My Review of The Help – Segregation lite

Posted on July 9, 2010

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I guess its only fitting since we’re coming up on the 50 year anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird, that the search is on for the next great southern writer. Not only was Harper Lee’s novel a YA book that appealed to adults, but the movie of the same name garnered Gregory Peck an Oscar for his portrayal of the heroic, liberal attorney Atticus Finch, thus cementing Harper Lee’s legacy in literature and film history.

In the novel Scout was a precocious feisty heroine, a child readers could identify with and root for, along with her brother Jem. But with the 50th year milestone the novel shows its age (though true classics rarely go out of style) and its time for a change at the top.

For many raised on Mark Twain, William Faulkner or Harper Lee, finding a worthy successor has long been coming. Its high time to crown someone new. In the rush to do just that The Help has garnered a boatload of acclaim. Some reviewers have gushed over the novel, picking it as THE book of choice and Kathryn Stockett as perhaps the “one.” The author who could be proclaimed the next great southern born writer. Possibly so. Stockett shows glimmers of writing talent. But not with this book. Not with this “help.”

Protecting the honor of the All American Male

One thing The Help does quite skillfully is switch who the villain is during segregation. It’s done so well apparently, many readers don’t catch it. And in the process it protects the integrity and the honor of the All American male. The default image that readily comes to mind is a white male.

Now I apologize to any males reading this who happen to be white. But please understand, in The Help, the roles are reversed. White males make out rather well.

They are not the villains per say. It’s the white female. Or as Aibileen rationalizes:

Women’s they aint like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick…no, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gon take they time with em.

First thing a white lady gone do is fire you….then a week after you lose your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck in your screen door. Paper inside say NOTICE OF EVICTION…then it starts to come a little faster

If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it.

If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you gone to jail.

Weeks pass and nothing, no jobs, no money, no house. You hope this is the end of it, and she done enough, she ready to forget…it’ll be a knock on the door, late at night.

It won’t be the white lady at the door. She don’t do that kind of thing herself. But while the nightmare’s happening, the burning or the cutting or the beating, you realize something you known all your life: the white lady don’t ever forget.

And she ain’t gone stop till you dead  (Pg 188)

Powerful, compelling stuff. If only it were true.

When four young girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church, no white woman was convicted of sitting at her kitchen table, perhaps playing bridge while planning the murders.

When three Freedom Riders were kidnapped at gunpoint and found murdered in Mississippi, no white women were listed as defendants during the trial.

And while far too many white females stood united with their spouses and also benefited from segregation’s cheap labor, even the white female at the center of 14 year old Emmet Till’s brutal murder wasn’t accused or arrested.  Because she wasn’t the one who killed him. The killers were males.

Stockett manages to change the focus on who the real culprits of segregation were, and who committed most of the atrocities against innocent African Americans. Radical males in league with, or sympathetic to the “cause” of the KKK. Males who looked the other way when beatings and the bombing of homes occurred. Males who believed in the separation of races and with civility, political power and prestigue, sought to keep it that way.

So why does The Help downplay the participation of white males in antagonizing African Americans during segregation?

I have my theories. But they’re just that. Theories.

One, I think out of respect for her grandfather and the other males in her life, and possibly her hometown, the author dared not go there. Because then the true horrors of a system that de-humanized one race and de-sensitized another would have to be fully explored.

Two, as the author told Katie Couric in an interview:

“There’s no way I could have harmed any of my main female characters. I just didn’t have it in my heart to do it.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjIowZrH4iM

 

And in yet another interview, the author explains:

“Oh gosh, I’m not funny at all. I don’t like writing too much trauma. I want to be entertained myself as well as the readers; I can’t stand too much trauma. I think the book needed some humour.”

Interview with Boof of The Book Whisperer

http://boofsbookshelf.com/2010/06/11/interview-kathryn-stockett-author-of-the-help/

 

By making the villains women, or really,  just one woman in the novel named Hilly Holbro0k, it took the pressure off.

How much harm can one woman do? Especially since readers, and more importantly readers in the coveted women’s fiction market would probably reject a book that spoke too much truth. Better to let them read a sanitized, less upsetting version. One they could identify with, so it was important to include a character like EugeniaSkeeter” Phelan. A naive young wanna be writer, who ultimately ends up the heroine of the book. But even at the end of the novel Skeeter is in denial about segregation. She leaves the maids she convinced to help her write the exposé on their working conditions, seemingly for a  job in New York.

