Apparently many of my friends from my “real life” LOVE The Help. Love it. They are telling people on Facebook to “GO SEE THE HELP. RUN. NOT WALK!” including a dear dear friend who studied and wrote about Apartheid in South Africa. As I ponder how much I should share my perspectives with her at the risk of hurting her feelings and alienating her, I re-read my post from January 20. 2010, and nope, my view has not changed. Since the movie adaptation is receiving rave reviews all over and I have not seen my Anglo-Saxon lady friends so enthusiastic about a movie with an African American lead since The Blind Side (yes please argue why the African American characters are at most CO-lead, and you’ll be right in my book), I feel compelled to share this post from almost 2 years ago again.

Or, actually, skip this post entirely and go read My Brown Baby‘s post “I Was the Help —- and My Experience Taught to Dream Big“. If you have been reading my blog and liking what you have been reading, I have a feeling that you are going to appreciate very very much what Denene Millner, the autohor, has to say about the book, the movie and the reception of it. Peace out.

 

REPOSTED from January 20, 2010

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. I am not even making any coherent argument, not to mention grammatical errors! Run-on sentences! totally exposing myself as a feeble-minded person. Even the title spells “MEH”.

That being said, I feel this pathological need to be on the record, I guess. Since I have been treating this blog as my diary, I want everything that comes out of my head to be on here. So, sorry about this… mental puke…

I brought the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett with me on my flight back home last December. I have had the whole flight between IAD and Narita to ponder on this book. I won’t even attempt at writing a review since I am really not qualified to do so. And at any rate, there are already more than 1,400 reviews on Amazon.com. Furthermore, all the book reviewers in the major news outlets have done so and waxed poetic on this book, with one of them comparing The Help to To Kill A Mocking Bird.* I will just make a list of things that I have been chewing on. By Tap Tap Tap on my iPhone (without a SIM) and therefore heavy editing involved thereafter.

Spoiler alert: If you are thinking of reading this book, you should skip this. I will also be 100% honest with myself, which means I will be contradictory, at times nonsensical, and possibly offending, especially if you love the book.

Confession first: I enjoyed reading this book tremendously. Cliché, yes. Truth is: it IS a page turner. For me. From the moment when I opened it in August when I first received it, I could not completely put Aibileen out of my head until the Christmas week, when I finally had time to sit down and read the book in long stretches.

The stories are riveting. The voices are, as much as I hate using this word because it is often confused with “stereotypical”, or at the very least “archetypal”, the voices sound to me “authentic”. That is, when I was reading it, when I was caught up in the drama of the story that was being expertly told, when I was kept in suspense as to the safety of the women, when I was hoping with clenched fists and a racing hear that they would triumph over evil and that justice would be done. Well, justice be done to a certain extent, in the strict confines of the story-telling.

Now I ask myself: How many Southerners do I know? None.

Do I know any African American domestic help? Nope.

What do I know about Southern dialects and accents? Not a thing.

So what do I know about whether the book is “authentic” or not? Hasn’t this always been the gripe I have against books like Memoirs of a Geisha? That a fiction novel, on account of its main characters being of a non-white race, is evaluated and praised for delivering an “authentic” portrayal. Do we even care whether Dan Brown’s characters are authentic or not?

Damn the identity politics theories I read, classes I took.

I cannot help, in the back of my mind, though I immensely enjoyed the stories of these women, that a white woman took possession of the black women’s stories twice, especially after I read Kathryn Stockett’s personal note at the end of the book: like Skeeter in the story, Stockett wrote the black women’s stories and gained wild success.

I understand the above statement reeks of identity politics, but I cannot help the gnawing feelings in the back of my head.

What bothers me even more is Skeeter’s cajoling, forcing almost, these women into telling her their stories because she was told that she needed to write something that nobody had ever written before in order to get into the publishing world. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable with her motive: next to the all too real risk to the black women’s lives, her motif seems so trivial. Selfish even. What is the potential downside for her engagement in this feat? None too serious really. And indeed, there was a happy ending for Skeeter. But for Minnie and Aibileen the future remained uncertain.

Although I do wish something horrible would happen to the wrong-doers and was a bit let down when it didn’t, I do applaud the author for not cheapening the story by taking the easy way out. They are still in the mid 1960s in Mississippi and it is not like they are going to all of a sudden find true equality by the end of the book. I need to give the author props for not providing her White readers with an easy cathartic way to assuage the white guilt. “The villain that caused such misery is dead/appropriately punished, all is well in the universe. Now get on with your merry life.”

