Minny, the mouse that roared

Posted on June 29, 2010

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Of all the characters in The Help, the one I feel most closely falls back on  stereotype is Minny.  With all her bluster and bravado, Minny seems to represent what many blacks wished they could have uttered during segregation. But it is a false front, because there have been a number of “Minny’s” throughout literature, film and even television, characters who at first appear powerful but are really powerless. To see how the character fares when comparing her to some of  the most popularly known “Mammies” I went straight to the source. The description of Aunt Chloe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

A round, black, shiny face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with the whites of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under a well-starched checkered turban, bearing on it; however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.

In the Help, Minny is described as short, fat and dark. A round, black, shiny face is hers…her whole plump countenance…

She’s also the best cook in Hinds County…the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.

Except for the checkered turban and the tinge of self consciousness (which is debatible about Aunt Chloe) Minny’s heading into Mammy territory.  

So in examining the character I wanted to find out how she came to be:

First, the author revealed in a Time Magazine interview:

“As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren’t in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That’s [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html#ixzz0sFk825Rz

So one character broke off into two. Then the author found what she believed was the physical embodiment of Minny, as revealed in  an interview with the UK site Book Browse:

“Aibileen is my favorite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie. But Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress in Los Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, “Well, good for you.” Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television. That said, I think I enjoyed writing Skeeter’s memories of Constantine more than any other part of the book.

http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=1663

Patterning a character, especially a black character after a real individual is a risky move. And Minny is not described as likable when the reader first meets her on page 13 of the novel. She’s loud and “strong enough to lift the whole bus” per Aibileen. She’s also sitting quite unladylike in public with her legs splayed open, and making fun of the people she works for.  In The Help, Minny is the go to character for comedy, and much like other characters of her ilk,  she’s utilized to portray how amusing blacks appear to look and behave. A character like Minny was used almost exclusively in comedies during the heyday of Hollywood films.

    

The men and women who were cast to play these roles are not at fault. In a sense they were some of the greatest actors of their time  though they were cast in roles mocking their race.  Sometimes the lines they uttered were demeaning. Yet they  endured, having the belief that a black face on film was better than not.

Many of the same domestic parts alternated between two actresses of the time, Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers. Hattie’s most memorable role was as the bossy, argumentative “Mammy” in Gone With The Wind.  On television she starred in her own series called Beulah, where she once again played a sassy maid. Louise Beavers had  a co-starring role in Imitation of Life and ironically, replaced Hattie on Beulah.

Something all these women share with Minny is their physical makeup.

It was the rare maid’s role that didn’t have a large, fairly dark African American as a domestic. The size of the women were also part of the gag, as well as their bossy nature. But in truth their jests could be laughed off as immature boasts. Because under segregation, they had no power to change any of the people, or things they loudly complained about.

These characters were more or less the “mouths” that roared. While much of what they complained about concerned a task or job they were given that they didn’t agree with, the people around them also suffered under their withering critiques.

Minny has been saddled with Leroy, a man who’s impregnated her six times (She’s carrying her sixth throughout the novel) though he’s described as “a fool” (Pg 26) by her friend Aibileen. Though Leroy appears drunk more times than not in the book and he’s abusive to not only Minny, but her kids, she stays with him.

His reason for hitting Minny?  Well he gives his answer on page 413:

“Why? Why are you hitting me?”

He leaned down and looked me right in the face

“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become.” Leroy’s answer to Minny’s question (Pg 413)

When Minny finally does rebel, it has to do with Miss Celia (protecting her from the pervert) or after helping Skeeter prepare the manuscript turned novel called HELP.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit and go into Minny’s decision to confront the naked pervert. On page 305, right after Minny is remembering how this time Leroy beat her “stone-cold sober” a naked white man appears in Miss Celia’s yard jacking off. Both women are shocked to see him watching them through the kitchen window while he masturbates.

Celia whispers that she’s going to call the police.

Minny says “It’ll take em forty-five minutes just to find the house…he could break the door down by then!”

Minny runs to lock all the doors while Celia still decides to call the police.

The man heaves a rock through a window and Minnie says I know we can’t just sit here like a duck dinner, waiting for him to get in. All he has to do is break a floor to ceiling window and step on in.

Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first

To which I say, WTF?

And Minny continues her crazy reasoning by getting Mr. Johnny’s hunting knife. and also a broom because “he’ll have to be awful close for me to cut him so I get the broom too.”

Now, by this point if you think I hope he kicks your dumb ass you won’t be disappointed.

However, I’m game to put on my pretend therapist hat. See. Minny confronts the pervert because of Leroy. The pervert represents her repressed anger at Leroy, whom she’s powerless to defend herself against….yada yada yada…

Listen, this is some made up bull.

