“Skeeter Phelan Doesn’t Care About Black People”

Posted on August 3, 2011

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But neither does the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or Scarlett O’Hara.You wanna know why? Because they’re fictional characters. Their exploits are legendary and grand depending on who’s telling the story. But if we’re gonna have a fireside chat about “Miss Skeeter” then it’s important to take a look at the novel’s version of Eugenia “Skeeter’ Phelan, and the new and improved, revised version for the film.

With a nod to Kanye West for his highly surprising but ballsy comment during the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Telethon, I thought I’d use his line for this post.

Kanye’s infamous statement is made at 1:34 into the video clip. 

 

Another look at Mike Myer’s face:

Kanye West’s comment on Bush. Mike Myers is speechless.

 

 

Now take a look at Chris Tucker’s expression:

Chris Tucker tries not to react to Kanye’s statement, but his face says it all

 

 

Now back to Skeeter:

The touch Skeeter dared not do in the book but created for the movie. Skeeter never reached out to “touch” any black person in the daytime. In the novel, she “touches” Aibileen one rainy night to say she’s leaving Jackson, MS.

 

 

The Tao of Skeeter, or how Skeeter apparently saved African Americans by leading a Civil Rights movement from the kitchens of Jackson, Mississippi (with cookware by Emeril of course) is some powerful mojo. 

 

While the character was too much of a MarySue for my taste (you can see more of my reasons why in this post) I can understand why she’s an easy choice to identify with. While Hilly bosses people around, Skeeter does the same thing only she’s less threatening about it. Just persistent.

 

She’s model tall, and though Stockett describes her as a pale, thin blonde with a bump on her nose, these days “ugly” is the new beautiful for white models.

Model Lara Stone. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this model is hot right now.

Racialicious has an article by Guest Contributor Alex Jung, originally published at Fashion Mole going more into this trend here: 

 

 

 

Unlike the maids, when it was time to cast Skeeter an actress worlds apart from the character in the novel won the role.
But the film does attempt to “Skeeter” Emma Stone at least somewhat by crimping her hair:

Charlotte Phelan played by Allison Janey nags her daughter Eugenia aka Skeeter

 

 

The TV Ads for the movie state “See the secrets, the surprises . . .of  The Help” 

 

Okay. Then what exactly is the “secret” of Skeeter besides being persistent or driven by a burning ambition? 

 

Well, even in a roomful of her childhood friends she’s still technically alone. Her domineering mother controls her. Her “friend” Hilly shows how much she cares by building Skeeter up and then knocking her down. But the one thing that guides the character through the novel and means more to her than even Constantine, or finding her first real boyfriend, is her dream of working in publishing.

 

 

No one could say I didn’t work hard at Ole Miss. While my friends were out drinking rum and Cokes at Phi Delta Theta parties and pinning on mum corsages, I sat in the study parlor and wrote for hours- mostly term papers but also short stories, bad poetry, episodes of Dr. Kildare, Pall Mall jimgles, letters of complaint, ransom notes, love letters to boys I’d seen in class but hadn’t had the nerve to speak to, all of which I never mailed. Sure, I dreamed of having football dates, but my real dream was one day I would write something that people would actually read. (Skeeter, Pg 59)

 

 

Skeeter being the editor of Ole Miss student newspaper The Rebel Rouser will come in handy in examining the contradictory nature of this character (the real Ole Miss student newspaper was called the Rebel Underground). If those who love the novel and swear they’ll also love the film can’t understand why some people aren’t on the same page, maybe it’s because Skeeter Phelan pales in comparison to the real life individuals who also had a passion for publishing.

 

 The examples I’m going to cite make Skeeter look like Heidi Montag.

 

 

In 1951, almost a decade before Skeeter graduated from Ole Miss, alumni Albin Krebs was the target of physical threats and was shunned by his classmates. All because he spoke out.

Albin Krebs, Editor of the student newspaper for Ole Miss in 1951. Ostrasized for speaking in favor of integration

It’s said that when Krebs walked across the stage at Ole Miss to receive his diploma, he was the target of catcalls and boos. Yet he remained fond of his former Alma Mater, even leaving a large endowment. 
“As 1950-51 editor of the student newspaper, Krebs spoke out for integration of the law and graduate schools because such courses were not offered at the state’s then-black colleges. That was 11 years before James Meredith entered the Lyceum, becoming UM’s first black undergraduate and opening college doors for diversity across the South.” 

