August 18, 2011
Reading “The Help” by Susannah Bartlow

http://susannahbartlow.blogspot.com/2011/08/reading-help-reposted-from-facebook.html

My question, therefore, is no longer whether black and white women can be friends, but why do we perpetuate the silence between us?  Why do we allow our shared history to remain buried when understanding how that history has devastated all our lives might help us to comprehend and overcome the racism and sexism so prevalent in America today?  And why do we not see that any discriminatory practice causes us all to lose?”

(Shirley M. Jordan, Broken Silences:  Interviews with Black and White Women Writers)

“’I know she ain’t saying what she want a say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation’” The Help, p. 29

With deep thanks to the black feminist voices who have spoken up about The Help (Duchess Harris, Stephanie Crumpton, Valerie Boyd, and more), I want to explore what it has meant for me as a white feminist to engage the book (I’ll be seeing the film soon).  I also appreciate Aishah Shahidah Simmons' call to hear from white feminist voices, which cleared space for me to speak on this text (the politics of voice are much of what this is about).  In my social world, since 2009, I've seen a number of women absorb the book eagerly, but from the earliest rumors I was wary—The Blind Side wary, Driving Miss Daisy wary.  I held off.  Recent critiques emerging because of the film release, though, prompted me to want to engage it in an informed way.  So I set aside a weekend of the busiest summer of my life to read it and found it was both better, and worse, than I expected. 

I’ll focus on the book here, with some film references because the major plot threads seem to be consistent:  white Southern woman Skeeter Phelan befriends the maid (Aibileen Clark) of one of her childhood friends, pushing for a closeness that will also grant her access to the lives and stories of other black domestic workers.  The narrative is told from three perspectives, those of Aibileen, Minny (Aibileen’s best friend who is also a maid), and Skeeter (or “Miss Skeeter”), who eventually gets a job in New York because of these stories.

My goal is to step into necessary solidarity with black feminists, who have widely critiqued the book and film; and to catalyze this conversation among white women, whether feminist or not, in order to advance accountable anti-racist movement (by “white” I mean the political class of whiteness, not skin color).  I am surprised and disappointed that I haven’t seen other critiques (please tell me I just missed one!) in the same week that the Women’s Media Center followed a Gloria Steinem documentary with a request for the future direction of feminism.   Well, not only is racism, in itself, always a feminist issue, but this text specifically centers a white woman’s experience.  Where are white feminists in the discussion of The Help?  While feeling called to write, I also bit my nails over this, because I despise the notion that I could be turning off potential allies/colleagues by critiquing something that they have found to offer hope or reflection of their own early anti-racist process.  I hope, though, that this will persuade you to name, and work together for, something more real. 

The Association of Black Women Historians, along with many others, have offered the important critique that The Help's treatment of black women in the civil rights era is offensive and anachronistic.  This elision of significant history suggests that Stockett is only ostensibly interested in black women, or only interested in one particular kind of black women—a caregiver.  Owen Gleiberman, who liked the film, responds by saying that critics unfairly attack Stockett’s white identity or her decision not to focus on civil rights activism (similarly, Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in Salon.com that “you don't get a vote in Stockett's plot” and that it’s problematic to argue that “members of any group should only write about their own”).  That’s not what AWBH or other black feminists have been saying, which underscores part of why it matters for us to talk about The Help:  which black women’s voices are we hearing?

