‘The Help’ and White Female Identity

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I am not convinced that “The Help” is about telling the stories of Black domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi. While Viola Davis (amazing) and Octavia Spencer (fantastic) both do an incredible job of bringing their characters to life, the movie really isn’t about Aibilene, Minny or the other Black women who did domestic work for white families in the Jim Crow south. This movie is about Skeeter, who discovers her voice and passion through collecting and publishing Black women’s stories of surrogacy and servitude.

Aibileen’s story is framed by the fact that she is currently raising her 17th white child as part of her lifelong work as a domestic servant. Minny’s story evolves around her employer, who builds an outdoor bathroom for Minny to maintain separate but equal conditions in her upper white middle class home. This movie is not about Black domestic workers in the Jim Crow South who need “a voice.” This movie is about Skeeter, a white woman who does write a book to tell these stories, but who is ultimately struggling with her place in a racist and patriarchal social order that legally subjugates Black women (including the one who raised her).

When I became clear about this, Womanist Ethicist Emilie Townes’ words came to me. In Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2006) Townes writes, “I am tired of talking about Black folks and racism. This time I will talk about whiteness and White people.”

Like Townes, I too am tired of entering race dialogues by beginning with Black people (I am also thoroughly thankful for analysis offered by Duchess Harris, Tonya Pendleton, Valerie Boyd and others that does begin with the movie’s portrayal of Black women). This time I want to talk about the race issues in the movie by first directing our attention to interrogating the narratives it presents of white womanhood.

This is important because my guess is that there will be moments when “The Help” will become part of conversations between Black and white women about healing traumatic histories, and working together to subvert contemporary gender oppression. Along that path someone will (hopefully) point out the ethical issues involved in a white woman telling a Black woman’s stories. This inevitably requires that we deal with narrative privilege and what it means for the parts of Black women’s stories that get told and those that do not.

However, if we are going to look at this story as an opportunity for dialogue on race and gender, I hope that white women will first grapple with the images it presents of them and their experiences of race, color, class and gender (since this is really what this movie is about).

The main character, Skeeter, is drawn up as a misfit because she has curly hair, a degree, and opinions. She starts out on this mission to capture Black women’s stories to honor the Black woman who raised her. Skeeter’s ailing mother fires this woman to appease Junior Leaguers. Elizabeth Leefolt, who is obsessed with keeping up appearances, has one child whom she prefers not to touch, and another on the way. The main villain, Hilly, is vitriolic in her racist bigotry. As a ring leader of sorts, her evil is not only directed at Black people but other white women as well. Hilly’s mother is a compassionate racist who acknowledges that her daughter goes too far in building an outdoor bathroom for Minny, but who also does nothing to stop her. In passing, an unnamed white woman casually discusses how her family handed down a Black woman domestic worker as transferred property in a will. Finally there is also Celia Foote. She is depicted as a sexy, unintelligent, sweetheart who has suffered several miscarriages and to whom the other white female characters respond with disgust and rejection because Hilly believes she’s the “white trash” harlot who stole her man.

What do these images mean for white women?

And, what happens if white female viewers take up the movie as an inspiration without examining these ideas and how their lives may or may not be pervaded by them.

What does this movie mean for white women who disdain their mothers for not raising them because they were too busy maintaining white upper middle class appearances? What does it mean for white women who torture one another as they claw their way up social ladders to attain status? What does this movie mean for women with white skin who find themselves rejected by other white women because they lack pedigree, or cannot birth babies?

I know this is only a movie, but since it’s already being hailed as a great work that triumphs the human spirit, I take the ideas embedded in the images it presents seriously.

Historically, under the racial apartheid of Jim Crow, Black women were often the ones who were used to fill the gaps in mothering and labor while white women grappled with the social context that the movie depicts. What does it mean for these racial ideas to be part of what a white woman embodies and represents as she sits down beside a Black woman to form a circle of sisterhood?

I actually believe that “The Help” is an important movie for people to see because it does present opportunities for dialogue about mothering, relationships between women, identity, class, and race. My hope, however, is that women (Black and white) will not skip over exploring the systemic oppressions that the movie raises, and how those forces impact not only Black women, but also white female identity.

 

Dr. Stephanie M. Crumpton serves as an adjunct faculty at Chicago Theological Seminary and family violence court advocate in Georgia. She currently resides in Atlanta, and enjoys writing about culture, religion, and social justice issues. Follow her on twitter @smcrumpton1.

8 Comments

  1. SomerEmpress

    August 16, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Thanks for the insightful take on “The Help”, Stephanie! I always appreciate your perspective, as it leads me to even more penetrating questions on the subjects that you write about so well.

