So a white woman wrote about the black experience? That's what fiction's all about
“This isn’t about me.” That’s what eager, well-intentioned and lily-white aspiring writer Skeeter tells the nervous African-American maid Minny in “The Help.” It’s her pitch to try to get Minny to open up about her experiences as a domestic, and her feelings on the roiling racism of Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. But it’s also one of the most telling moments of what’s shaping up to be one of the most controversial and surprisingly divisive movies of the year. Because novelist Kathryn Stockett wrote a book that wasn’t just about her. And that has a made a lot of people very uncomfortable.
Amid the Oscar buzz and accolades for the fine performances of “The Help’s” A-list cast, the film has generated criticism for its supposed whitewashing of one of the most contentious, painful periods in recent American history. The Association of Black Women Historians recently issued a statement on the best-selling book and film, sating that, among other things, “‘The Help’ is not a story about the millions of hard-working and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association of Black Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”
The Boston Globe has criticized the film as “an all-American cop-out.” Nelson George, writing in the New York Times, contrasted “The Help” with civil-rights documentaries and the “larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era.” Likewise, in a meticulously thorough piece last week, my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz put the film in the context of Hollywood’s historically lunkheaded, white-guilt appeasement genre. But should a history of badly done movies keep others from taking a crack at it?
When a story becomes a hit, it’s because it’s struck a particular chord. And one of the more absurd aspects of the criticism of “The Help” is irritation that it’s a success in the first place. “Why this?” its detractors wail. “Why this, when there are other books, written by actual black women, to be read?” True, and maybe readers who enjoyed “The Help” will now seek them out. The success of one book or movie does not come at the expense of another. Stockett could have chosen to write the book exclusively in the voice of the idealistic — and pale-hued — Skeeter. But she didn’t. That’s Stockett’s choice to make as the author. Similarly, much of the criticism of the movie and book also stems from its restrained depiction of the era’s sexual harassment and racial violence. Yet it seems not so much a conspicuous oversight as a narrative choice — “The Help” is a story that takes place largely in the genteel domestic sphere, and studies the ways that females of the era both dished out and endured racism. That’s the story. And guess what? Novels don’t get to be crowd-sourced. You don’t get a vote in Stockett’s plot.
I’d wager Kathryn Stockett never set out to create the definitive tome on the African-American experience. I’ve never read an interview with her in which she claimed to be representing “millions of hard-working and dignified black women.” Her Minny and Aibileen are no more everywomen than her blithely racist white girls Hilly and Celia are.
As a reader or viewer, you might not like “The Help.” It is a formulaic Hollywood feel-bad and then feel-good work, one in which beautifully bathed-in-sunlight characters say Very Important Things while music swells. But there’s a difference between being critical of the work and being squeamish about someone’s right to create it. It’s clear that the main problem a lot of people have with “The Help” is that the story was written by a white lady. And that’s a really bad road of reasoning to go down, people.
The job of fiction is to inhabit someone else. Argue, if you will, that Stockett didn’t do a credible job — but don’t bother taking offense that she ambitiously took on the challenge in the first place. Don’t assume that only the Toni Morrisons or Alice Walkers or Sapphires of the world have permission to write in the voice of African-American women. Or, for that matter, that members of any group should only write about their own.
Flaubert once famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Who’s to say that a man can’t write of the tragic frustrations of a housewife? That a Russian can’t channel a Continental pederast? A Japanese man can’t write about postwar English servants? Or a white woman can’t write about African-American maids? That’s fiction in a nutshell for you. Otherwise, it’s called memoir.
One of the most repeated images of “The Help” is a simple tableaux of two women of different backgrounds and colors, just talking. Asking questions. Trying to understand. And that, to me, is the heart of the film. It’s not about the big news stories of the early civil-rights era — it’s a story about having difficult and necessary exchanges about race. Skeeter may be a noble budding crusader, but her appeal is in her realization that she wants to understand. I’d like to believe that the fact that “The Help” has touched off such intense debate, such vehement criticism, is a good thing, because it says that we’re doing just that still. As Owen Gleiberman astutely wrote this week on Entertainment Weekly’s website, “It shows us the form that activism could take among women who weren’t activists.”
On Monday afternoon in Times Square, the audience for “The Help” was surprisingly packed and unmistakably diverse. For a few hours, a variety of young people and older matinee goers, men and women, black and white, sat down together and watched a movie about what happens when black and white people sit down together. Then, as Viola Davis walked down a Jackson street, the lights came up. And for every member of the audience, an opportunity for conversation began.
More Related Stories
- How Dan Savage lost it
- Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"
- “Arrested Development,” hurry up and get here so you can stop being so annoying
- Must-do's: What we like this week
- Josh Ritter makes his "Blood on the Tracks"
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11