As I mentioned, the book received gleaming reviews. From White book reviewers. This could be racist on my part, and certainly identity politics at its worst as some might say, nevertheless, I feel I NEED TO know how an African American reader may feel about this book. NOT because a white woman from a privileged family in the South wrote this book, but because, again, despite my immense enjoyment of this book, and yes indeed I feel guilty for liking this book when I started wondering how my friends back in my graduate study classes would have said about this book, I cannot ignore the conflation of the tropes: 1. the White heroine being rescued, or finding self-realization, through Black folks around her that she does not socialize with, 2. Black people, unable to help or save themselves, being rescued by a White person.

I imagine this book already optioned by a movie studio. Or soon will be. Anyway you look at it, it IS going to be a great vehicle for some of the outstanding African American actresses, and god only knows how hard it is for a good script with a strong minority character lead to make it all the way to some head honcho’s desk. I do hope that the script and the actor that portrays Leroy would breathe some more life into him rather than the one-dimensional wife-beater. When in doubt, we reach for the things we share as women: abusive husbands, cheating boyfriends, sexist Chauvinistic patriarchs. In that process, our men are further demonized. Joy Luck Club immediately comes to mind. I can’t watch that movie without cringing. Not a single man in that movie is worthy of loving. Is it why it was accepted by the white mainstream audience? “Poor Asian women. They are so much better off over here. Away from their men.”

When The Blind Side came out, and the Internet was all abuzz about what a feel good movie it was, it immediately raised the mental red flag for me. “Feel good” means, to me, “Not for you. You are probably not the target audience/reader. Stay home. Otherwise you won’t feel good.”

I asked an African American columnist whether she planned to see the movie,

“No. We don’t consider that movie an attractive idea.” She said coyly.

* The surest way to incite heated debate against the worth of any book is to compare it to the beloved To Kill a Mocking Bird… So if you hate someone, yeah, go ahead and compare them to Harper Lee.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

MKDR August 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm

So, I was also plagued with similar thoughts when I read this. My mom (who DID grow up as a white girl of some small amount of privelidge in the 50s/60s in the south with a maid) suggested this as required reading to everyone she knows, especially people who grew up in similar situations as her. However, I think she would fail to see these same issues. She probably sees it from Skeeter’s point of view – as a great way to get this powerful story out. I see it as another example of potential oppression. Several things I felt were very unrealistic…especially Skeeter not telling the full story about Constantine and Aibileen telling her that she was glad she didn’t (that played either was untrue or as just another example of the imbalance of power). And overall Skeeter wasn’t truly genuine throughout…as others have mentioned she was not an activist, she simply fell into it.

Thanks for posting this, and also thanks to Beka for those reviews! If any of you are on Twitter, there will be a short (1 week) “book club” next week to discuss this IN DETAIL (typically we welcome this type of discussion, I will certainly bring it up). look me up @themkdr if you are interested in participating.

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Absence Alternatives August 26, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I followed you! Thank you so much for the kind words about my rambling and for esp. The insightful comment! A book club discussion via Twitter?! I would like to “sit in” so I can see how that’s done! Sounds awesome.

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Linda @ Bar Mitzvahzilla August 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Hi Lin, long time no see. I’ll admit to being more the memoir type of person, but I bought this, mainly because I found it used somewhere. I opened it and was immediately put off by two things: first person fiction (which I find sometimes to be the easy way out) and the voice of the bpnarrator being in the vernacular, a HUGE no-no in the writing classes I’ve taken. The idea, and I agree with it, is that the person’s oropifins can normally be gleaned from other verbal cues. In my book, with two Yiddish-speaking parents, I used their awkward English sentence construction, but I didn’t use their accents, ot their inability to make one consonant sound or another.

So, no, I haven’t read it but do own it. 🙂
Linda @ Bar Mitzvahzilla´s last blog post…The Difference Between Boys and Girls, Part I

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Absence Alternatives August 16, 2011 at 5:51 am

Hi Linda! Thanks for commenting on this! I would love to learn more about the reasons why it’s a no in the classes you’ve taught. Don’t get me wrong. In Asian American literature I do cringe at the way some characters are portrayed through their “awful” English. Just curious about your “official” take as a writing teacher and writer.

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Absence Alternatives August 16, 2011 at 5:53 am

Btw, I own the book too. Well, I used to. But after I finished reading the book, I gave it to a lady on the plane because she forgot to bring any with on a flight from CHI to Japan! Any book was better than no book. LOL

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Nance August 15, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Leaving out the shite pie, the stories are close to the stories I heard growing up (we did not have in-home help, but we did take our ironing to a lady whose family we came to know and care about) and the stories my wealthier friends have. But you’re right about this being a white girl’s story. There were a number of African American viewers in our audience here and they seemed to enjoy the movie very much, but the people who really ate it up were Southern white women of a certain age…the age to remember Jim Crow and the debts they owed the women who helped to raise them.

