There’s Something About Celia

Posted on October 14, 2010

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Jessica Chastain will play Celia Foote

Blonde Bombshell. Infantile bride. Social outcast. Sweet but clueless. That’s Celia.

But it’s the infantile quality of the character that I’m most interested in, because there’s a tendency to pair this type of character with someone more worldly and empathetic so that they have a protector of sorts. For Celia, that person is Minny.

“Can I bring you a cold drink?” Celia asks Minny the first time they meet. “Set down and I’ll bring you something.” And Minny gets her first clue that something funny is going on (Pg 31)

 

Minny also learns that Celia is from Sugar Ditch, a place Minny says is as low as you can go in Mississippi, maybe the whole United States. . .I saw pictures in the paper one time, showing those tenant shacks. Even the white kids look like they hadn’t had a meal for a week (Pg 32). Celia has never hired a maid before, and she thinks having a home with five bedrooms and five baths might be too much for Minny, since all the other maids she’s interviewed have turned the job down. But Minny wants this job. Especially since Hilly has been spreading lies about her, effectively getting her blacklisted from other prospective employers.

When Celia greets Minny on the first day she starts her job she’s so warm and friendly Minny bristles. And since Minny has agreed to give Celia cooking lessons, when Celia sees Crisco she remarks:

“Look how pretty it is. . . like white cake frosting.” (Pg 43)

Celia also suggests the fried chicken they’re cooking be burned a bit, to throw her husband off. You see, Celia hasn’t told her husband that she needed to hire a maid. And she doesn’t want him to know that she can’t cook or really clean their home. So grateful that Minny has taken the job, Celia begins to weep. But Minny is also grateful, especially since keeping her presence a secret from Johnny Foote will also keep Hilly Holbrook from knowing that she’s found other employment. Each time Minny arrives, Celia looks at her like she can’t believe Minny’s come to work.

I cook and Miss Celia fidgets, looking more like a five-year old than the rich lady paying my rent. Minny (Pg 48).

Another excerpt from the novel:

Any other woman I’ve worked for, I would’ve loved to have had just one hour of bossing them around, see how they like it. But Miss Celia, the way she stares at me with those big eyes like I’m the best thing since hairspray in the can, I almost rather she’d order me around like she’s supposed to. . . (Pg 49)

Yes, Celia is a sweetheart. A young woman thought to be white-trash, who grew up in the segregated south but thankfully devoid of viewing Minny as her inferior. By making Celia a character who doesn’t appear to want to enforce the strict codes of segregation, the two are able to forge a bond. Why Celia’s so liberal is never explained. Like Skeeter and Carlton Phelan, Celia’s another character who acts and thinks differently than the other employers who inhabit the novel. But where Skeeter is sharp, Celia is a bit of an airhead. She’s blissfully ignorant of why Hilly, Skeeter and Elizabeth won’t take her calls. Celia is one part Cameron Diaz in the comedy There’s Something About Mary and one part Marilyn Monroe in Bustop.

 

 

Cameron Diaz as Mary in the movie "There's Something About Mary"

 

 

 

The Importance of being Minny

Minny is the grumpy older sage (this character is either cantankerous or serene, it just depends on the story). But whether ill tempered or not, the character usually has a few funny things to contribute to their pupil’s training. For Minny, she gets to grouse about Celia’s lack of common sense regarding the upkeep of her home and cooking for her husband, Johnny Foote. But Johnny loves Celia, cooking skills or no. Because with an infantile character, what’s not to love. They bumble, they stumble, and still they tug at the heart with their earnest nature and inability to truly find fault or want to hurt anyone. Just like a child.

Minny becomes Celia’s only friend and confidant. So much so, that color is not a barrier. But then, it never was. From the first moment that Minny and Celia meet, though Minny is the one interviewing for a job, Celia defers to her. On the surface Celia and Minny don’t seem to have much in common. But the circumstances they find themselves in are similar.

Minny ‘s mouth and surly attitude gets her into trouble – Celia’s style of dress, lower class status and marrying Johnny have gotten her into trouble.

Both are oppressed in a sense, Minny is black – Celia is considered white trash

Minny can cook but can’t practice her bona fide talent because of Hilly so she needs Celia’s job offer – Celia can’t cook and needs Minny to teach her how and also to prepare meals for her husband.

In The Help, Celia isn’t the only character equipped with infantile behavior. Elizabeth Leefolt has a few tantrums directed at her own daughter Mae Mobley. And Elizabeth doesn’t even realize there’s a section on her in the book Skeeter publishes with the maids.

 Just as Aibileen can see and feel Mae Mobley’s pain at Elizabeth’s peevish gripes with the child, Minny can see where the crowd that Hilly controls will never accept Celia. The oppressed domestics know what it feels like to be an outcast.

By the end of the novel, Celia does wise up a bit, after realizing just why Hilly dislikes her, and Minny’s “terrible, awful secret” against Hilly. Unlike a few recent movies where a character is given infantile qualities just to manipulate the viewing audiences emotion, the character of Celia serves to show a softer side of Minny.

But Celia is not so naïve that she doesn’t realize there is a color barrier. Celia “allows” Minny to talk down to her, though several times in the novel Minny is shocked when Celia doesn’t act like the typical southern employer.

