My Trouble with ‘Help’

I feel a bit like an interloper wading into this topic, but I saw The Help this weekend (as my friend Pamela would say, catch thy knee), and my reaction to it is, well… complicated.

First off, a disclaimer: I saw the movie, but I haven’t read the book by Kathryn Stockett. So I can only comment on the film. I am reluctant to wade into the deeper and hazardous waters of a discussion of its messages of racial inequality and the criticism of it as a work that seems designed to make white Americans feel better about a time of gross injustice in our country’s history, or about its depiction of women’s lives and the limited roles available to any of them in the early ‘60s South.

I’m reluctant for three reasons: I’m not a person of color, I’m not a woman, and I’m not from the South.

One thing I am, though, is a writer. By the same token, I’m reluctant to criticize another writer’s work because I know how much that hurts. But….

The one thing that jumped out at me about The Help after I finished watching it was it has the wrong title.

To quote Pamela yet again, pause… consider… continue.

For those who haven’t seen it [POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD], “the help” refers to the black women working as maids in privileged Southern households. But—there’s always a but, isn’t there?—the stories of those women are told through Skeeter, a young white woman, just graduated from college, who wants to be a writer and also chafes against the constraints of her family, her upbringing, and the casual racism of her shallow, privileged friends. Skeeter ends up interviewing her friends’ maids for a book that rocks the community and creates trouble for some of the maids, but lands Skeeter a job in New York by the end of the film.

See, the movie’s about Skeeter and her racist friends, not about the maids whose stories she co-opts. This is my problem: it feels to me like Skeeter, perhaps through good intentions, ends up exploiting the maids in a somewhat subtler but no less real way. And—this is the kicker for me—one of the maids wants to be a writer. That would have been a story that would have felt more genuine to me, I think. It would have made their struggle for justice the centerpiece, as opposed to a subplot.

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?

17 thoughts on “My Trouble with ‘Help’

  1. I think Skeeter in the book is a more layered character–she recognizes what you’ve identified–and there are far less “cozy” resolutions to her own conflicts than the Hollywood treatment offers. Skeeter comes to understand the risks the interviewees are taking and her project, originally a means to get her out of Jackson (and an attempt to find out what happened to Constantine), becomes a genuine desire to wholly describe the complicated relationships between women in all their variations–white/white, white/black, black/black, young/old, privileged/poor. The hopeful part of the movie–and the book–is not the resolution of Skeeter’s story. It’s that Abilene, who thought hope and “progress” (for lack of a better word) ended with the death of her son, comes to believe that she has the strength and the gift to do what she’d dreamed he might do.

    Skeeter can be said to be the stand-in for Stockett, and as such, I have to ask: Are writers not supposed to write characters whose experience/background/gender/race/economic status/sexual orientation is different from their own? Sometimes they’ll get it wrong. Sometimes even getting it wrong, they’ll open eyes, make us think, make us discuss. There’s a lot of richness in these women characters, even if some of them are dismissed as “stock” representations.

    I’ve thought about this a lot because the stories told here make me think very much of stories my mother told me. In fact, because my mother had Alzheimer’s, I had to make sure this wasn’t a book she could have read (it was published after her death), because sometimes the similarities of her stories and the ones I read in Stockett’s book were disturbing.

    • I value that your response is as thoughtful as (if not more than) my qualms with the movie. I think that even in getting it wrong (and I think that the possibility exists that she might have), that it’s inspired discussions like this may be considered positive.

      I worried as I was writing my post about the issue you raise: writing about the characters who are other than our own experience. I worry about it every time I write a female character. The best compliment I ever got was from a reader who was a woman who said of one of my female protagonists, “I believe in this character.” As a writer, I personally don’t want to fear failure so much that it prevents me from trying to do something difficult.

      On the other hand, people of color have really let her have it for a variety of reasons, and that is a risk we always take when we put our creations out in the square.

      I wish Skeeter would have stayed. She originally started writing the stories to get out of Jackson, and even if her motives changed, the outcome was the same.
      I think staying would have been a more dangerous and courageous decision for her character. Even though Abilene and Minny give her their blessing to go, it still felt to me like she was abandoning them. (I also felt she was doing the same to her mother, but then, leaving home is an almost universal departure for a coming-of-age story.)

      One of the things you mentioned is what was really disturbing to me: when Skeeter asked Abilene about raising a white child when other people were at home raising her own, I wish Skeeter had at some point acknowledged how presumptuous it was to consider Constantine her family when it was a real likelihood that she looked after Skeeter (or some other employer’s child) at the expense of her own son.

