The reviews are out. The mainstream thinks the movie adaptation of The Help is great. The feminist and black activist communities, not so much. I haven’t seen it yet, but I was not surprised to read that Hollywood softened most of the hard edges of the story, thus lessening much of its potential impact. Discomfort is a central part of reading the book, and Hollywood would rather you feel good.
The book received a great deal of criticism when it was published because the white author, Kathryn Stockett, wrote half of the book in a black dialect and from the point of view of black characters. Over at The Feminist Wire, Duchess Harris calls out the book for its “focus on a noble white protagonist,” likening it to To Kill a Mockingbird (with which she apparently also has a problem) and dismisses the author for “transparently writing about herself.” To Harris, The Help‘s white protagonist is not worth writing about because she didn’t die for the cause, like real life white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. Harris appears to have a very high bar of what it takes to be pro-civil rights.
I agree with her that the world needs more “civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.” I would read it. But is she really saying that people like Kathryn Stockett and Harper Lee shouldn’t have written their books? (Would we be better off without Porgy and Bess?) Does Harris really think that nothing is gained by hearing these stories from those perspectives as well? At what point will enough civil rights literature by black people have been published for it to be okay for white people to write about it, too?
Authors are always, transparently or not, writing about themselves. (What else would they write about?) These black women of the civil rights movement would be writing about themselves were they to provide the literature Harris calls for. The underappreciated works they have written are about themselves. I argue that the more perspectives on what is arguably a complex, multi-faceted issue, the better.
As for the central character, the world is short on martyrs, and they can’t be our only heroes. The South raised a lot of Skeeter Phelans: a lot of women who were disempowered from speaking out about what they saw around them. (I got a call from one of them right after she read it, saying, “I never felt I could do anything about it. Back then, Southern girls didn’t challenge their parents and elders without serious consequences.”) I don’t believe the book provides an out to these women; it does not excuse their complacency. Rather it reveals the structural ways Southern society suppressed dissent. It deals with the discomfort of Skeeter beginning to really see and respond to her world, and it makes the reader uncomfortable about it in return. And though she has sympathy with that discomfort, still the reader yearns for Skeeter to do more, to shake off her fears and the petty concerns of Southern dating rituals, get over her hair, and focus on what is important. I believe this is intentional on Stockett’s part – we are in fact invited to judge Skeeter and the many women like her who did too little. In fact, the cluelessness of all the white women in the book stands in stark contrast to the seriousness and hard work of the black women, who are often left shaking their heads at Skeeter’s obvious naïveté .
Perhaps I am as naïve as she, but I found the book’s descriptions of the absolutely backbreaking work “the help” did to clean and care for other people’s property quite effective. For most people, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to work that hard for that many hours for that little money, and to endure the boss’s disrespect all the while. The Help goes a long way towards helping people imagine that. I’m not surprised that Hollywood made the movie into a prettier, happier version of the book, but I find it odd that anyone whose goal is to include more voices in the dialogue would try to silence Stockett’s.