Someone who’s being abused would hardly go after another male, because a male is a reminder of who holds the power. And for Minny to go after a white man, drunk or not, naked or not, shows Kathryn Stockett had no idea what blacks could or could not do during segregation. We sure couldn’t put our hands on a white person, even if they were trying to rape and kill us.

Which makes Minny’s decision all the more confounding.

The guy is in the middle of the yard. He’s away from the house. Yet she goes outside, telling Miss Celia to lock the door and keep it locked.

WTF again!

So not only is Minny living up to the stereotype that blacks are more prone to violence (so they used to say, and some still believe this) she uses a knife.

A. Knife.

Another supposed weapon of choice by blacks (at least during segregation)

What makes this scene so appalling, is that not only does Minny tuck the knife in the belt of her uniform, but as she’s chasing the perv, he runs straight to the back door and she worries: I panic that he’s going to try and bust down the door

Yes, the same door that’s locked. Anyway, Minny runs out of breath, somehow loses the knife, leans over to catch some much needed air and the naked perv cold cocks her in the head. Right where Leroy’s  thrown sugar bowl connected, leaving her with a bloody gash.

All Minny can do is think He comes closer and I close my eyes, knowing what’s about to happen to me, knowing I’ve got to move away but I can’t. Where is the knife? Does he have the knife? The ringing’s like a nightmare.

So this is what it comes down to for bad to bone, trash talking Minny. At least Miss Sofia in The Color Purple got in a few good punches. Not to worry though. Thank goodness Miss Celia saves the day.

Because while Celia is a buxom blonde sexpot with the body of a woman but with the emotional fragility of a child, she’s still white trash tough enough to beat down Minny’s attacker. It matters not that this side of Celia was never seen or described in the novel previously. Somehow, this young bride who’s been bed ridden with depression can give a good beatdown.

Guess big bad Minny didn’t have to protect her after all.

And with as much trash that Stockett has Minny talking,  it’s her own daughter who gets physically manhandled by Minny, after talking about of all people . . . Miss Celia!

On page 334 

I looked up from my sink and saw Sugar headed straight for me with her hand on her hip. “Yeah Mama, she upchuck all over the floor. And everybody at the whole party see!”  Then Sugar turned  around laughing with all the others. She didn’t see the whap coming at her. Soapsuds flew through the air.

“You shut your mouth Sugar.” I yanked her to the corner. “Don’t you never let me hear you talking bad about the lady who put food in your mouth, clothes on your back! You hear me!

Sugar, she nodded and Iwent back to my dishes, but  I heard her muttering “You do it, all the time.”

I whipped around and put my finger in her face. “I got a right to. I earn it every day working for that crazy fool.”

So to review, Minny is one of three characters to raise a hand to attack someone. And this was during the time period where blacks were routinely attacked by whites for just being the wrong color. Yes, in the segregated south, as The Help would have it, the black male was violent (Leroy abusing Minny) and Minny is the first to confront others, even her own child.

But what’s important to remember about Minny is that she’s a battered woman. A woman too frightened of her own husband to leave him, though she believes its love stopping her. From what we now know about women subjected to domestic abuse, confrontation is the last thing they engage in. But somehow in The Help,  Minny has two personalities. One that rises up to protect Celia and another that kowtows to Leroy. If this character doesn’t raise a fist to defend herself and that of her children (though there are no scenes suggesting it, since Leroy is violent with Minny, its hard to believe he wouldn’t be the same way with his children) where does the need to protect a grown woman like Celia come from?

Unless…

I hate to say it, but this is another stereotypical trait given to a black character. It was on display in the movie The Blindside, where the screenwriter took liberties with how Michael Oher would behave. Oher was in full protect mode, though the movie portrays him for almost two hours as a gentle giant. It’s only when the Touhy females are verbally threatened that Oher gets violent. This is the same trigger for Minny in The Help as in protect the white character, though the circumstances are different. I’ll post more on the issue of Minny’s aggression while still being assaulted at home shortly.

One other thing that’s not so nice about Minny. While she’s been given the label of “sassy” by many of her fans, at times she downright nasty for apparently no good reason. Here’s an account of Minny’s battle with a character named Shirley Boon:

At Sunday church service, Shirley Boon gets up in front of the congregation. With her lips flapping like a flag, she reminds us that the “Community Concerns” meeting is Wednesday night, to discuss a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Amite Street. Big nosy Shirley points her finger at us and says, “The meeting is at seven so be on time. No excuses!” She reminds me of a big, white, ugly schoolteacher. The kind that nobody ever wants to marry. (Pg 216)

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Pg 217)

“And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings-the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing silver.” (Pg 218)

And this is supposed to be an intelligent woman?

To be continued…

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