For Colored Only? Understanding “The Help” Through The Lens Of White Womanhood

August 21, 2011, 3:46 pm

Full disclosure: I was raised almost entirely by my white biological mother without the assistance of paid domestic labor.  This is neither a good thing or a bad thing.  It  just is.

I decided to begin this post with a title that would make my white readers uncomfortable in a way that “The Help” (Tate Taylor, 2011), and the Kathleen Stockett novel it is based on, will not.  Although I have overheard the word colored used intimately and fondly, I am outside a community that privileges me to actually speak it except when I am giving a lecture about segregation.

Which I am about to commence.

For a white person to describe African-American people as “colored” is too closely associated with the forms of thinly-veiled race hatred masquerading as civilization that characterized middle class white racism in the 1960s. White courtesies — like substituting “colored” for the curse words associated with racial intimidation — distanced middle-class whites (like me) from the public violence of white supremacy.  What do I mean by public violence? Think lynchings, police dogs, savage beatings, chain gangs and fire hoses. Of course, Jim and Jane Crow did private violence too. It is this private violence — orchestrated, articulated and enforced by white female employers — with which “The Help” is preoccupied.  This tension between the public and private spheres is why I decided to suck it up and go see a movie that I had planned not to see. “The Help” is taking up a lot of room in the academic blogosphere nowadays: you might want to visit Chauncey DeVega (who you should be reading regularly anyway), field negro, ColorLines and live Tweets from Melissa Harris-Perry to start yourself off. More commentary, some of it in the mainstream press, can be found here (hat tip), and probably on your Face Book feed.

So let’s begin. (Danger! Spoilers below!)

When “The Help” begins, aspiring journalist Skeeter returns from four years at Ole Miss to find that the Black servant who raised her, Constantine, has mysteriously disappeared from her family’s employ and no one will say why. I spent the first half of the movie thinking Constantine was buried under a dam with Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney.  It turned out, however, that she went to Chicago after her daughter used the front door in front of company, mouthed off about it, and caused her to be fired.  There, Constantine quickly died a natural death.  Skeeter assumes that her dear friend and caretaker died “of a broken heart,” as opposed to having been worked into old age with little or no health care, and this “fact” is allowed to stand.  Problem #1:  ”They” love “us,” and it is “our” inability to return that love and loyalty in equal degree that is the source of inequality between white mistress and Black servant.

Skeeter also finds that in her absence her high school friends, led by the evil Hilly, are now running the entire town of Jackson at the age of 22.  With Hilly’s leadership, and cowed by her social authority, these shallow white women are capable of appalling rudeness to their former caretakers and are collectively enforcing segregation with little iron fists in velvet gloves.  Hilly’s racist project, other than humiliating her maid, Minny, at every turn, is to ensure the complete and total separation of the races. She hopes to do this by passing a state ordinance that mandates that all white households have a separate “colored” toilet, banning their Black maids from the family bathroom.

Problem #2: the idea that Black people were a source of infection for whites was a truism of white housekeeping beginning in Reconstruction, as Tera Hunter has pointed out.  But middle class whites also believed this about working class whites, and it was not an idea peculiar to the South: see Judith Walzer Leavitt on Typhoid Mary. Therefore, by making private toilets the most prominent racial issue in town (as opposed to, say, public toilets, voting or education), the filmmakers propose that there was nothing real at stake in Jim Crow laws. The white desire for segregation becomes an aberrational, private, female fetish, rather than a set of public policies designed to concentrate power among wealthy white men (like Trent Lott, for example.) But it also frames black women’s resistance to segregation ahistorically.  Aibileen and Minny, the two principle Black characters, are moved to act because of a personal form of humiliation that stigmatizes their private parts as unclean.  Instead, real women like Aibileen and Minny were moved by radical class and race consciousness that wedded them to a social movement designed to relieve Black people of public humiliation, end racial restrictions to the use of public and commercial space and create democracy.

