The Most Feminist Movie of the Year?

I’ve spent the past week and a half debating about whether I should write this post. When I saw The Help on opening day, I immediately made note that I would blog about it, but just as quickly found myself short on time as I started orientation for the new job and then jumped into teaching. And so much has changed since my first viewing: very shortly after the film’s release, the Association of Black Women Historians released their Open Statement to Fans of the Help and the topic’s been going around among academics and even pop culture magazines (to a lesser degree) ever since. I’ll be honest: all the criticism and lashing out I perceived from academics distancing themselves from the film and the book made me wary of writing here. I became wary because, after two viewings (and three readings of the book in the past two years), I’m still a fan of The Help. That’s not a popular stance to take if you’re an educated feminist, judging by recent commentary.

I discovered The Help in the summer of 2009 when I downloaded the audiobook to keep me company on a drive to Ohio. I’d seen the Entertainment Weekly review for the book and thought vaguely that it might be worth trying (I’m terribly picky about my reading). All I can say is that I fell in love with it. If you’ve never heard the audiobook, it’s pretty amazing because it’s performed by 3 voice actresses (including Octavia Spencer, who also performed the same role in the film). While I remember falling in love with all three of the main characters for different reasons, I connected most with Skeeter. It might be easy to think that I connected with her because heck, we’re both white – but I rather connected with her because I saw similarities in our path to empowering ourselves. In particular, she came to some of the same realizations about gender injustice that I had been having in recent years. I thrilled over the idea that this was a portrait of a young woman defying convention for her time and pursuing a career. I loved that she noticed that ‘Help Wanted’ ads in the paper were separated by sex – one of the facts that really caught me when I was first becoming a feminist.

So yes, I loved the part of the story about the young white woman coming of age in Mississippi and coming to terms with the world around her, realizing for the first time that it’s not quite to her liking. But I also loved Abilene and Minnie and their insights into African American women’s lives in the period. I’m a women’s historian who focuses on 20th century history, and I’m well aware of the history of black women domestic workers in the south. Did The Help (book or movie) present all the nuances of the lives of black domestics? Certainly not. In The Help we get close(r) tellings of two African American women’s stories, and snitches of other women’s experiences. To flip it the other way, we get a close telling of one (upper-class/upper-middle-class) white woman’s story and snitches of other white women’s experiences. If you want to say that the domestic workers in The Help are stereotypes, you need to also acknowledge that the same stereotyping is at play for all the characters in the story, regardless of race or sex.

I particularly disagree with the ABWH’s assertion that ” The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.” While I respect and understand the general critique that The Help glosses over many things that perhaps it should not, I think that writing off the film as much as the ABWH has done overlooks the good and the dialogue that this film and book have opened up. For many people, this book and film have been an eye opener to a type of injustice they never knew firsthand and never even hear about.

I also seem to have a different take than most on the relationship between the women in the book and the story being told. While one of the criticisms I’ve seen is that The Help presents a story of a white woman helping black women realize their capabilities, I rather think it’s the other way around. Yes, this is a story about two black women and a white woman – but this isn’t about Skeeter “saving” the black women. It’s about Skeeter coming to terms with her childhood and the history of white-black relations she grew up with as a southerner, not to mention figuring out what her place will be in the world. It’s about Abilene mourning her son and moving forward – Skeeter is NOT the catalyst for change in her life, but rather the death of her son is. While Skeeter may pose the idea of the book, it’s Abilene’s other experiences that make her decide she wants to talk about her life. And for Minnie, well, she’s Minnie. At heart, the core friendship in this book is Abilene and Minnie.

When Americans think about civil rights, they think specifically of people like Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. If Americans think about it long enough, they might be able to make the connection that Rosa Parks’s action was a very simple activity: maintaining a seat on a bus. Nonviolence and civil rights activism – that’s a clear connection to most. But following Medgar Evers’ death, Abilene tells Minnie that what they’re doing isn’t civil rights – it’s just telling their stories “like they really happened.”

This is part of what I find so wonderful about The Help: it is a story that focuses on one of the myriad forms of women’s activism and protest – the kind that doesn’t involve signs or marching and may not be immediately visible. Certainly, as you look closer, it’s quite apparent that Abilene and Minnie and the other African American women ARE doing civil rights: it’s profoundly political to tell their personal experiences with prejudice and racism and harassment and abuse. It’s profoundly political even if they happen to be the lucky ones who do not experience such problems.

The first time I saw The Help, I wound up chatting with an older white woman sitting next to me. As we walked out of the theatre, she gave me the old line, “I’m not a feminist, but….” I don’t remember what she said next, but I do remember thinking it was ironic because I had JUST been thinking that this might be the most feminist movie of the year. When was the last time you got to spend 2 hours watching a movie that revolves around women and leaves the men in the background? When was the last time a movie like this came along to celebrate and highlight women’s efforts to challenge the status quo? (What a contrast to The Conspirator, for example – a film I had huge problems with because it moved women to the background.)

Kathryn Stockett wrote a story based loosely on her own experiences. She’s not a historian, and at a book signing event I attended in May she indicated that research is not really her favorite part of the process (and perhaps not her strong point). Certainly, then, I think it’s good to see historians making recommendations for books to read. I also think there’s a place for critiquing the work, but I’m disappointed in the lack of positive commentary or even more constructive criticism. Instead, I worry that overly negative criticism has been phrased in such a way as to turn off the very audience for whom it was intended.

In the end, of course, writing about it here has become overly long and not really what I’d originally envisioned, but there it is.


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