The problem with the domestics of The Help

Posted on October 19, 2010

0


There’s Aibileen and Minny.

And Constantine.

Three women who drop similies, analogies and metaphors like they’re dropping knowledge. Only what exactly are they saying?

“We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known” (Aibileen, Pg 5)

And Miss Skeeter asking don’t I wanna change things, like changing Jackson, Mississippi gone be like changing a light bulb (Aibileen, Pg 24)

She might be built like Marilyn but she ain’t ready for no screen test (Minny, Pg 31)

…she is the laziest woman I’ve ever seen. Including my sister Doreena who never lifted a royal finger growing up because she had the heart defect that we later found out was a fly on the X-ray machine (Minny, PG 48)

“You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head!” (Constantine, Pg 63)

“Only one I recognize is Lincoln. He look like my daddy.” (Constantine, Pg 66)

“Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one of them peoples?” (Constantine, Pg 62)

Without names to identify the speaker, these lines could have come from the same character.

A major problem with the characters is not just the dialect. It’s when they do speak, what Stockett has them saying.

Take away the oppressive times they’re living in, strip away the sympathy a reader is supposed to have for their circumstances (Aibileen lives alone and she’s barely getting by, Minny is doing better, at least she has a car but she’s trying to feed five kids and placate an abusive husband. And Constantine believes she must send her white looking child to Chicago)

And they’re limited as characters. In a sense, literary creations with no fully defined character  

Actress Viola Davis will play Aibileen

 

There’s nothing as far as character development for these women as the novel progresses. No “distinct” voices as some reviewers like to laud. Take away the overdone southern dialect, which could best be described by the tag line “See Mammy from Gone With The Wind and Delilah from Imitation of Life in the same movie!”  and the characters read more like they’re unable to directly say what they mean without embellishing. It’s rooted in stereotype, and several popular novels suffer from it.  I’ve posted excepts from the novels Imitation of Life and Gone With The Wind to show this pattern.

Note how the black characters all have a pronounced southern dialect, even when the book isn’t set in the south (Imitation of Life). And when it is (Gone With The Wind) the whites read decidedly different from the black characters.

Since these books were highly successful, I can see why Kathryn Stockett would decide to follow suit.

But mimicking how a black character sounds doesn’t add depth, especially when a book isn’t plot driven. The Help is a character driven book, but there’s only one character who gets the benefit of experiencing a change, unlike Aibileen, Minny and Constantine. And that character is Miss Skeeter.

Aibileen is the middle aged loner, truly believing that in her mid fifties she’s old. At the novel’s end, she’s still moaning about her age.

Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me’s lucky to have her as a friend. (Pg 13)

“Please. Find you another colored maid. A young’un. Somebody else.” (Pg 109)

Part a me wishes I could have a new start too. The cleaning article, that’s new. But I’m not young. My life’s about done. (Pg 437)

Maybe I ain’t too old to start over, I think and laugh and cry at the same time at this. (Pg 444)

When the novel starts, Aibileen has the patience of a saint, is sweetly accommodating and able to swallow insults while doing her work. At the end of the novel, while she finally has a “talk” with Hilly, she’s still a model of fortitude and compassion. Now, those aren’t bad traits to have. Except the reader is never privy to exactly why Aibileen is so smitten with yielding to everyone else. She rarely shows anger, checks herself from fully laughing out loud, and only sheds tears in the book over leaving Mae Mobley and Skeeter. Aibileen is just . . . Aibileen.

And while she doesn’t offer to rub Skeeter’s feet, say like Delilah in the 1934 movie version of Imitiation of Life and thankfully she doesn’t want to live in the back room of Skeeter’s home, like both Delilah from the original movie version of Imitation of Life and Annie from the 1959 version, she’s so go along to get along the character is frustratingly docile. Life does not end at fifty-three (Aibileen tells Skeeter she was born in 1909, and the story starts in 1962). Maybe Faye Belle, the maid who miraculously still chooses to clean though she’s over one hundred years old should’ve had a talk with Aibileen.

There also seems to be a delay in information getting relayed to Aibileen’s brain. For example, when a worker comes to get a glass of water, here’s how the scenario plays out:

The man asks “Where might I go to make water?”

Aibileen stares at him, and he stares at her. Then she thinks, here we is with two in the house and one being built and they still ain’t no place for this man to do his business.

