My Problem With “The Help”

I started reading The Help for a few reasons: because it was sitting in the living room when I came home for the summer, because Emma Stone is in the upcoming movie adaption, and (more importantly) because I had noticed quite a bit of criticism being written and linked to regarding The Help on some of my favorite blogs. I don’t like reading pop-culture critiques without an understanding of the source material if I can help it (as evidenced by the fact that I plowed through all four Twilight novels a few years ago), so I read the novel.

The Help is a well executed book from a marketing standpoint. It is nicely paced, wonderfully dramatic, and it features a classic (but always satisfying) struggle of good vs. evil. If we lived in a nice little whitewashed vacuum where this was just a good story, where real women’s lives were not being used as fictional fodder, where the privilege that the fictional white characters possessed never really existed and didn’t still exist… if that was the world that this novel was published in, then this one “guilty pleasure” book wouldn’t be such a big deal.

We don’t live in that world.

There are plenty of things about this book that are just plain offensive. Most glaring, to me at least, is the very affected “accent” that Minny and Aibileen’s sections of the book are written in, while Skeeter’s parts are devoid of even a hint of a southern accent. This sets the two main black characters in this novel off as “other” from the very beginning, which is off-putting. Additionally, Aibileen’s comparison of her own skin color to a cockroach (among many other comments the character makes against her own skin color) is appalling. As are the historical errors in terms of incorporating Medgar Ever’s death into the novel (claiming he was bludgeoned to death, rather than shot) which just show a lack of respect for the topic she was writing about.  The stereotypes – from absentee or abusive black men to sassy or saintly black women don’t help anyone either. I could go on, but these points and many others were already made beautifully here.

Still, the book is quick and easy to read. The conclusion of the book provides a nice, neat, ending sure to make any white person who finds themselves identifying with Skeeter feel good. I can understand why so many people were quick to jump to this books defense because, quite frankly, I’d feel quite a bit better if I could be one of them. 

It would be much easier, much less uncomfortable to close my eyes to the privilege of constantly seeing a variety characters who look like me in the media, enough that I am sure to identify with one… a privilege  that allows me to decide whether or not to be unsettled by another stereotypically written black character because I’m not being discriminated against and, thus, that punched-in-the-stomach feeling that goes with subtle discrimination is missing.

It would be much easier to ignore the privilege of being considered “default” in my whiteness, of knowing that people will not assume that I hold my opinions simply because of the color of my skin. A privilege that comes with knowing I have a much better chance of having my words taken seriously by the mainstream media, especially when talking about marginalized groups, than an actual member of that group.

I would be so easy to indignantly insist that I deserve to be listened to because I work hard on my blog posts (which I do), ignoring the fact that plenty of less-privileged people also worked damn hard on their writing, writing that is often ignored because it lacks “mainstream appeal” meaning, it is not white enough to be lifted up by mainstream feminist blogs.

But I can’t, because that is what The Help is. A whitewashed, declawed version of history that simultaneously manages to condemn racism and absolve the white people who let it continue or who do “enough” to help the cause, by offering up Skeeter as the “good” anti-racist white woman we can all identify with.

READ THE REST AT PERSEPHONE MAGAZINE!

Other Great Related Pieces:

(This is one of my favorite posts from the entire blog dedicated to analyzing this novel.)

Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

3 thoughts on “My Problem With “The Help”

  1. Hello,

    I wanted to thank you so much for your article, which dares to look at the issues within the book and not simply repeat what many other articles have done, which is simply mentioning the controversy over the black and white dialect, and then proclaim there’s really no issue.

    Also, many thanks for mentioning my blog posts.

    With the movie coming out, the push is on to ignore the novel. And while its true that the movie has changed a number of things the book got wrong, the film still is hampered by having to stay true to images and depictions in the book. For example, all the “Blacker the better” maids in one room, even though African American domestics came in a variety of skin tones. No matter how light, an African American was relegated to a domestic or menial position, even those with a college degree.

    To the credit of the individuals who fought against this practice, many did find work in fields such as medicine and law.

    Again, I do thank you for being open minded enough to look beyond the lovefest for the novel, and at considering what all the fuss is about. I’d like to invite you to pop in July 16th on twitter for
    #100voicesrespondtothehelp. We’d love to have your comments on not just The Help but the greater issue on the depiction of women and minorities in publishing and film.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I was out all day today but I’ll definitley do some tweeting now that I am home :)

  3. The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.

    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.

    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

    Its been done … nothing new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …

    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/05/rewrite-us-history-so-that-white-people.html

    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

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