A Book of Insults becomes a worldwide hit, and spawns a movie

Posted on April 24, 2011

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A Book of Insults AKA The Help becomes a worldwide hit, exposing a raw nerve that centers on whether segregation can ever be considered “entertaining” or “fun”.

UK Cover of the Help AKA The cover they dare not put on US bookshelves

  From the novel: “Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt as a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.” —Minny Jackson, Pg 24 of The Help,

Minny recites one of the lines that got her voted the funniest character in the book.        

But also got this line tagged as a repeated, cruel slur that originated as a myth regarding black immorality during segregation. And commonly used as an excuse to block equality and integration:

 

                                    

 

While reviewing the numerous interviews the author and her associates have done in marketing The Help, as well as the published interviews regarding the forthcoming film release, there’s a repeated phrase and mindset being used. And this common thread in my opinion, is as Minny states in the novel, “spoilt as a rotten oyster.”The Help is a Book of Insults. And what it shows unfortunately, is that historically repeated negative myths and outright lies about an oppressed culture have popped up yet again, so that a new generation are lured into laughing at African Americans. And what’s more chilling,  just like the author, those who eagerly lined up to get a piece of the profits from the film seem oblivious to it.

Click on image for a larger view:

She had a name. It was Laura Nelson.

Humor. Fun. Funny.

Remember these words. Because they’re central to the differences between why many people, both African American and white don’t find what’s printed in the novel the least bit funny, and why others do.

Excerpt from an early interview by the author:

“But there’s also a character named Minny. . .who was loosely inspired by the mannerisms and gestures of a friend of mine named Octavia Spencer. Octavia is an amazing actress in L. A. One of the most intelligent and versatile actresses out there today. And (laughs) I am so lucky that Octavia has agreed to go on the book tour with me. So, in the book event she’s actually going to be reading the parts of Aibileen and Minny and, and also take on a few of the white women’s voices which will be very funny to listen to and I will read the white roles and hopefully it will be a lot of fun.”

  ”. . .My greatest relief in this process is that Octavia Spencer, who is such an amazing actress and a comedian really, like wet yourself funny is coming on tour with me. So,while people will be listening to me read these rather dramatic white voices, they’ll get to listen to Octavia. It’ll be so fun to hear her just roll.”

The entire podcast can be heard and downloaded here (no transcript available):

http://covertocover.podbean.com/2009/04/26/kathryn-stockett-the-help/

Now, take a look at a recent interview by one of the producers, Chris Columbus:

“Some people may have a misconceived notion that the movie is more of a history lesson and less about character and emotion. To try to fit that all in a 60 or 90-second trailer is difficult, but I think the trailer we finally agreed on, for the first glimpse of The Help, lets the audience see that the movie is not only a complex emotional human drama, but at the same time it’s very funny and a lot of fun. You want to give the audience a sense of tone, a sense of flavor in the film. The more historical complexities, the more emotional nuances of the film, you can only get a sense of when you see the picture. To us it’s to tread lightly on some of the social and political issues in the trailer.”

Link: http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Exclusive-Chris-Columbus-Explains-What-To-Expect-From-The-Help-And-How-Gwen-Stacy-Changed-His-Life-24265.html

 

I find the expression used by one of the producers and Stockett’s eerily similar (there are more published statements from the author regarding her intentional need for humor in the novel, because she can’t stand trauma a bit further down in this post). It’s as if a meeting were held and making the film “fun” as well as “funny” was a PR ploy they voted on. They might want to re-think that. I sort of sensed the film was leaning towards being humorous  and even mentioned it in another post titled Making a Mockery, because I wondered if those behind the film thought they were being funny after viewing the trailer. You can view the trailer here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/19/the-help-emma-stone-stars_n_850843.html

Here’s what I noticed some time ago, that those backing the film may not have:

When Kathryn Stockett mentions at the end of her novel, “Not that much separates us. Not as nearly as much as I’d thought” she also has this telling line in the same section, at the beginning of  TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE. “I was too young to realize that what she was telling us wasn’t very funny.”

Sadly, as an adult, Stockett failed to realize what she’d put into her novel, the “funny” parts she had her African American characters state weren’t funny at all, but insults. And that these phrases were a recycling of negative ideology. In fact, they were part of the very excuses used to block equality and integration.