“. . .I spec you gone have to go in the bushes, back a the house,” she tells him. Dog’s back there, but he won’t bother you.”

Because she hasn’t been in this situation before, the best she can come up with is this?

I’d think a black man exposing himself in a white neighborhood would cause more of a ruckus.  Because, that’s the alternative Aibileen gave him. And while I understand that Stockett probably wrote this scene to show the absurdity of the situation, in my opinion, it makes Aibileen come off as if she can’t think on her feet.

 

Aibileen even makes these cavalier assessments:

Minny had that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come home from work. He push her around. (Pg 183)

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)

 

As the scene goes on, it almost seems like Aibileen can’t wait to put distance between herself  and Minny’s problems.

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)

 

While Aibileen’s affection and protection of Mae Mobley tugs at the heartstrings, how this same caring woman could basically ignore the abuse her best friend Minny, and Minny’s children are going through is a major plot hole. In this case, because Minny is typecast as the bossy maid even though she’s an abused wife, the bossy maid stigma won out.

Yes, Minny’s the bossy, opinionated strong one, yet she can’t seem to see the damage that staying with a man like Leroy is doing to her or to her kids.

Actress Octavia Spencer will play Minny

“I ain’t never gone get no work again, Leroy gone kill me”(Pg 21)

I sigh. Seventy-two more hours and I’m a free woman. Maybe fired, maybe dead after Leroy finds out, but free. (Pg 135)

Inside I hear Leroy yell, “A Eff?” He won’t touch the kids. He’ll yell, but that’s what fathers are supposed to do. (Pg 411)

“He throw the kids in the yard and lock me in the bathroom and say he gone light the house on fire with me locked inside!” (Pg 437)

For as much as Minny expresses real fear over Leroy, she appears to give as good as she gets. Several times in the novel she talks about doing him harm also, from giving him a “knuckle sandwich” to making him scream.

Benny’s asthma has gotten a little better but Leroy came home last night smelling like Old Crow again. He pushed me hard and I bumped my thigh on the kitchen table. He comes home like that tonight, I’ll fix him a knuckle sandwich for supper. (Pg 135)

Yet she experiences debilitating terror when boldly confronting the naked pervert, an unwise move. Frozen in panic once she realizes he has the upper hand, she appears to have a flashback of Leroy coming to beat her. Here’s a woman whose had more than her share of physical violence, and her panic attack comes at a crucial time:

As soon as I look back up, whaam! I stagger. The ringing comes harsh and loud, making me totter. I cover my ear but the ringing gets louder. He’s punched me on the same side as the cut. He comes closer and I close my eyes, knowing what’s about to happen to me, knowing I’ve got to move but I can’t. (Pg 307)

It should be pointed out that the cut Minny’s referring to is from an assault that very morning from Leroy. He’d thrown a sugar bowl at her and now she’s got a bad slice on her eyebrow.

At least Celia has the good sense to want to call a doctor. No where in the novel does Aibileen mention calling a physician for Minny, though she’s seen bruises on her friend for years.

“Minny, that thing’s bleeding. I think you need you some stitches. Let me get Doctor Neal over here.” She grabs the phone from the wall, then bangs it back. “Oh, he’s up at the hunting camp with Johnny. I’ll call Doctor Steele, then.”

“Miss Celia, I don’t need no doctor.”

“You need medical attention, Minny,” she says, picking the phone back up.

Do I really have to say it? I grit my teeth to get it out. “Them doctors ain’t gone work on no colored person, Miss Celia.”

She hangs the phone up again.

I turn and face the sink. I keep thinking, This ain’t nobody’s business, just do your work, but I haven’t had a minute’s sleep. Leroy screamed at me all night, threw the sugar bowl upside my head, threw my clothes out on the porch. I mean, when he’s drinking the Thunderbird, it’s one thing, but . . . oh. The shame is so heavy I think it might pull me to the floor. Leroy, he wasn’t on the Thunderbird this time. This time he beat me stone cold sober. (Pg 304)

But instead of Stockett following up on this, the focus shifts to Celia, and how SHE MUST BE PROTECTED. And a woman who has just gone through a night of abuse, both emotionally and physically, somehow decides she has the strength and presence of mind to go outside and confront another male, all on Celia’s behalf.