Mammy from Gone with the Wind may have scolded Scarlett, but she was still a slave. Scarlett still had the upper hand.  Mammy was only able to nag Scarlett because she was allowed to. Had she truly stepped out of line, her mouth could have been shut forever.

In The Help, Aibileen and Minny may offer advice, but they’re in no real position of power in their personal lives. That way a reader can’t label them “uppity” and thus lose the message of tolerance in the story.

The Queen of Sass, Mammy from Gone with the Wind

Celia is friendly, open and depends on Minny. And when she does finally snap, she apologizes. The reader then learns that Celia is prone to debilitating bouts of depression.  Her inability to give the man she loves a child weighs heavily on her.

Minny begins to see her in a new light. A young woman eager to please, and one who can be easily hurt.

Because of this, Minny slowly becomes more protective of Celia. The only problem is, while Minny shows a softer side with Celia, she becomes more aggressive and even hostile with her own children in the book. And even though she’s able to keep Celia’s home in order, her own is in disarray.

Actually, I need to correct that. When the novel begins, Minny’s home is already in chaos. Leroy is already abusive, and her youngest child Kindra is mouthy. As the novel ends, Leroy escalates his abuse, Kindra is even more bratty, and Minny winds up smacking her older daughter Sugar for gossiping about Celia. It’s worth noting that in The Help, while both Minny and Aibileen play the wise sage on the job, they’re far from it in their personal lives.

Aibileen is estranged from a husband she calls “no-account” and her rationale for no longer seeking a companion is attributed to her religious devotion. Taking care of the children of her employers  consume her life until Skeeter asks her to work on the maids manuscript, and she’s almost oblivious to the changes going on in her own community, like the Civil Rights movement. And Minny can’t understand why she’s in love with a man who is violent towards her. Though she’s bullyish towards others, around Leroy she has no backbone, regressing even though his violent outbursts have been witnessed by her children. Yet she has enough fire to be protective of Celia when the naked pervert is outside her home.

Yes, though Minny is a victim of abuse, frightened beyond words of Leroy, somehow she’s able to lash out at others and not even wonder why. This is a character who doesn’t have many deep thoughts. But it’s not just Minny. At times both Aibileen and even the flashbacks of Constantine show women who seem to be a step behind.  It also goes back to the infantile qualities that some writers still like to assign to minority characters when there’s really no need to do so.

A recent  example of a character turned infantile can be seen in the movie The Blind Side. Michael Oher is erroneously portrayed as a somewhat slow (but sweet, as this is an important trait the pupil must have) gentle giant.

Poster for The Blind Side

The movie takes liberties in that his real life experience of playing football has been stripped in order to have cute scenes where not only Sandra Bullock’s character teaches him that protecting the quarterback is like protecting her family, but her grammar school aged son can be the “brains” of the operation when colleges come to call.

It’s my understanding that the way he was portrayed in the movie didn’t sit well with the real Michael Oher, and I don’t blame him. He’s currently penning his own account about his time with the Touhy family, but the movie is already out there, and for better or for worse, this is how his character will remain on film and possibly thought of by those who’ve viewed the movie.

NPR.Org has this review of the movie:

“John Lee Hancock’s julep-sweet screenplay pretty much turns the book’s measured account of Oher’s story into a feel-good fantasy for white liberals. The film doesn’t spend much time delving into big-picture questions, and it’s content to trade in stereotypes when the camera wanders to the less affluent side of the Tennessee tracks.

But as ever in Hollywood, the based-on-a-true-story defense will probably provide a certain amount of cover. Hancock’s only aiming for a crowd pleaser, and by not challenging the established playbook for inspirational sports dramas, he’s no doubt got one.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120456017

When Celia finally meets Hilly face to face at the Benefit, her nervousness results in drinking a bit too much and throwing up. This only serves to harden Hilly’s resolve against Celia. But Hilly had a personal grudge against Celia from the start, because even though Hilly is married to another, the man who broke her heart is none other than Johnny Foote, Celia’s new husband. So in a sense, Celia has “taken” something of value from Hilly.

Mike Vogel is portraying Johnny Foote

And since Hilly is the main villain in the story, further ostracizing Celia is a way for Hilly to get back at her. In the novel, not only does Hilly control her own social group but those who retain maids in the Jackson area. Quite a lot of power for one young woman.

The novel doesn’t go into how this is possible. In the 1960s it was usually the older the woman, the more power she wielded, whether through years of social contacts or the importance her spouse played in the community, or just being born into a family with wealth and influence. Not so In The Help.

Another issue that bears looking at is how an abused woman like Minny could raise a hand to defend Celia, not once but twice. The character of Minny truly goes against all conventional wisdom and data on victims of domestic violence who experience  fear, depression, isolation. . .yet Minny becomes even more aggressive as the novel progresses. Just because Minny is a domestic, what she’s going through in her personal life cannot and should not be ignored. The contradictions in this character should have been adressed. How is Minny able to function under the stress of almost constant abuse? And how does it affect her children, since studies have shown that children who witness abuse are also victims. It’s not as if this is a novel written in the 60s before all this data was available.

Stockett had this information at her disposal, yet the character of Minny is never afforded a deeper look into her personality. It begs the question, Does the bossy maid stereotype overshadow this character being a victim of domestic violence?

To be continued…

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