      • Skeeter may be trying to see with new eyes, but she’s flawed and still a product of her time. In the book, she is resolute about not leaving Jackson and abandoning the people who’ve risked themselves to tell their stories. And Abilene and Minny are equally as resolute about her leaving. They want more for her than what she can have there. There’s probably a lot to debate in that, but our viewpoint will probably come down to how we judge people and their motives (e.g., do we think that people are or can be motivated by love, by unselfishness, by a yearning for fairness, etc.).

        The story of Skeeter’s mother and Constantine and her daughter are VERY different in the book. I would think the book version would be a big hot button, so of course it was sanitized for the movie.

        It’s harder to have this discussion, I think, since you haven’t read the book. Movies are going to give us more feel-good moments with a tidy ending. There are things in the book that are hurtful to me as a Southerner–not because they aren’t real, but because I think they very well could be. (At least one of them is almost verbatim a story that still broke my mother’s heart more than seventy years later.) I’m sure there are things that seem inauthentic to black readers. But all the time, I have to think, This is not a history. It’s not meant to give us factual information. And really, histories and biographies and memoirs are always filtered through someone’s perceptions, so how possible is it to get at “truth?”

        Ultimately I see it as: This is the story Stockett wanted to tell. It’s fiction. They are her characters, so all they can really be is authentic to who she thinks they are. If someone thinks she got it wrong, then I hope they’ll tell their versions. This is hers. The characters moved me very much, but the relationship that moved me most is the one between Minny and Celia, and it is definitely more detailed in the book than the movie, where Celia is used more for comic relief.

  2. One of the responses I read to this book was posted by an African American woman, her mother died – and a white man came to her funeral and spoke and when he first arrived NO ONE knew who he was. It turns out he was one of the boys that she helped raise. She was a huge part of his life and he was visibly shaken and upset by her death…. and her family didn’t know anything about him. I think any story looking at people who have a foot in two very different worlds is interesting, no matter how it is examined … I also tend to like books of this nature that show a more nuanced and complicated view of race relations in the south. I think that it’s easy to paint racism in the south, especially in that era with the “redneck lynching” brush, and that’s a disservice. I think that one thing The Help did, and did effectively ( the book didn’t see the movie ), was show that the white women were not necessarily bad people, they were just a product of their time and that is just how things were – and I think that’s more insidious.

    I find it astounding that my father went to a segregated school. When I was a little girl I remember being in the back of the car when he was giving someone from out of town a tour of his town, and pointed out the old black high school. I asked why it was called the black high school and he said that the walls on the inside were painted black. it is one of my fondest memories of my Dad because I feel that he was trying to protect me from part of the past, even though the family plot is located in a Confederate cemetery and like all good little GRITS, I was taught to be very proud of being from the south, there were certain parts ugly parts of our history that he wasn’t ready for me to see.

    • Marika–I didn’t realize you’d read the book, or I’d have already been talking to you about it. (Thanks, Jeffrey, for giving us this forum, even if you didn’t mean to.) While I do understand some of the negative reactions to the book, and am bothered by some facets of it myself, I think it’s clear that my own reaction to it was based not on the race aspects but the female aspects. That’s the element of the novel that resonated with me, and it was in those relationships that I looked for human flaws and strengths.

      As for the movie, it’s complicated to have a pure reaction to it because I’d already developed my opinions of the characters before I saw it. I do understand your discomfort with it, Jeffrey. It sent me to Amazon to read a sampling of the reviews–there are over 4500! I am not one to duck passionate discussions of race in this country, so I appreciate that this book and movie seems to provoke those.

      • Agreed that the book focuses on the relationships of the women more and I think that is the writers intent , but i wonder if that is because we are white southern women … It’s a little like the OJ trial … no seriously… the prosecution saw it as a case about gender and domestic violence, the jury saw it as a case about race … and I think that is where the really strong criticism comes in, from people who see it as a book about race relations. So many of the negative reviews have been about the ‘WHITE knight” that comes in to save the maids and I can understand that complaint … I also didn’t like the dialect thing, but I don’t like dialect stuff in general.

    • I think you hit on something key in saying that the “being a product of their time” explanation is in fact more insidious. Sometimes you’ll hear that explanation given as if it excuses some shortcoming or prejudice. It doesn’t, of course, and again I’m coming at it from seeing the movie, but Hilly is not sympathetic at all (nor should she be).

      One of the interesting things you and Becky both mention is how it seems to be more a story about women than a story about race, and I often think that is the biggest challenge, both as writers and as readers: to get outside ourselves and see this story (or the story that we’re writing) from the perspective of a reader with a different background and ask: how would they see this?

