A Feminist Film Critique of 'The Help' (2011)
My very first term paper for my master's program that I'm incredibly proud to have written.
Much like Kathryn Stockett’s original novel, Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of The Help has been subjected to polarizing reception since its release, with many viewers deeming it a cursory perpetuator of calcified stereotypes. (Jones 9) Despite its fairly melodramatic performances and streamlined presentation, however, the film is a thematically nuanced marvel with regards to a microcosmic intersectionality between women’s rights issues, racial segregation, and social class disparities during the Civil Rights Era that parallel with multilayered challenges working-class women of colour face in a postmodern world.
The optimal method of understanding why these processes interact with one another is to observe how each of them theoretically function in (partial) isolation relative to what is witnessed on screen. Since The Help openly welcomes feministic discussions, we may begin with the social construction of gender and how it affects all women within the film’s context.
One of the ways that gender is created from routine interaction is through the career paths available for women; (West and Zimmerman 328) our white, university-educated protagonist Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, while unable to establish herself as a legitimate journalist immediately upon graduation, nevertheless manages to secure a humble position writing for someone else’s column at a newspaper company. Her skill set is overlooked and she is rewarded with little pay, but her only concern is ostensibly ensuring that she completes her tasks on time. (The Help)
Meanwhile, the black women featured in the film are only hired for domestic work and not only are they compensated even less for what amounts to picking up after their employers’ capricious, neglectful tendencies regarding the household, they are also excluded from meaningful engagements with the families and perennially at risk of abuse and employment termination. (The Help)
Another way that gender is socially constructed is via the differences in behaviour among women. (West and Zimmerman 328) With the exception of Skeeter and a couple other non-racists, white women here are generally concerned with beauty and presenting themselves as charitable socialites, most notably at the children’s benefit ball later in the film. (The Help)
What renders the latter particularly ironic is its staged nature: (West and Zimmerman 330) while the antagonist Hilly Holbrook appears keen on donating to youth in African countries, she contrarily slanders black maids throughout the film, insinuating that they try to take advantage of loans instead of seeking additional work to finance their children’s postsecondary education, and claiming that they have diseases to justify their forbidden use of the house restrooms. (The Help) She is oscillating between her saviour persona and oppressive demeanour according to the situation (West and Zimmerman 329) so that she maintains control of her perceived image – whether as a well-meaning Southern belle or an indestructible tyrant –regardless of her environment.
These are merely a few examples of how gender is historically and socially unequal not solely among men and women, but furthermore between women of different backgrounds with respect to well-being, dignity, the ability to see a black woman beyond her racial identity, and the opportunity for her to express herself without the fear of potential backlash. (MacKinnon 336) Perhaps one of the more mystifying processes born of this inequality is how hierarchical power, as exercised by characters like Hilly, virtually dictates the allocation of traditionally feminine roles.
Let us consider women as caregivers for children (MacKinnon 339) in The Help: the black maids are expected to practice patience when faced with their employers’ exaggerated and often trivial worries such as a simple phone call; however, they must raise the children in place of their biological mothers as well, in spite of them being unable to properly support or tragically losing their own, reinforcing the disregard for their personal needs in favour of responsibilities whose existence is, frankly, unnecessary. (The Help) The arrangement results in a nigh void relationship between parent and child, though we will explore this in depth upon arrival at a forthcoming discussion on marriage.
For the moment, it must be stressed that although The Help is a work of fiction, it nonetheless illustrates Stockett’s authentic experiences as a young girl in Jackson, Mississippi raised by a black maid that speak to others who share similar histories (McHaney 82). Thus, we can discern the parts of women’s history that are simultaneously told and hidden from the story. (MacKinnon 340) Racial disparities did not end with the abolishment of slavery; (MacKinnon 343) the people who do not employ black maids of their own and those who do but lack attachments to either them or their own children are either unaware of their individual struggles or evidently choose to ignore them. When Skeeter inexplicably loses her maid Constantine, whom she credits with nurturing her and supporting her independence since childhood, she is determined to weave together a lost narrative surrounding the continued, though concealed discrimination against the maids. (The Help)
It is here where the disconnect between mother and daughter is palpable, as we witness Skeeter’s mother Charlotte failing to understand and invest in Skeeter’s needs and world views because they, truthfully, do not know each other. (Hooks 2) Their tension can be patently compared with that of another socialite, Elizabeth Leefolt, and her daughter, Mae Mobley, who considers her maid, the film’s other protagonist Aibileen Clark, her real mother.
