My Problem With “The Help”

JillBooks12 Comments

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I started reading The Help for a few reasons: because it was sitting in the living room when I came home for the summer, because Emma Stone is in the upcoming movie adaption, and (more importantly) because I had noticed quite a bit of criticism being written and linked to regarding The Help on some of my favorite blogs. I don’t like reading pop-culture critiques without an understanding of the source material if I can help it (as evidenced by the fact that I plowed through all four Twilight novels a few years ago), so I read the novel.

The Help is a well-executed book from a marketing standpoint. It is nicely paced, wonderfully dramatic, and it features a classic (but always satisfying) struggle of good vs. evil. If we lived in a nice little whitewashed vacuum where this was just a good story, where real women’s lives were not being used as fictional fodder, where the privilege that the fictional white characters possessed never really existed and didn’t still exist… if that was the world that this novel was published in, then this one “guilty pleasure” book wouldn’t be such a big deal.

We don’t live in that world.

There are plenty of things about this book that are just plain offensive. Most glaring, to me at least, is the very affected “accent” that Minny and Aibileen’s sections of the book are written in, while Skeeter’s parts are devoid of even a hint of a Southern accent. This sets the two main black characters in this novel off as “other” from the very beginning, which is off-putting. Additionally, Aibileen’s comparison of her own skin color to a cockroach (among many other comments the character makes against her own skin color) is appalling. As are the historical errors in terms of incorporating Medgar Evers’ death into the novel (claiming he was bludgeoned to death, rather than shot), which just show a lack of respect for the topic she was writing about. The stereotypes – from absentee or abusive black men to sassy or saintly black women don’t help anyone either. I could go on, but these points and many others were already made beautifully here.

Still, the book is quick and easy to read. The conclusion of the book provides a nice, neat ending sure to make any white person who finds themselves identifying with Skeeter feel good. I can understand why so many people were quick to jump to this books defense because, quite frankly, I’d feel quite a bit better if I could be one of them.

It would be much easier, much less uncomfortable to close my eyes to the privilege of constantly seeing a variety characters who look like me in the media, enough that I am sure to identify with one… a privilege that allows me to decide whether or not to be unsettled by another stereotypically written black character because I’m not being discriminated against and, thus, that punched-in-the-stomach feeling that goes with subtle discrimination is missing.

It would be much easier to ignore the privilege of being considered “default” in my whiteness, of knowing that people will not assume that I hold my opinions simply because of the color of my skin. A privilege that comes with knowing I have a much better chance of having my words taken seriously by the mainstream media, especially when talking about marginalized groups, than an actual member of that group.

I would be so easy to indignantly insist that I deserve to be listened to because I work hard on my blog posts (which I do), ignoring the fact that plenty of less-privileged people also worked damn hard on their writing, writing that is often ignored because it lacks “mainstream appeal” meaning, it is not white enough to be lifted up by mainstream feminist blogs.

But I can’t, because that is what The Help is. A whitewashed, declawed version of history that simultaneously manages to condemn racism and absolve the white people who let it continue or who do “enough” to help the cause, by offering up Skeeter as the “good” anti-racist white woman we can all identify with. (This awesome blog post expands on this point much more!)

In the novel, Skeeter profited off of the stories of the black maids who she interviewed, eventually receiving her dream job and ticket out of oppressive Jackson, Mississippi while Abieleen and Minnie and the other maids remained to deal with the fallout and the slow struggle towards equality. In real life, Kathryn Stockett profits off of the stories of her childhood maid and all of the other women who “inspired” this novel. Both Skeeter and Kathryn worked hard and achieved success based off of that work, but in the process the black women in their stories who worked just as hard (if not harder) did not achieve the same success. This doesn’t necessarily make Skeeter or Kathryn bad individuals, but it is undeniable that they benefit from the larger cultural prejudices that they are simultaneously working to fight.

When people balk at the criticism of this book and its author, they miss the bigger picture. The problem isn’t really with this one book – that’s not where these issues start, nor is it where they end – the fault lies, instead, in our culture. The same culture that kept real life Minnies and Aibileens living in constant fear and oppression is the culture that, today, glorifies Kathryn Sockett and her fictionalization of black women’s experiences over novels actually written by black women, talking about their real life experiences.

