I seem to be obsessing over The Help. I can’t help it.
What intrigues me today are these arrows and brickbats (as well as worn-out shoes and busted sinks) that keep getting hurled over the fence at The Help . . . both the novel and the movie.
What puzzles me is why some folks insist on denying the value of women’s stories, whether they be black maids, housewives, or, as in Soda Springs, a potato shed worker and a store clerk.
Some recent examples:
- One guy says Viola Davis as Aibileen is like Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939 Oscar for best supporting actress). Black women today should be beyond taking roles like that, he says; haven’t we progressed in 70 years? (More on this later.)
- Another says The Help dignifies maids . . . that Blacks should aspire to better stations in life; that we need to promote “better” role models. (What, are maids beneath us? )
- One says the book denigrates black men . . . but at the same time, he says the book ignores them. (I can’t win on that one!)
- And the most unkindly cut of all: the author is a white woman . . . how dare she write a story of black maids in Mississippi in the early ‘60s; that this is a story that needs to be written by a black woman. (Maybe so. Let’s hope someone tries her hand at it . . . but it won’t be The Help; it will be a different book. Better? Maybe. Maybe not. )
Let’s be clear: The Help is a story about women. Forget the men –- they’re wallpaper, both the blacks and the whites. Suck it up, men. Our stories lie elsewhere.
If anyone ought to be offended by these characters, though, it ought to be young white Southern wives. In The Help, they’re all beautiful and well-off and as shapely as models. But Hilly is a blatant racist, vindictive and viperous. All her associates and Celia are air-heads. I can’t imagine that author Kathryn Stockett thinks all Southern white women are so vacuous. They’re not; she’s not describing all women, just these women.
But The Help isn’t a women’s lib tract. Nor is it the story of the Civil Rights Movement or an exhaustive treatise of racism and its horrible effects on black Americans. Nor is it a paean to “The Women of Civil Rights”: Rosa Parks or Fanny Lou Hammer or Vivian Malone and Charlayne Hunter (the first black women enrolled and graduated from the Universities of Alabama and Georgia respectively).
Actually, The Help is a story about two black women, Aibileen and Minny, both maids, and a young white woman, Skeeter, who draws them into a book project that unveils the maids’ perspectives on their lives and exposes the racist structure of life in Jackson, Mississippi.
Aibileen and Minny are ordinary, hard-working, long-suffering women who struggle through life working in one of the few positions open to them; they are the working poor. Skeeter is a young women trying to find herself –- not as a white savior come home to lead the blacks to the promised land. Skeeter doesn’t speak for the black maids at all; she pursues a vehicle that allows all three of them to express their own voices.
Unlike the women in the novel Soda Springs: Love, Sex, and Civil Rights –- Lupe Sandoval, Concha Montoya, and even Ginny Bennett –- Aibileen and Minny don’t march forcefully into the movement with trumpets blaring and heads held high.
What they do is demonstrate a quiet resolution that they, too, can take action to further the cause –- merely by telling their stories. Such women were vital to the Civil Rights Movement: Lupe and Concha for Mexican-Americans; Aibileen and Minny for blacks.
None of these women change the world in these novels, but they hint at it. And all of them grow as the result of their efforts. That’s what makes good stories. That’s why we like them so much.
In the end, The Help does turn out to be a Civil Rights story, as is Soda Springs. What do you think . . . do these novels ring true or not?