The Help comes in a long tradition of texts (mostly films, some novels) that focus on individual white women while inviting multiple narrative standpoints and addressing cross-racial and cross-class relationships.  The thing is, the book and film profess (both in the texts and in reader reception) to be about both black and white women, when the book, at least, does not demonstrate plausible reciprocity in Skeeter’s connections with black women or offer significant airtime to the actual working stories at the heart of cross-racial friendships.  I don’t much object that Stockett took on cross-racial representation (although it doesn’t hurt to make room for black women’s literature, which has been tackling this topic for generations, but that’s another essay).  It bothers me that she did so in bad faith and sacrificed an opportunity to create a truly powerful conversation piece.  Stockett, claiming she just wanted to “write a good story”, blithely wrote her way into “the history of the relationship between black and white women… a tangle of suspicion, mistrust, resentment, anger, curiosity, and fear that remains submerged in silence, superficial courtesy, and shallow tolerance” (Jackson ix).   Although Stockett claims in her afterword that she strove to “imagine” the perspective of her black caregivers, it seems clear that what she sought was not to imagine, but to fantasize.  (I should concede that part of why I didn’t read The Help two years ago is because I imagined this would be the case, since it’s transparently a work of pop fiction.  But genre conventions reveal quite a bit about social conventions so I’m plunging ahead with this critique.)

Specifically, I think Stockett was fascinated by the possibility of an apolitical white woman forced to reckon with her personal politics.  I think that’s part of why so many people, particularly white women, find this story inspiring: it appears to offer a tale for people who were disinterested, intimidated, or scared to join civil rights struggle.  Stockett foregrounds the tremendous racial-emotional insecurity of privileged white women because she writes sensitively, delicately, with respect for Skeeter’s emotional safety in the face of her coming-to-consciousness, but she does not offer such respect to any of her black characters.  Here’s an example (just one of many) from Skeeter’s memories of Constantine, her childhood caregiver, who is comforting her after she is called “ugly”:

“’Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.’  Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums.  ‘You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?’           

I was just smart enough to realize she meant white people.  And even though I still felt miserable, and knew that I was, most likely, ugly, it was the first time she ever talked to me like I was something besides my mother’s white child.  All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl.  But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.”  (63)

From the blackness of Constantine’s gums (a racist description that detracts from the humanity of both characters) to the improbability of this exchange, this is a fantasy of what a grown woman would like to imagine happening in such a complex relationship at such a tumultuous moment in history.  This was okay, I can imagine Stockett thinking to herself as she writes, because Constantine loves Skeeter just like Demetrie loved me, and that means I’m one of the good ones.  By writing that Constantine, Minny and Aibileen can attend to Skeeter’s insecurities, and by neglecting to represent the challenging emotional labor of cross-racial relationships as well as the histories of domestic workers and civil rights struggles, Stockett writes that black women exist in service to the emotional needs of white women. 

As such, The Help reproduces the social trauma of racism by allowing Skeeter to be safe from “’the fear that lies beneath the fear’ when white people, especially white women, begin to seriously consider antiracist work” (Christensen 635).   In 1984, Minnie Bruce Pratt wrote of white anti-racist struggle “we don’t want to lose the love of the first people who knew us; we don’t want to be standing outside the circle of home, with nowhere to go” (47-48).  For Skeeter to stand up to racism, Minny, Constantine and Aibileen must first make her feel safe, when in fact they are the ones who are far more vulnerable.  Identifying with Skeeter while fantasizing (rather than laboring to reconstruct) the voices of her black workers, Stockett has written her way into one of the deepest-rooted pillars of American racism:  a mutual dependence that commits violence against black women’s humanity in order to sustain white women’s performance of their femininity.  Ouch.

My question to you—to all of us—is:  why do white women need to be validated like this?  I’d love to hear your answers, but I think at least one possibility is because we survive in patriarchy by striving for validation.  Lorraine Delia Kenny’s study of white suburban girlhood identifies the social structures and narratives that reinforce an invisible, unspoken norm for white femininity, constantly maintained and reproduced by policing violators who are then racialized (a trope reproduced in The Help).  Skeeter is presented as what Kenny names the “insider-Other”, referring several times to the “kink” of her hair.  With self-reflexive moments in which Skeeter becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, family, and life perspective, it’s clear that Stockett is positioning Skeeter as a tentative anti-racist in order to offer her liberation from patriarchy.  I remind you, though, that Stockett’s fantasy of white anti-racism bears little resemblance or reference to any of the models being practiced at this time, whether social, activist, artistic, or political.  Instead, as many critics have pointed out, Skeeter’s professed liberalism pivots on her emotional connections with African Americans, much as many white feminists first came to political consciousness through their abolitionist or civil rights work and then stopped working for racial justice and began working for their own self-interest.  Skeeter comes to witness, not only how people enact or perpetrate racial identity and violence, but her particular class statusher whiteness—and she finds it so unbearable that she has to move to New York, where the economic and social structures of racism are less apparent than in the heat of Jackson, Mississippi.  (Stockett also fantasizes here about the North:  Skeeter’s only contact is with a brusque Jewish publisher, another insider-Other, and I think I can safely say that New York City is not free of racial tension.)  So her fear is not only her fear of losing her social and emotional stability (the insecurity endemic to white American womanhood)—it is her fear that she will have to recognize how being an agent of racism has stripped her of her own humanity.

