Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Southern Women's Response to The Help

After reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I declared it Book of The Year (of course, until I read The Hunger Games).  In my humble opinion, it had everything: an engaging plot filled with tension, a setting that breathed with authenticity, everything I love about Southern lit, and characters I wanted to befriend. The characters! They were so alive! I resonated with Skeeter’s battle with society’s expectations on her. I admired Minny’s fierce self-assurance and sassy tongue. My heart broke for Celia’s struggle with infertility and society’s rejection of her for being white trash. I wept over Johnny’s love for his wife in spite of it. I cheered when Hilly ate shit. I wanted approval from Aibileen, a woman who’s standard for character was something I could only aspire to. Most of all, after reading The Help, I wanted someone to press their thumb into my palm—like Constantine did for Skeeter—and remind me who I am.

However, and this is a big however, the further I got from reading the book, the more a tension inside me grew. I began to feel that embarrassing recognition that I had maybe recommended the book a little too loudly (You know, like the shame I felt after having told everyone that Titanic was the best movie I’d ever seen. — Don’t deny it. You said the same thing.) Maybe, I worried, that once others read it, they may have some critical things to say about it. Whatever others thought of it, I now had the metaphorical pebble in my shoe. Something was making me uncomfortable. The pebble turned quickly into a sizable rock, then crumbled into some sharp gravel and now, it just won’t stop grating on my brain: When will our society finally get over our White Savior Complex?

Okay, so I am the girl that named her son after a literary American hero— the ultimate white savior—Atticus Finch. But, we live in different times. What does the American hero look like NOW? Who is fighting injustice NOW? Who is standing up for those who can’t speak NOW? And what color is she? I don’t know about you, but I am worn down with the  “White lady saves the poor, helpless black person” story. Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, and now The Help. It’s played. (Watch this!) Hear me: I liked the movies, but let’s grow. Let's recognize why this storyline is offensive to others, particularly when it is the only version told.  Let’s move past the paternalistic adolescence we have been stuck in. Please, will someone write a story with a black hero that doesn’t take place in the ghetto, a check-cashing store or a barbershop? And, if you do, can someone cast a lead other than Will Smith? At the very least for the sake of variety!  

That said, after having watched the movie, my thoughts and a conversation I had led me in a different direction. I went to see the movie with five other women. Three white women and three black women. Our conversation was so much less about critiquing the film/book and more about what thoughts the images and story provoked. To be entirely honest, I was very surprised by the black women's response

Harmonie, Jennetta, Alena, Katie, Kathy and Me (not pictured).
After the movie, we wanted to have drinks and discuss the film, but in Franklin there aren’t any places open after 11pm, so we copped a squat on a grassy patch in the parking lot under some cherry trees and talked until the hard ground under our butts pushed us to get into our cars and head home. As a police cruiser drove slowly by us through the empty parking lot, one of the black women, gesturing to us white girls said, “I’m so glad we are with y’all.”

Five of the women were Southern, born and bred, and one was raised up North, but has lived in the South for all of her adult life. The conversation that happened after the movie was one of the richest I have had in awhile. 

Allena is the biggest anglophile I know. She wears pearls everywhere she goes. She takes tea every afternoon. She wants to be British. Before children, she was a pharmaceutical sales rep and has high aspirations for a political career. She is the most with-it mother I know and puts me to shame. She's also black and kills any chance to be stereotyped. (And none of it is by accident.) Allena wears her business suit everywhere she goes so that she will not be discriminated against because of her color. Has she been discriminated against? Oh, she's got some stories! She loved The Help. She told us that this was one of the first times she's ever seen a full-character portrait depicted of black women from the Jim Crow era. She didn't care about the paternalism, the lack of more nitty gritty racial injustice that would make it more authentic, the colloquial speech that made Abileen seem simple. She was just so happy to see women from that time period as real people. The only book that she's read that has done it better is The Warmth of Other Suns. Maybe women up North may not think The Help is an authentic portrayal, but Allena thinks it was about as authentic as she's seen. The Great Migration took her family to DC. They were looking for an escape from the blatant racism of the South, but she said the North, for many black families, turned out to just be a kinder mistress. 

Kathy is a white woman who I met for the first time last night. She grew up during the civil rights movement. "I had Jerri," she said." I lived Jim Crow." Jerri cleaned house and made dinner everyday. When Kathy was sick, Jerri would pick her up from school and take her to the doctor. "My mama didn't. Jerri did." Kathy said that even to this day she knows that Jerri loved her and her sisters, but also knows and understands why Jerri's children did not. Kathy told us about the race riots that happened the first week of classes at the high school. They had just desegregated and the black and white schools merged, adopting the white school's name, mascot and colors. The first pep rally inaugurated the school with an all white cheerleading squad. The black students protested by standing up during the pep rally, fists pumped to the sky, and walked out.