At times the scene is pure slapstick, with Minny running out of breath because she’s too heavy to chase the naked pervert. I failed to laugh or see the “beauty” in Celia eventually coming to Minny’s rescue.

The characters were already bonding. The naked pervert scene only added insult to injury, especially since Minny didn’t seem to recall that she was the mother of five children who depended on her staying alive. Had anything happened to her, Benny with his asthma, Kindra with her “sassy” mouth and the others would have been left at the mercy of Leroy.

But maybe Minny can’t think of her children, because the author never once has Minny admitting that she loves them. More than once Minny expresses her displeasure and need to get away from her family.

Plus Leroy was in a good mood and playing with the kids so I figure, if he wants them, he can have them.  (Pg 126)

“Nothing eating me except five kids and a husband. Y’all driving me up a wall. . . I’m going to Aibileen’s. Mama need to be with somebody not pulling on her for five minutes.” (Pg 226)

Yet Hilly, the villain of the novel at least gets mention that she cares for her children:

One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children (Pg 184, Aibileen)

Bossy Minny seems to have something to say about  everyone, even her own church members:

“Oh Lord, hide the food.”

Hoity-toity Bertrina Bessemer waddles toward us. She leans over the pew in front of us, smiling with a big, tacky blue-bird hat on. (Minny Pg 127)

At Sunday church service, Shirley Boon get up in front of the congregation. With her lips flapping like a flag . . .big nosy Shirley points her finger at us and says, “The meeting is at seven so be on time. No excuses!” She reminds me of a big, white, ugly schoolteacher. The kind that nobody ever wants to marry. (Pg 216)

“Last meeting everybody was holding hands and praying they gone let blacks in the white bathroom and talking about how they gone set down on on a stool at Woolworth’s and not fight back and they all smiling like this world gone be a shiny new place and I just. . . I popped. I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Pg 217)

So far there’s Aibileen the doormat, and Minny the mean girl,  just part of the reasons why I can’t relate to these characters.

Kathryn Stockett may have thought she knew her grandparent’s maid Demetrie, but she was reviewing her time spent with Demetrie through a child’s eyes. Stockett never knew the woman Demetrie.

Maybe she should have tried to see things from a woman’s perspective, whether black or white for all the characters. Because  what’s evident in an unequal treatment of the characters, is how Aibileen, Minny and Constantine are in full nurturing mode when they are dealing with their white charges, but totally different characters when dealing with those they love and associate with outside of work.

Constantine can offer Skeeter a shoulder to confide on, yet she gives up her own light enough to pass for white child.

Aibileen can take pride in all the white children she’s raised, yet make comments like “don’t drink too much coffee or you’ll turn colored” and ignore the domestic abuse her best friend’s children witness on an almost daily basis. Even Aibileen’s relationship with Skeeter is one of the motherly concern, as opposed to the promo on the book that these women become friends.

And Minny, gruff as she is portrayed,  can offer words of wisdom to the child like bride Celia, but condemn her own children. Kindra is a handful because Minny believes the child’s tongue is as sharp as hers. And Sugar is smacked for gossiping about Celia, something Minny does all the time.

The Help wasn’t written in 1962. It’s written about the time period between 1962 – 1964. It’s not as if discrepancies in the characters couldn’t have been addressed. The question is, Why were they ignored?

Constantine is the third wheel, a character seen only in flashbacks. And just like Aibileen and Minny, her “voice” is similar to theirs.

Actress Cicely Tyson will play Constantine

“Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one of them peoples? . . .

Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.” Constantine, Pg 62)

Into the mix of the sweet and sour domestics, Stockett adds in Constantine, a character much like the one played by Broadway veteran Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding and Pinky. Constantine is the ultimate surrogate mother, thought so highly of for her devotion that Skeeter, a young woman never lax to insert herself  into the equation remarks I think about how surprised Constantine must’ve been to hold a white baby and know it was hers. . . as much as Constantine loved me, I can only imagine how much she must’ve loved her own child. (Pg 358)

Years later the light enough to pass for white prodigal daughter Lulabelle returns, and this time it’s personal. Lulabelle has the audacity to walk in the front door! And she mingles with the members of DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) who are meeting over the Phelan house! She even refuses to leave and talks back to Charlotte Phelan! Yes, in The Help, it seems Stockett has thrown in every stereotypical black character known to fiction. There’s the “no-account” black male (Clyde, Aibileen’s no show husband) the “uppity” tragic mulatto (Lulabelle), the black “brute” all muscles and no brains (Leroy) in addition to the devoted domestic (Aibileen) the surrogate mother figure (Constantine) and the grumpy maid (Minny).

