9.03.2012

Book review: The Help — Reassuring white people

Once again, I bring you: review for a book (and movie) no one's talking about anymore! Whee! Good thing I'm not a newspaper.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has been recommended to me by no fewer than a dozen people in real life and untold multitudes online. So why, when I first heard about even the premise, did I feel so uneasy and so sure I wouldn't like it?

Let's unpack it a little. The Help is written by a white woman about black women. It's written by someone who was a girl in the 1960s about people who were adults during that time. It's written by someone in the middle/upper class about people in the working class. And not just about, but it's seeking to tell their stories — these people whose lives she is so far from experiencing.

And that gets a little meta, because Skeeter in the book is exactly the same thing: white, upper-middle class, young, telling the stories of maids.

I'm a writer of fiction. I don't at all believe you have to "write what you know" in some narrowly defined sense of not being able to write from a different person's point of view or tell a story set in a different time period. Where I think it crosses the line into potential racial offensiveness is when the perspective that's taken is one that has historically (and currently) been silenced and ignored. In other words, let me just say it outright: Where does a white lady get off thinking she can speak for black women?

Now, I'm writing this review from the point of view of being a white woman myself, so I poked around to see if any African-American women liked The Help. Funny enough: I found many eloquent voices decrying it. There's a clue right there.

I feel a little silly being another white woman talking about a white woman talking about black women, but I'll go with it. I'll say upfront that this review is addressed to my fellow white people, whether you're as clueless as I often am or not — though, naturally, I invite any people of color to read along and tell me what you think (about the book or my review) or point me to other resources, if you'd be so kind. And it's not meant to be condemning of white people, or to say that you shouldn't have liked The Help if you did. It's to talk about these issues, because I think too often as white people (blinded by privilege), we don't see the racist aspects of books like this.

So let's unpack this a little further. The characters in the book are types, not people. The black characters, particularly Aibileen, fit the mammy/magic Negro/noble savage stereotypes that have been offending people for years. I don't use those terms to suggest that I regularly use that language or enjoy doing so; that's kind of my point. They're offensive stereotypes, even though they're "good." This is a nonthreatening kind of black person, who exists to help white people accomplish what they want.

The white characters, with the exception of Skeeter, are mean bigots. On the surface, you'd think that having most of the white people be evil is not racist, in much the same way that you'd think having most of the black people be good is nonracist, but we just discussed why that's not so. Here's the problem with having the white people be bad-white-person stereotypes. We all look for someone to identify with in fiction, so it has to be someone. A white person reading the book thinks, "Wow, I'm not as mean as those other white people. That means I must be Skeeter." Then the next step is to assume that, if you lived in the 1960s, you would so totally be the type of white person who helps out black people.

But, statistically speaking, that's bologna. Because most white people in the 1960s were not in fact monsters and yet did not help out black people. So chances are, if you're white and were an adult in the 1960s, you would not have done anything to further the civil rights movement beyond, at most, cheering it on from a distance. In your head. But probably you wouldn't have gone even that far.

And then there's the point that the 1960s are distant by 50 years, and tied up with the civil rights movement, which again serves to make the race relations not threatening and, excuse the term, black-and-white. It's like, when you read a book about the Holocaust, you can assume you would have been on the side that hid Jews in their attic and you can ignore the fact that you have no Jewish friends.

Race relations in the 1960s South, while informative, are not the same as the problems we still face in 21st-century America. It's too facile to think, "I'm not racist because I think the civil rights movement was good." Big deal. Are you good friends with people of color? Are you intentionally raising your kids to celebrate the beauty in our cultural and ethnic differences? Are you standing in outspoken support of policies and organizations that promote equality and fairness? It's not out of the range of probability to imagine a white woman driving with her white friends to see the movie of The Help, chattering excitedly the whole way about how much they love it, and locking their doors as they drive through a black neighborhood.

