I must thank a commenter named Pauline for giving me the idea for this post, because her instructor assigned The Help and wanted examples of “courage” and additional themes that the students would then write a thesis on.
I thought I’d list the top ten pitfalls for any educator who decides their class should study this text. My hope is that an instructor notes both pro and con of the book, and not just fall for the hype around the novel and film, without researching or even reading whether criticism has any merit.
1. Everyone likes a happy ending. Unfortunately in the case of The Help, so many reviewers and readers wanted the fairy tale of a domestic truly loving and being loyal to their employer, they never stopped to wonder if Stockett’s theory of “We love them and they love us” was so widespread, then why were there protests and marches for Freedom?
And why are those extolling the virtues of their relationship with domestics mainly whites, but not the surviving families or even domestics themselves exclaiming how much they just loved their time spent together? Even Stockett is unable to stick to the premise of her own novel in two interviews:
“I think they were surprised that I was able, hopefully able to portray the love we felt for these woman and that you know, I assume that they felt for us . . .” (11:29 into the interview)
D.N.: When you interviewed people for the book, was there anything that stood out?
K.S.: What stood out was the emotion that white people had about the connection to their black maids. When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for.
That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job.
For more on the “Affection myth” please see this post which tells of the National Mammy Monument, an effort by The United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1920s:
And also this post with accounts of actual domestics, as well as their children’s observations:
2. The cover of the US novel falls into the category of “whitewashing” or the practice of intentional ambiguity so as not to offend the reader base publishers covet, which are white readers. While there can be debate on whether putting a cover similar to the UK or French version would have either landed the book in the “African American fiction” section of a bookstore,thus limiting its profits, the Disney-esque, three little birdies cover serves to immediately de-sensitize the reader about the subject matter, especially the non-minority reader.
For indepth information on the two covers and more examples of white washing in publishing, see these posts:
3. It can be argued that the black domestics of The Help are not resilient, admirable maids, but more akin to the idealized propaganda of the antebellum south regarding black females. In the book and unfortunately in the movie, Aibileen, Minny and Constantine more closely represent Mammies.
During segregation, thinking of the black female as a super surrogate mom, one who gave love unconditionally, virtually 24/7 while being patient, compassionate, filled with a whole lotta matyrdom, self loathing of their own culture, yet strong enough to forget their problems (and their family) in an effort to put their white employers first, this was deemed the perfect Mammy.
But while the Mammy caricature was imbued with these qualities on the inside, visually she was most often depicted heavy set, dark in skin tone and grinning through her pain (or the pain of the whites she identified with). A familiar remnant of this image can still be found in local supermarkets in the form of Aunt Jemima, a trusted name and icon that will never go away.
In The Help, Constantine, Aibileen and Minny default into caricatures by description and dialogue. While the author lists Mrs. Demetrie McLorn as the inspiration for the original story please note that Mrs. McLorn is not dark in color, as in “black as asphalt” “black as night” or “ten times blacker” terms used to describe the maids in the novel:
Real life maid Abilene Cooper, in the photo above, sued Stockett in 2011, claiming that the author watched her on two occasions (Cooper is the maid/caretaker of Stockett’s brother’s two children) and used her name, physical likeness as well as parts of her life to craft Aibileen Clark. To read Cooper’s account, see this interview with the UK Daily Mail:
Stockett herself has admitted that she used the names of individuals she knew, and two additional real life names appear in the book, that of Tate (director of The Help’s name) and Clyde (Demetrie McLorn’s real life, husband who Stockett says abused the maid). And the author admits the scene of Cat-Bite which features Carlon Phelan carrying a young black girl to the doctor after she’s bitten by a rabid cat is a true story inserted in the novel. It’s been reported that Celia Foote is a ringer for Stockett’s mother.
This information is from the Atlanta Journal Constitution (items in bold are my doing):
”In past interviews with the AJC, Stockett has said she wrote “The Help” as part of a writing club. She used names of people she knew simply because they were handy, she said.
“When I was writing this book, I never thought anyone else would read it, so I didn’t get real creative with the names,” Stockett told us in 2009. “I just used people I knew. Some of them aren’t talking to me right now, but I feel like they’ll come around.”
She has repeatedly called the book, which has been adapted into a film, a work of fiction.
