'The Help' and White Female Identity
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).