 

“I want to see my fellow Southerners, fellow Americans, abandon many of the outdated, bigoted ideas they were born with and which they cling to simply and foolishly because Granddaddy did it that way. If wanting to see this is being radical, I confess to being just that. “If we are ever to face life intelligently and constructively, we must realize that in many cases, we should not propose to simply follow tradition, but to create it.” – Albin Krebs

 

 

There’s no way Skeeter wouldn’t have known what happened to Krebs. I could see his example being brought up as a cautionary tale why any editors who came after him needed to lean more towards the prevailing wisdom at the time, which was that Ole Miss would stay happily segregated. But Stockett skips over the politics when she could have had more of a reason for Skeeter to become a trailblazer and “voice” for the maids.

 

 

Which makes me wonder if Stockett even knew about Hazel Brannon Smith. Like Skeeter, Smith was raised to believe segregation was right. And in truth, she never did claim that the practice was wrong. Only that the methods used by extremists on both sides was not the answer. Brannon Smith would have given Stockett’s character of Skeeter more of a realistic conflicted role than the whole “Why did Constantine leave?” storyline of mis-direction.

Hazel Brannon Smith, Mississippi trailblazer, Pulitzer prize winning writer and newspaper editor

“I’m sure if she’d been a man they would have lynched her.”
                                                                                  – Mississippi journalist Wilson Minor about Hazel Brannon Smith
Quote from Mississippi Journalists, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Closed Society, 1960-1964by David R. Davies

“Hazel Brannon Smith was entertaining friends in her Lexington, Mississippi, home on Halloween night, 1960, when she heard the sound of exploding firecrackers. Hurrying outside, she saw an eight-foot cross burning on her lawn. Teenagers were retreating into nearby woods. Smith, the veteran editor of the Lexington Advertiser, took a picture of the blazing cross and removed the license plate from the Chevrolet station wagon the teenagers had left behind. The vehicle, Smith found, was licensed to Pat Barrett, the local prosecuting attorney, whose son the editor suspected of taking part in the cross-burning.

Smith said the incident was more than just a Halloween prank; it was a symptom of a community illness in Lexington. What had happened, she believed, was part of her long-running battle with the local affiliate of the white Citizens’ Council, an organization dedicated to fighting integration that had painted her as friendly to blacks. She said the teenagers were acting under the influence of Barrett and other state and community leaders influenced by the Citizens’ Council. “The cross was burned on my lawn this time,” Smith warned her readers in an editorial. “Next time it could be yours.”

Read the full article here:

http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~w304644/missjourn.html

 

 

I bring these individuals up to show what Skeeter was doing with the maids, while an usual premise, was not unique regarding how others in the publishing field courageously spoke out. What’s missing with Skeeter, is a good reason as to why she chose to do it.  Because the ability to care just isn’t there,  even though many readers believe that the character does care right off the bat. That’s because in the beginning of the novel, Skeeter mopes and goes into the kitchen to speak with Aibileen over Hilly’s sharp rebuke (Skeeter’s ill timed joke about building a bathroom outside for Hilly didn’t go over too well).

The novel begins in August of 1962, during that bridge game where battle lines appear to be formed.

Skeeter says this regarding the time line:  I shudder with the same left-behind feeling I’ve had since I graduated from college, three months ago. (Pg 57)

And also:

In April of my senior year, a letter came from Constantine . . . that was close to final exams, with graduation only a month away. (Pg 68)

 

 

Here’s a copy of the Rebel Underground, Feb. 12th 1962. This was the student newspaper of Ole Miss. The date is important because James Meredith wasn’t officially admitted into the Law School until September of 1962.

So while Stockett has Skeeter, a journalism major oblivious to Meredith’s previous attempts to enroll in the school (he officially requested admission but was denied in 1961), actual history shows the student body was well aware of James Meredith:

 

Scanned Document from The University of Mississippi Libraries: Digital Collections on line The Integration of the University of Mississippi

Link: http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/integration&CISOPTR=100&REC=20

 

 

Oh, and let me point out that everything on this site was Googled. No hard research involved. Ya hear that Kathryn Stockett and The Help editors from Amy Einhorn books?

