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My thoughts for the critics of “The Help”

August 13, 2011, 1:29 pm

Okay, I have read all of the critiques of the book and movie, The Help, as I can stand. (See my last post for links.) Here are the main charges as I read them:

1. The main protagonist is a young white woman, and her growth into understanding and standing up for herself is the real journey, while the black maids (whose stories and advice she uses throughout the movie) are simply a device for her growth. Nonetheless, she is coming in and saving the black folk. This is “Mississippi Burning” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” all over again.

2. The movie is historically inaccurate and downplays the organizing of African Americans during this moment in Civil Rights History. The black folks are afraid in the wake of Medgar Evers’ murder, with no discussion of the ongoing struggles for civil rights and the organizing with which he had been involved.

3. Black men are treated as abusive or absent, with no other representations or images.

4. White men’s sexual assaults against black women who worked as domestics are not addressed.

5. Stockett (and the author of the screenplay) uses black vernacular in writing in a way that is offensive and overdone, making the black women who are maids sound uneducated and/or stupid.

I hear these critiques, but I am suspicious that they are slightly overdone. There are challenges and questions that face white people writing fiction about race (read: relationships between Southern black and white folks) in the United States. I think Stockett tries to deal with some of them; some of the tactics she uses work well, and others don’t work quite as well. She does a good job portraying the limitations of white supremacist patriarchal culture on both the white women and the black women in the book.

The black women are limited as to their jobs, where and how they can live, and what they can say to and about white people, for fear of violence and other retribution. They find ways to subvert those limitations. I believe my postmodern friends would talk about interstices, or those places where different social strictures and discourses clash and allow room for movement and disruption of the cultural milieu.

The white women of the time have great privilege compared to their black peers, but they also suffer in the Southern patriarchal culture of the time and place as compared to the white men in their lives. White women have limitations on their speech, their job prospects, their actions, their dress, and their futures, given family and local cultural expectations. Violence from men was a real threat for white women as well. Stockett points this out in considering Skeeter, the white woman, and her own challenges and limitations.

I appreciated that Stockett demonstrates the scale of difference in oppression as well: between Skeeter, who worries about her imposing family expectations, her limited job prospects, and her fear of losing her white privilege in writing the book; and the fears of Abilene, whose son was murdered by white men and who faces her own fears around her safety, employment, and relationships in participating in the book. She does have Skeeter start to comprehend the ways in which white people use privilege and oppression to hurt, dehumanize, and control black people, and that knowledge is painful and personal. Does she totally get it? No. But as we know full well, that is the challenge across a lifetime for white people.

I see this movie and the book as trying to tell a story of relationships, one that includes black and white women in a certain place and time. These are not politically active, progressive women. All of the women, black and white, live in an insular world that has not been penetrated deeply by the civil rights activities of others. Sure, they know what they see on tv, what they hear and overhear from others, and what they tangentially experience. But none of the black women are civil rights activists, and some of them may actively eschew such activism out of fear and self-protection. I have spoken with many black Southerners who criticize the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, calling them troublemakers and self-aggrandizing people who didn’t consider the costs of their activism on others, including members of their families. Just as every Southern white person wasn’t a member of the KKK, every black Southern person wasn’t engaged in or even supportive of the Civil Rights Movement(s), as it were. I am not implying they were happy with the status quo; rather, I think many were afraid it would lead to something worse.

As for the treatment of black men in the book and movie, I would point out two things: first, the white men in the book don’t come off that great either. Many are just plain missing. The only white man in the book with any depth is Johnny, the man who left Hilly (the villian) to be with his younger, working-class wife, Celia. He is devoted to his wife and seems to have more heart and soul than the other white men. But the other white men are no treat: Skeeter’s boyfriend is shallow and weak; the Senator is also weak and a drunkard; Skeeter’s father has some depth as a person, but rarely appears as a character; and the other white men are scary, threatening, or mean.

Second, this critique of presenting black men as deeply flawed and mean is leveled at most books women write about men. Esther Iverem notes, in an interview with Alice Walker:

Books by authors including Terri McMillan, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison and Walker, all with contracts at major publishing houses, included less-than-shining examples of Black manhood. Who can forget trifling Franklin in McMillan’s “Disappearing Acts”? Or the buzzard Luther Nedeed in Naylor’s “Linden Hills”? When Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for “The Color Purple,” many took it as validation of a Black feminist voice, while others said that the awards only proved that Black women writers were being rewarded for bashing Black men. “I got tired a long time ago of White men publishing books by Black women about how screwed up Black men are,” wrote Courtland Milloy, in his column for The Washington Post.

When criticizing a white patriarchal system, you are probably gonna have to criticize the men. And it is clear that black men benefit from patriarchy, even as they suffer under the oppression of white supremacist culture.

These critics seem to ignore the female-focused nature of the world in which much of “The Help” takes place: the homes of white women. The white and black men go off to work, while the women spend the days together in the white families’ homes. It is this conundrum, this complexity of shared space, that is the focus of the book. The misunderstandings and complete disregard the white women have about this experience for the black women who work for them is revealed again and again in the book. The book lets you inside the heads of the black women, revealing what they are thinking during their interactions with the women, their children, and the husbands who come through for dinner. It is a limited, if particular, view, one that is intentional. The Civil Rights Movement comes in through the television, the newspaper, and occasionally through conversations, but it is largely outside these closed spaces.

I would agree with the critique that there is not enough attention paid to the unwanted and forced sexual attentions of white men on the black women who worked in their homes. I can’t recall if there is mention of it in the book (I feel like there was some mention, b
ut I honestly don’t know), and that tells me that it wasn’t prominent enough to leave an impression.

As for the black vernacular, that is a sticky wicket. I have been in conversations with white people who think it says something about a black person’s education and/or intellect if s/he says “ask” and it sounds like “ax.” So I acknowledge that writing in vernacular is problematic, because people do ascribe something to that representation of speech. But culture, geographic region, and experience informs all of our speech, accents, and the like, and if authors write all speech in “standard American English,” then the reader misses something crucial and important about that speech, that character, that setting, that time period. I honestly don’t know how anyone could read the book or see the movie and think that Abilene or Minny are dumb characters, no matter how their speech is represented. There is no “I don’t no nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies” moment in the book. These black female characters have depth, great understanding and wisdom, pain, and joy in their lives, and their friendship is an important component of the book, the only solid, true, deep relationship between women. They get each other as people, and their mutual love, understanding, and respect is an example of what relationships between women should be.

As a white woman who has engaged with black people about issues of race most of my life, I respect Stockett’s work. I am gratified that she wanted to explore this challenging topic, and that she gave voice to a set of white and black women from this time and place. Even in the last 10 years, I have had students raised by black maids who they think of as “part of the family,” and I have challenged them to recognize the limitations of their relationships with these “family members.” And what happens when my upper-class white friends identify with Minny and Abilene, recognizing the pain and admiring the strength of these characters? Perhaps it will encourage us to build stronger, more real, relationships with the black women we meet. Perhaps it will help us consider the ideas, strengths, needs and concerns of black people in our community. I hope that it helps white women think about privilege, about the historical ways in which our privilege sets up complicated dynamics with black women, and that we use these experiences to improve the country for the black people in our lives and our communities.

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