Jenn is a thirty-something black mother from Kentucky. "That was my aunts," she said referring to the help. "My grandmother. They were all The Help." Her aunts and grandmother did not want Jenn's mother stifled in the small town.  So when the opportunity for her to go to cosmetology school and move to a more metropolitan city in the state, they encouraged her to leave her son with with them so that she would have a "chance".  During the summers Jenn would visit her grandmother (retired at the time) and her aunt who stilled cleaned houses and helped raise white children.  Jenn never knew what it was like for them; "They never shared the details of their days.  Of course, who would want to?  I was never allowed to go, even if I was sick.  My aunt would come home after working all day, cook us all dinner, and then she'd fall asleep over her plate of food.  I just remember her being so tired!!" She continued, "As I was watching the movie, something clicked in my head.  As Abileen was telling Mae Mobley, "You is kind. You is intelligent.  You is important", who is telling all the children of "the help" these things when they are so tired they can't see straight when they got home?  Could this be a factor in the breakdown of the African American family? It was very hard to hear how "the help" raised white children, and then their own children and then had to keep up with their own households, as well.  This meant there were generations of stable households in many white families.  What was going on in their homes?  Hmmm...makes you wonder.....

Katie is a thirty-something white woman raised in Pennsylvania. She has lived all her adult life in the South and seeks to right any injustices she sees, but generally focuses on those she sees in her local churches and schools. Katie is the most prolific reader I know. She reads it all. Chick-lit to historical nonfiction. The girl is a sponge with a sharp mind and even sharper tongue. She loved the book more than the movie, of course. There were too many complex issues the movie didn't even address that were portrayed in the book. The injustice done to Constantine needed to be in there, Katie thought. She brought up that while the racism against blacks in Franklin is still very much alive, the fear of immigrants in the public schools is the most blatant form of racism she witnesses on a daily basis. White families are rushing to get their kids out of the increasingly diverse public schools, taking with them funding and single-income families that can afford to have one parent volunteer at school. "We don't like what we don't know," Katie said. "Our nature is to always be ready to ostracize."

Harmonie is a new Franklin resident. She was born and raised in Memphis and told us that at 32, this is the first year of her life she's ever been in a white person's home.  Harmonie was quiet during most of our discussion, but  shared with us what was going through her mind. "What I was thinking about during the movie is something I have always struggled with. My grandmother picked cotton, but I don't know anything about my family previous to my grandmother's mother. Three generations back there were slaves in my family, but I don't know much else. I wish I knew more. I do remember my Grandma would call white people 'white folk,' like in the movie. I don't have history." Harmonie graduated with a high GPA from high school and was encouraged to attend college by the school counselor. Harmonie had no framework for why that was even a good option. So, instead of college, she went to hair school. But, at age 25, she finally enrolled. Her first semester on campus, at The University of Memphis, she returned to her car and found a note tucked underneath her windshield wiper. The note said, "I hate you people. Don't ever park next to my car again." Harmonie held her breath after sharing that story and it made me wonder if she'd ever told it to a white person before. 

 I felt so honored to have these women share their stories with me. If movies like The Help spur Southern women, white and black, to tell their stories, I will go see them. The women I saw the movie with weren't offended by the simplistic portrayal of Aibileen's character. "You is kind. You is good. You is intelligent," did not disturb my friends. They knew Aibileen's wisdom was coming from a deep place. Of course, I still think it is appropriate to think critically about what it says about our society that movies like The Help are being made or, probably more importantly, why there aren't more movies/books written by minorities about their experience.  Do I want to see more movies made that cast women and men of color as full-bodied, intelligent, complex, authentic leads and heros? Do I want to live in a world that gives everyone equal access to an audience that wants to hear their stories? I think movies like The Help remind us that the relationship between races still has a long way to go. Mostly, for me, it has made me question to whose stories and voices do I listen? 

To read more responses to The Help, check out this blog's collection of responses to The Help.  Pretty amazing how varying, and heavy hitting, the critiques are!


  1. Thanks Sarah - i really enjoyed this! I guess i should read the book and see the movie now.. as always love your voice!

  2. This is a great response. Like you, I was caught between what I initially felt about the book, and how others were reacting to it. I love the perspectives you shared here! Thank you!

  3. wow, Sarah, thanks for this post. I'm so glad for your late night, post-movie conversation, for making the evening more about relationships than critiquing the "entertainment". My heart breaks for Harmonie's first semester experience. Who SAYS that kind of thing, ever?! Wow. I agree, we have a long way to go...

  4. this is great, you're such a wonderful writer...and your mind amazes me!!

  5. That sounds like an awesome experience... I would almost appreciate some sort of "directors commentary" on the DVD that contains open and truthful discussion like that. I look forward to seeing the film... when it comes out on Redbox ;)

  6. Wonderful, thoughtful, post, Sarah!

  7. You can read Kathy's post at http://ifstonescouldtalk.blogspot.com/2011/08/reflections-on-help.html. Amazing introspection.