Monday, 13 February 2012

The Help



The Help is a controversial work, with the Association of Black Women Historians coming out against it's depictions of racism in the South and The New Republic arguing that criticism of the film is unhelpful as it's better it exists rather than the issue being ignored entirely. I don't really think the claims that Kathryn Stockett lifted details wholesale from a maid she knew in her childhood are relevant even if they are true. I don't understand the idea that we own the details of our own lives: we don't live in isolation and our actions impact on others, so why should one person have the right to declare themselves the sole authority on the subject? 

Although I initially didn't even want to watch it, after viewing I'm now more hospitable to McWhorter's reading than the prevailing view. There are a lot of problems with the film but I think anyone who acts as if it harms race relations is to be one of those progressives who refuses to admit the worth of something despite its flaws. Skeeter Phelan (Stone) is an aspiring writer/journalist who returns to her home town looking for a break. Told to write about what disturbs her, she seeks the help of Aibileen Clark (Davis) to begin a collection of stories from the perspective of Black maids working in White households. Despite her genuine belief that Aibileen and the other maids are being treated unfairly, it's made clear that she is still a member of the majority. After the main antagonist Hilly (Howard) and her society friends make some racist remarks she tells Aibileen "Sorry you had to hear that" rather than apologising for the content of the conversation itself. 

A frequent criticism is that The Help presents events to make it look as though it took a white lady to organise and inspire the maids to take action themselves which ignores the community spirit and leadership that was at the root of the Civil Rights movement. There's a brief dialogue which is a clear attempt to head this off before it begins & this is fine, but it doesn't change anything, the narrative still focuses far too much on Skeeter over the maids. 

"what if you don't like what I got to say about white people?" 
"This isn't about me. It doesn't matter how I feel"

Hilly Holbrook is an excellent example of the banality of evil. Her goal for the duration is to pass a law requiring white families that employ black maids to have a separate toilet. She's not violent, instead using her position as Queen Wasp to make sure People Like Her carry on running things (which leads to the inevitable breakdown scene at the end of the film). This is another recurring comment, that it fails to address the level of physical danger black people faced everyday from the KKK, White Citizens Council and similar bodies and instead reduces it to bickering amongst housewives. For me, this one is the least grounded in reality. The assassination of Medgar Evers is referenced and the arresting of one black maid where she is struck on the head with a police baton was pretty graphic. 

When Hilly sees Skeeter reading a pamphlet she warns her that "There are real racists in this town. If the wrong person caught you with anything like that, you'd be in serious trouble". People are often quite willing to admit minor character flaws (selfishness, laziness, etc) yet we often point out those worse than ourselves to excuse our own deeper faults. To continue my attempts at being more open, here are some oppressive attitudes/behaviours I hold/have held:

-I do the "white people can't tell PoC apart" thing occasionally. I watched multiple episodes of 30 Rock convinced Selma Hayek was Penelope Cruz.
-I'm not convinced by any of the arguments that pornography (outside of the small subset that is for/by women) isn't harmful yet I still watch it.
-I think anyone seeking to live in a new country should be fluent in that country's first language.
-I get at least as much pleasure from talking about good things I've done as I do from actually doing them.


As much as the way that Skeeter is shown as the catalyst for change is abhorrent, there's potential redemption towards the end with the aforementioned scene where Yule Mae Davis (I think!) is arrested then shortly afterwards, a large group of maids assemble to share their stories. It makes the fairly obvious point that as much as intellectual arguments for social justice need to be made, people are more likely to have a strong reaction when things are taken out of the abstract and made personal. These women would all have experienced violence and intolerance before and yes, the film falls down here but it's pretty difficult to fit everything into the narrative of a film and still have it be something people will watch. Maybe that's enough of an argument that it shouldn't have been made at all but I think it's good to have more voices in a conversation. I'm also aware however that I'm a white guy living in 21st century Britain, so that's a whole lot of separation from being a black maid in 1960s Mississippi and I don't know how much the opinion of someone with no direct experience is worth. 

3 comments:

  1. I'm always bothered at the idea that women that are in the sex industry are almost always viewed as "exploited", as if they're somehow so naive and dumb they can't possibly enjoy the work that they do without somehow being tricked into it. While I think that the industry as a whole can be dishonest, exploitative and very cruel to the people that work in it (meatholes conjures up soooo many disturbing feelings), I also think that it's not harmful to women who choose a career in the sex industry, nor does it make people as a whole that do watch and enjoy porn bad people. Though I do notice that forms of racism are employed in the marketing of certain types of adult films. (A lot of the movies featuring black entertainers have the words "Ghetto" or "Urban" preceeding it.)

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  2. Oh, absolutely, and of course there are actors that do it because they enjoy the job like any other profession. But I don't think you can avoid the fact that there's a significant portion of female actors working in professional pornography because there's not really any other option that pays a sufficient amount of money. These women are often being knowingly exploited - they're not being tricked, they just have no other means of paying rent.

    If you don't know her already, take a look at http://www.feminisnt.com/ . There's probably a lot of 'bad stuff' there if you look deeper, but I think the first point in her FAQ shows exactly what the fuck is wrong with the industry:

    "I did my first day shoot in LA in May of 2002 for a big online porn company, where the creepy, fumbly photographer and I cranked out 20 solo photosets of me in various outfits, looking increasingly tired/bored as the day wore on. I was paid $750, and the porn site paid the photographer $1250."

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    1. Nope, I don't deny that fact at all. I think the porn industry (outside of the offshoot "feminist/by women for women" companies) is inherently dishonest and unscrupulous with the way they treat their performers. A former friend of mine wanted to shoot with Suicide Girls at one point, until she read their contract and found that her tattoos, name and pretty much her own likeness would be owned by SG for years to come, and if she tried to go with another company they would essentially sue her. I do know of feminisnt, though. I think I saw an article she posted about Sasha Grey on a feminist tumblr ages ago. (I could be wrong, as I usually am)

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