On "The Help"

I have not had time to really read a book from start to finish in a long time.

Instead, I do what I normally do: start a book, read about a hundred and fifty pages, and set it down. I’ll start another book, then pick up that first book and finish it, or at least get a little further, and then repeat the cycle.
Pretty soon I’m halfway through about five books and finished with none.
One of my co-workers lent me the book “The Help.”
And so, with recently atypical abandon, I went to town on that book. Literally devoured it. I read nearly three hundred pages the first night.
The movie comes out today, and the blogosphere is up in arms about the racist-ness of the movie.
I’m rolling my eyes. Not because I’m a white bitch, but because I read something totally different in the book. Of course, it might be that I’m always wearing my feminism lenses.
Here’s the article that basically sums up a lot of the backlash: Why I’m Just Saying No to The Help
Before I begin, let me note that I don’t think the author of the article read the book.
Her refusal to see the movie is based on a whole bunch of other things – like people’s opinions and their reviews of the movie.
That’s all fine, but it strikes me as interesting that people are so quick to label this movie as one of those white-people-reinforcing sort of deals. Like, “oh, let’s take pity on the blacks. Those poor blacks, where would they be without us whites?”
We’re so over-critical these days. We’re hot on the lawsuits, quick to jump to a conclusion, way less forgiving, and super focused on political correctness.
This book was not like the “Blind Side,” as some are claiming. By the way, how would the story of Michael Oher have been a different one had it not been framed by his race?
(Don’t get me wrong, there are serious race issues still in play today. And there are still a disproportionate number of under-educated, underemployed blacks. Expectations and cultural disparities exist. The prevailing attitudes and undercurrents are still not about equality. But that’s not always the case. And we can’t always revert to that rule – in my opinion, that sort of thinking helps perpetuate the oppression, self-inflicted or not.)
This book was about women. It was narrated by three women, two black and one white. They each had a ton of shit to deal with. The white one is college-educated but unmarried. That’s sort of a problem, since all of her upper-crust friends are married and having kids left and right. There is an educational disconnect here – Skeeter, the unmarried one, is more ambitious as a result of having finished college.
Her two friends are more obsessed with social standing that social justice.
That’s not to say that Skeeter herself is interested in social justice, she happens to stumble upon it and then grow into it as the story progresses. Her interests in writing the book about the black experience stem from her desire to attain legitimacy in the eyes of Ms. Stein, a New York-based editor.
The black women are so badass. There’s a woman who’s got five kids, a serious attitude, and an abusive husband. At the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT) – she’s leaving her husband. She’s more secure in her position than ever – granted, she’s still a maid, so there was really no upward mobility, but at least she has the gratitude and respect of the people she’s working for.
The other one has lost a son, is constantly fretting about money (who isn’t?), and is deeply attached to the white babies she’s raising. And it’s so fulfilling when the white child colors herself black in school, starts to identify the black woman as her mother, and then starts to play Rosa Parks with her younger brother and then lies to her father about who taught her all of those things. The maid has been telling them stories about Martian Luther King, the alien who didn’t fit in with the humans because he was green.
Aww, heartwarming as that all is, it’s also heartbreaking. There is violence directed at people in the movie, stories of horrible things done by the whites, stories of how hard life is for the blacks.
I guess for the first time, it really hit me that my grandparents were adults by the time that the Civil Rights Movement rolled around. That my mom was entering adolescence.
But that’s not my point:
This book is about women.
The men play supporting roles. They manage to dominate their women while at the same time being absolutely dominated. Leroy beats his wife. Johnny supports his even though she’ll never be able to carry a baby. The Senator’s son dumps Skeeter for her progressive views, god forbid. The socialite queen of the town runs her husband and supports his going-to-fail campaign for government.
It’s about being over-dependent on a husband. It’s about not having a future without one. It’s about upper-class misery, dependency on popularity, isolation.
It’s about women on their own. In the end, there are no love matches for the three. Skeeter’s lost her fiance, Minny’s dumped her good-for-nothing abusive drunk husband, and Aibileen hasn’t had one in a long time – her husband left her when their child was no more than a baby. They are independent, strong, driven women.
They are united in that.
They each have different goals to reach. It’s not one of those, “all the ends are so neatly tied up” sort of deals.
The book highlights the struggles faced by single women, shows the oppression of marriage – the social pressures and expectations from parents, children, family, friends. It also shows the power of community.
While it may not paint the most accurate picture of life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, I think it does a damn good job at reminding us that we’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a ways to go with both racism and feminism, but the battle is moving forward.
So read the book and get back to me. I’m going to go see the movie and let you know.

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