The Epic FAIL of The Help

Posted on July 17, 2010

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How did this happen?

How did the promising debut of a talented author get published with clear stereotypes, disturbing observations concerning a whole race, regional dialect stripped from one group in order to elevate their status, and wishful, revisionist history wrapped in the bow of “but it’s great women’s fiction!”

 Did the agent not see it?

Surely the publisher must have noticed it. And what about the author? Since it’s her creation, didn’t she note, that in a book meant to pay “homage” to a woman who’d  worked hard all her life, a woman the very author describes as “sweet” and “reticent” to talk about “tricky” issues on race, how did the author go so far off course with her good intentions?

All I have are public statements by the author, the agent and the publisher. There are statements by the actress who won the role of Minny, but she’s also the individual the author, Kathryn Stockett watched and imitated for the character’s “voice.” And I’ll post excerpts of  stunning reviews for the book. Glowing appraisals that note the discrepancies in the story and even the characterizations, but chose instead to ignore them in favor of the book’s “message.”

It’s clear that a disproportionate number of white readers enjoyed the book. It’s also clear that an even greater number, (though small in comparison with those both white and black who rave about the novel) of individuals (both white and black) have another view. Like myself, these outraged readers point to how the novel plays up stereotypes in favor of watering down the true horrors of segregation. That the book is dedicated, not to the maid the author says inspired her, but her grandfather, one of the beneficiaries of  the system known as segregation is not altogether ironic, since The Help reads as a love fest of sorts to the southern male.

That many of these very males were the ones inflicting terror, rape, and murder on innocent African Americans  and others who fought in the name of equality seem to be lost in this book’s “message.” But how was this missed? Is the gulf between blacks and whites still so vast that even civil rights history is viewed differently by some? Or has the history of African Americans, specifically the history of one of the greatest struggles for equality this country has known, become obsolete to an American education system already struggling?

Perhaps in the end, only documented history can refute a book of fiction based in part on fact. One can only hope…

Early signs that there may have been a problem:

Why the different covers, one for American readers, and another for UK and overseas buyers?

Note the US cover is almost Disney-esque, three little birds, a cheerful yellow, with no hint that the subject matter deals with race or segregation. It’s almost as if the book is a lullaby of verse. The UK cover is much more direct.

For more on The Help’s two covers and on the American publishing industries’  most recent controversy of “whitewashing” covers, see the post “A Tale of Two Covers”

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/a-tale-of-two-covers/

Curiously,  in several interviews published in 2009, the author makes these statements:

Interview with Michele Norris of National Public Radio

Excerpt:

“I guess when I felt like I was having a conversation with Demetrie, but, Michele, I didn’t get it all right. I took liberties that made me feel like I was telling the story in the way it should be told, but I never considered when I was writing how it was going to make other people feel.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=120966815

And:

 Interview with Clair Suddath of TIME magazine

“On the one hand I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.”

  http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html 

And still another admission:

 Interview with Sarah Prior of the UK site BookRabbit

“…I kind of braced myself for a lot of criticism, I’m still kind of bracing myself waiting for it, I’m sure it’s coming at some point, but it hasn’t come yet.”

http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/interview-with-kathryn-stockett-and-win-a-copy-of-the-help/

In addition, there’s the polished PR response from the author on Penguin’s official site:

 At first, I wasn’t nervous writing in the voice of Aibileen and Minny because I didn’t think anybody would ever read the story except me. I wrote it because I wanted to go back to that place with Demetrie. I wanted to hear her voice again. But when other people started reading it, I was very worried about what I’d written and the line I’d crossed. And the truth is, I’m still nervous. I’ll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right.

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

 

But if there’s no issue with the novel, especially according to the glowing reviews the book has garnered, then what was Stockett anticipating? And what of  her statement to Michele Norris of NPR, wasn’t that acknowledging the building controversy over the book,  the “criticism” Stockett is still bracing for?

In order to find out what the author could be referring to, it’s best to start at the beginning. Here Stockett is quoted talking about the formation of the novel:

“I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, ‘Hmm, that’s good.’ “

I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, “Hmm, that’s good.” 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. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/30306809

So one African American character represented two at first. Now read how she says she developed Minny’s character:

“I had an actress friend, uh she was really an acquaintance at the time. Her name is Octavia Spencer and she’s so amazingly talented. She um, you know she… I would watch her at parties and I would watch her mannerisms and her gestures and she’s just hysterical.  And she’s very well educated and extremely intelligent and but you know,  Octavia, she will tell you like it is.

And I started picking up on that and trying to incorporate that in the character Minny. And uh, still not knowing Octavia very well when I approached her I said hey, I wrote a book and you’re one of the main characters. She just rolled her eyes and walked away.” http://media.barnesandnoble.com/?fr_story=59e76c8fa39941fb2ff1013f7928b8ed42d449c2&rf=rss

What’s difficult to discern from this answer is whether Stockett actually “knew” any African Americans before undertaking writing in a “black” voice (as in friends for a number of years and not just associates on the job, or “knew of” in passing), or if she was just looking for someone who fit the “type” she was going for in her novel.