Banning beloved servants from “the family,” and the failure of Hilly and her friends to demonstrate the love for their former caretakers that she feels for the missing Constantine, causes Skeeter to question racism.  It is odd that the rudeness of her white friends to their servants is the catalyst for Skeeter’s redemption, as Mississippi Freedom Summer (three words that are never spoken as a phrase in this film) is, by coincidence, happening just downtown.

As Skeeter comes to consciousness that the system in which she was raised is unjust, she sees an opportunity to “help the help,” as it were, and at the same time promote her career by writing a book about what life as a servant in the Jane Crow south is “really like.” Here I would like to note that in addition to having misleading racial politics, this movie has no feminism either (I have not seen much commentary about this.) Skeeter doesn’t find it depressing that the newspaper work she is offered in Jackson is a housekeeping column, and she doesn’t find her lack of knowledge about housekeeping a barrier to accepting the job.  Skeeter assumes that she can get the expert knowledge she needs from a friend’s maid, Aibileen, but doesn’t see what she is doing as theft or misrepresentation.  Aibileen will ultimately become the principal interlocutor for the book and will use her moral authority to get Skeeter interviews with Minny and numerous other maids as well.Here we might also point out that the history of white, anti-racist women in the South who put their lives and reputations on the line to end Jim Crow is also occluded.  Which leads us to……..

Problem #3:  What is it, exactly, that motivates Skeeter’s transformation to anti-racism, given that she has never questioned segregation before?  Has education improved her moral sensibility?  Probably not her education at Ole Miss.  Is it her quest to find the missing Constantine, who has been disappeared from her own family, and who she regards as her real “mother”? Partly, although her view that Constantine is her mother is a confusion on that ought to be resolved as she acquires new knowledge from Aidileen and never is. But the overriding reason for Skeeter’s emergence as a class and race traitor is that she is thought by her friends to be an old maid and thus has no need for their approval. In addition, at 22, Skeeter has not yet had a baby, and thus has not yet transitioned from being cared for/”loved” by a Black servant to being dependent on/dominating the same Black servant.  This is an act of matricide that her friends have already completed, a critical life transformation that, the movie argues, is the foundation for white supremacy.

Hence, the central premise of “The Help”:  segregation’s perversion is not the color line itself, enforced poverty, political domination or the quiet, everyday violence done to black people in the name of a so-called natural racial order.  Its perversion is constituted by the cruelty and emptiness of white women’s emotional life in a heteropatriarchal system where men are almost entirely absent as agents of political or social power.  Jim Crow’s harm is, surprisingly,  the disruption of proper maternal and filial affections in white families that have been queered by too many mothers and the absence of fathers. White girls, who have good reasons not to love their own mothers, cannot maintain their authority and love anyone once they are grown; hence, adult white women are neither good mothers or good daughters.  The evil Hilly, for example, has no children and slaps her own mother in a nursing home for showing disrespect to her racial rule. Aibileen cares for a white girl so despised by her mother for being chubby and apparently not pretty (although she seemed pretty to me) that the child is allowed to sit in sopping diapers unless and until Aibileen arrives to change them.  Problem #3:  Under what conditions is it reasonable to argue that the drama of segregation was a Freudian drama that occurred primarily in the home?  Where are the men in this movie?  Attending a White Citizens Council Meeting or picking a jury to acquit Byron De La Beckwith?

Except for a brief pause on the murder of Medgar Evers (were there members of the audience who assumed he was a fictional character too?), the actual civil rights movement, and the violent repression of that movement, simply do not appear in this movie.  Instead, we have a southern version of Mean Girls (With Mammies.) It is a world in which servants are passed down from mother to daughter in their wills, without any character in the movie saying the word “slavery.” Instead of politics, white women are consumed with, and consume, excrement. “Hilly’s Law” mandating separate toilets goads Skeeter into an act of retaliation and public humiliation that she only survives because of her race and gender privilege; and Hilly fires Minny for using the family toilet when using the “colored” toilet would require going out in a tornado.