Pinky Promo poster, starring Ethel Waters and Jean Craine

All the lead African American females have an abundance of preachiness about them. These are three earth mothers, readily giving out sage advice, but not following it themselves. Thankfully, they’re being played by talented actresses who will have the benefit of a screenplay that probably won’t include dialogue and scenes from the novel that may not go over well with filmgoers. Something tells me the comparision Aibileen makes between her skin color and a roach won’t be in the movie.

Another problem is Constantine’s reason for giving away her own child. Because Stockett has Constantine as bi-racial (her father was white) then the surprise of having a light child doesn’t wash. Especially since close to white looking African Americans were nothing new. For example there’s African American Actress Fredi Washington, who appeared in the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Fredi played Peola, the young woman who wanted to be anything but black.

 
 
 
 
 

Fredi Washington

 

black actress Fredi Washington

 

    Another problem with the characters of Aibileen and Minny, is that they’re overused images. Aibileen could very well have been played by Louise Beavers, and Minny by Hattie Mc Daniel. During the 30s, 40s and 50s, these two actresses played the bulk of maids in Hollywood movies. Louise made her mark in Imitation of Life while Hattie her mark in Gone With The Wind. Louise was sweetly contrite, while Hattie was surly. These two were the original “distinct” voices that many claim belong to Aibileen and Minny. They were also roles written originally by white authors, namely Fannie Hurst and Margaret Mitchell.

Here’s the foot massaging scene from the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, the original film adaption of the movie that had many in the African American community divided. Black writer Zora Neale Hurston was a good friend of Fannie Hurst, and she supported the portrayals of blacks in the novel. Writer Langston Hughes, while initially receptive, changed his mind and offered up a stage version of the novel. Titled Limitations of Life, it was a scathing parody where the roles were reversed. In the one act play, a black actress was the wealthy mistress getting her feet massaged by a white maid who spoke in broken english.

From the novel Imitation of Life:

“Do you know of anyone who wants a position for general housework, sleeping in?” she inquired of the enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round black moon face that shone above an Alps of bosom, privately hoping that scrubbed, starchy-looking negress would offer herself.

“ …honey chile, I’ll work for anything you is willin’ to pay, and not take more’n mah share of your time for my young un, ef I kin get her and me a good roof over our heads. . . I needs a home for us honey.”

 The Many Scowls of Mammy . . .  or perhaps Minny?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone With The Wind , Chapter Five

“It’s no use.  I won’t eat it.  You can just take it back to the kitchen.”

Mammy set the tray on the table and squared herself, hands on hips. “Yas’m, you is!  Ah ain’ figgerin’ on havin’ happen whut happen at dat las’ barbecue w’en Ah wuz too sick frum dem chittlins Ah etter fetch you no tray befo’ you went.  You is gwine eat eve’y bite of dis.”

“I am not!  Now, come here and lace me tighter because we are late already.  I heard the carriage come round to the front of the house.”

Mammy’s tone became wheedling. “Now, Miss Scarlett, you be good an’ come eat jes’a lil.  Miss Carreen an’ Miss Suellen done eat all dey’n.”

“They would,” said Scarlett contemptuously.  “They haven’t any more spirit than a rabbit.  But I won’t!  I’m through with trays. I’m not forgetting the time I ate a whole tray and went to the Calverts’ and they had ice cream out of ice they’d brought all the way from Savannah, and I couldn’t eat but a spoonful.  I’m going to have a good time today and eat as much as I please.”

At this defiant heresy, Mammy’s brow lowered with indignation. What a young miss could do and what she could not do were as different as black and white in Mammy’s mind; there was no middle ground of deportment between.  Suellen and Carreen were clay in her powerful hands and harkened respectfully to her warning.  But it had always been a struggle to teach Scarlett that most of her natural impulses were unladylike.  Mammy’s victories over Scarlett were hard-won and represented guile unknown to the white mind.

