Ms. Cooper, I don’t know if you have a snowball’s chance in hell to win this case, but you have my sincere thanks for filing it.
Because as someone who’s read the novel and agrees that the characterization of Aibileen Clark is not admirable, but merely the blindly loyal minority caricature handed down from generation to generation, I thank you.
I suspect this lawsuit was the only way to get many of the readers (and Stockett herself) who readily accepted the use of stereotypes and offensive dialogue to wake up. But you can’t win them all. There will still be readers who just won’t get how Stockett dusted off old caricatures of blacks and made them “new” again.
The deception of this novel, in my opinion, started when I saw the opposing covers. The one on the left is the Disney-esque American version, on the right is the one used overseas:
But according to Ablene Cooper, it started much earlier, possibly at the book’s inception.
If, what Cooper’s lawsuit alleges is true, the irony in all this can put in one word: Entitlement
The book within a book has a line where Stockett’s main protagonist, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan says this in order to sell the premise to an editor:
“. . . everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered all that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.”
Skeeter then responds with a lie.
“The first interviewee is . . . eager to tell her story.”
To which the editor asks, “Miss Phelan, this Negro actually agreed to talk to you candidly? About working for a white family? Because that seems like a hell of a risk in a place like Jackson, Mississippi.”
I sat blinking. I felt the first fingers of worry that Aibileen might not be as easy to convince as I’d thought. Little did I know what she would say to me on her front steps next week. . .
“She has agreed. Yes, she has.” Is Skeeter’s reply. (Pg 106)
But Aibileen refused to participate, and has to tell Skeeter once again:
“I already told you, I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that book, Miss Skeeter. . . please find you another colored maid. A youn’un. Somebody . . .else.”
And Skeeter states:
“But I don’t know any others well enough.” I am tempted to bring up the word friends, but I’m not that naive. I know we’re not friends. (Pg 106)
Did life possibly imitate art?
Skeeter didn’t initially have Aibileen’s permission, yet she states that she did. Stockett is accused of going ahead with using Ablene Cooper as the inspiration for Aibileen Clark, without Cooper’s say so.
Is it even conceivable that Stockett would do that?
Stockett’s admitted in previous interviews that two women were used to create the characters of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson.
“She based the voices of some black characters on the voice of Demetrie, the African-American maid who worked for her family for years.”
“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.
So the author has a precedent of watching subjects who’d eventually populate her novel, particularly black individuals. But why observe someone only to come away with character traits that repeat overused stereotypes of the black culture?
Stockett has stated that Aibileen was based upon her grandparent’s maid Demetrie. Unfortunately Demetrie died when the author was just sixteen. Stockett apparently was given the blessing of actress Octavia Spencer to craft the “sassy” character of Minny, who’s not funny or admirable in my opinion. The issue is whether Ablene Cooper, also called “Aibee” (this nickname is used in the book for Aibileen Clark) can prove Stockett used her likeness and name without her expressed permission. And that Stockett’s depiction is damaging to Ms. Cooper.
After the suit was filed, Stockett offered an official statement, here in part:
” . . . As readers of The Help know, my Aibileen is a true heroine: she is intelligent, an author, a devoted servant of the Lord and a good mother.” – excerpt from Kathryn Stockett’ s official response to Ablene’s Cooper’s lawsuit.
Would that be a “heroine” as in standing around silently seething as the only villain in the novel, Hilly heaps on insult after insult like:
“Nobody wants to sit down on a toilet seat they have to share with them . . . Aibileen, you like having your own toilet, don’t you?”
Aibileen answers her with a “Yes ma’am.”
Or Stockett having the character give out advice like this:
. . . 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)
While voicing insensitive inner quips like these:
As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one. (Pg 396)
In another scene from the novel, Skeeter asks Minny:
“Minny, do you and Leroy ever talk about ever talk about civil rights?” Miss Skeeter ask. “When he comes home from work?”
While Aibileen thinks this about her “Best” friend: Minny had that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come home from work. He push her around.