Minny retaliates by bringing Hilly a pie, pretending it is an “apology” and that she wants her job back, a pie into which she has baked her own excrement.  She watches Hilly eat it, and then tells her what she has done, causing Hilly to vomit (one of two moments of unnecessary public vomiting by white women in the film.) For reasons that were unconvincing to me (that Hilly would be unbearably shamed by her consumption of Minny’s excrement), this profoundly Freudian moment provides an unexpected source of power for the maids when Skeeter’s tell-all is published.  This gets us to……

Problem #4:  I don’t mean to pooh-pooh (as it were) the importance of excrement to a potential psychoanalytic critique of Jane Crow domestic culture, but I found this theme offensive and Minny’s action entirely implausible and out of character.   The only characters ever seen in bathrooms and on toilets are Black women and Aibilene’s young charge which, given the tremendous dignity and depth Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer brought to these roles, was a terrible choice.  Black women are simply awash in excrement in this movie, their own and white people’s. That Minny would choose to fight white supremacy by forcing Hilly to “eat my $hit,” and that she would actually say those words, was utterly inconsistent with her dignity.  What the scene actually conveys is that Hilly’s entire source of power is her purity as a white woman, not her social class, the laws of the state of Mississippi or her money, and that Minny has undone this power by tricking her into eating blackness.  But it does so at Milly’s expense.

The movie comes to a climax as the book is published, infuriating Skeeter’s former friends, transforming Skeeter’s racist mother into an anti-racist and, as an added bonus, putting the woman into remission from cancer (because racism is the real cancer — get it?)  Skeeter never does understand that she never was Constantine’s daughter; quite the reverse, in fact, since she has gained numerous other Black “mothers” to replace Constantine.  ”The Help” have become the midwives to her new career, as Skeeter is offered the job of her dreams by her New York publisher, while Aibileen and Minny are left with — well, what?  As an added touch, Aibileen is fired because of her organizing role and narrowly escapes being framed for theft (or not:  it isn’t clear.)

As Aibileen walks away from her place of employ, having finally confronted Hilly’s meanness in her own words, her cheeks streaked with tears.  As the white girl she cared for begs “Aiby” to please come back, Aibileen declares that she is finally “free.” Problem #5:  Free?  Seriously? A black woman with no job living in Mississippi in 1963, where fewer than 7% of Black adults were registered to vote? This masks the guilty truth of the movie:  of all the characters in it, only Skeeter has been freed, because she has learned the truth about Constantine, because her racist boyfriend has broken up with her and once again put off the tyranny of marriage and child-rearing, because she has resolved her conflict with her white mother (who killed off her Black mother), and because she is getting the heck out of Dodge and going to New York where there is no racism.

I found the most significant image in the movie to be the little girl beating on the window, shrieking wildly as Aibileen walks away without looking back and vows that she will never care for another white child.  It was corny to be sure:  the message is that these white women are all really children, unable and unwilling to care for themselves, separated by a clear but impenetrable barrier from the Black women they depend on and “love.” But this image of the “innocent” child suffering because of her mothers racism is, I think, meant to send another message: that we white people are all, in the end, actually innocent victims of racism too, even the Hillys among us.  ”We” are “all” coping as best they can in a racist system that “we” have inherited and for which no one seems to be responsible. Here we also see the deeper meaning of the white women of Jackson having “inherited” their help from their mothers:  the shrieking child is free because, like Skeeter, she will never inherit Abie and have to give up her love for her. As Aibileen walks away, she has in fact set white people free from the burden of her, a task she could not have accomplished without “the help” of Skeeter.

A mainstream review that best describes the movie I saw is by Steve Persall of the St. Petersburg Times who describes “The Help” as “a timidly well-intended Southern-fried fantasy.” The fantasy is that racism is a personal problem, not a political one, a social issue that can be overcome by honest communication across the color line rather than a fundamental redistribution of power, money and public resources.  It is certainly entertaining, and I don’t fault those people who get stuck there because there seem to be lots of them — Black and white.  But despite the compelling Black characters in this movie (and a wonderful, complex cameo appearance by the neglected Cicely Tyson as the lost Constantine) “The Help” is not about the help at all — but rather, how the help can help white women to displace responsibility for the various forms of exploitation and structural inequality that made Black women their servants in the first place.

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