“I wrote it purely for me and finally had the guts to show it to my mother and my writing group, ” Stockett told us in the 2009 interview. “I was terrified when I realized it was going to be published.”
Kathryn Stockett states in the back of the novel that Demetrie was “stout and dark-skinned.” All, if not most of the primary maids in the book mangle the English language by using malapropisms, and have flawed or frankly, stupid dialogue. Some examples:
“Cat got on the porch this morning. Just about gave me a cadillac arrest.” – Minny, in an example of a malapropism. Instead of using “cardiac” arrest she says “cadillac” arrest.
Aibileen uses “pneumonia” for ammonia twice in the novel. She also misuses the word mal-nutritious after hearing Hilly describe her mother’s condition with the word:
“I think I heard Miss Hilly say something about that, ’bout her mama getting skinny.” I say as carefully as I can. “Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” (Aibileen, Pg 14)
The word Aibileen is looking for is mal-nurished. What makes no sense is that Aibileen is described as a voracious reader and can say “congealed salad” (Pg 6) “conjugation” “motorized rotunda” “domesticized feline” and “parliamentary” during her word quizzes with her late son Treelore (Pg 5) yet gets tripped up on standard english, or basically forming complete sentences. She also has the uncanny ability to describe what the white characters state with clarity, yet doesn’t realize “Law” is no where near the word “Lord” or even “Lawd.” 🙂
The black characters not saddled with ebonic sounding dialect are ironically, those closer to white. Lulabelle (re-named Rachel in the movie and given a color make-over, as in no longer the “tragic mulatto” able to pass for white) Gretchen and Yula May Crookle (yes, that’s her real last name in the book, telegraphing what she’ll do in novel, in a poorly placed joke). Using the power of three, Stockett separates the Mammy characters by their girth, dialect and skin tone, while the black maids who are either articulate (Skeeter alludes to Gretchen speaking with care and wearing pink lipstick just like her friends Hilly and Elizabeth) have “good” hair (Aibileen states “Yula May easy to spot from the behind. She got straight hair, no naps”) or able to pass for white (Charlotte Phelan is fooled into thinking Lulabelle Bates is white, until Lulabelle reveals that she’s Constantine’s daughter).
To gain their Mammy badge of dishonor, here’s what each of them do:
Constantine so loves her job, she sends her only child to an orphanage while she stays to wait hand and foot on the Phelans, content to live the life of an asexual being who smothers Skeeter with advice and love, though its not clear just why. The book makes mention of Constantine even coming to work on New Years, which was her day off, just to make sure the Phelans consumed their “good luck peas” for the coming year. The filmsy reason given for Constantine sending her light enough to pass for white daughter away, is just that. Because Lulabelle could pass for white, though how she came out that way after having two dark complexioned parents is a mystery, and a plot line that was dropped for the film. African Americans who could pass for white were not an anomaly back then. Some disowned their black ancestry and chose to pass for white, while others went public with their black heritage, and some became vocal advocates for civil rights. Lulabelle was renamed Rachel in the film.
Aibileen proudly crows about raising seventeen white children, obsessing over her latest one, Mae Mobley. Yet this character’s halo is on crooked when she ignores the violence witnessed daily by her best friend Minny’s children, who are between a hard place with their sharp tongued, bullying mother and brute caricature of a father, Leroy. No where in the book or movie is Aibileen shown giving any child of color a bit of coddling or positive affirmations that Aibileen deems necessary for Mae Mobley.
Minny slaps her eldest daughter Sugar for laughing at Celia Foote, and gives her Mammyish advice to live by. Pregnant with her sixth child, Minny bades Celia to lock the door behind her as she becomes not just a Mammy but a “noble savage” willing to risk her life by going outside to confront a naked man jacking off in Celia’s back yard. Like most stereotypical Mammies, Minny is awarded the title of best cook in the county, a title shared with another Mammy in a best selling novel, that book being Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Minny also speaks ill of the black male, and disses the efforts of those in her congregation attempting to join in with the civil rights movement by staging a sit in at Woolworth’s. Per the novel, neither Minny or Aibileen want any part of the Freedom movement sweeping the nation or their own city.
