Does The Help help?


Elizabeth Geitz is not sure whether the runaway popularity of the movie The Help, based on the bestselling book of the same name, is an altogether good thing. She writes:

Like many women in America, or let me be clear, white women in America, I devoured every word of The Help when I read it two years ago. The fact that an author had written in dialect for another race bothered me, but I believed the good of the book outweighed the bad. It revealed the Hilly’s of the world for who and what they are, racist self-absorbed bigots. It portrayed the South of the 50s and 60s as it was when I grew up there – with the ‘colored only’ water fountains, separate entrance to the balcony of movie theaters for African Americans, separate schools for blacks and whites, stiffly starched uniforms for those African American women who had no choice but to work as maids in white homes. It was a terrific book, I thought, for it revealed the South as I knew it and lived it.

However, she notes:

There is only one perspective portrayed in both the book and the movie, the perspective of white people. Black women are portrayed as one-dimensional, stereotypical ‘characters’ – not as real flesh and blood people with families, feelings, hopes, and dreams of their own. Real women who are just as able, smart, ambitious, and willing-to-take risks as Skeeter. Real women who cry like Skeeter did over ways they were hurt by their own Mamas.

Geitz points readers to a statement, critical of the film from the Association of Black Women Historians, but concludes that author Kathryn Stockett has at least initiated a helpful conversation.

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4 Responses to "Does The Help help?"
  1. There are some amazing commentaries on this movie in the blogosphere, particularly those written by feminists of color. I would credit the author of the book for bringing up racism in general, but I would credit these writers and critics for their bringing up the racist assumptions of the author, as well as racist film narratives in Hollywood.

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  2. [Disclaimer: I've neither read the book nor seen the movie. Not sure if I will.]

    "the racist assumptions of the author": might this be an overstatement? I've heard nothing to allege racism---with malevolence or active resentment, based upon race---in the author. "Racially-insensitive" however, seems quite likely.

    If one uses the hammer of "Racist!" indiscriminately (as it were), everyone will look like a nail. Some people only require a *nudge*.

    JC Fisher

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  3. JC, I think one of the bad habits that keeps us from talking honestly and thoroughly about racism and how to "hammer it down" as it were, is using cushion language such as "racial insensitivity." Racism does not only include malicious prejudice, but also seemingly benign assumptions, as well as unexamined privilege.

    In fact, that is one of the more valid and articulated criticisms of the movie: that they paint the white women as not just racists but mean people in general, so that the narrative we have about racism is upheld--that only bad people are racist and good people are "misguided" at worst.

    So racism doesn't have to be malicious. Our confrontation of racism also doesn't have to be hysterical (and I'd like to clarify that I didn't cry, "Racist!" as you imply was my intent), but can be combated with love and compassion and strength.

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  4. I have not yet seen the movie but I'm currently reading the book. From Elizabeth Geitz's comments it would appear the movie is very different the book.

    I am uncertain that I follow Geitz's conclusion about there being only one perspective, that of the white women, and that black women are portrayed as "one-dimensional" and not as "flesh and blood people". In the book, at least up to where I last left it, the characters of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson are far from one-dimmensional.

    Ms. Geitz's comments make me very curious to see the movie in order to compare it to the original work. Perhaps the movie, in part or as a whole, is not what the author of the book originally intended?

    -Cullin R. Schooley

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