Saturday, August 20, 2011

The trouble with "The Help"

I admit it -- I read The Help and enjoyed it, as an entertaining novel. It struck me as a little odd to have a novel about racism with a white person writing the perspective of a black person, but it's not a priori impossible to do it well.

Then, courtesy of the Hathor Legacy, I found an interesting series of reviews that explain a lot of problematic aspects that I hadn't quite put my finger on.

From Rebecca Wanzon:

One of the three narrators, Aibleen, says that she realizes she is more free than the racist character that destroys her livelihood, a claim that encourages readers to feel better about segregation because, in this logic, nobody can take real, psychological freedom from anyone. Freedom is really about how you feel, not about, you know, the law. It makes Jim Crow an inconvenience, not an obstacle.

I read an Amazon review of the novel that told a reader not to worry that they would have to read over 400 pages of depressing oppression. This is true -- "The Help" makes Jim Crow palatable. I don't think this is a good thing.

African American women had voices before Miz Skeeter gave them the idea

From Duchess Harris:

So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her.

Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.

Sounds really interesting -- maybe I should pick up a copy of that book...


kuri said...

I enjoyed the book a lot too. I rooted for the good guys and hissed the bad guys, basically. (Although the characterization isn't necessarily always as shallow as that makes it sound.)

Writing from the POV of someone very different from you is always a challenge, I suppose, and when a member of an oppressor class is writing about members of an oppressed class, it's especially dicey. But The Help does a reasonably good job of it. (Although I guess the real question is whether it should have been done at all.)

Anyway, Coming of Age in Mississippi does sound really interesting. I hope my library has a copy.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kuri!!!

Yes, it's definitely an enjoyable story. As far as her portrayal of black characters is concerned, she could have done better, and she could have done worse. The problem comes in when people try to view this as a serious work about racism, when it's really not. But, who knows? Maybe the popularity of this book will inspire curious people to read some books outside their comfort zone.

Donna Banta said...

I go back and forth on The Help too. Yes, it was an enjoyable book, but as you say, not a serious piece on racism.

The movie is out now, and I have some friends who have seen it and loved it, others who felt it sugar coated the civil rights movement. (I've heard numerous complaints that Medgar Evers murder received as much screen time as Skeeter getting ready for her date.) But then most say the acting is excellent. . . Haven't decided if I want to see it yet.

Stephen said...

The review I read made it look as if the interesting story was eclipsed by the author celebrating her moral superiority and self.

Here is a link to a kinder review:

Stephen said...

The alternative viewpoint:

Unknown said...

I've heard both good things and bad things about the movie. everyone says the book is great, tho. Awesomeness


C. L. Hanson said...

Yeah, I'll probably watch it when it comes out on DVD and decide for myself. :)

Derek Brezette said...

Interesting thoughts, most of which I agree with, though I don't think they carry far enough. Here's a link to my thoughts on the text (which happens to share your title...):

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Derek!!!

Thanks for the link -- excellent analysis!!

I agree. The book argues that discriminatory laws are not a problem; the problem is just the attitudes of those superiors who would act unfairly towards their inferiors. B.S.! If the law allows people to oppress, some will do it. The law should be fair.

BTW -- as mentioned above, I read Anne Moody's memoir "Coming of Age in Mississippi" and wow!!! Just wow. I don't think I can come up with a reasonable, concise paragraph about what it was really like to be a courageous black woman during that time period for real, but read Moody's book.