Why I will neither see nor read The Help

Lately the women I respect in my life, my mother, my grandmother, etc., have been telling me I should read The HelpPut down all those long science-fiction and fantasy novels, they say, and get some “real world.”  Read The Help.  It is such a great book!  And I say I will but that I have a fairly long list of books in my Kindle waiting to be read, so I’ll get to it eventually.  But, really, I probably won’t.

Because, here’s the thing, I find the whole idea of The Help a little terrible and, well, racist.  And since nobody wants to hear me say or explain my feelings in a short phone call or a Skype conversation, I figured I’d put them all out on my blog, so any and all awkward conversations could be avoided in the future.

I currently work for a prominent African American artist who grew up in Greensboro during the 1960s.  She lived in the projects and witnessed the KKK murder several people at a civil rights rally right outside of her house.  Her mother was a maid.  When I mentioned to her that my mother told me that I should read The Help and if she had read it, she looked at my like I was crazy and said: “I don’t want to read that shit.”

I don’t want to read that shit.  That statement got me thinking.

Because, you see, I had considered reading The Help because I like to stay atop the cultural zeitgeist.  Because I think Emma Stone and Viola Davis are great actresses and they were headlining the movie.  Because, you know, my mother suggested I should read it.  However, the more research I did on the book, the queasier I got.  And when the reviews of the film started rolling out, well, I got fairly uncomfortable.

Here’s the thing: the period depicted in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s isn’t all rosy-colored society women and battles over common-use bathrooms like the book makes it out to be.  The Civil Rights Movement was very real and very serious and the book and film trivialize it.  The same goes for the KKK in the South, which The Help just glosses over.  People were dying.   The Association of Black Women Historians posted a statement indicting the film for white-washing the past, here are a few choice quotes:

The Help’s representation of [African American] women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect.”

Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.

Here is the entirety of the statement.

I know what y’all are thinking: you haven’t even read the book or seen the movie, how can you assume any of this is true?  Well, I did read the very detailed Wikipedia plot summary of the book (I know, I know, you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia), and I found it a little infuriating and also a little insulting.  When the candy-colored posters and trailers for the film started unrolling at movie theaters I felt a sense of dread that this was going to be another pastel-hued nostalgia trip of the good ol’ days in the South.  And also I just cannot stand those movies where the righteous white woman is the hero for the black person, who clearly cannot stand on his or her own two feet without the intervention of a white savior (another recent film guilty of this charge is The Blindside **edit** but it was based on a true-story and I’m sure that Hollywood just highlighted the white savior aspect of the whole story).

I am not the most articulate person when it comes to explaining my political or social feelings.  I get extremely emotional.  I feel that I don’t have all the facts necessary to accurately or adequately support my viewpoint so I stammer and stutter and often fall into an awkward silence.  So I guess I will just get to the point: I will not see or read The Help because I think that stories and films of that nature propagate a white-washing of the past and a general feeling of forgetfulness among white readers.  I will not see or read The Help because the portrayals of black women are clearly stereotypical and insulting, whereas the white figures are reduced to similarly and falsely harmless stereotypes.  I will not see or read The Help because it is a racist tale in the guise of a goodwill story, and I just cannot support that.

So please do not tell me I should see or read The Help.   Thanks.

11 thoughts on “Why I will neither see nor read The Help

  1. Thanks for reading! Unfortunately too many sessions of post-colonial and racial theory in graduate school and my TAing African American Art History sort of destroyed my ability to view a movie without thinking too hard about its views of race or gender and all of that. Sort of kills the fun, I guess, but I’d rather be aware of what Hollywood etc. is feeding me!

  2. well said indeed ms. gordon. I’m always annoyed with the glossing over, candy coating of history in film. I have to constantly remind students to read up either before or after (BUT ALWAYS READ) on the subject and see what was left out, or put in…History Channel had History vs. Hollywood at one time..i really miss that show…

    These days, they got me thinking Jackson’s all full of werewolves …

    1. Izel! Thanks for your response. And yes, whenever I read “Jackson, Mississippi,” all I can think are werewolves at Denis O’Hare. “We will eat you, after we eat your children!”

  3. Well said, and I respect you for not wanting to see or read The Help. I did however, enjoy the movie despite its limitations. For someone like me, with southern roots, whose in-laws actually grew up in Mississippi in the 60’s I have often wondered how so many people could adhere to such fundamentally wrong ways of thinking, and allow terrible violence to take place in their back yards. While the movie and book do gloss over the severity of the Jim Crow South and unfortunately perpetuate some stereotypical characteristics that have been imposed on black women in particular, it does succeed in revealing many of the nuances of racism that permeated domestic life and enabled people to turn their heads to the violent atrocities of the time. It is a story about the deeply messed-up and complex relationships between sheltered white middle-class women and the black women who helped them maintain their homes and families, not a broader exploration of race relations in the South. For me it offered valuable insight into some difficult questions I have had about my own history. Though I picked up on some of the problems in the movie’s portrayals, I don’t think it is anymore guilty of stereotyping peoples than the vast majority of popular films/shows today.

    1. Hi Annah! Thanks for your response. I always respect your opinion and I’m glad to have your more nuanced view of the film. I still don’t think I’ll see it, but I know you’ve sat through as many post-colonial/racial theory/etc. classes as I have and I sort of envy you for it not having ruined your enjoyment of the film. I like how you describe it as being more about the relationships between than women than anything else–and yes, many Hollywood films today are a hot mess aren’t they?

  4. You can no longer claim to be inarticulate on these matters, because this was possibly the most articulate thing I’ve read on the entire internet.

    As a person who grew up in a Southern community, and who happens to be Caucasian, I understand your take on this. My mother is reading the book right now, and asked that I help her download it onto her phone. I chose not to express my feelings about the book and to just let her read it then decide for herself- specifically for the Zeitgeist ideas that you mentioned. In large part I regret that decision. It would have been an interesting conversation, and I may still bring it up.

    I will not be reading the book or watching the movie. Nor did I partake in The Blind Side. These stereotypes should not be perpetrated, and I commend you for pointing that out.

    Lastly, I would like to add that this is the very first post that reached me after I signed up to receive your blog via email. Thanks for validating my decision, and I cannot wait to read more from you.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m, also, from the South and the community I grew up in was really segregated. Not intentionally, but it was just the way things were unfortunately.

      I wrote this post because my mother didn’t really seem to want to have the conversation. I hope it encourages you to initiate one with your mother!

      I’m really glad that you are enjoying my blog and that you enjoyed this post. I’ve been poking around on your blog some as well. I love the Halloween countdown and am with you on all the training–lately I’ve been taking my gym visits to levels of intensity I have never before ventured and it is, well, bracing. Good luck and keep with it!

      P.S.: Your cat is cute! Black cats are the best.

  5. LIndsay, I’m with you. But for different reasons. I just thought it wasn’t a very good book. A fairy tale ending, improbable at best. And you are right, it was a lite treatment of a subject that could have been more insightful or truthful. I found you statements immensely articulate. But I would also add, one need not be from the south, or from Jackson to know rascism and inequality when they see it……I’m just saying.

    1. Hi Debbe, thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear you say that it just wasn’t a good book! There are so many other things I want to read and I’d rather not put the energy into something like that–let alone a book that isn’t even well written. And you are absolutely right, racism and inequality is by no means limited to the South. I took that track since that’s the region the book/film covers. My father stated (over on Facebook) that similar criticisms could be leveled at Holocaust books/films, and he’s certainly right. Hollywood and popular culture wouldn’t be nearly so successful if it weren’t for the toning down and white-washing of the facts. I guess that’s why we have documentaries and the history channel.

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