So how is it that Skeeter, unlike other journalists was never caught up in the events engulfing her city, and on the lips of practically all the white residents of Mississippi, not just Jackson?

And that’s not the only scene where Stockett portrays her lead character as strangely disaffected. Here Skeeter is perusing the library:

I search through the card catalogues and scan the shelves, but find nothing about domestic workers. In nonfiction, I spot a single copy of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I grab it, excited to deliver it to Aibileen, but when I open it, I see the middle section has been ripped out. Inside, someone has written NIGGER BOOK in purple crayon. I am not as disturbed by the words as by the fact that the handwriting looks like a third grader’s. I glance around, push the book in my satchel. It seems better than putting it back on the shelf.(Pg 172)

 

This scene highlights the two sides of Skeeter, which don’t war with each other very much. The character thinks I am not as disturbed by the words as by the fact the handwriting looks like a third grader’s. Skeeter is a character who’s had years of being a willing recipient and participant of segregation. To somehow believe that in a span of a few years, she’d somehow see the system as wrong, when Stockett makes it clear that the character has not reached that point in her young life is projecting what the reader wishes to occur.

True, the novel also infers that Skeeter’s life, or more like her will is not her own in several other scenes:

After getting a verbal smackdown by Hilly, Skeeter is commanded to come by to pick up notes, because Hilly wants her sanitation initiative in the next newsletter. From the novel:

I am the editor of the League newsletter. But Hilly is president. And she’s trying to tell me what to print.

“I’ll see. I don’t know if there’s room,” I lie.

From the sink Pascagoula sneaks a look at me, as if she can hear what Hilly’s saying. (Pg 60)

And:

All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe. (Pg 63)

 

But it still doesn’t explain a character who would later lead the black maids in a mini-revolt, a character who really doesn’t show interest about much except what affects her, suddenly transforming into a leader, someone who a movie reviewer felt the maids looked to because “they just needed someone to push them to their potential”

Sorry. I think I  threw up a little in my mouth reading that out loud pho- ne – ti -cal – ly, cause you know, that how we black people do in The Help.

But it still doesn’t explain Mother Teresa Skeeter.

Especially since this is the same character in the novel who took the moral low ground when describing the black characters she comes across. This is contrary to the positive feelings of worth that Constantine tried  to instill in her  (a repeat of what Stockett has Aibileen doing with Mae Mobley, and to a lesser extent, Minny with the childlike bride Celia Foote):

It was having someone look at you after your mother has nearly fretted herself to death because you are freakishly tall and frizzy and odd. Someone whose eyes simply said, without words, You are fine with me. (Skeeter, speaking of Constantine’s attempts to raise her self esteem)

Because for all Skeeter’s hurt over how badly others view her, notice what she says about the woman who was her surrogate mother, and others of Constantine’s racial group:

What you noticed first about Constantine, besides her tallness, were her eyes. They were light brown, strikingly honey colored against her dark skin. I’d never seen light brown eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were absolutely black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin in her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony. The palms of her hands were orangey-tan and that made me wonder if the soles of her feet were too, but I never saw her barefooted. (Pg 65)

Pascagoula holds the phone out to me. She is as tiny as a child, not even five feet tall, and black as night. (Pg 59, Skeeter)

A truck full of cotton rumbles by on the County Road. The Negro in the passenger side leans out and stares. I’ve forgotten I am a white girl in a thin nightgown. (Pg 71)

 

Skeeter’s descriptions are almost clinical, definitely insensitive, and like everything else, detached. However her observations do shed light on her behavior once she lands a job with the Jackson Journal, and the plan she comes up with to counter her lack of housekeeping knowledge:

I decided,  last night, what I need is a professional to help me with the column. . . Aibileen reminds me of Constantine in a way . Plus she’s older and seems to have plenty of experience (Pg 76)

 

So she heads over to Elizabeth’s house to get the answers for the column from that ol’ “professional” Aibileen, or basically to use the woman:

“Would you mind if I talked to Aibileen?” I ask Elizabeth. “To help me answer some of the letters?”

