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Book Review (kinda): The Help

Editor’s Note: This post was initially posted on August 15, 2011.

This post may be a case of what-the-fuck-do-I-know fueled by this cold I have appeared to have contracted at some point (probably on an airplane) this past weekend, so I apologize if what I say offends you in any way, shape or form.

I went to see The Help over the weekend because I had enjoyed the book (by Kathryn Stockett) quite a bit. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s…well…to me, it’s really two different stories. On one hand, it’s the Bildungsroman of Skeeter Phelan, a white girl who feels pressured by the mores of her class to be something she’s not–a ditzy society woman whose sole purpose is to get married and pop out babies. On the other hand, it’s the story of black maids in Jackson, MS in the 1960s, just at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The stories intersect at a point where Skeeter enlists the help of two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, to write a book (also titled The Help) about what it’s like to be a black maid in Jackson, raising white children and still being treated as less than human even a hundred years after the Civil War.

But this isn’t a review of the book or the movie. This is my reaction to other people’s reactions because I wonder if, as a white, middle-class woman, I just don’t get it or if other people are completely missing the point.

I read this post on Feministe about it and the first thing Jill says is

Haven’t read/seen it, won’t read/see it* and was generally squicked out by the whole premise of the book to begin with — let’s tell a story that is kinda-sorta about race but more about how these nice black ladies helped white women Find Their Voice, from the perspective of white women of course — but this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians is worth a read.

So…let me get this straight. She hasn’t read the book, but she feels like she’s qualified to judge the content anyway. That irks me on principle. How can people expect to be taken seriously about a topic if they haven’t done the prime research? I mean, I dislike the whole Twilight opus, but at least I read the first two books…but I digress. I could write a whole post on my annoyance with people who hate on certain pieces of literature without actually reading them.

Back to my point: if you notice, there’s a link up there to the statement from the Association of Black Women Historians up there, and that’s really what’s got me wondering if I’m being insensitive or if, perhaps, they’re the ones who just don’t get it.

They do have a few good points such as

Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.

And…uh…I guess that’s really the only statement that I 100% agree with. The white women in the book aren’t given accents in the book even though the chances that they had them, living in Mississippi in the 1960s, is pretty high, and I was definitely uncomfortable with the way Aibileen talked to Mae Mobley (the “young white child” referenced), but the rest of the statement makes me feel like I read a completely different book and saw a completely different movie than the ABWH read and saw.

For example, this quote from the statement:

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.

The story was about women and their relationships to each other. To call out that black men were specifically portrayed poorly feels like looking for a reason to be angry for the sake of being angry.

Even the white men played a very small role in the movie (though slightly larger in the book). The slight subplot about Skeeter’s boyfriend was underdeveloped and almost could have been done away with completely without affecting the movie in the slightest, though I imagine some purist somewhere would have cried out in horror at the thought.

But the thing that bothered me the most was the statement that

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.

I don’t think that Stockett is suggesting to anyone that “the most dangerous racists” were the young society women in Jackson. She was, however, pointing out that racism can be hidden where you least expect it–even the women raised by the black maids hired by their families, whose major Junior League fundraiser is for the “Poor Starving Children of Africa” can draft a “Home Help Sanitation Initiaive” encouraging people to build separate bathrooms for “the help” (because they carry different diseases than us, of course).

That kind of racism is subtle, almost casual. It’s the kind of racism that causes the same person who wrote the above Initiative to tell Skeeter, when she finds a copy of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s bag, to be careful because there are “real racists out there.” It’s the kind of racism that people don’t think about–whether that’s “the most dangerous racism” or not, I do not pretend know.

But maybe I am missing the ABWH’s point, but I’m not sure I am. What it feels like instead is that the ABWH wanted a different book and a different movie. They wanted one that took into account all the facets of racism in Mississippi in the 1960s and wrote a completely historically accurate novel, but instead they got a slice–just a piece of a certain subset of people and the racism that existed (exists?) there, but instead of seeing an opportunity to get people interested in an unexplored part of what was going on during the Civil Rights Movement, they want to focus on the story that’s less palatable to them: the “coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”

Which, I think, is a little short-sighted.

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  1. March 20, 2013 at 6:39 pm
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