I feel a bit like an interloper wading into this topic, but I saw The Help this weekend (as my friend Pamela would say, catch thy knee), and my reaction to it is, well… complicated.
First off, a disclaimer: I saw the movie, but I haven’t read the book by Kathryn Stockett. So I can only comment on the film. I am reluctant to wade into the deeper and hazardous waters of a discussion of its messages of racial inequality and the criticism of it as a work that seems designed to make white Americans feel better about a time of gross injustice in our country’s history, or about its depiction of women’s lives and the limited roles available to any of them in the early ‘60s South.
I’m reluctant for three reasons: I’m not a person of color, I’m not a woman, and I’m not from the South.
One thing I am, though, is a writer. By the same token, I’m reluctant to criticize another writer’s work because I know how much that hurts. But….
The one thing that jumped out at me about The Help after I finished watching it was it has the wrong title.
To quote Pamela yet again, pause... consider... continue.
For those who haven’t seen it [POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD], “the help” refers to the black women working as maids in privileged Southern households. But—there’s always a but, isn’t there?—the stories of those women are told through Skeeter, a young white woman, just graduated from college, who wants to be a writer and also chafes against the constraints of her family, her upbringing, and the casual racism of her shallow, privileged friends. Skeeter ends up interviewing her friends’ maids for a book that rocks the community and creates trouble for some of the maids, but lands Skeeter a job in New York by the end of the film.
See, the movie’s about Skeeter and her racist friends, not about the maids whose stories she co-opts. This is my problem: it feels to me like Skeeter, perhaps through good intentions, ends up exploiting the maids in a somewhat subtler but no less real way. And—this is the kicker for me—one of the maids wants to be a writer. That would have been a story that would have felt more genuine to me, I think. It would have made their struggle for justice the centerpiece, as opposed to a subplot.
Have you seen the movie? What did you think?