How could the publishers and now the producers of the movie not have seen this? Not only is it highly embarrassing, but explosive. A bombshell of insensitivity.

The negative repercussions surrounding the novel and the movie will be around for years to come. For in addition to maligning the black culture, sloppy editing (and research) leaves in a critical error on page 277 regarding the death of Medgar Evers. More on this major blunder and follow up statements the author actually made can be found here.

Old GE ad with the fried chicken and pickaninny stereotype. Notice the text "Yo' next range"

When a minority culture is maligned for years in society and on the movie screen, and in addition, expected to laugh at themselves by those in power, how can that warped psychology ever be thought of as acceptable? Have we learned nothing from past mistakes? The novel The Help wasn’t a satire. And it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy. But it sure reads like an offensive parody of African Americans.

It’s important for those who aren’t aware of the history of oppression blacks faced in America that what some, and I stress “some” whites may find amusing, is contrary to what many African Americans consider mirth inducing. In fact it’s totally the opposite.

Laughter incited by how backwards, simple, silly or ornery an African American appears to be, is offensive, not funny. It was offensive back in the day, and it’s still offensive now.

In the novel Stockett created characters who embodied the very stereotypes and harmful innuendo prevalent during segregation:

There was the myth that blacks steal – Yule May Crookle (note the last name) personifies this. Hilly runs about town, spreading the lie that black maids steal, which was a common negative myth about all African Americans. Yet Stockett creates Yule May Crookle, a maid who steals and is sent to prison, and whose last name seals her fate. Detailed info on Yule May Crookle can be found here

The myth that blacks carry diseases – Again, Hilly spreads this lie, but Stockett takes it a step further, inserting the Cocoa, Cootchie, Clyde dialogue where Minny discusses Aibileen’s ability to call down a venereal disease via the power of prayer and “Black magic” on pages 23 and 24.  More on this controversial scene can be found here

The myth of the black male being an absentee father, and a violent, ignorant brute – Stockett creates three males who embody this negative slur. Minny’s father and Clyde, Aibileen’s estranged spouse are labeled as  “no accounts”. Leroy is the stereotypical black brute, and this is when bigoted white males were lynching, assaulting and harassing any black male who dared to stand up to their oppression. Yet Stockett negatively paints the males she pairs with her three main black maids (Constantine, Aibileen and Minny), while giving the white males that populate the book a pass. Stockett “tells” the reader that Carlton Phelan is a “honest man” and that Stuart Whitworth, the heel who dumps Skeeter twice, is a “good man”. Even Senator Stoolie Whitworth’s actions in blocking James Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss isn’t at fault, but it’s because he’s merely following the will of his constiuents. Yet Stockett has no problem making a far reaching assessment of black males, having Minny state:

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about – Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

This is something Stockett dare not state about white males. Stockett not only plays favorites with the males of the novel, but a pattern emerges in her book, making the novel less of a “homage” to the maids who gave faithful service to their employers, but pages upon pages of insults to the black culture.

More on Stockett’s demeaning of the black male while elevating the white males in the novel can be found here.

I AM A MAN

       

“We fought during the war for America, Mississippi included. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn’t killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would.”  – – – Medgar Evers

The kick seen 'round the world

The myth of blacks having inferior intelligence – Most of the black characters mangle words, sentences and are used for laughs at their own expense. A few of the words the maids can’t seem to get right:

“Cadillac” instead of  “Cardiac” arrest. “Mal-nutritious” for “Mal-nurished”

“You don’t get tired, not until the tenth month” – The black brute stereotype, Leroy Jackson’s stupid observation to his pregnant wife Minny, and this after having five children with her.

What’s also unfortunate and not funny, is while compiling the posts for this blog I continually came across readers who also stated “Minny was so funny”  even though MINNY IS A VIOLENTLY ABUSED WOMAN.