Stockett repeats this “How I met my Minny” story for Penguin’s Publishing site:

“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. ‘ ” http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

Stockett and Spencer are introduced by none other than the man who’d eventually direct the movie version of the book ,Tate Taylor:

“Tate introduced her to the actress Octavia Spencer, who was the inspiration for Minny Jackson in the book.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

So once Stockett had her Minny, how did she approach creating Skeeter, a character who eventually takes over the whole story?

From an interview with Mokoto Rich of the NYTimes

She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html?_r=1

And what of the lesser characters, like one who should have an obvious  southern accent, Miss Celia Foote from Sugar Ditch? 

‘I had a lot of fun writing Miss Celia,’ Stockett says. ‘I wanted to create a character who’s so poor that they’re beyond prejudice. But in terms of dialogue? Hers was the hardest to capture. When you really get down into deep, thick redneck accents, you kinda have to take out all your teeth before you can really pull it off. But I do love those accents,’ she sighs.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

Unfortunately, either Celia’s “redneck” accent got lost in the editing of the book, or Stockett’s “mis-remembering”. Celia, like the other white characters has no noticeable southern accent in The Help.

Here’s an example of her speech:

“This is…Celia Foote. My husband gave me this number here and I don’t know Elizabeth, but…well he said she knows all about the Children’s Benefit and Ladies League”

Aibileen thinks, This woman talk like she so deep from the country she got corn growing in her shoes.

“I give her your message,” I say. “What’s your number?”

“I’m kind of new here and, well, that’s not true. I’ve been here a pretty good stretch, gosh, over a year now. I just don’t know anybody. I don’t…get out much.” (Pg  25)

 

“Captured by ‘the voices, and the humor and the authenticity’ of them.”

So, as the book made its way to agents, did anyone else note there could be problems with the novel? Here’s what the agent and the publisher reportedly said:

Ms. Ramer said she was immediately captured by “the voices, and the humor and the authenticity of them,” and signed Ms. Stockett right away. She sold the manuscript to Ms. Einhorn over a weekend in the fall of 2007.

I put in bold a repeated sentiment about this novel, especially from many white readers. Note that even the agent appears okay with the stripping of regional dialect for the southern whites, and the addition of a very broad one for the African Americans in the novel. So the question is, was this deliberate, did all parties really feel whites in the south should read as though they spoke with no southern vernacular? But most important, are African Americans viewed by some writers and those in publishing as a monolithic group with overly thick, almost incomprehensible dialect?

 

“We ironed out a few wrinkles”

In an interview with Clair Suddath of TIME magazine, Stockett explains how the book took shape with the agent:

“And then finally Susan Ramer at Don Congdon agreed to take it on. I couldn’t even believe she was excited about the book. We ironed out a few wrinkles and then she sent it out. In my mind, it was like, a week before it was published. But maybe that’s because the five years of rejections made it seem so short. She only sent it out to three publishers.”

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html

Apparently none of those “wrinkles” included the any of the offensive depictions of the African American characters, in description, dialect, and sociology:

How his foot fell asleep and he say it tickle. I told him that was just his foot snoring. And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years  old. It’s always nice to see the kids grown up fine. (Pg 91) – Aibileen

While visiting Constantine, this character talks about playing with two little girls  who were “so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary.” (Pg 62) – Skeeter

 Minny’s husband comments on her pregnancy (this zinger comes after having five other children) “I thought you don’t get tired until the tenth month”(Pg 406 ) – Leroy  

Plenty a black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. but it’s just not something the colored woman do. We got the kids to think about. (Pg 311) – Minny discussing leaving Leroy with Aibileen.

And so the book is picked up by a publisher, warts and all.

Not bad for a manuscript that was shunned as Stockett shopped it to agents. She stopped counting at 45 rejection letters, but kept at it until Ramer snapped it up after reading a few pages. What others didn’t see — or care to read — was immediately evident to Ramer.

“Reading it, you say, ‘I’ve got to have this,’” Ramer says.

She was able to sell the book in a matter of days. Publisher Amy Einhorn chose it to launch her own imprint at G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

“We editors like to say that the books we publish are wonderful,” Einhorn says. “If we’re being truthful, the fact is books of this level don’t come along often. Everything I keep hearing from people is, ‘I can’t believe that’s the first book you launched your imprint with because it’s so amazing.’ It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Maybe statements like this, had they been meant for the white characters would have gotten a more visceral reaction:

“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster.” Pg 24 Minny talking to Aibileen about her husband’s lover.

I wonder how that would have played to have Skeeter say that to Elizabeth. Or Miss Walters to Hilly? But I suppose there’s no way even a hint of venereal disease would be applied to a white character.

