Few pastimes are perhaps more uniquely American than going to the movies. Though movie prices continue to increase from their already elevated prices, feature films are fairly accessible for most Americans; they reach a diverse and widespread audience, whether viewed in the theater, at home, or, in today’s technology-driven, ask-and-you-shall-receive society, through instant online streaming via iTunes or Netflix.
Inarguably, blockbuster films often serve as powerful theatric representations of both contemporary and historical social problems and injustices. Through fictional yet theatrical and artistically visual means, popular films have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, establishing a platform upon which conversations about political and social issues—both in the media and amongst citizens—can and have taken root. Don Cheadle’s 2004 performance in Hotel Rwanda, Sean Penn’s portrayal of gay rights activist Harvey Milk in 2008’s Milk, and 1994’s Philadelphia, which tells the story of Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks), an HIV-positive attorney who is fired on the basis of his medical condition, are all movies that have sparked politically charged conversations about race, sexuality, inequality, and civil rights in the United States.
The Help, recently released in 2011, is no exception. Based on the book by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is set in 1960’s civil-rights era Jackson, Mississipi, where young, white, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, played by Emma Stone, has just returned after graduating from Ole Miss. Working for a local newspaper and struggling to find inspiration for an assignment on housekeeping, Skeeter decides to seek help from neighbor’s black maid, Aibileen, (played by Viola Davis); seeing the racially condescending manner with which Aibileen is treated by her white employers and upset by the sudden loss of her own black female childhood nanny, Skeeter is inspired to write a book on the lives of black domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi. Together these narratives present a picture of both racial prejudice amongst white employers as well as an account of the emotional attachments between black domestic workers and the white families they work for.
The Help has enjoyed immense popularity since it was released in August of 2011; it was nominated for four Academy Awards, and during last Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, Octavia Spencer won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a black maid, Minnie, in the film. Yet, perhaps more interestingly, the movie has also been a springboard for the organization of domestic workers across the country. An article recently appearing in The Nation reports on the ways in which the film has inspired domestic workers to share their stories, organize themselves to demand employment rights, and how the film has provided a platform upon which the National Domestic Workers Alliance has started a conversation with lawmakers and the American public about the issues that domestic workers in the United States are faced with. The organization’s “Be The Help” campaign, inspired by the movie, is dedicated to gathering and publically sharing stories from domestic workers as well as their employees in an effort to increase visibility of and “gratitude for” domestic workers in the United States.
Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-Jen Poo, told a Washington Post reporter that, for domestic workers, The Help serves as a “a huge opening to create space in the public imagination for domestic workers today.” While this is certainly a powerfully positive affect of The Help’s story and its mass public appeal, it poses a provocative question: what is this space in the public imagination filled with?
What is the narrative that is produced about the nature of domestic work—particularly amongst black women in the Jim Crow South—in The Help?
Overall, The Help tells of the experiences of racial discrimination that black domestic workers are faced with largely within the context of a white narrative. The story in The Help is more about Skeeter’s coming-of-age, her realizations about racial injustices and discrimination, and her (and other peripheral white character’s) overcoming racial prejudice through the telling of Aibileen’s, Minnie’s, and other stories of domestic service. As it is told in The Help, the story of black domestic workers in the South and their own acts of resistance become visible and possible only through the help of white women. It is because of Skeeter’s book and her own initiative that black domestic workers’ stories of race and racism are told, and it is ultimately a result of her relationship with Skeeter that Aibileen summons the courage to become a writer.
This narrative grossly misrepresents the role of black domestic workers in the civil rights movement and erases many of the incredible and courageous challenges to racist practices and ideology that were historically performed by black domestic workers—without the help of white women and often in the face of severe consequences. The reality is not that black domestic workers fought for civil rights and resisted racist employers by baking their own feces into the family’s chocolate pie, as Minnie does in the film, nor did they act only with the help of their white counterparts. Rather, as oral histories such as those in Rebecca Sharpless’s Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 and Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women reflect, African-American domestic workers were independently involved in a variety of activities and practices focused on their civil rights.
Moreover, the acts of real resistance that African-American domestic workers performed were done in the face of violent racism, which the The Help glosses over. The film’s representation of racial discrimination is instead relatively benign; situations in which domestic workers are not able to use the bathroom in the household in which they work, must eat separately from their white employers, are fired based on unfounded accusations of stealing or other petty crimes, and are denied fair compensation are as far as The Help goes in reflecting the racism against black domestic workers in the Jim Crow south. As such, the film erases and ignores the real experiences of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse that black domestic workers faced from white employers. The Association of Black Women Historians, in a letter expressing their grievances with the film, point out that Rosa Parks wrote about her own personal experiences with sexual abuse and violence as a domestic worker.
Meanwhile, the black female domestic workers in The Help are portrayed as loyal workers who grow to love their white employers, even in the face of racial discrimination and inequality. As such, The Help reproduces the stereotypical “mammy narrative”, which historian Micki McElya argues serves to justify racial hierarchy and white privilege in her recent book, Clinging to Mammy.
Several prominent scholars and media figures have been quite critical of the representations of black domestic work in The Help. Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor of Political Science, director of the Anna Julia Cooper project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South, and recent host of her own show on MSNBC, has been quite outspoken about the film’s skewed portrayal of domestic workers. She, along with a panel of race scholars and a member of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance discussed the film on her show; their conversation aptly highlights the divergence in opinions about the film between scholars of race and domestic work and domestic workers themselves. While Harris-Perry and her two guest scholars were highly critical of the film for its gross misrepresentation of domestic work in the Jim Crow south, domestic worker Barbara Young praised the film for its humanistic representations of domestic work and for realistically representing the emotional relationships between domestic workers and their employer families, echoing the sentiments of her National Domestic Workers Alliance sisters and brothers. For her, the film is an important contribution as it brought both the Civil Rights Movement the (continued) plight of domestic workers in front of millions of Americans.
As part of their “Be The Help Campaign”, the National Domestic Workers Alliance created a short video titled “Meet Today’s Help”, in which they liken the stories of Aibileen, Minnie, and other characters in The Help to those of today’s domestic workers. Yet, if these stories misrepresent the actual experiences of racism and acts of resistance amongst black female domestic workers in the Jim Crow south, what does it really mean to align them with the experiences of contemporary domestic workers? While The Help has clearly provided an invaluable platform upon which contemporary domestic workers can increase their visibility and demand employment rights, it simultaneously reproduces a narrative of subordinate black domestic servants who develop deeply loyal emotional ties to their racist employers.
In her acceptance speech for the award of Best Supporting Actress at the 2102 Golden Globe awards, Octavia Spencer invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when speaking about both historic and contemporary domestic workers:
“You know, with regard to domestics in this country now and then, I think Dr. King said it best. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance, and I thank you for it.”
While this is certainly true, thanking and recognizing both historic and contemporary domestic labor is not enough. Rather, in order to truly confront the inequalities involved in contemporary domestic work and to pay homage to the real workers that The Help makes visible, domestic work and its historical roots must be critically examined with respect to the racialized and gendered systems of power that made and continue to make it possible, which The Help ultimately fails to do.
Rachael Gorab is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Northeastern University. Her research is on globalization, urban governance, urban citizenship, and spatial exclusion.