I am being quite critical here of a text that, by my own argument, simply wants to attend to the well-being of a white character who cares about racism.  Why?  Well, after more than a year of daily, race-conscious attention and a third of a lifetime living side-by-side with African American women, Skeeter observes of the workers’ stories that “the dichotomy of love and disdain living side-by-side is what surprises me” (258).  It is not so much that I don’t believe Skeeter was that innocent (lots of people were and are ignorant way past plausibility) as that Stockett has already gone out of her way to persuade us that Skeeter is also an educated subversive who brings Aibileen a copy of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois identifies the root cause of this dichotomy as “double consciousness”.  In Stockett’s story, it is less important whether Skeeter learns about black intellectual historyor Aibilieen finds justice than that Skeeter used her library card to bring Aibileen some books.  So even from a street-level view, The Help doesn’t just ignore the realities of civil rights history; Stockett writes a narrative fantasy in which black characters liberate Skeeter from the painful reality of her own whiteness. 

This is what the text itself does. And I don’t buy it—not only because I’ve studied this stuff, but because I know enough to know that the fantasy of color-blind relationships is only an effective fantasy for white people who can be shielded from being targets of racism.  I don’t think I’m a better person than Kathryn Stockett; I think she stopped at the moment that telling this story made her feel good.  And, as a white feminist, I am angry that we are here again.

On Slate.com, movie critic Dana Stevens calls the movie “a Barbie Band-Aid” and asks:  “Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start?”  I’m not sure who the “we” is here (Stevens says “anyone… not rich, white men”, a frustrating reduction); and there’s no doubt that we are way past the start of this conversation (which has been happening for over 150 years in American literature and film).  But her question raises one of the key issues:  The Help provides white women with yet another opportunity to talk about race as white women.  The problem is, it does so at the expense of black women’s lives:  the specific women’s experiences that helped inspire the book (see http://abcnews.go.com/Health/lawsuit-black-maid-ablene-cooper-sues-author-kathryn/story?id=12968562); the rich history of black women’s leadership, literature, and lived experiences of racism, family and friendship (see http://www.abwh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2:open-statement-the-help&catid=1:latest-news); and the continuing problems of a decidedly not post-racial society (see http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/06/youthonrace.html). 

Or, as Minny says, “’[w]hite people been representing colored opinions since the beginning a time’” (128).  Many white women use the privilege of emotional innocence to avoid the double-edged truths of their racialization.  This serves no one and reiterates the identified problems with white privilege in general and white feminism in particular.   I am not saying anything here, by the way, that black feminist writers and critics (and a few white feminists) haven’t been saying since Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  But I am trying to explore what it means for white women seeking justice in the 21st century. 

So I’m going to see the movie and donate some funds to a project that offers better representations.  Now that I have named my problems with the text, I am also going to devote some time to a forward-thinking conversation piece that also offers resources for anti-racist work.  I really hope you’ll join me (in the comments or in life), and specifically, that some Southern white women will step up to help me understand better the context and milieu that could permit this cycle to continue (as a Northerner, the racism with which I’m familiar plays out somewhat differently). 

Susannah Bartlow is Director of the Women’s Center and Contributing Faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Dickinson College.

http://susannahbartlow.blogspot.com/2011/08/reading-help-reposted-from-facebook.html

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