Besides that, Stockett has the character telling a male worker who happens to be black to urinate in the bushes:
“I spec you gone have to go in the bushes. back a the house. “ I hear myself say, but I wish it weren’t me.” “Dog’s back there, but he won’t bother you.” (Pg 20)
Did Kathryn Stockett unknowningly give her detractors and the woman at the center of the lawsuit the means by which to prove her wrong?
Taking a look at the novel and also Stockett’s interviews, troubling issues emerge.
First, that the author has previously admitted to using two real life individuals, both African American females to pattern her characters after. Here’s what the author said about crafting the character of Minny:
“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.’ “
Minny is the cantankerous, “sassy” maid, a character straight from the mold of Mammy in Gone With The Wind. All Stockett did was put Mammy and Delilah, the docile, sweet as saccharine maid from Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life together in one book.
What these characters share apart from their skin color is the need to put their white charges first and foremost, nurturing, coddling and protecting younger white counterparts (Aibileen with Skeeter and Mae Mobley, Minny with Celia, even though she professes she’s not like that) while retaining and spewing negative ideology sometimes against themselves, their families and their community.
Kathryn Stockett has Minny smack her own child in defense of Celia’s “honor” when the girl jokes about Celia being drunk at the Junior League Benefit. The bossy maid stereotype wins out over the abused wife, as Stockett turns Minny into an abuser of her own child.
Stockett also created women who are surrogate Mammies, a much too common fall back character in literature and film.
“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.” Micki McElya in “Clinging to Mammy The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America”
So the caricature of a character like Aibileen is nothing new. Author Fannie Hurst had the maid Delilah make this statement about her absentee husband in the novel Imitation of Life:
Bea, the main white protag asks Delilah “You have a husband?”
And Delilah responds with “Died six months ago in the Atlantic City Hospital of a lung misery that brought us here from Richmon’. A white nigger, miss, that you’d never think would’ve had truck with the likes of me. God rest his soul. It wasn’t ‘til after de Lawd took him dat I learned it was a bigamist’s soul. Ef you don’t believe I kin housekeep, miss, wid a baby under my arms, try me.”
In another “Classic” tale of race, here’s what author Edna Ferber has Queenie say about her own husband in the much beloved novel that spawned the musical play Showboat:
Queenie: “That shif’less, no-’count Jo knew about cookin’ like you do, Cap’n Andy, Ah’d git to rest mah feet now an’ again, Ah sure would.” (Pg 118)
And here’s what Stockett repeated in The Help, as Aibileen trains her son to say this about her absentee husband:
One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start calling daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off with his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known. (Pg 5)
Stockett imbues Aibileen with a dose of self loathing regarding her own skin color:
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)
Yet Aibileen’s protective, maternal side routinely comes out when she’s dealing with the white characters of the novel, namely Mae Mobley and Skeeter, even though it’s clear the character doesn’t feel as positive about her own self:
“How you like your teacher?” I (Aibileen speaking here) ask her.
“She’s pretty,” she say.
“Good,” I say, “You pretty too.” (Pg 392)
Miss Leefolt starts screaming for Mae, “Mae Mobley? Mae Mobley Leefolt!”
Elizabeth has just noticed her child has gone missing from the kitchen. “I told you to eat in your high chair, Mae Mobley. How I ended up with you when all my friends have angels I just do not know…”
And at two years of age, Mae wrinkles her brow and tells Aibileen “Mae Mo bad.”
Aibileen thinks, the way she say it, like it’s a fact, make my insides hurt.
“Mae Mobley, I got a notion to try something.” Aibileen tells her.
“You a smart girl?”
Mae just looks at her.
So Aibileen frames it in the form of a statement next. “You a smart girl.”
And Mae repeats “Mae Mo smart.”