Mae finds solace in Aibileen’s empowering words and compassionate touch, which are contrasted with Elizabeth’s invidious methods of discipline and absence of communication opportunities. (The Help) Neither Skeeter nor Mae adhere to their community’s vision of the perfect girl in terms of appearance and behaviour; much like the maids, their opinions are ignored, so both parties would be in legal danger for attempting to widely publish feminist literature. (Hooks 4)
Nevertheless, Skeeter knows this must be done because she recognizes the potential in words as a form of survival for the maids. Their physical and psychological traumas that lead to cynicism and diffidence cannot be abated otherwise, though to ensure their protection when writing uncensored accounts of racism and sexism, the collective finds strength in anonymity. (Hooks 6)
Instead of giving orders, Skeeter is one of the very few white characters who endeavours to converse with the maids, especially Aibileen and the third protagonist, Minny Jackson. They hesitate to participate in Skeeter’s interviews at first, but slowly open the wounds that held them back from assuming control of their narrative and carve the path for an ongoing, anti-racist feminist movement. (Hooks 11)
The more comfortable the maids, particularly Aibileen and Minny, feel when sharing their stories with Skeeter, the less somber their storytelling approach becomes. Indeed, they emphasize their inhumane working conditions but with a sense of humour intended to entertain and resonate with their readers aside from the clear educational purpose.
This is liberatory (Hooks 8) because they are able to rise above their oppressors and show how absurd their actions are in actuality, so that readers may be inclined to either consider their attitudes toward the black community or seek chances to publicly speak out against the injustices they face routinely. (The Help)
These instances of discrete power are developed over the course of the women’s friendship to the extent that it humiliates Hilly, diminishing her influence and aplomb. Interestingly, her mother, Missus Walters, seems to hold a playful aversion to her from the scene we are first introduced to them, culminating in her laughter when Minny brings Hilly a cake baked with feces as revenge for dismissing her. (The Help)
Knowing that Hilly cannot prove her identity, she insists the incident be included in Skeeter’s book. What begins as Aibileen and Minny privately mocking the socialites becomes an open resistance whereby characters like Charlotte, surprisingly, implicitly expose Hilly for who she is, a megalomaniac who spreads propaganda not to save the townspeople from the supposed threat that is the black community, but to secure white supremacy. (MacKinnon 342)
The effect marriage has on women as a byproduct of this subversive perplexity is one of The Help’s prominent themes. While male characters are largely absent in the plot, there are scenarios we can nonetheless pinpoint that demonstrate both conventional and unorthodox gender dynamics in a marital institution. As the story goes, the man was historically expected to possess courage and nothing more to maintain his honour in society. (Martineau 137)
When Skeeter meets her short-term suitor Stuart Whitworth, who Hilly selects for her, we discover there is nothing remarkable about him other than his bold misogyny. She may be craven at times when confronted by the socialites, but Skeeter is otherwise vocal about her journalistic capabilities the instant he disrespects her. (The Help) When she chooses to accept his apology, and attend their first real date, she appears reluctant; we might suspect she is trying to appease her mother, who pressures her for the majority of the film to get married and have many children. (The Help)
In this case, women are taught to prioritize marriage, (Martineau 138) and because they are not expected to place any other obligations in their lives above it, their feelings on the matter are left unaddressed even before the initial meeting with their potential husbands. (Martineau 137) Charlotte instructs Skeeter on how to dress and behave around Stuart, notwithstanding her protests.
In the beginning, their relationship is inchoate, hence Charlotte’s inability to comprehend and support Skeeter’s commitment to her work, however little it pays, regardless of what the townsfolk might say. Unlike her peers, Skeeter is focused on building her reputation and portfolio, presumably with the understanding that there is a time and place for every milestone. (The Help)
As opposed to admiring her perseverance, Charlotte accuses Skeeter of being a lesbian and thinks of it as a disease that can be cured. Even supposing it is true, her sexual orientation should neither be an issue nor misconstrued as something it is not. The perturbing detail, in fact, is the women’s insistence that their daughters start families of their own when they will not be the ones responsible for child rearing, and by extension commanding the preservation of harmful values that carry over into adulthood (Martineau 139). Aibileen herself suggests that the socialites are incapable of providing for their children, likely worried that they will mature into either passive or overtly racist people, and implores Elizabeth at the film’s end to raise Mae as an altruistic free thinker who, we may assume, could contribute to the push for civil rights. (The Help)
The maids, by comparison with the socialites, seem to be more detached from the institution of marriage. They share a camaraderie with their male counterparts, but the audience is generally unclear as to what their romantic relationships look like. Minny is briefly shown to have an abusive husband, although it is touched upon again in her interactions with her new employer, Celia Foote, (The Help) which is one of the film’s most endearing dynamics. Celia is an intriguing example of a subverter who perceives tradition in a wholesome light.
