Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help, Race, and Privilege

During my first three semesters of college, I volunteered as a tutor for a program run by the Department of Human Services for middle and high school girls in Philadelphia. One of the most interesting things about this experience for me was that everyone was kind of uncomfortable talking about race. I was the only white person involved in the program--all the students, other tutors, and social workers were Black. That's not all that weird in Philadelphia, it's a diverse city. And in my experience doing other types of community outreach, I often am the only or one of the only white people who shows up. But for a really long time, no one, not even me, mentioned the fact that I am white. Which is, okay, not always a relevant fact. Like, "What does PEMDAS stand for and what is my race?" are not things that go together, but for people who have never talked about race and racism critically among diverse company, it can be an uncomfortable subject to broach. I think the first time I publicly acknowledged my whiteness was a couple months into the program when two of the girls were playing a Taylor Swift song on a cell phone. They were saying how they liked it and when I said I liked it too, one girl said, "You look like her!" (I do not.) So I said, "I do not look like her, you're just saying that because I'm white!" And we all cracked up. They thought that was the funniest thing, and it was!

Talking about race and racism doesn't have to be a serious, academic thing all the time. As an anthropology major and just as a person, it's something I talk about fairly often in a variety of contexts. So while I know that race (and gender) is this social construct meant to control and oppress--people still experience their lives through the lens of their race (or perceived race). The academic debate over whether or not race can/should be considered "real" is then nullified because saying "race isn't real" isn't going to stop some racist person from being racist.

Anyway, I'm getting to The Help. A lot of my friends, both Black and white, have read and seen the movie and/or read the book and have no complaints about it. However, if you own a computer and have an internet connection you use for something other than porn, you might have noticed that The Help is blowing up the blog world. (The Frisky, Feministing, Jezebel, What Tami Said, Womanist Musings, Entertainment Weekly... the list could go on but I'm sure you can google.) And it's not a lot of positive stuff.

But my UnIqUe take on this situation (or, I don't know if other people have come to this conclusion, perhaps and probably) is that we should use this opportunity to start talking about race critically. I mean "starting" in a immediate sense, like about The Help, because obviously people have been talking about race critically for quite some time. Which is not to say that people are talking about it enough. Especially the whiteys out there. The Help is undoubtedly problematic, but I think it does have some merit. It's a glossy fictional account of white women and their Black maids in 1962 (and the movie is even glossier), but implicit in writing about racial issues is that a conversation is being started. Here are some things from the movie/book that I think are important to talk about:

1.) What's not said explicitly in the book/movie but what I think is an incredibly important point is Deborah King's theory of multiple jeopardy. If you are unfamiliar with multiple jeopardy, first of all, I suggest you click that link and read about it, but in a nutshell, it's the idea that a person's identity is formed through multiple components, which all carry a certain amount of oppression and/or privilege. For example, a woman who is poor and Black faces oppression not only as a woman, but as a poor woman, a Black woman, and a poor Black woman. The character Celia is an interesting one I think because although she is rich through marriage, she grew up poor and is shunned by the bridge-playing Junior League ladies because she's "white trash" and possibly a man-stealer. So although she has the trappings of privilege (whiteness and affluence), she exists on the margins of that specific society because her identity is seen as "outside" that of the other women. Her unfamiliarity with the upper-crust scene influences her perceptions of propriety and as a result, she has a relationship with her Black maid, Minny, that is generally kind of unheard of for white women and their Black employees in 1962. Of course, multiple jeopardy exists even more strongly for Aibileen, Minny, and the other domestic workers in the movie.

2.) The public-private sphere is complicated. Aibileen's character has taken care of 17 children, only one of whom was her own.
As a nanny and domestic worker, she works in homes with families, in an area we usually consider "private." However, as a paid worker, the private sphere (the home) is then a public one. The conventions about the private sphere still exist (discretion, secrecy, repression) and are exacerbated by the public sphere conventions (segregation, racism). How much has this changed since 1962? I recommend reading Global Woman, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell-Hochschild.

