The Help’s Bait and Switch vs. its Effect and Intent

Posted on August 9, 2011

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You’ve heard of the term “plausible deniability.” Well it would seem that those behind the novel and the movie operate under “Implausible Ignorability.”

 
Take the Disney-esque cover on the U.S. version of the novel.
 
 

Pay no attention to this cover. It's just a marketing ploy. So which bird is Aibileen?

 
 
 
 
Now take a look at the cover being sold in the UK (and possibly other overseas book venues)
 

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

 
 
I think Kathryn Stockett has the best excuse I’ve heard so far as to why this was done, per the author’s interview with Parul Kapur Hinzen’s Book Blog for ArtsCriticATL.com:

“Americans are not comfortable talking about race.”

“The U.K. was able to put a much more racially cognizant cover on because they’re not so sensitive about the subject, as I understand it. And they’re also talking about someone else. You know what I mean? We’re very self-conscious about the subject. If we were talking about the racism of, say, India, then maybe we could have put something relevant on the cover. They picked a cover [for the U.S. edition] that had absolutely nothing to do with the book. And I think they did it on purpose.”

Link:  http://www.artscriticatl.com/2010/05/author-appearance-kathryn-stockett

 
 
For more on The Tale of Two Covers, click to read this post:
 
 
 
 
There’s also the Medgar Evers Error in the hard copy, first edition of book, where Skeeter on Pg 277 says:
 
“They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to  me. Afraid they’ll be beaten like Louvenia’s grandson, or, hell, bludgeoned in their front yard like Medgar Evers”
 
 
There are a number of pages which discuss  Aibileen and Minny’s reaction to the news that Evers was shot. So the question is why this statement by Skeeter was left in, as if no one would be the wiser.

The novel is being sold worldwide with this mistake still intact.  The e-book version and recent printings have corrected the error. It now reads “or, hell, shot in their front yard like Medgar Evers”

However, the hard copy is still being sold with the error.

Had this been any other famous character in the book, for example John F Kennedy, a public retraction and probably an apology would have been made with a swiftness unknown to man.

Adding to the chagrin is Kathryn Stockett doing three (known) audio interviews, repeating that Evers was “bludgeoned.” In at least one of the audio interviews she embellishes it to add that Evers was bludgeoned in front of his kids on his front yard. You can view the excerpts and links to the audio (one interview was with Barnes and Nobel) here

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/medgar-evers-error-in-the-help/

You could hear crickets chirping, that’s how much silence there’s been over this. Yet its been known for years. And no one, especially no one from the media has said anything.

So don’t look for anyone to acknowledge anything’s wrong with the movie. At least not from anyone who works and wants to continue to work in Hollywood.

 

Since the film is being released tomorrow, this is going to be a post heavy with facts and links. I may even need a part two for this.

 

Part One – The Bait and Switch

Part Two – Intent and Effect

 

Examining The Bait and Switch, worked to near perfection in The Help 

The Bait – Black domestics in the 60s, sure to interest those who had family members working in a household  as maids and who’ve spoken of their experience. There’s also the bond and fond remembrance children have of their former caretakers.

The touch Skeeter dared not do in the book, but was created for the movie. Skeeter never reached out to "touch" any black person.

 

The Switch – The novel simply inserted caricatures of the black Mammies from several old Hollywood films. Aibileen is Delilah, from Imitation of Life begging and all.  She even gives up her son’s idea for the novel with no strings attached, because she’s so “Saintly.” Delilah gives up her family’s secret pancake recipe just as easily, and then refuses to take a percentage of the profits. Here she is begging to stay, so afraid her beloved “Bea” played by Claudette Colbert will let her go. Delilah, like Aibileen has no inkling of the power that she holds over the whole situation and Bea’s livelihood. And neither does Aibileen.

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life.

 
 

There’s a generation gap as well as a racial divide in the book that the movie repeated. The black maids are dour, frumpy and deliberately de-sexed.  Fear of a black planet indeed. I can’t help but wonder if at least one of the maids were closer to Skeeter’s age, how different a novel it would be.

 

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

 

Minny is a younger version of Mammy from Gone with The Wind. Shooting from the hip with her quips, grumbling out loud about what bothers her. She provides most of the comedy, much like Hattie McDaniel did in GWTW.

Constantine is simply a wanna be Ethel Waters, the rock you on my bosom even though you’re grown and soothe you ’til you fall asleep, pillar of folksy advice, or earth mother. With these three character tropes, the novel had its “distinct” black voices. But the switch was that the book wouldn’t be about them, though it was titled The Help.  Recent Ole Miss graduate Skeeter Phelan has more page time, a deeper backstory and even a romantic interest as opposed to the maids who end up as side players. For as Kathryn Stockett revealed in an early interview (items in bold are my doing):

“She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. “I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,” she said. “So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.” 