On the one hand, she holds feminine roles dear not as a result of society’s standards, but rather to ensure healthy bonds in the home. She is neither intelligent nor skilled, but she is willing to learn. (The Help) Her treatment of Minny as a genuine member of the family allows them to enjoy each other’s company and grow into confident individuals. Celia encourages Minny to confront her husband while healing her injuries, and in turn Minny assures her she does not need to adhere to the other socialites’ expectations as well as teaching her to be a better cook. (The Help)
Although Celia’s benevolence rooted in those norms benefit her in this regard, it does not initially prepare her for the ostracism by the other women simply because she is married to Hilly’s former suitor, Johnny. (The Help) She also hides her miscarriages from him, electing to confide in Minny instead, as she does not wish to displease him. This could be observed as an instance of victimhood to her beliefs about her marital obligations to him. (Martineau 137)
We ought to highlight her opposition to the segregational mentality, however, as ethnicity is the other significant theme in The Help. This starts in the private life away from political eyes, where a new collective identity is created. (Omi and Winant 384) By insisting that Minny dine with her and not alone, Celia is resisting racial domination on a domestic scale despite Minny’s reservations. Their blossoming friendship culminates in both Celia and Johnny asking her to stay with them, not as a maid who will perform all the household duties, but as a person whose existence and morals they cherish. She has guaranteed job security and a safe place for her children away from her abuser. (The Help)
Be that as it may, there are cases of racialized organizations designed to underpin the differences between the two communities. (Du Bois 150) In the film, these include churches and libraries in which only those belonging to the same ethnic group are permitted entry. When Skeeter expresses a desire to watch an African-American news channel, as she feels it is imperative to avoid disenfranchisement from these people’s lives, Charlotte forbids it, implicating it is not in their place to know what goes on in their neighbourhoods. (The Help)
Upon arriving at Aibileen’s house to watch the channel, she finds out about police brutality in the area following the arrest of maid Yule May for taking an abandoned ring and civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ assassination. (The Help) Skeeter, in a sense, is supportive of cultural pluralism, because she, aside from being at odds with other townsfolk respecting civil rights, acknowledges her opinions in Aibileen’s home – that, up until this point, had never felt the presence of a white person – do not matter and there can be no fabricated accounts in her book, only their exact words. (The Help)
This corresponds to the concept that the black experience must be documented by the selfsame individuals for a substantive contribution to human history. (Du Bois 149) But while they are responsible for learning from their own mistakes during this process, (Du Bois 150) the same needs to be said for the other side of the coin. Charlotte terminates Constantine’s employment while Skeeter is in the process of completing her degree; she only does this to save face in front of her guests when Constantine’s daughter refuses to visit her through the back door and is seen by them. (The Help)
She regrets sending Constantine away, but by the time Skeeter’s brother Carlton sets out to find her in Chicago she is already deceased. Her redemption shows promise when she praises Skeeter for publishing the book and supports her job opportunity in New York City to represent Jackson and continue her work. Finally coming to terms with Skeeter’s choice to remain unmarried is only the beginning. (The Help)
Yet accepting the offer proves to be a difficult decision for Skeeter, as she feels obligated to the black community. Being part of a team that collaborates on a book meant to add another item to the civil rights agenda gives her a purpose that is not purely a neighbourly gesture. (Mead 192) Had Minny and Aibileen not convinced her to take the job, she would likely reject the offer.