And also, “Aibileen is admirable and wise”

I beg to differ, with a few more excerpts that consist of not only Stockett using her black characters to defame their own culture, but showing how the author failed to realize what she wrote wasn’t funny. But offensive. In addition, even the “golden girl” Skeeter got in on the act:

In the book Skeeter states Constatine was so close, I could see blackness of her gums (Pg 63)

Sometimes two girls from 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) – Skeeter

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

Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got kids to think about Minny Jackson (Pg 311)

Constantine, played by Cecily Tyson. Skeeter is played by Emma Stone. In the book Skeeter claimed to be able to see the blackness of Constantine's gums

Examples that demean African American skin color:

Sometimes two girls from 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) – Skeeter

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)

 The women are tall, short, black like asphalt or caramel brown. If your skin is too white, I’m told,  you’ll never get hired. The blacker the better.(Pg 257)  Skeeter

All the "blacker the better" maids in one room, as the film attempts to duplicate Stockett's words

Mammy lamp. Note the skin color

Mammy figurine. Again, notice the skin color.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Examples that show the characteristics of the maids in the novel default into the Mammy stereotype of  a large, dark, grammar demolishing, slow of intelligence stereotype:

“I was in attic, looking down at the farm,” Skeeter tells Constantine. “I could see the tops of the trees.”

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” (Pg 63) –Constantine’s reply to Skeeter

“Cat got on the porch this morning, bout gave me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Minny (Pg 48)

When Skeeter is mocked about her height, Constantine tries to comfort her with fuzzy math:

“How tall is you?”Constantine responds.

“Five-eleven.” Skeeter bemoans. “I’m already taller than the boys’ basketball coach.”

Well, I’m five-thirteen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.” (Pg 63) Skeeter and Constantine

Aibileen, though well read can’t figure out the difference between “pneumonia” and ammonia” and thankfully, at least one reviewer noticed the contradictions in how the character speaks:

Review by YaddaYadda for Newsvine.com

On page four, Aibileen is talking about “congealed salad”, yet on page 84 when Aibileen is telling Miss Skeeter how to keep dogs from getting into a trash can, she tells her to use “pneumonia” instead of “ammonia”. Aibileen knows how to say “congealed”, yet is confounded by the pronunciation of “ammonia”? Please.

http://monsterskin63.newsvine.com/_news/2010/01/25/3809001-book-review-the-help-by-kathryn-stockett

Aunt Jemima, still "large and in charge" even today

Body types of the lead African American females, and other blacks in the book-

Constantine wasn’t just tall, she was stout, she was also wide in the hips and her knees gave her trouble all the time  (Pg 61)- Skeeter

I sit across from Callie…she is wide and heavy and parts of her hang over the chair (Pg 259) – Skeeter

 Aibileen smiles, nods. Bertina waddles off to her pew (Pg 127) – Minny

As usual, she looks plump (Aibileen)  and respectible (Pg 126) – Minny

Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed. her thick arms crossedMinny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to.  (Pg 13)- Aibileen

Compare this with Stockett decribing Hilly coming apart, and you’ll see that being overweight or big, is not a positive, except when building the perfect Mammy:

Hilly’s smile is a fat child’s at the Seale-Lily Ice Cream window. The button on her red coat bulges. Skeeter (Pg 175)

Half her blouse is untucked, her fat stretching the buttons, and I can see (Hilly) has gained more weight. Skeeter (Pg 420)

After viewing the trailer, what I got was that the movie is determined to return not only African American females, but white females into their “place”. Again, going back to the author’s early interviews, Stockett has a need to inject her own humor into a subject that was anything but:

Interview with Boof of The Book Whisperer

Excerpt:

Boof: I found the book laugh-out-loud in places, particularly where Minny was concerned: was this deliberate from the start or did Minny’s humour develop during the writing process? Did you know you were funny before you started write?

“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.”

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

Another interview where the author talks about being “funny”

Interview with UK site BookRabbit

Excerpt:

I couldn’t stand to write a book that wasn’t funny or at least trying to be funny. And part of what I wanted to do was show the absurdity of the situation. But I really enjoyed trying to make people laugh, I can’t handle too much trauma!”

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

Perhaps the above line “I really enjoyed trying to make people laugh, I can’t handle too much trauma!” was one of the reasons the author had Minny making these utterly stupid and so not funny lines about attempted civil rights activity:

“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” Minny speaking of a person holding a community meeting concerning the Woolworth sit-ins (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 why does Stockett have Minny making such stupid statements? Because for whatever reason, Minny apparently can’t hold her tongue when dealing with a character named Shirley Boon. But there’s also another reason. Stockett sets up the maids stories to appear as great or of greater importance than the civil rights activity that actually went on in Jackson. 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 movement to do so.
 