      • I feel Hilly was a stereotype on every level, in the book she is an equal opportunity hater. It doesn’t excuse her behavior – but she is just straight up nasty to everyone. I don’t know if it was in the movie, but the most touching relationship in the book was the one between Minnie and Cecilia. if that was missing, then I have to think that the movie was missing part of the books heart.

        When I write, and granted I do write fluff, I think that I can only write through my perspective and what is true to the story I want to tell. I think ultimately you have to write the story you want to write and that is your obligation as a writer. Now I realize PK is ;light reading ( which is okay by me I LOVE fluff … ) but it never once occurred to me to think about how someone with a different background would read it, For me, writing something on the basis of how someone would read it and react to it is calculating and not good for the story. One of my favorite characters in PK is Craig, and he was 100 percent organic – he originally was a “bit” part, but boy did he come to life when I was writing him. Had I been thinking of how he could be interpreted I don’t know that Craig would be the character that he is – and seeing how much I like him, that for me – would be a shame.

        As a reader, and using The Help as an example, I can only read it as a southern woman, because that is my experience — I can try to grasp what someone outside of myself might see it as – but ultimately I interpret a book through my perspective and experiences. What I think that’s really important is that a book like The Help has created controversy and people are talking about it and from there you can try to see it as someone else has. It makes you debate and rethink larger issues … and as long as it is done in a civil manner, that can only be a positive.

      • Hilly’s a flat character, meant to be a device, I think, to allow the other female characters to reject something ugly in her and therefore in themselves. Hilly’s mean to everybody, though. She manipulates and controls her friends, is dreadful to her mother, and is nobody anyone would want to work for.

        I would not, and I don’t think Stockett is, trying to excuse behaviors based on the time the book is set in. But I also think we fail ourselves as writers, and our characters, if we try to force them to be 2011 people living in 1965 time. Do I think this is the truest book of the South ever written? No, I still look to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for that, and plenty of other people look to Faulkner. In contemporary fiction, I’d say probably FRIED GREEN TOMATOES gives us a similar effort. But we have to keep writing, don’t we, and trying to get at the truth of it? And not all of us have the stomach to write horrific fiction about rotten white Southerners because truth is, that wasn’t our reality. I don’t reject that it was some people’s reality, but it wasn’t mine.

        Again, I love that this book makes people talk about the elephant in the room: that racism and marginalization is not something that ended because Barack Obama was elected president, any more than sexism ended because the Equal RIghts Amendment passed—OH, that’s right, it DIDN’T–or that homophobia is over because “Will and Grace” was on TV, or that… I don’t need to go on. All I know is that nothing ever changes if we don’t talk about it or if writers and other artists don’t struggle with creating something that either makes us face it or gives us a dream of how it could be better. I choose to take a dream from THE HELP–that somehow in telling stories, even if we don’t get it all right, we’re giving people characters who they can love or despise, and who make them think and accept or reject certain truths of their own lives or inner selves. I always hope for that from fiction, though it doesn’t always deliver.

        And NONE of this is about the movie, and I’m sorry I keep getting off track. I’ll STOP, I swear.

  3. Ladies (and anyone else who wants to wade in), please keep getting off track. Some of the best discussions start when things go off on wild tangents.

    Because I’m not Southern, a woman, or black (as I mentioned before—though I’m sure none of this has escaped your attention), I mainly approach this as a writer, and I think that point you raise about approaching the 1960s with 2011 eyes is important—because that would have to be one of the particular challenges Stockett faced, being a woman in this decade crafting characters who lived fifty years ago with markedly different experiences and outlooks. Did she succeed?

    I think I probably expect too much from movies, because I find all of those artificial “feel good” moments to be disingenuous and somewhat insulting as a viewer. In this case especially, I don’t think this is a period in time which merits feeling good about.

    I hope that people continue to have honest discussions about race in this country, because it’s still a huge problem and it’s not going to just go away.

    I also really look forward to seeing Viola Davis in another film. She’s spectacular.

  4. This is wonderful. What a great discussion! I read it almost two years ago and I liked it but unfortunately can’t remember much of it, except that I felt the book was Skeeter’s story warts and all. I grew up in the North and I remember watching alll those related incidents on TV and it was so alien to me at the time. I could listen to you writers expound for days, btw. You are so SMART!
    Thank you from a bonafide groupie.

    • Groupie? Uh oh, the pressure’s on to maintain my creative output! 🙂 Actually, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      People like Becky and Marika (and Pamela, with whom I originally discussed my reaction to this movie) are smart people and tend to keep me on my toes. It’s interesting to hear their takes on something, especially when they’re so different from my own.

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