Meanwhile, the former two have their respective arcs to undergo. They reveal themselves as exceptional storytellers, especially Aibileen, whose writing ranges from poignant to witty. (The Help) Unfortunately, she is devoid of self-respect as a consequence of being denied access to the same rights as the white community. (Honneth 459)
Prior to the events of the film, Aibileen was forced to forfeit her education to provide financial support to her mother. Besides Jackson’s hegemonic structure that prevents her from using her voice, she genuinely feels unworthy of aspiration beyond what is available to her, and that is the thankless life of a maid. She is led to her psychological death, so to speak, because she is not hopeful that her society will valourize her abilities nor those of her peers. (Honneth 460)
Through her ties to characters like Skeeter, Minny, and Mae, she is motivated to unlock her inner strength that ultimately makes Skeeter’s book possible by telling her story and recruiting other maids for interviews. She furthermore takes a stand against Hilly when Elizabeth fails to do so out of fear, and leaves her home to become a writer, her termination being a potential blessing in disguise. (The Help)
In the end, The Help is structured as a myriad of personal journeys characterized by education. (Ruzich and Blake 544) We can see that there were white people who, upon realizing what transpired in their own homes, were compelled to advocate for the maids’ rights and help ensure that their stories were publicized and learned from as the civil rights movement prevailed. (Jones 9) It is still crucial that audiences new to The Help notice the correlation between the sentiments there and how minorities are affected today. (Jones 10)
This is determined by how historical fiction is crafted, (Jones 11) and one of the advantages of a more intimate premise is that it can garner curiosity toward the bigger picture. We may not be absorbing facts and statistics, but we expose ourselves to the raw conflict reflected in these characters all the same. (Jones 14)
That same conflict does not always incite personal transformations that in turn promote social change, such as Stuart’s decision to leave Skeeter after discovering her role in producing the book. (The Help) The reality is that for every person who invests in and shares ideas galvanized by the book even if they do not become an activist themselves, like Missus Walters, there will be one who is not moved by it, and this pattern is mirrored in our world as well. (Jones 16)
Moreover, it is logical to assume that there will be people motivated to stand against racism, but we cannot conclude that they are necessarily perfect heroes. Skeeter, by outwardly tolerating the socialites’ behaviour, is technically complicit in it herself. She does not yet understand that doing a good deed in spite of this will not put an end to the processual discrimination. (Jones 18)
Though we must also keep in mind that, by relinquishing credit for the book, she does not actually set out to become a renowned saviour. (Jones 19) Collectively, the authors give each other a voice that speak to generations with connections to this context – given that similar social inequalities marked by nonexistent legal aid, unlivable wages, and indecent working conditions are prevalent in the South, Texas, and New York (McHaney 85) – as well as domestic workers from all walks of life. (Jones 21)
As a concluding reminder, we should not forget the other momentous hints of power possessed by the maids. Skeeter is only a transcriber save for her experience with Constantine, undoubtedly intended to encourage other white children to speak up in support of their maids, which she includes in the last chapter as she knows the maids’ struggles take priority over hers. (McHaney 85) The book would not even be developed without their consent and cooperation.
It is not until after the shootings when Aibileen, and the other maids she recruits by extension, fully agree that the book needs to be completed and published. (The Help) On the subject of Aibileen, Mae could have easily influenced her to plead with Elizabeth for her job back, but as difficult as it is for her to walk away from the little girl’s distressing cries, she knows that her heart belongs to progressive literature and that she must finally live for herself. (The Help)
The hope behind recounting a story like The Help is that readers will build a lexicon of materials that is participatory and reflexive in how the discussed challenges are visited and revisited over time with the help of interdisciplinary ideas. (McHaney 91) Such action can be regarded as a societal movement whereby collective responsibility is paramount; without it, we cannot fortify collaborative education, moralities, and the will for self-growth. (Touraine 579)
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Honneth, Axel. “Personal Identity and Disrespect.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 459-60
Hooks, Bell. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, vol. 4, no. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 2-11. HeinOnline.
Jones, Suzanne W. “The Divided Reception of The Help.” The Help, special issue of Southern Culture, vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 9-21
MacKinnon, Catharine. “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 336-43
Martineau, Harriet. “On Marriage.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 336-43
Mead, George Herbert. “The Fusion of the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ in Social Activities.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 192
McHaney, Pearl. “Kathryn Stockett’s Postmodern First Novel.” The Help, special issue of Southern Cultures, vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 82-91
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pg. 384
Ruzich, Constance and Julie Blake. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: Dialect, Race, and Identity in Stockett’s Novel The Help.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 48, no. 3, 2015, pg. 544
The Help. Directed by Tate Taylor, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2011.
Touraine, Alain. “The Subject and Societal Movements.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pg. 579
West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 328-30