truthful account of life in the 1960s South. I just viewed it as another fictional novel. So.. you know... maybe I'd feel different if I wasn't white. :\

  3. Lexi, your reaction to the book is exactly what has me thinking that the problem is less with the book itself, and more with individuals who think it's the most ground-breaking thing ever. I mean, if everyone enjoyed it like you, without taking it to be historically accurate, I doubt the book have incensed so many historians.

  4. You and I have had many a conversation about this at home :), so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. I like your post, and I agree with you. I think though that the book has been a little unfairly judged by people who want to take all their grievances out about portrayal of black people by white people. I think some of their judgments come from just as biased a perspective. Should white people never write books about black people? Should we only stick to our experience and cultural, political, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds?

    I think the exercise of writing allows us to try and look at things in other ways. Maybe for the author she was writing a book where she wished she had responded like Skeeter to the environment she grew up in. If we are only limited to our personal and individual experience, George Orwell would never have written 1984, a very influential book; and we certainly wouldn't have Harry Potter, or a lot of fiction actually. Are the book and the movie flawed, yes, and we need to talk about these issues, but I think that the dialogue generates questions that allow us to examine where we come from and why we think that way. And while the book is certainly not great literature we can still appreciate the artform without holding it to a particular historical perspective.