And here’s Aibileen crying tears over Skeeter, though Stockett has no scenes allowing Aibileen to cry over a son’s untimely death two years ago:
That night I lay in bed thinking. I am so happy for Miss Skeeter. She starting her whole life over. Tears run down my temples into my ears, thinking about her walking down them big city avenues I seen on tee-vee with her long hair behind her. (Pg 437)
But did Aibileen really do anything in the novel for Stockett to call her a “heroine?” Especially since the author went on a book tour, touting how brave Skeeter was for meeting in secret with the maids here:
Since it appears that many readers believe Aibileen is an admirable character it may stem from scenes like these, where Aibileen suffers in silence, even when faced with the indignity of listening to Hilly say things like this:
“Separate but equal. . .that’s what Governor Ross Barnett says is right, and you can’t argue with the government.” (Pg 185).
“But Aibileen-Miss Hilly smile real cold-”colored people and white people are just so . . .different.” She winkle up her nose. (Pg 186)
Stockett also writes the character as if Aibileen can see the good in everyone, even someone as bigoted as Hilly. Let me rephrase that. Aibileen can see the good in the white characters under Stockett’s direction. Because she has Aibileen notice this about Hilly and Hilly’s children:
Heather, Miss Hilly’s girl, she pretty cute. Heather got dark, shiny curls all over her head and some little freckles, and she real talkative. One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss Will on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her momma too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it make me think about Treeloree, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)
Unfortunately there’s no similar scene where Aibileen notices how “pretty” Minny’s daughters are, or that Minny even loves her large brood.
What is repeated in scene after scene, is the bond Aibileen shares with Mae Mobley. That alone would make readers think she’s a saint:
“You okay Baby Girl?” I whisper. My ear smarting from her little fist. I’m so glad she hit me instead a her mama cause I don’t known what that woman would do to her. (Aibileen, Pg 19)
I got my prayer book out so I can write some things down. I concentrate on Mae Mobley, try to keep my mind off Miss Hilly. Show me how to teach Baby Girl to be kind, to love herself; to love others, while I got time with her. . . (Pg 192)
There’s also sympathy for the character, because she’s alone. Her only son died in a tragic work accident, and her husband left her years ago. The character takes almost obsessive pride in the white children she’s raised through the years. But under Stockett’s command, that surrogate motherly pride turns ugly, when the character deals with those not her “Special baby”.
We make it out the door and down the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for. (Pg 397)
In that scene, Minny tells her young son Benny to “be brave” as she gives him the task of waking up the violently abusive Leroy, her husband. Note that Aibileen’s protective side doesn’t come out, because in the novel, Stockett doesn’t really have any scenes where Aibileen dotes on her best friend’s children or any other African American children, like the children on her own street. That Aibileen would ignore the abuse her best friend’s children experience on an almost daily basis, while smothering Mae Mobley with affection reads as a double standard in my mind.
And Aibileen and Skeeter’s exchange here is a bit uncomfortable, as Aibileen almost grovels:
Skeeter is the narrator in this scene from page 160
“I spoke to Missus Stein this afternoon,” I say.
Aibileen’s hands freeze on the book. “I knew something was wrong. I seen it on your face.”
I take a deep breath. “She said she likes your stories very much. But . . . she won’t say if she’ll publish it until we’ve written the whole thing.” I try to look optimistic. “We have to be finished just after the new year.”
“But that’s good news, ain’t it?”
I nod, try to smile.
“January,” Aibileen whispers and she gets up and leaves the kitchen. She comes back with a Tom’s candy wall calendar. She sets it down on the table, flips through the months.
“Seem a long ways off now, but January ain’t but . . .two . . .four . . .six . . . ten pages away. Gone be here before we know it.” She grins.
“She said we have to interview at least twelve maids for her to consider it,” I say. The strain in my movie is starting to really come through.
“But . . .you ain’t got any other maids to talk to, Miss Skeeter.”
I clench my hands, I close my eyes. “I don’t have anyone I can ask, Aibileen,” I say, my voice rising. I’ve spent the last four hours posing over this very fact. “I mean, who is there? Pascagoula? If I talk to her, Mama will find out. I’m not the one who knows the other maids.”
Aibileen’s eyes drop from mine so fast I want to cry. Damn it, Skeeter. Any barrier that had eroded between us these past few months, I’ve just built back up in a matter of seconds. “I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I’m sorry I raised my voice.”