Actual quote from Viola Davis, who played Aibileen in the movie and was nominated for an Academy Award:
“Of course I had trepidations. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you’ve ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi? Do you not take the role because you feel in some ways it’s not a good message to send to Black people?” – Viola Davis, in a quote from Essence Magazine
“I’m playing a maid, a black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, is a lot of pressure. You don’t play a maid. That is something you don’t do. When you play a maid where a white woman has written a story and a white man is directing it, so there is no way that it’s gonna be. . . I’m essentially playing a Mammy. So I felt a lot of pressure. Absolutely. And then and of course pressure from the readers who all wanted Oprah to play the role. And saw her as being seventy years old and about two hundred and fifty pounds or you know, yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. But it’s like Tate says, if you work from that point of pressure and fear, your work is gonna crack. At some point you just have to leave it alone. And know that we have our own standard of excellence . . .”
Link: Atlanta Mom’s on The Move http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shc0mdT-0Cc
For an indepth look at the Mammyness of the maids in The Help, please see these posts:
4. Offensive slurs about African Americans are passed off as amusing anecdotes in the novel which validate the bigotry of the times instead of challenging them. For example:
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)
This was a known slur stated by bigots and not African Americans back in the day. The “joke” was that anything remotely dark could “turn” a person black. Items to avoid also included chocolate, cocoa, keeping out of the sun so as not to tan too dark.
Another example is the “spoilt cootchie” dialogue between Aibileen and Minny on pages 23-24. For more on this offensive and mis-guided scene plus the offensive myths it resurrects about African Americans, and how the black maids are used to voice these insults, see these posts:
5. Additional research uncovers the novel was less about the author’s affection for her grandmparent’s maid, but the vehicle for a group of friends to get into Hollywood.
Kathryn Stockett mentions an “agreement” between herself, Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor in early interviews:
“One of my best friend’s growing up, Tate Taylor, wrote the screenplay, he and I had an agreement pretty early on that he was going to be the one to make the movie.”
Read the entire interview here:
Stockett: I think Octavia will be the part of Minny because ah . . (pause and laughter) you know, that was just the agreement. It wasn’t that hard of, it you know, there was no pulling hair on that one. She’s such a natural.”
Link: An Interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of ‘The Help’ Narrated by Diana Dapito
“. . And we differ, respectively, because I didn’t have one issue what-so-ever. Because you know, if I’m gonna go to law school who’s gonna tell me what case not to take? If I’m gonna be a doctor who’s going to tell me what patient not to take? You cannot live to please everyone else.” – Octavia Spencer on the Tavis Smiley show, explaining why she had no problem with her role of Minny.
This “helps” explain why Octavia Spencer championed the novel, and made positive statements even though her assertions could be challenged with actual sections of the book:
“You know early on from page one that she’s not making a statement about race. She’s writing about people with a limited education, limited financial needs . . .I say one doesn’t have to be male or female, white or black, to tell this story. You just have to be a brilliant storyteller and I applaud Kathryn Stockett whether I knew her or not. I would have actually enjoyed the book.”– quote by Octavia Spencer
So how’d you get involved in the project?
Tate Taylor grew up with the author, so I was one of the privileged few who got to read [the book] before it was ever published. I was asked to read the manuscript before it was even published.
Read the entire interview here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/06/octavia-spencer-the-help-movie_n_1130848.html
He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me. (Pg 189 Aibileen, doing a color swatch test of her skin to a roach and repeating her self-loathing mantra of something being “blacker” or as black as her.)
There’s also the WTF conversation between Minny and Aibileen, where Aibileen believes she’s been granted the power to call down a venereal disease on another woman, via prayer during a conversation on spoilt cootchies, and then makes this bluntly stereotypical line:
“You sayin’ people think I got the black magic?” (Pg 24, Aibileen responding to Minny)
How Spencer managed to ignore that blatant slap of an insult, where Aibileen, who’s supposed to be a “devout” Christian somehow makes the leap that the other “Christians” in her congregation believe she practices voodoo is a direct old time thinking on race. It’s because she’s black, so of course she uses black magic or voodoo, get it? Which was another well known joking slur about African Americans during segregation, that no matter if we professed to be Christians, we still reverted back to the religion of our motherland, Africa.