    Like many, I’ve read the book, “The Help”, and I’m still trying to determine whether I’d like to actually see the movie. Oddly enough, something about the images being defined and put before me in the context of a movie, versus reading the book, limits my potential appreciation for the story itself. Call me a writer! :) After reading the book, I felt very much that the story was less about Aibileen, and less about the cast of characters that comprise the actual help, and more about Skeeter, and by extension, the author. Truthfully, this made me less empathetic about her story because I’ve always felt that this was a matter of privilege that she, as well as other white women, could cleverly disguise their intentions in the oppression of others. Perhaps the story would be perceived as more ‘sensational’ to the viewer, the reader, in general?

    I certainly hope that the movie, if it does nothing else, can help to get the discussion going about white female identity, but I’m not sure that that is an area that I can lend any “help”…if you know what I mean. But certainly when asked, I’ll gladly point them in that direction. :)

    As far as discussing race relations between white and black women, I can most certainly see that this movie presents a unique opportunity to address how black women have been marginalized and conveniently excluded by white women claiming to have feminist ideals and interests at the forefront.

    • StephanieMCrumpton

      August 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      Hey SomerEmpress….thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment. I am hoping that not only will we call into question the images the movie portrays of Black women, but also the images of white women. I know that many Black women have been trained to identify the difference between who they are and how they are portrayed in the media. Without this critical eye we internalize the structural and cultural forces that do not always have Black women’s best interests at heart. I’m just hoping that as white women view the movie, that they will approach the images it presents of white female identity with a similarly critical eye.

  2. sue rock

    August 19, 2011 at 10:06 am

    This is one of your finest paragraphs and one to think about!

    What does this movie mean for white women who disdain their mothers for not raising them because they were too busy maintaining white upper middle class appearances? What does it mean for white women who torture one another as they claw their way up social ladders to attain status? What does this movie mean for women with white skin who find themselves rejected by other white women because they lack pedigree, or cannot birth babies?

    • StephanieMCrumpton

      August 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm

      Hey Sue…. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Thank you also for the compliment. If you don’t mind me asking, what draws your interest in this paragraph?

  3. Meredith

    August 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Yes, Stephanie. I am very grateful for this post. In the midst of the backlash that has come from thinking sisters and brothers alike, I have been challenged because I *do* think that the projects of both the book and movie are ultimately about Skeeter’s story (and, by not too far a great leap, Kathryn Stockett’s). When we take seriously Stockett’s self-consciousness — cleverly conveyed in a narrative about a narrative — white women are challenged to tell their stories of what/how it means to grapple with raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized identities. Moreover, if you read the afterward of the book (which the movie cannot, sadly, animate), Stockett explicitly states that she cannot speak for black women; this is Skeeter’s story of exclusion…and finding her voice amidst exclusion. I think much of the understandable vitriol against the movie has come from Skeeter’s (and moviegoers) interpretation(s) of the varied (and talented) brown bodies that made the story three-dimensional. When this perspective is significantly adjusted to reflect your privilege, Stephanie, the book and movie can be helpful. Much more can be said about the texture of WHY we have responded to “The Help” in the ways that we have. What I’m thinking through now…

    • StephanieMCrumpton

      August 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      Meredith…
      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Before I comment, I’d like to ask you to share more what you mean in the following statements.

      “I think much of the understandable vitriol against the movie has come from Skeeter’s (and moviegoers) interpretation(s) of the varied (and talented) brown bodies that made the story three-dimensional. When this perspective is significantly adjusted to reflect your privilege, Stephanie, the book and movie can be helpful.”

      I feel like there’s some good stuff to respond to in this comment, but I don’t think I’m entirely clear of what you mean. Can you write some more?

  4. Tara

    August 24, 2011 at 8:45 am

    I don’t get how a book written from the perspective of three women can actually be only about one of those women. While the movie doesn’t portray the three main character set up very well, the book is relentless in showing things from each of the character’s perspective. All three of the characters change and grow through the book. Maybe Skeeter does so a bit more, but a lot of that is a product of her age, priviledge, and the mothering of the other two characters.

    Maybe I’m off, but I really don’t see it as Skeeter writing their stories as much as Skeeter being the conduit for them to get published. In the book, Abileen actually wrote her own story and Skeeter just edited it.

    I do think that the story shows the complicated nature of black/white relations between females. This complicated relationship made it easier for the men to continue to oppress females and Blacks.

    • StephanieMCrumpton

      August 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      Hey Tara… Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article about “The Help.” When I wrote that the movie is ‘about’ Skeeter, I mean that it is about Skeeter’s perception of these women’s lives that occurs through her lenses. The movie actually spends more time, and provides a deeper look into Skeeter’s emotions and motives than it does with the characters whose stories allegedly take center stage in the narrative. Think about it… We know about Skeeter’s love life, her social cirlce and her inner thoughts and feelings. My question is what do we know about the inner thoughts and lives of the Black domestic workers in the film? In my opinion, not as much. This is what I mean when I say it isn’t ‘about’ them, it’s about her. I also agree with you that this movie does open up conversation about the myths and historical experiences that sit in the background of conversations between Black and white women. My concern is that we allow the movie to direct attention to this background material, and not skip over it.