Here's another angle to explore: Black women, even in the 1960s, even in the South, do not need white women to tell their stories. They don't need a savior. Because, if the other white women in this book were stereotypes, so was Skeeter. She's the white savior, who comes in to rescue the poor black people who couldn't manage on their own. But that's also bologna. Because black people have been telling their stories for centuries and, yes, even in the 1960s and before. For crying out loud, look at Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, writing during slavery, or Zora Neale Hurston, writing during the Harlem Renaissance, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

I'm not saying it might not have been hard for a black maid in the 1960s to get a book published; I'm just saying it's presumptuous and condescending to suggest that the only way it would happen is if a white woman sponsored her. It sets up this false construct of what white people can do to support people of color. There's this idea that the only thing that counts is saving someone, doing something dramatic and noble, that will impress other thoughtful white people and make people of color indebted to you. Gah, can you see that making people of color indebted to you is not the right goal to have as a white person?

All right, just a little more ranting and I'll stop. I do kind of feel bad bashing this book that so many (white) people like. It's not that the stories aren't engaging. It's just so problematic in its structure.

Here's an analogy that might help illustrate. Let's imagine a male author puts out a novel about a man interacting with women during the women's rights movement of the 19th century. The characters are, on the one hand, a group of docile, uneducated housewives who speak in broad dialect and whose most salient trait is being put upon by men but never outwardly rebelling against it. On the other hand is the protagonist, a well-educated young man, and his friends, who are all, in contrast to him, rapists. The hero in this story tells the women, "You're important. You're special. You don't deserve to be raped all the time." And, fawning, the women open up to him and tell him their stories, which he writes down verbatim in their funny feminine way of talking.

Men read this novel and rave, "I love these sweet women characters! I know I'd be just like the hero, because I'm not a rapist. I would totally have helped women get the right to vote if I'd lived then!" And then they close it up and say something condescending to their wives and sisters and mothers and continue to ignore the injustices against women in the workplace. Women would be up in arms, at their limited portrayal as brainless figures who exist only to elevate the male protagonist. We would rightly point out that this is a gross oversimplification of the women's rights movement, and that at no time in that movement did women rely on, of all things, men to spearhead their mission. There were women during that time already making strides and not needing a man to swoop in and save them. Making all the other men rapists does nothing to help men understand the nuances by which someone could undermine women's rights in more subtle ways.

See what I mean?

Ok, I feel better now, getting that off my chest. I have the feeling I'd be drummed out of any book club if I brought up all these points, but I needed to express them somewhere.

Let me just say one thing more, as a writer. I always feel uneasy, as I mentioned previously, when I see a minority POV expressed by an author who's part of the majority. For example, Snow Falling on Cedars and Memoirs of a Geisha struck me as problematic in that there are plenty of Asian and Asian-American writers (and women writers) out there who don't get near the reception as a white writer (and a male writer) does telling their stories. On the other hand, I can see how, as a reader, it can be easier for us to connect with someone who's coming from our same background and can explain the foreign world we're entering. As an American living in the 21st century, if I wrote a novel about living in England in the 19th century (as I am), I would know just what to explain to my readers so they would understand what the differences are between then and now, here and there. I would give them a taste of what that world is like but be sure not to use obscure terms without somehow explaining them within the text. I don't think this is wrong for an author to do, nor do I think it's wrong for readers to prefer the simplicity of hearing from writers who, as it were, speak their language. However, I keep hoping that people won't stop there. If you're interested in 19th century England, there are plenty (duh) of books written by authors who actually lived there. If you're intrigued by Memoirs of a Geisha, one of the geisha the author interviewed has written her own book, so certain was she that he had gotten it wrong. And I feel the same with The Help. If it's a starting place for you to start thinking about what it might have been like for a black maid in the 1960s South, fine, but don't stop there.