See the following posts for more information:
6. There are also public statements that infer Stockett may have gotten “help” when drafting the novel:
KS: . . . But while I was writing the manuscript and Tate was reading it he kept saying, “Oh good, in this scene we’ll do this…” And I kept going, “Tate it’s not a movie – it’s a book!” I didn’t even have an agent and Tate said, “well listen when you shoot this scene…” We’re just very different writers. But it was really exciting to hand this project over to Tate because I knew he’d get it. We grew up in the same circumstances. It’s amazing how parallel our lives were. Both of our mom’s were divorced.
Read the full interview here: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/
And there are also public statements that call into question the “liberal” mindset of those involved with the novel and the movie:
“The scene where Viola Davis is sitting on a toilet in a garage in 108 degrees, and then a white woman comes out and tells her to hurry up was visually brutal. To me that’s worse than seeing a lynching. It just is.” – Tate Taylor, Director and Screenwriter of The Help in an interview with The Grio.com
“All of the criticism we’ve been facing is based on the fact that I’m not an African-American director and that Kathryn is not an African-American writer . . .” – Quote by the director and screenwriter of The Help, Tate Taylor
“I just made this shit up!” – Kathryn Stockett’s response during a Q&A in Philly, 2011 at The National Association of Black Journalists Convention
Taylor: What I really, really loved about the Medgar Evers storyline and backdrop was that he was in their neighborhood. While they were doing this clandestine project, this Civil Rights leader who’s their neighbor gets murdered, and their characters are wondering, “What’s going to happen to us?”
” . . . Medgar Evers uh who was with the NAACP he was bludgeoned on his front yard in front of his children . . . ” – Kathryn Stockett, in an interview with Barnes and Noble:
stated at 8:34 minutes into a 10:31 interview
This is just one of three known interviews the author gave, where she earnestly stated Evers had been “bludgeoned” instead of shot. This error also made its way into the novel.
See this post for more information one Stockett’s publisher quietly correcting the error, though copies are still be sold with the passage:
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7. Propaganda of the segregated times not condemned, but celebrated in the novel. Minny makes this statement about African American males:
Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump. But that’s not something the colored woman do. We’ve got the kids to think about. (Minny, Pg 311)
This isn’t the only highly inflamatory and stereotypical saying in the novel that comes from the mouth of a black character, as if her word is bond.
Here’s how far too many black men and boys ended up “leaving” this world during segregation:
8. Elevating the white males who practiced segregation while labeling the black males in the novel as either a “no-ccount” “fool” or painting them as baby making absentee fathers. This was a common slur during segregation, no matter how upright the black citizen. Martin Luther King Jr. was continuously insulted in southern newspapers. Here’s a scan from the Clarion-Ledger, now revealed as a pro-segregation paper during the civil rights era, where King is called the “Der Dark Fuehrer”
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We call his daddy Crisco, cause he’s the greasiest no-ccount you ever known. Aibileen, teaching her then adolescent son Treelore to call his father “Crisco” (Pg 5)
9. Self loathing of the primary black characters. This is something that must be addressed, as far too many readers miss how often its woven into the storyline. While the primary maids are loyal and highly compassionate towards the white characters in the novel, Kathryn Stockett forgot to show scenes where they aren’t ragging on members of their own community or their families. Minny grouses about her “no good drunk daddy” as she joins Aibileen in demeaning the black male in the novel. Kathryn Stockett has the maids vocalizing their displeasure with the men they are paired with (all except Constantine). Stockett has Aibileen explain how Connor up and leaves Constantine once Lulabelle is born, as Aibileen repeats this refrain “He was black as me” as if being a dark complexioned African American is something to be ashamed of.
Aibileen is only “good” when she’s cowering, cringing, grinning or giving unconditional love. Skeeter even hollers at her in the novel, and all Aibileen does is beg Skeeter to let her continue working with her. As stated earlier in this post, Minny’s behavior towards her daughters takes a violent turn even though this character is an abused woman. Many readers skip over how Minny labels and berates her youngest daughter Kindra, but her less than motherly actions are no better than Elizabeth Leefolt’s actions with Mae Mobley. Yet Aibileen does not rush to Kindra’s side, in the scene where Minny shouts at the child to prepare dinner (Kindra is seven during this scene). Aibileen turns judgmental, noting “Kindra -she seven now- sass-walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking outand her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. “Why I got to make dinner? It’s Sugar’s turn!” (Pg 396 Aibileen’s observation of Minny’s youngest daughter Kindra)
As the scene continues, Aibileen admonishes Minny to hurry up or they’ll be late for church. When Leroy wakes up raging at young Benny, Aibileen scurries down the street thinking:
We make it out the door and down to the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she [Minny] don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for (Pg 397, Aibileen, showing just what a poor excuse for an “admirable” character she is).