“No, no it’s alright. That was my job, to get the others.”
“. . .but how many? how many have you asked?”
Aibileen picks up her notebook, flips through a few pages. Her lips move, counting silently.
“Thirty-one,” Aibileen says.
She swallows hard, nods rapidly to make me understand how much she means it.
“Please, don’t give up on me. Let me stay on the project with you.”
I close my eyes. I need a break from seeing her worried face. How could I have raised my voice to her?
“Aibileen, it’s alright. We’re. . .together on this.” (Pg 161)
Stockett placed her characters squarely during boiling point of the Civil Rights Movement. And while Aibileen mentions going to the community concerns meeting, by this time not only grammar and high school students were joining the non violent protests, but the movement was at a historic turning point. Yet you wouldn’t know it while reading the novel. Stockett depicts Jackson, Mississippi as idyllic as Mayberry, briefly including racial skirmishes and Medgar Evers murder, but still not being completely honest about the explosive time period or that Jackson was a hot spot for racial unrest and violence.
By confining Aibileen and Minny to their respective ”kitchens” in addition to a singular church, Stockett’s 1960s Jackson is curiosly lacking in danger for the black characters (even though Stockett has Minny and Aibileen talking at length about it) The only character who faces any tense situations to hide her involvement while compiling the maids stories is Skeeter, since she has to worry about being stopped going to or from Aibileen’s house, and when Hilly finds damaging literature in her satchel. However even then it’s only implied and never materializes. Minny is harassed by Leroy regarding what she may be hiding from him, but Stockett makes it clear that Leroy beats on Minny for any perceived transgression.
Not every African American was involved with the civil rights movement. But there was hardly anyone “neutral” and that goes for white citizens during that historic time period. I’ve already stated how offensive I think Minny’s disparaging of an attempt to stage a sit-in reads. And all because the character has a personality clash with another character in the novel named Shirley Boon.
“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway” Minny (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. Minny (Pg 218)
And while Aibileen didn’t have to march on the front lines, at the very least her “Prayer book” could have included thoughts of safety for those putting their lives on the line for freedom, for jobs, for equality, not just for themselves but for minorities, LIKE HER. It was pretty sloppy research for Stockett to read The Clarion-Ledger archives and omitt the Citizen’s Council, formerly the White Citizen’s Council.
But that may have been too much for the author to confront. She’d have to take a look at her own family’s associations back then. But making it seem as if the maids stories were of equal or greater importance than the very real fight for freedom was a huge blunder in my opinion. Thus Minny distances herself from the community meetings in order to keep her appointments with Skeeter. But there was no need to disparage the very real civil rights activities to do so.
Is Aibileen truly an author?
On page 387 Skeeter is the narrator, and says this:
Minny doesn’t look worried about book sales. She looks worried about what will happen when the women of Jackson read what we’re written about them.
“We’ve written about them” as if Skeeter had some input in the stories. But Skeeter chose to leave out Constantine’s drama with Charlotte Phelan over her long lost daughter Lulabelle.
On page 399 Aibileen gets excited when the book is on TV:
All a sudden the Dial soap sommerical over. And there be Mister Dennis with my book in his hand! White bird look bigger than life. He holding it up and poking his finger at the word Anonymous. For two seconds I’m more proud than I is scared. I want to yell-That’s my book! That’s my book on the tee-vee! But I got to keep still, like I’m watching something humdrum. I can’t barely breathe!
” . . . called Help with testimonies from some of Mississippi’s over own housekeepers-”
Yet while the maids stories make up the bulk of the novel, Skeeter still claims she is the author, and Stockett has Skeeter dream up putting this on her resume on page 415:
Author of the Help, a controversial book about colored housekeepers and their white employers, Harper & Row (Pg 415)
Though she doesn’t dare include it, in her mind she’s the author.
On Page 417, when Lou Anne seeks info from Skeeter, she says this:
“I thought you should know what Hilly’s saying. She’s saying you wrote that book . . . about the maids.”