Skeeter also leaves to escape a type of white segregation. She’s now ostracized from the very society she grew up in. Yet the maids are not that fortunate. The author has them facing no more than a loss of income for their participation. But segregation was much more insidious than that. And retribution took many forms.

There’s no way to make segregation anything but what it was. It wasn’t slavery, but it was pretty darn near close.

I will agree that women, while thought of as the weaker sex, can be cunning and cut throat. Still, not many plotted, kidnapped and lynched back then.

By concentrating the majority of the novel on women, and drenching the pages with secondary tales showing the affection between the black help and the children of those oppressing them, Kathryn Stocket took a pass on the murders and human rights violations during those times. She simply name dropped and skimmed over assaults, never going into detail but included just enough information to acknowledge such things happened. But the message in The Help’s pages are crystal clear.  Don’t rachett up the fear. Pull the heartstrings instead.

One reviewer noted this, though the novel was still given a stellar recommendation:

“Smartest of all, Stockett has downplayed the horror that was Mississippi in 1962. Back then, it wasn’t just Medgar Evans shot in the back outside his home, it was the leaders of state government defining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as ”Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons and Possums.” And more, and worse.”

Jesse Kornbluth, Editor of HeadButler.com

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-kornbluth/is-the-help-more-than-a-s_b_333448.html

 

Kornbuth also believes this about the novel:

“The black Southern dialect will someday seem mawkish; today, it still sounds right.”

And this:

“The maids are long-suffering, delightful, spicy; they’re a dream team of strength, wisdom and compassion. The white women — and this is the novel’s big achievement — are small-minded and pitiable, but they’re never cartoon villains. And the men are in the background; there’s no messy sex to distract readers”

Keep in mind this is a liberal reviewer, whose opinion of the novel was reprinted in the Huffington Post. And he calls Medgar Evers “Medgar Evans.”

So while characters like  Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter’s romantic suitor can be called a heel, he’s not a racist. At least not one who’d harm a black person, even when he learns his girlfriend has secretly been meeting with black maids on an explosive book, one that’s not about “Jesus”.  And while Carlton Phelan, Skeeter’s father and for that matter her brother, also named Carlton benefit from segregation, nothing they do in the book implicates them. They’re neither hot or cold. They’re written as if they’re southern liberals smack in the middle of old friends who most certainly aren’t.

Even the naked pervert is given a pass. For it’s Minny, the wise cracking, “sassy” maid, the one who embodies screen maids of old,  with her bossy but mirthful  image of a black domestic , it’s Minny whom the author uses to attempt a physical attack. With a knife no less.

The author slaps the African American characters with negative traits that actually fall in line with labels that have dogged the culture for years. Many of the black males are painted as “no-account” or absentee fathers who run off, possibly fearing the responsibility of raising a child.

Aibileen, the martyred maid has one such mate she dubs “Crisco.” A “no-account” husband who’s run off with another woman and left her to raise their son alone.

Constantine, the other domestic martyr also has her lover run off and leave her with a near white looking  baby.

Minny fares no better, confiding that her “no-account” daddy was a drunk, and her husband Leroy is a drunk who abuses her.

Yet the males who controlled segregation in the south are portrayed as upstanding citizens. Men who hold down jobs, love their wives and  are generally respectful to their black help.

This is why I call The Help “Segregation lite.”

It’s a book that is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of this generation.

And like her character Skeeter, I have to wonder if Kathryn Stockett was in denial.

To quote a reader and frequent commenter on this blog named Karen:

To me it feels as though Skeeter never really comes to an understanding of what she’s doing. Is she fighting to dismantle a form of white supremacy or is she building up her professional portfolio with an edgy little project that has to stay secret?

Does she even understand what racism is? It’s not just Hilly being mean and ignorant. I want her to come to the awareness that racism is what built her home, kept her fed, and paid her way through college… that racism is what allows her to be the nice white lady who writes a book and gets a few pats on the back from the less powerful people who depend on her.

I want the veil to roll back enough for her to see herself as something less than a hero.

And yes, I want her to have to make some tough decisions and face some real consequences. I don’t see how she has either the strength of character or the bonds of love that would enable her to stand strong against racism in the face of terror.

To paraphrase, does Stockett even understand what racism is? It’s not just being mean and ignorant. I want her to come to the awareness that racism is what allows her to be the nice white lady who writes an erroneous and insensitive book and gets a few pats on the back from the less powerful people who depend on her.

Because the author, in seeking to preserve the honor of the white southern male, and injecting humor to lighten the sting of segregation, dishonors the countless men and women who toiled under segregation.

 

To be continued…

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