Panel – The Help

Media has an immense power to both reflect the society it is a product of and initiate social change. For these reasons, it is often an effective tool for illustrating particular social concepts. The blog Sociological Images frequently uses visual imagery to illustrate a host of sociological concepts in an exceptionally compelling way. In a pair of posts today, Rachael Gorab and Adia Harvey Wingfield discuss the recent Academy Award Winning film The Help in terms of its portrayal of both race and gender in the world of domestic service work. For those of you who haven’t seen it, we’ve embedded the trailer to the film above. We hope you enjoy our latest panel!

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.

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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.

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