I mean, just look at what happens in chain bookstores across the United States:

Brandon Massey’s readers tell him they know just where to find his horror novels — in the African-American section of bookstores. He’s torn about whether or not this is a good thing.

“You face a double-edged sword,” says Mr. Massey, 33 years old. “I’m black and I’m published by a black imprint, so I’m automatically slotted in African-American fiction.” That helps black readers to find his books easily and has underpinned his career. At the same time, he says, the placement “limits my sales.”

[Source]

Too often books by black authors are segregated to a special section of the store. Instead of being placed in the horror section (a place where fans of the genre would, logically, go to browse for a new title) Mr. Massey’s books are sequestered off to the “African American” section of the store, the skin color of the author somehow overriding the genre of the novel.
This is standard across the board with most media being considered mainstream or default when produced by and mostly featuring white people, but “special interest” when produced by or mostly featuring people of color.

Here's another example... I took this picture recently at my local Barnes & Noble. I was looking for a fashion magazine that didn't primarily feature and focus on white women. It took me over twenty minutes (and almost giving up) to find ONE magazine, Essence, stuffed into the bottom corner of the stand. Compare to the dozens of magazines, more prominently displayed, that mostly feature white women.

It has to make you wonder: how successful would The Help have been if it wasn’t written by a white woman, with a white protagonist?

Would an editor have decided to read and publish a novel written by a black author, when so many in publishing claim that “black books” don’t sell as well? Probably not.

If it got published, would The Help have made it to the bestsellers list and been featured in countless book clubs if it had been shoved off into the “African American” section of bookstores instead of being placed prominently in the “fiction” or “literature” sections? I doubt it.

Would enough interest have been generated to produce a Hollywood adaptation featuring popular actors and actresses? Again, its not likely.

That, is my problem with The Help.

Further Reading:

(This is one of my favorite posts from the entire blog dedicated to analyzing this novel.)

Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

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JillMy Problem With “The Help”

12 Comments on “My Problem With “The Help””

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  1. Profile photo of bettyeff
    bettyeff

    Wow. I was on vacation when this posted, and am just reading it now. I totally agree with your review. I did not want to read this book, but my book club chose it for our next meeting. What really put this in perspective for me was that Skeeter was so completely clueless about pretty much everything, but she was able to bumble about in her white privileged way and still manage to save the day.

    Another great review I read recently: http://theloop21.com/society/i-dont-need-the-help-kathryn-stockett?page=1

  2. Profile photo of [E] Liza
    [E] Liza

    I bought a copy of this book awhile back (it was on sale and I’d had a couple of people tell me it was an excellent read), but I haven’t read it yet. I think it’s going to have to be the next novel I pick up, because this isn’t the first criticism of it I’ve seen, and seeing it criticized has actually made me more interested in reading it so I can formulate my own opinion.

  3. Profile photo of stephanie
    stephanie

    Most glaring, to me at least, is the very affected “accent” that Minny and Aibileen’s sections of the book are written in, while Skeeter’s parts are devoid of even a hint of a Southern accent.

    I’m glad you pointed this out. I think this says a ton about how authors view their subjects. The author of The Senator & The Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer did the exact same thing–Hamer’s words are accented but Eastland’s drawl is not.

  4. Profile photo of CijiTheGeek
    CijiTheGeek

    Hit the post button too soon. What i meant to say was, im glad im not the only one who noticed Aibileen spoke in an accent while the white people spoke the queens english. My grandmother was a maid in Texas around the same time as this book, and she did not talk like Aibileen. In fact, she used to rant against movies that portrayed Black people in such a way. As she used to point out, if Black people talked with that “accent” we learned it from White people (remember, our languages were erased). Yet it’s so prevalent in movies. It makes me wonder if that way of speaking was prominent then or was it just how prejudiced minds heard it.

    1. Profile photo of CijiTheGeek
      CijiTheGeek

      So I had my mother (my grandmother’s daughter) read this post, and asked her the question: Did Black people speak like this back then? She explained that yes, they often spoke like that BUT it was often a deliberate effort do not appear smarter or wiser than their White employers, lest they be called “uppity”. When among each other, they spoke “regular” English. So there’s that…

  5. Profile photo of CijiTheGeek
    CijiTheGeek

    Am I the only one who noticed Aibileen spoke with an “accent” ::massive eyeroll:: yet thought to herself in the Queen’s English?