Here are links to smart, savvy women and men who saw all these holes in the book and more:

  • An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help — Association of Black Women Historians
    Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. … In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.
  • On Not Seeing ‘The Help’ — Black Youth Project
    And Tamara's follow-up, in which she buys a ticket for The Smurfs but sees The Help instead.
    This, folks, is a classic case of cinematic enwhitlement…and exactly how Hollywood–and the rest of America–addresses race: A well-meaning (often southern) and heretofore racially oblivious (shall we say color-blind?) white person randomly discovers that the Negro they love most (and by extension other black people) is treated “differently,” becomes tragically affected by the epiphany, heroically takes up the cause (on a micro or macro level), and gets some Colored Only signs removed. Oh and a whole bunch of funny shit happens in the middle. Like Klansmen becoming comic relief. Yep. That’s exactly how Jim Crow was.
  • Psst, I Don't Give My Money to Racist Movies: Why I'm STILL Not Going to See the Help — Los Angelista
    I also admitted that it makes me angry that "on the one hand, people say if black women don't like The Help, we should write our own stories--all while failing to recognize that there are PLENTY of black writers who DO write books and screenplays about our experiences, but because of racism in the publishing and film industries, their work NEVER gets the time of day. Unless, of course, they make the main character a white woman and it's her fabulous coming of age story/mission trip."
  • Sniffing Dirty Laundry: A True Story from “the Help’s” Daughter — Before Barack
    “Have you ever thought about the fact that the woman you call ‘Odessa’ was the same woman my friends called ‘Mrs. Singley’? That she supported a family on the six dollars and bus fare (fifty cents round trip) your Grandmommy was paying her? That the woman you call your ‘best friend’ was forty years your senior and had another whole life of dignity, hopes, and dreams that had nothing to do with being in service to you and Grandmommy? That maybe “Odessa” didn’t like you as much as felt sorry for you because you were the baby of the family, the one your brother and sister slapped around, the one they were always leaving behind? You ever thought of that?”
  • No help for me. — not a visitor
    But I'm having a hard time explaining that to the nice people who are shocked and then shortly afterward sort of offended that I don't want to support it in any way. I usually end those conversations by simply reiterating that if I am going to read something to do with the history of black civil rights in our country I would prefer that it be a work that is written by a black person and told from a black person's point of view.
  • Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow — The New York Times
    The fail-safe response for Hollywood has been to depict racial prejudice in cartoon caricature, a technique that has made the Southern redneck a cinematic bad guy on par with Nazis, Arab terrorists and zombies. By denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed.

    To protect viewers, sometimes at profound damage to the historical record, white heroes are featured and sometimes concocted for these movies, giving blacks a supporting role in their own struggle for liberation. …

    The other Hollywood fallback strategy when dealing with the movement (or race-themed film set in any period) is to employ “the Magic Negro,” a character whose function is to serve as a mirror so that the white lead can see himself more clearly, sometimes at the expense of the black character’s life.
  • Is “The Help” Racist? — Good Enough Mother
    She hadn't read the book yet when she wrote this, but the comments are an interesting mix of black and white people debating the merits of the book (either race on either side), along with a few make-you-sigh flat-out ignorant offerings.
  • Check Out the New Trailer For “The Help,” Featuring Viola Davis and I Was “The Help” And My Experience Taught Me To Dream BIG — MyBrownBaby
    Positive reviews from an African-American perspective:
    I promise you, I wanted to hate The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s blockbuster novel about a white woman who pens a controversial, dangerous tome about the trials and tribulations of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi. … I questioned how effectively a white author could tell an authentic story about the lives of black women and why said authors always get major cash and all the glory for penning such novels while African American authors get absolutely no shine for writing similar stories about our experience told from our perspective.

    But then I read Stockett's book. And the story just blew me away.
    and
    The Help reminds me how amazingly transformative the last 50 years have been and what a key role African American mothers played in doing what they had to do to keep their families whole and strong in the midst of great turmoil and constant danger, so that their daughters could one day have daughters who could say, out loud without retribution, “The world is mine!” and their daughters could live in the White House and birth daughters smart enough and accomplished enough to one day be president.

So go ahead and tell me: Did you love The Help? Hate it? What are your thoughts when it comes to writing in a voice and from a perspective radically different from your own?
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