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.”
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.
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.