What the movie doesn’t address is the leap those adult children who were raised by The Help took when they became insensitive employers. That’s the unknown in the story that makes a psychologist want to poke around between the lines. The book could have been subtitled, “Spoiled Rotten Southern White Girls Struggling With Cognitive Dissonance.”

And yet…it did make its point, didn’t it? A novel only has one and a half points to make and this one filled the requirement in highly entertaining fashion. Now, we need The Help: The Documentary.
Nance´s last blog post…The Apple And The Tree

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Absence Alternatives August 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

“Spoiled Rotten Southern White Girls Struggling With Cognitive Dissonance”. LOL. Love it. Love you. I know it is very different both in substance and in degree, but my mother was a hotel maid, and to this day when i stay in a hotel I always clean up after myself. (And if I don’t, I feel very very guilty about it) Because that could be my mom, in some weird figurative way, cleaning up my shit when I check out…

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Beka August 16, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Sheer brilliance by Nance. I loved her alternate title!
Beka´s last blog post…Been Away

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Nicole, the queen of this life August 15, 2011 at 9:03 am

Brilliant. Just brilliant. It is so hard for people to see the honest side of reality but instead see the “feel good” side. Ummm….hello! Are we STILL celebratizing (is that a word?) racism and the idea that in order to come out of oppression, white people have to save us? I haven’t read the book, nor do I plan to, and nor do I plan to see the movie. This country is so caught up in “equalizing” the minority races that they are actually making them look ignorant. Great post!

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Absence Alternatives August 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Thanks for the kind words. Was writing the original post on the plane because I was about to explode after finish reading the book. Hey, didn’t call this place my Therapy Sessions for no reason, right? 😉

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Life with Kaishon August 14, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I am loving the book tremendously.
And feeling saddened because even though we no longer have ‘help,’ we do still have segregation. I see it every single day.

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Absence Alternatives August 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm

I did enjoy the book. She’s a great story-teller no doubt about it.

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Beka August 14, 2011 at 10:14 pm

You are not alone in your reactions, but I sure wish this book and movie weren’t so universally accepted. I had the book recommended to me by many friends, but I never read it, because the whole concept just seemed so condescending at best. It just kind of gave me the heebie jeebies. And now, seeing the reactions to the movie, I am going to miss that as well–NO thank you. I had a friend refer to it as following the “white in shining armor” paradigm, where the well-meaning white lady comes in to tell the story of the black help. So patronizing and actually erasing-as though they cannot speak for themselves.

As to your reaction to the Joy Luck Club, that is the same complaint a lot of my black female friends have about The Color Purple. The men in it are so demonized that the women turn lesbian for God’s sake! Not because they are born gay, but because the African American men in the book are depicted as such beasts that no woman would want to be with them. What an unfair characterization of men.

As to how black Americans are reacting to The Help? Here are a few links:

http://www.thefeministwire.com/2011/08/12/kathryn-stockett-is-not-my-sister-and-i-am-not-her-help/

http://www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf

http://wellalright.tumblr.com/post/8919014834/my-brother-sent-me-a-link-to-this-slideshow-about

I also liked this review: http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2011/08/2916584/help-movie-about-white-woman-who-told-story-suffering-black-women

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Absence Alternatives August 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I will not go long on this. I just want to say with all my heart: Thank you. I will read the reviews. Thank you so much for this comment and everything.

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Beka August 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Lin, I am sure I would have enjoyed the book , as I always get sucked into a good story, and I am also an “any book in an emergency” woman. I just felt uneasy about the book and never picked it up. I do understand why people love “The Help”, I just wish they would question it a bit more. That’s why I was so happy to read your post. On the other hand, I have no doubt that I could easily have been that “helpful” white woman in the 60’s. I’m not really in a position to judge others. lol! However, I still cringe when a movie is made where black characters have lines like “I love me some fried chicken!” Really? I am choosing not to see it.
Beka´s last blog post…Been Away

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Absence Alternatives August 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm

I don’t know what I would have done if I were born a white woman during that time… So…

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Ameena August 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

The truth is that I thought this book was enjoyable but totally overrated.

As an aside, I am tired of people saying how far we’ve come since the time this book “took place.” The thing is that “The Help” is still treated this way in India, Pakistan, and even here in the USA. It saddens me that we really haven’t come as far as we think we have and yet we are all too quick to read, discuss, and then forget about a book like this.

I’m hungry. I’m tired. Forgive my nonsensical ideas here…

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Absence Alternatives August 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm

To me it’s even more insidious since now you’d be pegged as a whiner if you even talk about race and class inequality.

My dear you sound as eloquent as ever.

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