Why THE HELP is no “Beautiful” story

Posted on February 19, 2011

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The Help isn’t a “Beautiful” story or “Beautifully written” story. But there sure are a lot of people who desperately want it to be, especially with all the positive reviews from some journalists and readers.

At its core, a plucky heroine (Skeeter) directs a group of maids to do some housekeeping. Cleaning and sanitizing Jackson, Mississippi’s conscience a bit.  This post explores what the book tapped into, and why the response is anything but heartwarming. Because Kathryn Stockett’s novel also brings up troubling questions about racial attitudes and ideology not only from long ago, but those that still exist today.

For those not enarmored with the book (like me) there were numerous red flags raised not just by the dialogue, but the depiction of characters in the novel. What many readers are responding positively to are actually negative, repeated stereotypes that were used to depict the black culture during segregation.

The Help follows a pattern similar to other famous novels on race, and in the process they too courted controversy. So it’s important to note that Stockett’s novel wasn’t the first, and it probably won’t be the last to include the following:

 
There’s currently a lawsuit pending against Kathryn Stockett by a maid who claims to be the real life inspiration for the character of Aibileen. More info on that suit can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/stockett-being-sued/

Actress Viola Davis portrays Aibileen in the film version of the novel

After the suit became public, the publisher (who also edited the pages of the novel) was quoted as saying:

“This is a beautifully written work of fiction, and we don’t think there is any basis to the legal claims.”

Maybe.

But if the case manages to go to trial (which probably won’t happen) and passages from the novel are excerpted, a jury may see it differently. Especially with the “character” of Aibileen voicing negative inner thoughts and dialogue like this:

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)

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. Aibileen’s  battle of wills with a cockroach (Pg 189)

“We was all surprised Constantine would go and… get herself in a family way. Some folks at church wasn’t so kind about it, especially when the baby come out white. Even though the father was black as me.” (Pg 358)

There’s even a section in the book where Aibileen wants to flee after hearing Leroy wake up raging at Minny’s son Benny. Truly, there’s nothing “admirable” about that.

The woman who filed the lawsuit,  the real life “Aibileen”must prove that Stockett used her likeness without permission. In addition, there’s the question of whether the character’s fictional depiction has harmed the real person.

While Stockett wrote a character some readers view as sweet, admirable and docile, she also imbued Aibileen with traits that don’t come off as positive. The fictional Aibileen exhibits a serious case of self-loathing for her skin color. Also,  this suppposed compassionate individual ignores the abuse her best friend’s kids are experiencing, while intent on protecting and instilling positive affirmations to Mae Mobley. As loving as Aibileen is meant to come across, Stockett inexplicably has the character lacking any emotional interactions aside from her deceased son, her various employer’s children and the novel’s main protag, Skeeter.

While in church, both she and Minny are more involved in gossiping about other parishoners than anything else, thus acting like a pair of grown up mean girls. In one of the more offensive scenes of the book, Stockett has them discussing the “spoilt coochie” afflicting the woman Aibileen’s husband ran off with named Cocoa. Now, one of the major stereotypical myths about African Americans spread was that we had “diseases”. Stockett references the character of Cocoa, someone who contracts a venereal disease and doesn’t get medical treatment until three months later. To add insult to injury, Stockett has Aibileen asking Minny, “You saying people think I got the black magic?” in the same scene.

So not only does Stockett have Minny and Aibileen discussing Aibileen’s supposed “Power of prayer” to call down a venereal disease on her rival, but Aibileen somehow wonders if people think she’s done it by “Black magic” which is yet another stereotypical myth regarding the black culture. Check out the actual comments below, from a few residents of Jackson in 1963.   

Click images for larger view:     

Women of Mississippi spread demeaning myths, scan from Clarion-Ledger 1963

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wim-wednesdays-in-mississippi, residents talk about blacks having venereal diseases and that northern agitators are communists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dispelling some of the novel’s myths:

Skeeter and the maids are friends or end up being friends.

It’s important that this be so, because then Skeeter will be more of a heroine to readers who identify with her.