  6. Profile photo of books-and-chocolate
    books-and-chocolate

    Thanks for writing this. I read The Help for a book club (it was the first book I read with them), and I thought it was an easy read but didn’t dig into it too much. (Yes, that is my white privilege showing). What bothered me about the book club’s reaction was that they decided that Kathryn Stockett didn’t have the right to tell this story because it wasn’t her story. That’s not a perspective I agreed with, and it kind of derailed the conversation. When they applied the exact same argument to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I left the book club.

    The point is, I did end up getting pretty defensive of Stockett during that discussion. In the process, I closed my eyes to some of the problems with the book. I’m glad I read this article

    1. Profile photo of Jill
      Jill

      I can totally understand why you’d get defensive when faced with an all-or-nothing argument like this… If authors were only allowed to write about their own experiences fiction would be SERIOUSLY limited.

      That said, I do feel that there are things that are off limits.

      I think when you are trying to write about the experience of someone who you share very little in common with it is important to ask yourself if their perspective is one that is well represented by real people getting to tell THEIR stories (through fiction, nonfiction, etc.) In this case, the stories of the many black women working as maids in America haven’t been given much notice in mainstream literature… it seems fairly inappropriate for a white woman to take on the task of telling that story when the voices of women trying to share their real experiences are so often silenced.

      Secondly, if you are going to represent someone wildly different from yourself… make sure to do it WELL. Sockett’s biggest issue lies in the fact that she didn’t put in the research and reflection needed to write realistic seeming, non-stereotyped characters.

      If you fail at both of these assessments then your work is likely perpetuating prejudice both by crowding out the voices of people speaking from lived-experience, and by perpetuating oppressive stereotypes.

      I think you can fail at one but not both too. For instance, if a person of color were to write really stereotypical, poorly researched fiction from the perspective of a white woman in the south during this time period it would not be a well written book (failed at point two) but it would not be as oppressive towards white women since their voices have been more consistently represented to the point where the field is saturated with enough nuance that the stereotypes don’t do damage.

      That’s my take on it, at least… what do you think?

      1. Profile photo of books-and-chocolate
        books-and-chocolate

        I definitely agree with you. It’s the poorly researched (and poorly presented) bit that makes this book problematic. Like I said, the group applied the same argument to Henrietta Lacks, which Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching. I thought she presented that story incredibly well, despite being an upper class white women writing about a lower class black family.

        If an author is able to present characters as fully realized humans, regardless of differences between the author and characters, and build a good story around those characters, then you get success. Stockett didn’t do that. There seem to be a lot of similarities between Stockett and Skeeter (and I think Skeeter’s struggles as a white woman in the 1960s who wanted to put her career before marriage and kids were done well). But Skeeter certainly didn’t understand the experiences of Aibileen and Minny, as much as she thought she did. Stockett presents them as stereotypes and Skeeter essentially uses them as a means to an end. The problem is that neither the author nor the protagonist sees a problem with this, which you can see in Aibileen and Minny’s full support of Skeeter’s decision to publish her book and use it to launch a career in New York.

        I think you wrote a very good article. It definitely got me thinking about these issues a bit more in depth

        1. Profile photo of Jill
          Jill

          Skloot’s book was also more a biography than fiction, which I think helps. I haven’t read the whole thing yet (its in my pile!) but from my understanding she isn’t so much speaking in Henrietta’s voice (unlike Stockett’s book) as she is telling the TRUE story of a woman who is unjustly ignored in America’s history.

          Thanks for talking more with me, I really appreciate your take on this… and I hope you found a better book club!

  7. Profile photo of thesciencegirl
    thesciencegirl

    Thank you for confirming my decision not to read this book or see the movie. Some (black) friends were exchanging a copy of the book, and I wondered aloud whether it was the same old, same old “white heroine backed up by a cast of magical negroes” a la The Secret Life of Bees (another coup for a white writer telling black stories), and my friend was like “well, it wasn’t that terrible.” A few hours later, I was in Borders, walking past a big display of the novel, and a pair of black women walked by, one of them wondering aloud “Why do we always have to be the maids?!” I laughed to myself, glad I wasn’t the only one turning my nose up at this book. I also really appreciate your point about the segregation of black authors in bookstores.

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