“The Help” Does Not Help

Rachael’s post insightfully delves into the ways that The Help has served to motivate domestic workers to organize and push for better treatment, as well as the ways that the film reinforces racialized narratives and stereotypes.  While the film and book are fictional stories based on historical material, sociological research on race, gender, and work provide more nuanced, accurate portrayals of the challenges, issues, and obstacles domestic workers encounter.

In a 2003 article published in the Annual Review of Sociology, sociologists Irene Browne and Joya Misra consider whether the literature on work and occupations provides support for the arguments made by intersectionality theorists. Specifically, inasmuch as an intersectional approach contends that issues of race, gender, class, and other categories are overlapping rather than singular and mutually exclusive, Browne and Misra examine whether key areas studied by researchers in the sociology of work show evidence of this overlap. As part of their analysis, Browne and Misra look at the literature on domestic workers to consider whether this indicates interactions of race, gender, and class. These authors note that the overwhelming preponderance of women of color–particularly immigrant women of color–in this profession signifies employers’ preference for certain workers to do this type of labor. Additionally, the low pay afforded to most domestic workers further signifies the ways that race, gender, class—and in this case, nationality—are intertwined.

Notably, there is a hierarchy among domestic workers wherein Eastern European and white American women who work as nannies or au pairs are often better paid and enjoy better working conditions than black and Latina immigrant and native-born women who work cleaning houses or providing child care help—cinematically, think of the difference between The Help and The Nanny Diaries. Browne and Misra’s work shows that it is not an accident that women of color are overrepresented in this low paying job; rather, this reflects the preferences (and often the stereotypes) of the middle to upper class, often white women who can afford to hire them as well as the narrow, constrained occupational choices available to minority women, particularly those who immigrate to the United States.

From another perspective, Judith Rollins’ 1988 book Between Women is an ethnographic account of her experiences doing participant observation as a domestic worker. While Browne and Misra’s study examines existing sociological research, Rollins’ ethnographic approach gives her insight into specific ways domestic work can dehumanize and exploit the women who do it. Rollins gives accounts of employers ignoring her and treating her as if she is invisible (at one point doing this so effectively that she begins to take field notes, unnoticed, as her employer carries on a conversation with her son), of being locked in the house during the day, and other accounts of mistreatment, suspicion, and overburdening. Importantly, she also finds that as such treatment becomes routinized, it builds an ever-growing sense of resentment and hostility that takes a personal toll.

Numerous other researchers, often women sociologists of color, have given voice to the specific accounts of domestic workers of different ethnicities and nationalities. Pierette Hondagneu-Sotela’s 2007 book Domestica,Mary Romero’s 2002 Maid in the USA, and Pei-Chia Lan’s 2006 Global Cinderellas provide exacting, stark details about the abuse to which domestic workers are often subjected as well as the complexities of their lives. These studies consider global, social, and economic factors that shape the various contours of domestic service, and help to contextualize the ways these women’s lives are affected by social forces that are often beyond their individual control as well as the strategies they use to provide some measure of autonomy and dignity. It is telling, however, that none of the many studies by women of color that document the efforts of other women of color in fighting sexism, racism, and class-based oppression in the labor market are seen as worthy of Hollywood adaptation.

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