“Ef you doan care ’bout how folks talks ’bout dis fainbly, Ah does,” she rumbled.  “Ah ain’ gwine stand by an’ have eve’ybody at de pahty sayin’ how you ain’ fotched up right.  Ah has tole you an’ tole you dat you kin allus tell a lady by dat she eat lak  bird.  An’ Ah ain’ aimin’ ter have you go ter Mist’ Wilkes’ an’ eat lak a fe’el han’ an’ gobble lak a hawg.”

“Mother is a lady and she eats,” countered Scarlett. “W’en you is mahied, you kin eat, too,” retorted Mammy.  “W’en Miss Ellen yo’ age, she never et nuthin’ w’en she went out, an’ needer yo’ Aunt Pauline nor yo’ Aunt Eulalie.  An’ dey all donemahied.  Young misses whut eats heavy mos’ gener’ly doan never ketch husbands.”

“I don’t believe it.  At that barbecue when you were sick and I didn’t eat beforehand, Ashley Wilkes told me he LIKED to see a girl with a healthy appetite.”

Mammy shook her head ominously. “Whut gempmums says an’ whut dey thinks is two diffunt things. An’ Ah ain’ noticed Mist’ Ashley axing fer ter mahy you.”

Scarlett scowled, started to speak sharply and then caught herself.  Mammy had her there and there was no argument.  Seeing the obdurate look on Scarlett’s face, Mammy picked up the tray and, with the bland guile of her race, changed her tactics.  As she started for the door, she sighed.

Copyright 1936 by Macmillan Publishing Company, a division of Macmillan, Inc.

 

 

A bit of trivia. There was no Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1934. Had there been, Louise Beavers may have been the first African American to receive an Oscar. That’s how impressed many reviewers were with her role.

It wouldn’t be fair to the talented actresses who played these roles to define them merely by their parts of Delilah and Mammy. Both could only work with what they were given. And since they lived at a time where segregation was the norm and still succeeded, then they are role models. At least Hattie was commemorated with an official stamp:

Postage stamp commemorating Hattie McDaniel

 

But this is 2010, and fully fleshed minority characters shouldn’t be that hard for writers to create, if they truly know their craft. 

Since Stockett graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in creative writing, I don’t think these characters or the way they were presented were unknown to her. Note that in each book (Imitation of Life and Gone With The Wind) the white characters speak without any dialect, while the black characters are heavy on southern drawl. Now here’s an excerpt from The Help:

“Minny, do you and Leroy ever talk about civil rights?” Miss Skeeter ask. “When he comes home from work?”

Minny had that big bruise on her arm cause that’s what Leroy do when he come home from work. He push her around.

“Nope” was all Minny said. Minny do not like people up in her business.

“Really? He doesn’t share the way he feels about the marches and the segregation? Maybe at work, his bo-”

“Move off a Leroy.” Minny crossed her arms up so that bruise wouldn’t show.

I gave Skeeter a nudge on the foot. But Skeeter, she had that look she gets when she’s all up in something.

“Aibileen, don’t you think it would be interesting if we could show a little of the husband’s perspective? Minny maybe-”

Minny stood so quick the lightshade rattled. “I ain’t doing this no more. You making this too personal. I don’t care about telling white people how it feel.”

“Minny, okay, I’m sorry, ” Miss Skeeter said. “We don’t have to talk about your family.”

“No. I change my mind. You find somebody else to spill the beans.” We been through this before. But this time, Minny snatched up her pocket-book, grabbed her funeral fan that fell under the chair, and said, “I’m sorry, Aib. But I just can’t do this no more.”

I got a panicky feeling then. She really gone leave. Minny can’t quit. She the only maid besides me who agreed to do it.

So I leant up, slipped Hilly’s piece a paper out from under Miss Skeeter’s notebook. My fingers stopped right in front a Minny.

She look down at it. “What that?”

I put a blank look on my face. Shrugged my shoulders. Couldn’t act like I really wanted her to read it cause then she wouldn’t.

Minny picked it up and started skimming. Pretty soon, I could see all the front teeth. But she wasn’t smiling.

Then she looked at Miss Skeeter, long and heavy. She said, Maybe we keep going then. “But you stay out a personal business, you hear?”

Miss Skeeter nodded. She learning. (Pg 183)

To be continued . . .

 

 

Posted in: Blog