And while the film changed Aibileen’s answer of whether she had a goal of working in another profession, the novel made it clear that Aibileen had no aspirations other than being a maid, that is, until Skeeter goes “rogue” and shakes them out of their self-imposed stupor. From the novel, Skeeter is speaking first:
“Did you know when you were a girl, growing up, that one day you’d be a maid?”
“Yes ma’am. Yes, I did.”
I smile, wait for her [Aibileen] to elucidate. There is nothing.
“And you that…because…?”
“My mama was a maid. My granmama was a house slave.”
“A house slave. Uh huh,” I say, but she only nods. Her hands stay folded in her lap.
She’s watchin the words I’m writing on the page.
“Did you… ever have dreams of being something else?”
“No” she says. “No ma’am, I didn’t.” It’s so quiet, I can hear both of us breathing. (Pg 144)
10. The absence of beauty, dignity, or noting the self worth of the black characters in the novel and film, and during the promotion of the film.
From the early reviewer of the film who earnestly wrote “the colored folks actually saved themselves. Minny and Aibileen, as well as the other colored folks in the community were the real “heroes” of the movie; they just needed someone to push them to their potential [Skeeter]”
To the commenter who thought saying “she was so far from any regular Mammy character” is somehow a positive thing
The novel does contradict what the movie tried to fix. In the novel, neither Minny or Aibileen wanted any part of the civil rights movement, though actual history shows a majority of domestics in Jackson and in the south were on the forefront of the marches and protests. From the novel (items in bold are my doing):
“I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Minny, 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)
No where in Stockett’s ode to the south, is the beauty, dignity or promotion of self-worth of the maids broached. What The Help was truly about, is a lament for a way of life now gone. For as Tate Taylor revealed (items in bold are my doing):
“We just wanted to tell the truth. Tell the real story and get it right. Many times as southerners our stories have been handled, taken into hands that were outside the south that’s not always as we know it to be. So we just really want to tell the truth . . . (pause) the good and the bad.” – Screenwriter and director of The Help, Tate Taylor
And the studio did their part, promoting the film overseas by romanticizing the men and women who practiced segregation:
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The Help wasn’t about the maids. It was about a young, gawky woman named Skeeter Phelan, a fan-fiction stand in for the author, Kathryn Stockett, who revealed this in an early interview by Motoko Rich of The New York Times
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.”
And while Stockett admits in the back of the novel that her grandparents maid, Mrs. Demetrie McLorn would stand her in front of the mirror and say “You are beautiful. You are a beautiful girl,” when clearly I was not. (TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE Kathryn Stockett, in her own words Page 448 of the novel)
And then proceeded to show in the pages of her debut novel just how different she believes the black culture to be in her eyes, from our physical being to our speech, the author’s lack of nuance and ignorance of the beauty of the African American culture, when she claimed the book was borne out of the teachings from a woman who told her of her own worth daily, rings false.
The Help was simply a means to an end. Stockett wanted to be an author, Taylor wanted to direct, and Spencer wanted to act. They’ve all gotten their wish. And left a trail of published statements that shed light on a drive to succeed by any means necessary, even if it meant using the plight of the very women who looked after them.
Readers waiting on Stockett to come up with another novel will be hoping for another go-round of The Help. It will take all three of the contributors who were there at the beginning for lightning to strike once more. And while Tate Taylor might be game, Octavia Spencer may be the one who bows out of the threesome.
While Spencer was more than willing to play the Mammy to Stockett’s Skeeter, something tells me Spencer has finally found her own “voice” and her “change” won’t begin with a whisper.
For more on the absence of beauty in the novel, see this post:
And for more fact vs. fiction with the novel, see this post:
For additional errors in the novel, some of which were transfered to the film, see this post:
This post is still being developed . . .