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.