We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greatest no-count you ever known.  (Pg 5) Aibileen, joking about what she taught her son to say about his father.

Why not Charlotte Phelan telling Skeeter and Carlton Jr. to call their father “Crisco?” Or must the fantasy that just about every southern white male is an upstanding, loyal husband remain intact, and the majority of African American males are the ones who should be viewed as “no-account.” Which is exactly what the book does.

 

The PR machine begins working in earnest for the book:

“You will be swept away as her characters work, play and love during a time when possibilities for women were few but their dreams of the future were limitless.”

- author Adriana Trigiani from the book jacket.

I must have missed the sections where Aibileen and Minny fell in love. I did see where Skeeter landed a man. Oh wait, maybe it’s the love Aibileen had for Mae Mobley. Or maybe the love Minny had for cooking. Yes, that’s the love. And as for their dreams? What dreams did the author reveal that Aibileen or Minny had?

As the flap on the book proclaims “Three ordinary women are about to take an extraordinary step.”

Well, somehow two of them got shortchanged. Because the only character who actually had a “journey” was Skeeter, even though the book is titled The Help and was supposed to be about Aibileen and Minny. True, Minny has a paragraph where her mother wanted her to become a teacher. But as it’s quickly explained, Minny becomes goes to work because her father’s a drunk (once again, another no account black man who’s a drunk in the novel) and her sister’s heart problem (let me go straight to the novel. Minny says But with my sister’s heart problem and my no-good drunk daddy, it was up to me an Mama. (Pg 38)

And because Stockett apparently had no backstory for Aibileen, she winds up telling Skeeter that she never thought about being anything other than…wait for it…a maid.

This is a screenshot from Disney’s classic movie Fantasia. Newer versions of the movie don’t have this scene, but it can be still viewed on YouTube. This “maid” centaur named Sunflower is buffing the hoofs of the lovely white centaur. Images like these are part of what the struggle for civil rights were about. That whites would see African Americans as more than just domestics to attend to their every need. Though this image is from the 1940s, even this animated feature made fun of the station in life African Americans were forced into.

So why would an author, in 2010 write a character who states:

That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. (Pg 189) - Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach.

A. Cockroach.

I scoured the book to find where Skeeter or any other white character had a crisis of confidence, perhaps comparing themselves to a mouse or to a rat, or even a worm. Surely there was one, like the two scatterbrains Celia or Elizabeth? Couldn’t find it. And when I started, I highly doubted that I would find such a passage. Stockett claims of  doning the persona of a black woman due to “good intentions” and paying “homage” yet the novel reveals she just how badly her slipping into “blackface” was a poor exercise in judgment.

Her version of a black woman is someone who belittles members of her own church and her own family (Minny)

Loathes the black male due to her own mistake in picking the wrong man (Minny)

Continues to bear children with a man who abuses her (Minny)

Smacks her own child for laughing at Celia, someone she herself laughs about (great role model that Minny, after assaulting her daughter Sugar)

And yet, as a black woman I’m supposed to identify with this woman? For what? and HOW? Minny as written, is a buffoon. Stockett has her salivating over food, lacking the self discipline keep her big mouth shut, foolish enough to speak ill of the civil rights movement because she doesn’t have her priorities straight, and in a HUGE brain fart, going outside to confront a naked pervert  though she’s in a locked house with this reasoning “I have to get him first

Never mind she can’t defend herself against the husband who routinely beats her (Leroy)

Stockett has this victim of almost daily abuse putting herself in danger, while she tells Celia to lock the door behind her.

And so Minny threatens the pervert with a knife, A. Knife. A well known stereotype about African Americans. And this character, overweight as she is, chases the man and runs out of breath. Somehow I believe this scene was supposed to be slapstick funny. I found it offensive, no different from Willie Best or Mantan Moreland stretching their eyes at seeing a ghost, or when Disney had Japanese actor Mako screaming that a Great Dane was a “Rion” (it was supposed to be quite funny how the Japanese pronounce “Lion”) The movie was Disney’s 1966 comedy The Ugly Dachshund

There’s a website called Black-face.com, with clips and photos of the many actors and actresses who were cast in roles primarily to capitalize on African americans as objects of ridicule just for being black. http://black-face.com/blackface-actors.htm

Here are some similarities these actors/actresses have with The Help:

Louise Beavers, prototype for the Aunt Jemima pancake character

Mantan Moreland and his famous expression

Most of the actors Hollywood chose to portray maids, porters, chauffeurs, doormen, butlers, janitors and other domestics were overweight and dark in complexion.  In The Help Aibileen is described as “dark” and “plump” and Minny is described as short, fat and dark.
See the similarities?

Willie Best AKA Sleep 'n Eat

 Based on how Stockett has crafted the character of Leroy (Minny’s husband) Willie Best could have played him.

To be continued…

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