The moral dilemma of 1950’s racism is a prominent theme of the 2011 film, “The Help,” adapted from the novel of the same name by Katherine Stockett. The film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards (Octavia Spencer won for Best Supporting Actress) and won several Screen Actor’s Guild Awards – Octavia Spenser (Minny) and Viola Davis (Aibileen) picked up individual awards for acting, as did the entire cast for best ensemble. Though wildly popular with mainstream audiences, both the book and the film versions of “The Help” have been the subject of widespread controversy and debate in academia and in the blogosphere. Most recently Melissa Harris Perry devoted a segment of her show (“The Melissa Harris Perry Show”) to a harsh critique of the film’s inaccurate historical conveyances. It seems that White people love the film as an exploration of bygone inequality in interracial relations between White and Black women and the evils of racism. But given the film is not only about race, but also about women, what about the evils of sexism?
“The Help” works against feminism by playing on stereotypes of women’s problematic relationships with each other. Because male characters play only minor roles, the film gives a false sense of female dominance, even solidarity. In this “society of women,” however, race and class play out in accordance to stereotype with a variety of women who judge, hate, and police one another. The film maintains its theme of female solidarity by depicting racism and sexism more as consequences of individual behaviors and less as a set of social hierarchies generated and enforced through legal mandates and institutional practices. And each of the main (white) female characters in “The Help” displays questionable moral behavior in her treatment of other women, typified by interpersonal, emotional abuse and violence between women.
The audience is meant to identify with Skeeter (Emma Stone) as she grows into herself – thanks to her childhood maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) and later on with “the help” of Minny and Aibileen through the stories they share with her about their lives as maids in Mississippi. Through these journeys toward self-awareness (or what feminists have called “coming to voice”) Skeeter is made recognizable as a budding feminist interested in social justice through her desire to tell the maids’ stories – something no one has done before. But in the end, upon publication of her book, her willful pursuit of feminism diminishes, and rather than choosing a feminist morality, she is instead forced into it. The final scenes of the film depict her boyfriend, Stuart (Chris Lowell) leaving her for “stirring up trouble” and for being “selfish” for pursuing a career after her book (from which the novel and film draw their title) “The Help.” His parting words: “I think you’re better off alone.” What Stuart tells Skeeter about herself is echoed by the maids Aibileen and Minny, that essentially Skeeter has to take the job offer in New York, because no local man will want her, and she has alienated all of her female peers by outing them as racists in her book. If a feminist morality hinges on solidarity and sisterhood, Skeeter, having found herself, is left with neither, and is free to follow a life that is based on a morality that emphasizes free choice and autonomy over caretaking and solidarity.
Thinking more about sisterhood, given “The Help” is a film about women, we need to ask what does it tell us about women’s relationships with other women? Black women’s solidarity and capability for friendship is contrasted with White women’s emotional violence with one another, as embodied by the character Hilly’s maltreatment of her own mother, several of the maids, the woman she calls “White-trash,” Celia Foote, and her so-called friends Skeeter and Elizabeth. The quintessential mean girl, she bullies, castigates, frames, lies, and uses her power to maneuver against other women. Each negative stereotype about female group dynamics along race/class/generational lines is present in “The Help.” Black women’s relationships are depicted as “true” friendships, even though that solidarity seems to be depicted as due to the marginal spaces these women occupy, the result of poor social standing, and limited political power. The type of progressive (Black) womanhood or a solidarity based on positive elements is absent here. And, frankly, Aibileen places Minny at risk by involving her in the initial interviews with Skeeter. That is to say, the morality of justice seems to outweigh a morality of caretaking.
In the end stereotypes about women, both Black and White, outweigh honest filmmaking. In her SAG award acceptance speech on January 29, 2012, Viola Davis (Aibileen) stepped up from her front-row seating to remind viewers that racism and sexism are not just “women’s issues,” but everyone’s problems. Ironically feminism, which has been effectively challenging these forms of oppression for a very, very long time, was given a seat in the balcony.
Stephanie Troutman is Assistant Professor of Women & Gender and African-American Studies at Berea College, Berea, KY.