By confining Aibileen and Minny to their respective ”kitchens” and also a singular church, Stockett’s 1960s Jackson is almost idyllic in its lack of racial problems. Hence the only character in danger is Skeeter, since she  has to worry about being stopped going to or from Aibileen’s house. However even then there’s no real danger, it’s only implied and never materializes.

It’s sadly ironic then, that the poster for the movie uses this as a tagline: “Change begins in a whisper”

Yes,  just like bullshit can be heard loud and clear.

Especially when the novel makes a point of showing Skeeter wasn’t out to change any laws. Or reveal herself to any established organizations like the NAACP, SNCC or CORE, or even individuals who were already working towards legislative change. Which would be a more significant and lasting change.

From the novel, Skeeter speaks first and then Minny:

“We want to show your perspective . . . so people might understand what it’s like from your side. We-we hope it might change come things around here. “

“What you thing you gone change with this? What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?”

“Now hold on,” I say, “I’m not trying to change any laws here. I’m just talking about attitudes and-.” Skeeter and Minny, Pg 164)

No, Stockett’s heroine of the novel, Skeeter doesn’t even appear to notice the civil rights organizations that were really putting their lives on the lines. Which is another glaring mis-step in the novel, especially since Skeeter wants to be a journalist. So while Skeeter sneaks around doing everything under the cloak of darkness and denial, teens  and college students march in Jackson, Mississippi. More on the youth movement in Jackson and throughout Mississippi can be found here:

http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/60/the-mississippi-civil-rights-movement-1955-1970-when-youth-protest

Because of documented historic facts regarding the real heroes during segregation, count me out as someone who can jump on board with the “Change” implication the movie wants to pump. Not only that, from the movie’s poster showing two black maids (where usually only one was highlighted in segregated Hollywood movies) “Change” certainly looks like simply more of the same.

For as much jubilation and adoration novels like The Help and its predecessors The Confessions of Nat Turner, Imitation of Life, Gone With The Wind, Showboat and others receive, little by little, as more individuals who know about the past come forward and speak out, the attention then turns to those who professed to “love” the book, ignorant of  the insulting sections. It calls into question how much diversity is in their lives, and how they look at African Americans NOW.

This isn’t something that can be dismissed by pretending it’s a difference of opinion. And it cant be covered over with a PR prepared statement like “While the book has flaws, we believe the film will address them and on the whole, audiences will be satisfied.”

In going for the Cross-over bucks, those behind the movie mis-judge the intelligence of viewers, simply by being in a rush to bask in the glow of  an all female The Blind Side from the 1960s.

All they’ve done is shown how little they knew or cared to know about the subject matter, entrusting it to individuals who grew up with skewed teachings about the black culture and possibly were influenced by, because as the author publicly proclaimed:

“But my older brother and sister and I weren’t allowed to bother Demetrie (real life maid Stockett claims she patterned Aibileen after) during her lunch break. Grandmother would say, “Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,” And I would stand in the kitchen doorway, itching to get back with her. Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention, white people didn’t sit at the table while a colored person was eating.”

Keep in mind while reading the last line, that Stockett grew up in the 70s and 80s, having been born in 1969. If you haven’t figured it out already, then Stockett makes it clear in another interview that her Grandmother believed in the separation of races  (Stockett’s grandmother quite possibly is the real life model for the Hilly Hilbrook character, and may be one of the reasons the family has strained relations with her now):

Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph

“Stockett is telling me about her grandparents, who played a big part in her life when she was a child. Her grandmother Caroline grew up in Shanghai in a family of missionaries (‘Grandmother went over there with her family to save the souls of the heathens’), returning to Mississippi when war broke out. ‘She came back to settle down and start a family with a very strict idea of how things should be between people of colour, coming from Shanghai, where there was no middle class. And of course that is exactly how Mississippi did things, so she fitted right in.’ “

Link: 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 for the author, while she may have truly had good intentions, having limited contact with the very culture she wrote about shows in passages of the novel (latching onto actress Octavia Spencer in what looks like a thinly veiled attempt to have an African American to promote her book doesn’t count). It’s possible Stockett may not have realized that what she believed were universally amusing anecdotes about blacks, were anything but. When the author goes as far as promoting her novel and pulling out one of the more offensive sections like “spoilt cootchie” and laughs at her words, frankly, she looks like an airhead as well as quite insensitive. Link to info on the video and screen shots can be found here 

To be continued . . .

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