But even the novel tells why they’re not.  Here’s Skeeter’s admission, in the scene where early on she’s attempting to get Aibileen to help her:

“But I don’t know any others well enough.” I am tempted to bring up the word friends, but I’m not that naïve. I know we’re not friends. (Pg 109)

Of course Aibileen changes her mind and helps Skeeter. She even gathers up more maids to interview. And where do they meet? Well they have to meet in secret over Aibileen’s small house, because Skeeter can’t be seen with them. The novel tries to cover this by playing up the danger that Skeeter, and not the maids would be in if their covert association is known.

Skeeter has to hide her car far down the street when she comes to visit Aibileen. There are also scenes of Skeeter’s fear of being around black people who aren’t smiling and friendly, like those of her childhood. I have to add, that Stockett having Skeeter recite lines like this truly dilute the notion of the book being “Beautiful”:

Sometimes two girls from the next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary (pg 62)

The “plucky heroine in danger ” comes out in scenes like this:

Skeeter is stopped by a police officer on her way to Aibileen’s house.

Hilly rumages through Skeeter’s satchel, finding “Negro Activist” material. There’s a scene where Skeeter must race to Hilly’s house to retrieve her statchel. There’s yet another scene where Hilly makes Skeeter grovel and lie about having the material in her possession.

Lou Ann wonders if Skeeter’s the anonymous author of the maids novel, and Skeeter’s afraid that this conversation is a trap that Hilly’s set (Pg 417)

Stockett even goes on a book tour and tells the crowd how “incredibly risky” it was for Skeeter to meet with the maids.

Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnItIYbzlLA&feature=related

Which makes me wonder if she even realized how “incredibly risky” it was just to be black in Mississippi during segregation.

You certainly wouldn’t know it by the book’s cover, a Disney-esque picture with three little birds. Of course Stockett had no control over which cover was used for the novel. But here’s the cover used to sell the book overseas:

The cover used overseas but not in the US

To her credit, Stockett did offer an explanation as to the differing covers.

In an interview with Parul Kapur Hinzen’s Book Blog for ArtsCriticATL.com, Stockett said:

“Americans are not comfortable talking about race. . .The U.K. was able to put a much more racially cognizant cover on because they’re not so sensitive about the subject, as I understand it. And they’re also talking about someone else. You know what I mean? We’re very self-conscious about the subject. If we were talking about the racism of, say, India, then maybe we could have put something relevant on the cover. They picked a cover [for the U.S. edition] that had absolutely nothing to do with the book. And I think they did it on purpose.”

http://www.artscriticatl.com/2010/05/author-appearance-kathryn-stockett

Her quote “If we were talking about the racism of, say, India, then maybe we could have put something relevant on the cover” reads as if someone in the publishing company gave her the official spin. The whole “we could have put something relevant on the cover” reads to me, as an author’s disconnect with the subject matter in her own novel. Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s wasn’t Mayberry. Real people died. There are still unsolved murders til this day. Individuals flooded into the city, college students included from around the country, both black and white in order to work towards voting rights and equality. Jackson was a major hotspot during that time period, yet you wouldn’t know it from reading the novel, and you certainly wouldn’t guess it by looking at the cover.

What’s also not talked about is one of the dirty little secrets of publishing. That a cover showing black faces would have probably sent Stockett’s novel into the “African American” section, and away from the coveted readership the publisher was aiming for. So the US cover of The Help also touches on another myth. That US readers won’t buy novels with a minority on the cover, and there are instances of some publishers “white-washing” covers because of it. More info this practice and recent examples can be found here: http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/a-tale-of-two-covers/

There’s also an excellent article on segregation in publishing here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/25/AR2010062504125.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

And here’s one on the lack of diversity in Children’s publishing titled “The Elephant in the Room” which shouldn’t be missed: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=700

The Ugly Truth Hurts

The Citizen’s Council, formerly known as the White Citizen’s Council isn’t mentioned in the novel. Yet this organization was influencial in publicizing their opposition to integration and the pending Civil Rights Legislation. Stockett not only omitts this from the book, but crafts the husbands and suitors of the main white protags as if they’re going along with segregation just to get along.

Much like the book’s US cover masks the subject matter on the pages, Stockett skillfully diverts who the real villains of segregation were. Many of the white males who had power and control, like some prominent businessmen and politicians are given a pass. Even though Stockett has her characters married to many of the movers and shakers in the community, she only uses Hilly to crack the whip so to speak, in order to keep everyone following segregation to the letter.