Skeeter quickly replies: “I heard that book was written anonymously. “
Also, because Stockett needed to beef up Skeeter’s involvement, the recent college grad with no real publishing experience jumps from jobless to local columnist to getting a publishing job in NYC in record time. Skeeter’s the one who edits all the stories. Skeeter’s the one calling the shots once the words come out of Aibileen’s mouth. So while Aibileen tells her singular tale, the book is made up of many such tales. Unfortunately, the maids are forced to deny they had any part, because of the time period. Though its known in the black community that their stories make up the potentially volatile exposé.
Aibileen may be able to rightfully claim the title of first black columnist for the fictional Jackson Journal, since Skeeter convinced Mr. Golden to hire her as the “anonymous” Miss Myrna. But there again, because Stockett makes it a point to tell the reader how Skeeter must constantly edit Aibileen’s text and words, especially when they first work together on the Miss Myrna column.
Is Aibileen a devoted servant of the Lord?
Well, she does go to church often enough. But exactly what does she do when she gets there besides laugh while Minny gossips about the other parishoners?
And would someone who’s a devoted servant of the lord even mention “Black magic?” or not be offended in this excerpt from the book (Minny is the first speaker, with Aibileen replying):
“You know Cocoa, the one Clyde ran off with?”
“Phhh, You know I never forget her.”
“Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.”
My mouth pop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?”
“I knew it make you worry if I told you. They think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” (Pg 24)
The “black magic” reference and Aibileen’s questioning that people may think she practices it, mixes religion with superstition. This is another stereotype of African Americans, that while we may profess to be Christians we’re really not. It’s also another moment where the reader can chuckle at how backwards Minny and Aibileen appear to be in their understanding of God and the bible.
Stockett also throws in a major negative myth used during segregation that spread like wildfire about African Americans. That we had “diseases”. In this instance she uses a character named Cocoa, the woman Aibileen’s husband Clyde has run off with. Perhaps Stockett believed she was giving Cocoa her comeuppance (by putting a venereal disease on the character). And I suspect plenty of readers laughed at this. But the negative connotation outweighs bringing the funny here.
If Aibileen is a “devoted servant of the lord” as Stockett claims in her official statement regarding the lawsuit, then the character would be offended at Minny’s statement, not curious. And she’d correct Minny, especially since Aibileen is seventeen years older. But in the scene she’s of the same mindset instead of being upset that people would even attribute such a thing to her. And really, where does God even fit in with all of this? I get that Aibileen has her “prayer book” but one thing does not equate to the other. Religion and belief in “black magic” are opposing ideologies.
Is Aibileen a good mother?
Most readers would say yes, especially after all the love and devotion the character showers on Mae Mobley. And the character’s recollections of her only son Treelore reflect a caring parent. The character is a devoted mother in the novel, though Stockett doesn’t allow the character to shed tears even though her son has only been dead two years when the novel begins. However Stockett has Aibileen play a rather nasty game with her son, where she teaches him to call his father “Crisco” because as Aibileen reasons, He’s the greasiest no-count you ever known (Pg 5).
No where in the novel is any white male either labeled anything similar, or do the white female characters offer up any backstory on how rotten their mates or previous mates are/were.
Stockett shows her bias here against not only black males, as Leroy, Connor, Clyde and Minny’s father fall into the “no-account” territory, but appears to believe that black females either demeaned or disrespected the black male enough to warrant them being the bad guy in her novel while the white male is treated quite the opposite (save for the naked pervert).
And speaking of the naked pervert, this was a scene that not only comes from out of nowhere, but it had no real purpose. It was a weird bonding between Minny and Celia, played for cheap laughs at Minny’s expense (the pervert gets to jack off and call her a fat nigger, while Minny runs after him in a supposedly comic fashion). Yet after he leaves, neither Minny or Celia cast negative insults his way. This is one instance where he could have been branded not only sick but “no-account”.
Whether it’s because he’s a white male, or because Stockett is unable to think of a colorful quip to use with him, the white characters come across as stiff and the African American characters are used repeatedly to add some “color” not only to the dialogue, but simply as sterotypes with their outlandish behavior.
To Be Continued . . .