Elizabeth is very still a second. “Aibileen? My Aibileen?”

“I don’t know the answer to these questions.”

“Well. . . I mean, as long as it doesn’t interfere with her work. “

I pause, surprised by the attitude. But I remind myself that Elizateth is paying her, after all. (Pg 78)

I walk into the kitchen, my notebook and papers under my arms. Aibileen smiles at me from the sink, her gold tooth shining. She’s a little plump in the middle, but it is a friendly softness. An she’s much shorter than me, buecause who isn’t’? Her skin is dark brown and shiny against her starchy white uniform. Her eyebrows are gray even though her  hair is black.  (Pg 78)

There is no way I’ll ever be able to answer cleaning questions myself. Honestly, I have no intention of learning how to clean. “It sounds unfair, doesn’t it, me taking your answers and acting like their mind. Or Myrna’s, I mean.”

Aibileen shakes her head. “I don’t mind that. I just ain’t so sure Miss Leefolt gone approve.”

“She said it was alright.”

“During my regular hours working?”

I nod, remembering the propriety in Elizabeth’s voice. (Pg 79)

 

 

Yet as the scene continues, its clear Skeeter has an ownership issue with Constantine, and will have one soon enough with Aibileen.

Now, going back to journalism grad Skeeter’s lack of interest in current events, even while in college. Take a look at how Skeeter views history in the making at Ole Miss with a surprising lack of emotion . . .

The television set is on and I glance at it. Pascagoula’s standing about five inches away from the screen. I hear the words Ole Miss and on the fuzzy screen I see white men in dark suits crowding the the camera, sweat running off their bald heads. I come closer and see a Negro man, about my age, standing in the middle of the white men, with Army men behind him. The picture pans back and there is my old administration building. Governor Ross Barnett stands with his arms crossed, looking the tall Negro in the eye. Next to the governor is our Senator Whitworth, whose son Hilly’s been trying to set me up with on a blind date.

I watch the television, riveted. Yet I am neither thrilled nor disappointed by the news that they might let a colored man into Ole Miss, just surprised.  (Pg 83)

Skeeter, watching civil rights history but neither thrilled or disappointed

 Full frontal view: 

Skeeter, and perhaps Pascagoula and Jameso watching historic events unfold

I’m pretty certain the movie changed Skeeter’s disaffected though curious attitude. And why neither Hilly, who would have been front and center in the first lines formed to block James Meredith (after all, she did attend the school for two years before dropping out to get married) or gossiping about it while playing bridge, or asking Skeeter to put something in the Junior League Newsletter.

 

Ole Miss sign

 

Oh wait, The only thing Stockett has the gals concerned about is her “separate toilet” premise.

James Meredith stopped at the steps of Ole Miss

But if the movie  didn’t correct the whole “Skeeter knew nothing of James Meredith until she saw it on TV one day even though he was actively trying to enroll in Ole Miss BEFORE she graduated” then they’re gonna get slammed. Oh well, too late to change it now. I hope those on staff historians and techs the producer on twitter said they consulted let ‘em know.

Solidarity for Segregation at Ole Miss

 

 

 

Rebel flag and marchers

 

 

 

Skeeter emotes

Stuart, Skeeter’s temporary beau, does ask the question I’d been wondering all through the novel. From the book: “I just . . .I don’t understand why you would do this. Why do you even . . . care about this Skeeter?” I bristle, look down at the ring, so sharp and shiny.  No response but silence from Skeeter, and certainly no stereotypical quip coming close to what Stockett saddled the maids with.

There’s no emphatic “Stuart they really nice peoples when you get to know ‘em. Inside they white, I tell ya, white as me!” 

 

As the scene continues, Stuart speaks first (items in bold are my doing): “I didn’t . . . mean it like that, ” he starts again. “What I mean is, things are fine around here. Why would you want to go stirring up trouble?” I can tell, in his voice, he sincerely wants an answer from me. But how to explain it? He is a good man, Stuart. As much as I know what I’ve done is right, I can still understand his confusion and doubt. “I’m not making trouble Stuart. The trouble is already here.”(Skeeter tells Stuart the book she’s working on isn’t really about Jesus, and OMG he dumps her! Pg 382)

 

To be continued. . .

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