Interview by Motoko Rich of  The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/books/03help.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Pinky Promo poster, starring Ethel Waters and Jean Crain. The nurturing domestic was a popular character during segregation

 

Skeeter is a piss poor heroine in the novel. One minute her dialogue and inner thoughts are as bigoted as Hilly’s, the next she’s the college grad who will forever be under her mother and her tyrannical best friend’s thumb.

Skeeter’s motivation is pure ambition, as she’s out only for herself. And it reads as if she’s a fanfic stand-in for the author. More than enough real life individuals populate the novel. Celia is Stockett’s mom, Carlton Phelan Sr. is Stockett’s grandfather, Stockett’s grandparents real life maid Demetrie is Constantine, Minny is actress Octavia Spencer, Aibileen is Ablene Cooper (the physical description, gold tooth and deceased son are too close to claim otherwise). Clyde, Leroy, and Connor are simply three versions of Clyde AKA Plunk, Demetrie’s abusive and according to Stockett, usually drunk husband. Hilly is Stockett’s grandmother, especially after that UK tell all (items in bold are my doing):

“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.’ “

Interview with Jessamy Calkin of the UK site The Telegraph

Read the entire article here:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

What I want to know is, who’s kid is Kindra? Because if I were her mama, I’d want to have a serious talk with Stockett.

Understand that the true enemy here isn’t colored black or white. It’s ignorance, and the willingness to remain so. Substitute “things were fine before those northern agitators with their commie thoughts came down here to stir up trouble among our negro neighbors” and you have the excuse uttered during segregation’s heyday as to why things should remain the way they were.

Everybody was just fine and dandy with leaving things as is. Only no one bothered to ask those who were doing most of the work and getting a low wage, or sometimes not getting paid for their labor.

 

Effect and Intent

There are no winners here.

Just a controversy that leaves behind an ugly taste and bad feelings. With errors all around, we’re all complicit.

And it’s ironic how the comments swirling around the book, and now the movie are reminiscent of angry exchanges during segregation.

History is recorded for those who come after, to learn, and to avoid making the same mistakes.

Yet history shows that the images of both black males and females were originally created not by them, but white writers influenced by the segregated times. And so this depiction was usually one that induced mirth, and sustained mockery.

The Sanka ad below is an example of a “sassy” maid. They were usually tolerated because their grumpiness and fiesty nature was never directed toward their employers in anger, but to hover over and nurture. On closer inspection, note she’s allowed to question, but not to command.

Sanka Coffee Ad

 

 

This type of character is the primary reason those pushing  for A National Mammy Monument in 1923 gave:

 
 
 

How intense was her pride in her “white folks!” How tender, how constant was her

love for her white “chillums!” How lordly, how sovereign her

Mammy monument pg 3
 
 

contempt for all those who, according to her ideals were not “quality folks!”

She was the aristocrat of aristocrats, the patrician of patricians; no standard so

high as hers, no test of “quality” and blood so inexorably rigid. She was the

self-appointed and watchful guardian of the dignity, pride, and honor of the

“fambly”

Whatever concerned her “white folks” concerned her. If she belonged to them,

they in a different –but in her sight no less real-sense belonged to her, and she

was ever ready to defend with the zeal of the fanatic the faith to which she held,

That they were “the qualityest people that ever was,” and that to compare with

them any measured not up to her standard was profanation unpardonable.

 

 

You see, the very thing that made The Help popular, is what stoked the fires of segregation.

Keep in mind that blacks were expected to be subservient and docile. Almost childlike.

Now recall how Aibileen, Constantine and Minny behave in the book and in the movie. They follow Skeeter’s lead. Skeeter is “Miss Skeeter” while she replies with no such salutation of respect.

That’s the very first thing that should have been corrected in the movie if Skeeter was to gain their trust. At some point, an oveture to show she understood the cost and what they were risking by working with her.

Instead we’re presented with the same the familiarity from older Hollywood movies.

Mammy is called Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is called “Miss Scarlett”

Annie is called Annie in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. Laura is called “Miss Laura”

When not called our names, “Auntie” or “Uncle” were added. In the worst case scenario, “Boy” or “Girl” no matter what the age were used as greetings. “What’s the name of your girl?” or “Have your girl babysit my children also.”

Everybody's favorite "Aunt", Aunt Jemima, still "large and in charge" even today

 

 

There was a reason for all of this, an order which lay in the excuse of  “tradition.”

Yes, the familiarity with which Skeeter addressed these older women was simply a reminder of who was in control.

While Skeeter wasn’t at the point of meeting with the maids in the open, at least using their full surname would have been a small, but significant step.

More on the push to have a National Mammy monument in our national’s capital can be found here:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/the-affection-myth/

To be continued . . .

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