3.) Why was The Help so popular as a book? Why is it that glossy stories about race relations make such blockbuster hits (as books and movies. See Avatar, The Blind Side, etc.)?
While feel-good movies like The Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds are based off actual, real people (and The Help is fiction), I think the reason we keep seeing movies/books like this is because this is a "comfortable" way to "talk" about race. White directors, writers, producers, and audiences can feel okay about inner city youth reading and writing and getting into college for two hours in a movie with a happy ending while they may have no idea about the actual, real-life statistics of drop-out rates, the low-quality of many city schools, and lack of opportunities for real students. The Help only barely scratches the surface of "the care deficit"--when women are paid to take care of other people's children and their own are left to be taken care of by relatives (or other people). This perhaps exists in the independent movie sphere, but I'm not aware of any recent movie that deals with race relations realistically and... I guess, "grittily." Do the Right Thing always comes to mind for me when talking about race and movies. Spike Lee spoke at my college a couple years ago so there were a bunch of free screenings of his movies prior to the event, and so my friend and I went to see Do the Right Thing and afterward had very little to say to each other than, "Holy shit." As many bloggers have brought up, The Help is problematic largely because it's another movie in which Black women play maids. As far as historical accuracy goes, of course there will be roles in some historical films in which Black women play maids, but the issue is that there aren't a lot of other options. White actors have a wide range of opportunities, including many roles that are "race neutral." The race of actors in rom-coms is usually unrelated to the clich├ęd banter, sex scenes, and the like, but unless the movie is written to have a Black cast and is then marketed as a Black rom-com or comedy or drama, the actors cast will usually be white. As audiences interested in greater racial equality, we should be demanding this! Hollywood is complacent in producing the same kinds of movies that generated $$ in the past, so until they start to notice that audiences respond positively to diverse casts, scripts, and actors, they're not going to do shit about it. Viola Davis should be in more movies, and not just playing a maid!

So did you/will you see The Help? I saw it tonight, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's a shiny, compressed version of the book that is both entertaining and emotional. At the same time, I'm aware that as a white lady, I respond differently to it than say, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. (Watch her interview on MSNBC about the movie, she's awesome! It's embedded in the link to Feministing earlier in this post.) I enjoyed myself, overall. But I want to point out, that I enjoy nearly all movies, social implications be damned. The Help is problematic, but it's not the problem. When we have a more just and equal society, stuff like The Help will be barely a blip on the radar.


  1. Thank you for writing this and providing the links. I didn't read or see 'The Help' so I missed this entire controversy; but now I'm interested.

    Melissa Harris-Perry is such a great communicator. Her critique was that it was a white woman's story, and the black women were ultimately used in service of the story about Skeeter (which is fine until the story is marketed as something it is not). It strikes a chord even though I have not seen The Help yet because it's so common. One thinks immediately of the Blind Side, but also the Lincoln Lawyer, Avatar, Schindler's List, the Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner, Paths of Glory and many, many more etc. all character vehicles for stories dealing with an oppressed group that in the end, are ultimately about the non-oppressed hero who is needed to rescue them. (I'm listing some of my all-time favorite movies here! Grrrr) A film about an oppressed group that takes liberation into their own hands is only acceptable when it's about the American revolution, or Mel Gibson playing hero in Braveheart. Or obviously when the film isn't made in Hollywood, like the Battle of Algiers.

    When I see the movie I may come back with more to say, haha.

  2. Please do!

    I think you make an interesting point by saying that some of those movies are your favorites--because a lot of movies with narratives like this aren't terrible. Hollywood pours a lot of money into them and they're Oscar winners, classics, and generally very popular for their entertainment value. I think The Help is very entertaining, and it disturbs me a little that I can be aware of all that is so problematic about it and not find the movie completely annoying. But I am white, and I did grow up watching movies with narratives like that, so I think that speaks to the kind of "indoctrination" Hollywood stories can have.