Unfortunately, a review of digitized copies of the Clarion-Ledger, the newspaper Stockett mentioned using as a reference while writing the novel reveals the true tone of many residents. There’s no “affection” to be found for black residents. Here’s but one example of what the Clarion and a companion newspaper, the Jackson Daily News routinely printed (click the image for a larger picture):

Excerpt from The Clarion-Ledger, June 1963 from the Editorial page

The novel wasn’t required to give a history lesson. But leaving out crucial information and watering down the seriousness of the time period simply to make the book more marketable makes it appear as though readers, especially American readers can’t handle too much truth. Never mind that currently, the USA is in two wars, there’s a financial crisis and a mortgage meltdown.

If there was a decision to PG the book because many Americans can’t take reading about the horrors of segregation, then what does it say for any other crisis we may face? Will 9/11 or some other event be glossed over and altered simply because it could be too upsetting for some readers, especially if the book targets female readers? While Stockett chose to focus on the “Affection” between black domestics and their white employers, in doing so she chose to be less than honest with her potential readership and in my opinion, with herself. By creating Aibileen and Minny as throw back caricatures who are hardly aware or even care about the civil rights movement boiling over in their own city, and using them primarily for humor, Stockett winds up repeating the mistakes of previous novels dealing with race.

Books like William Styron’s acclaimed Pulitzer prize winning and also controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Edna Ferber’s Showboat, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and now The Help  are just a few novels   initially lauded for their depiction of black characters but falling short when placed under scrutiny.

Far too often these novels have black characters who exhibit a self loathing of themselves and their culture, but reveal a deep seated love for whites. In The Help, not only does Aibileen share this tendency but also Minny. Even though Minny is an abused woman, Stockett has the character risking not only her life, but the life of the child she’s carrying to “protect” Celia Foote. In another rather offensive and frankly, weird scene, Stockett adds a naked pervert into the mix. Though the man is outside, Minny feels it’s her duty to go out and confront him with of all things, a knife. Again, Stockett taps into another stereotypical myth that dogged blacks during segregation. That we were quick to confront and used knives as the weapon of choice.

Excerpt from pages 306-307 of the novel:

Again, he stares at us through the window. And 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 to. I have to go out there. I have to get him first.

“You stand back, Miss Celia,” I say and my voice is shaking. I go get Mister Johnny’s hunting knife, still in the sheath, from the bear. . . I open the back door and slip out. Across the yard, the man smiles at me, showing a mouth with about two teeth. He stops punching and goes back to stroking himself, smoothly, evenly now.

“Lock the door,” I hiss behind me. “Keep it locked.” I hear the click. . . “I got me a knife!” I holler. I take more steps and he does too. When I get seven or eight feet from him, I’m panting. We both stare.

“Why you’re a fat nigger,” he calls in a strange, high voice and gives himself a long stroke. . .

“Nigger can’t catch me! Nigger too fat to run!”

I rush him hard from the bushes to the pool, heaving and panting. He slows at the edge of the water and I get close and land a good swing on his rear. . .

“Have a little pecker pie, nigger?” Come on, get you some pecker pie!”

. . .as soon as I look back up, whaaam! I stagger. The ringing comes harsh and loud, making me totter. I cover 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.

End of excerpt.

 

Celia Foote gets the squeals as the movie amps up the happiness factor during segregation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celia gives Minny a hug, which is supposed to make moviegoers chuckle and go "Awww"

Not only is that scene uncalled for, but it’s hardly “Beautifully written”. And it’s important to remember Minny is a character who’s been abused for fifteen years by her husband, Leroy. She has five children and is carrying a sixth. Yet the safely of her children, should anything happen to her doesn’t cross the character’s mind. No, Minny’s thoughts are for Celia’s safety.  Much like Aibileen’s thoughts are for Mae Mobley’s safety and well being, instead of also including Minny’s children who witness their mother’s abuse. 

There’s also a scene where Minny actually smacks her daughter Sugar, because the girl gossips about Celia. Sadly, the bossy maid stereotype appears have won out over a victim of domestic violence. Minny behaves contrary to all known medical data on battered women, just so she can provide laughs.

Next up is Yule Mae Crookle, a maid that Stockett has living down to her last name by stealing from Hilly, of all people.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly "Boo-hiss" Holbrook

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
To be continued. . .
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