Is "The Help" Helping?

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I had no interest in The Help. I judged the book by its title and dismissed it as chick lit. The movie version was no doubt her sister, the chick flick. In the end, surely, we discover we’ve possessed the power to get what we wanted all along if only we’d clicked our heels. If it weren’t for Kathryn Stockett’s personal essay in More Magazine, I probably never would have taken The Help seriously. Nor would I have fallen into certain uncomfortable yet significant conversations about race with colleagues and friends. 

Stockett candidly describes the slew of rejections of her book, 60 to be exact, and years of revision she endured before someone accepted her manuscript. Hers was a real-life success story of how passion and perseverance can pay off. Stilettos and ruby red slippers weren’t acknowledged. Her refusal to fail inspired me to rededicate myself to my manuscript. I tore the article out of the magazine to make copies.

Every year I struggle with college students taking my critical reading class who let one low test grade or the slightest constructive criticism unravel their motivation. A new semester was starting. Why not start the first day with Stockett’s essay instead of ice-breaker games? I wrote “The 61 Moment” on the board. I challenged them to attack their most precious goal with potential setbacks. Naysayers, family drama, and personal drama quickly added up to 60 scenarios for rejection. “I don’t have the money.” “I’m a single parent.” “It’s just a silly dream.” “Even my own mother says I can’t do it.”

For the first time in my teaching career, I had a classroom of strangers sharing their vulnerability and empowering one another to overcome it. It sounds very much like a moment that could be trivialized as chick lit and chick flick material. But my students were working very hard at something that doesn’t come easily — optimism.

Like myself, my students knew very little about The Help. Stockett didn’t intrude upon her essay with plot summaries and character descriptions. I can’t say whether anyone walked out of the room thinking they had to read the book or see the movie. I can say they were thinking about a woman who went into labor, chastised by her nurse for continuing to edit her manuscript in between contractions.

I stopped by the faculty office, energized, handing out copies of the essay.

“This opens the semester on a really positive note,” I said.

I almost felt an urge to kick up my heels as I left campus. Labor Day Weekend was just beginning. I felt great; I didn’t know yet the effect the long weekend would have on my relationship to The Help.

My mom called from Kentucky that Sunday evening. She and my sister-in-law had seen the movie version. Mom didn’t have much to say about the movie other than she liked the book better. She had more to say about the audience’s reactions, some of whom were friends or acquaintances, this being a small town. The shared sentiment was, “I don’t know why they always portray us like that!”

I’ve lived in Baltimore for 10 years. While technically Maryland is just as Southern a state as Kentucky, Kentucky women feel more of a Southern identity. And that identity they feel is not the one often perpetuated. The stereotype of the wilting flower fretting her pretty little head over what to wear to the day’s luncheon. The two-faced, self-centered manipulator forever swept up in a tizzy of “I do declare’s.” The Help’s portrayal of the 1960s affluent white woman was perceived as a repackaging of the Scarlett archetype. The women my mom spoke to after the movie recalled the intimate friendships they witnessed between their mothers and their African American caretakers. They were skeptical of Hollywood as the designated historian. 

The following week a colleague approached me in the faculty office. She’d shared my Stockett article with a friend of hers over their weekend lunch date. The good feelings I had about my class lesson resurfaced. I imagined my students trying out for “So You Think You Can Dance” and completing firefighting simulation drills. 

“Now I know you were just using it as a motivational tool,” she said. I sensed a “but” coming, and if I get anything through to my students, it is to note the power of a transition word.

Like me, my colleague hadn’t read the book or seen the movie. But her friends were concerned about the characterization of the Southern domestic worker. The Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) is circulating an email expressing these concerns to fans of The Help. The predominant criticism is of the “disappointing resurrection of Mammy.” Stockett’s depictions, the group states, aren’t historically accurate. Both African American speech and culture are reduced to an archetype; “contented caretakers of whites” who speak in a “child-like, over-exaggerated ‘black’ dialect.” The ABWH “finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”

I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to broach the parallels I saw between a group of women she knew and respected and a group of women I knew and respected. We are both adjuncts who only know the other in passing hello’s. But it seemed like we had a minute to spare, educator to educator.  

“You know,” I said, “I had a similar conversation with my mom this weekend.”

“You did?” she asked.

“I think there’s a similar mood about it being offensive,” I said.

She looked shocked. Why she looked shocked and why I thought she was shocked deserved more than a passing minute. Another colleague who’d been listening interjected. (She’d actually read the book and seen the movie.)

“You know the book pays more attention to the complexities of these women,” she said.

We cut her off. Our disbelief was mutual. The conversation shifted to what’s for lunch. We weren’t much use thinking on our feet in class with empty stomachs distracting us.

That Friday I had lunch with a friend of mine. I told him that women were troubled by The Help. He could have spoken like an objective third party, being a Hispanic male who, like me, hadn’t read the book or seen the movie. Instead, he spoke like a writer.

“We’re talking about fiction here, right?” he said.

He made a joke about alakazaming away the Harry Potter series because J.K. Rowling is not a wizard. Jokes aside, we discussed male authors who for centuries have written from the point of view of women, sometimes condescendingly and disparagingly. How was this any different? Should this be any different?

That night I went out with the first friend I made in Baltimore over 10 years ago. One of her colleagues, who we often socialized with, joined us. Some topic late into the night triggered this growing need I had to speak out about The Help.

“What, if any, duty does a fiction writer have to be historically accurate?” I asked.

They too hadn’t read the book or seen the movie. Among the three of us were two law degrees and a professional in drafting legislation. I thought I was presenting the issue like an argument. I assumed the usual rules applied. State the disputed facts, raise objections, exclude hearsay. They were nodding as if they were interested. 

Then my friend’s friend went to the restroom. In her absence, my friend told me to change the conversation.

“You’re making her uncomfortable,” she said.

“Uncomfortable?” I asked. “What makes you say that?”

It occurred to me that whether or not her friend was uncomfortable, my friend was most certainly uncomfortable.

“It’s just. Well, you know.”

But I didn’t know. How could I know something that nobody else knew because nobody was saying anything? Granted, a noisy bar (and cucumber-infused vodka) didn’t set the perfect stage to address race and whether there even is such a thing as historical accuracy. But that the topic itself is somehow off limits, prima facie offensive, struck a nerve. An identity I thought I shared with all of my friends, despite our diverse cultures and religions, an identity that values our voice, was reduced to the stereotypical cat fight.  

I turned on my heels and walked out of the bar. My friend called after me. I gave her the hand and kept walking. On my way home I bristled at a thought. All these years I’d defined us by our experiences as confidantes; linking arms as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and lending a shoulder through job losses, mounting debt, illnesses, and a divorce. It seemed artificial if at the end of the day our friendship might somehow pass or fail simply because she’s Korean and I’m Caucasian.

I didn’t sleep that night. What made me more uncomfortable was not that books and movies conflate the complicated lives of these two groups of Southern women. I was more troubled that there might be an unspoken etiquette all women are expected to follow. That some conversations are restricted to those friends who already know what you’re talking about anyway. 

I was naive, to put it kindly, to dismiss The Help. If chicks like it, then it must be an overly emotional journey where glamorous shoes resolve the conflict. I could dismiss the idea of motivating today’s students to try hard at anything as naive. Or I could see the challenge as essential to their progress. I could dismiss the idea of motivating academics, professionals, and decades-long friends to have a conversation — together — as naive. Or, I could say nothing and let us lug that 1930’s canon into the next generation.   



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