HSN's tacky branding of "The Help"

The network hawks floral dresses and deep fryers -- and misses the movie's message

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published August 18, 2011 4:45PM (EDT)

Not since a Nashville trio decided to call itself Lady Antebellum has Southern pride seemed so cluelessly tone-deaf. Earier this month, Home Shopping Network launched a "one-of-a-kind collection of beauty, home decor, designer fashions and jewelry created in the spirit of the must-see movie" of the summer, "The Help." That's right, you too can dress up like a segregationist bitch!

It's true that much of the set design and costumes of "The Help" are gorgeous. They represent, after all, a well-to-do class of women who threw bridge parties in stunning old houses. They're belles of refined taste and impeccable hospitality. Yet the fact that the HSN collection features ladylike fashions from Lela Rose, created "with a clear vision to create classic style with a whimsical twist ... filled with elegant silhouettes and beautifully embellished fabrics," seems to wildly misunderstand the true nature of these characters. I like a floral brocade dress as much as the next gal, but I wouldn't want to order one because it's something Hilly Holbrook would wear.

Unsurprisingly, the HSN collection, with its "Lovely Lady" pearls and "Lawn Party" crystals, doesn't spotlight the rather more down-market wardrobes of its African-American characters. What? No maid's uniforms? It does, however, offer items like Emeril's Stainless Steel Fryer, the better for whipping fried chicken just like that sassy Minny. There's also an individual pie maker, a bold choice given the memorable contents of a pie presented to a pivotal character, in a scene of mortifying horror.

Most of the items in the HSN "collection" are simply brands the network already shills, repurposed to fit the theme of lazy afternoons drinking iced tea and oppressing your domestic staff. But others, like Low Country Luxe, have a more deliberate tie-in. In a recent story for the Savannah Morning News, entrepreneur Natalie Evans tells how she was approached by HSN to create a line of home fragrances inspired by the film. She came up with Livin' in High Cotton and also "Mississippi Magnolia, a floral scent that was inspired by the movie's character, Aibileen." Because when you think about a poor black maid toiling away in the Jim Crow era, you think "luxe" diffuser sets. This is livin'!

I get the "Eat, Pray, Love" home shopping experience. And if I believed that a set of lip glosses could make me feel even a little of what it might be like to have sex with Javier Bardem in Bali, I'd be eating it by the tubeful. I can understand the implied glamour of "Sex and the City"-themed soap. I can even grasp that a gal like Paula Deen would use the film as a springboard for an episode "celebrating the South," because food is such an integral part of the story and its setting. (When she had cast members on her show this month, however, Deen wisely avoided baking a pie.)

But whatever your feelings on "The Help," its author's right to tell a first-person story from the point of view of African-American women, or the fundamental question of whether the movie is dramatically satisfying, only a full-on moron would view it as remotely aspirational. It's a story of pain and struggle and terrible cruelty, not candlesticks and sheet sets. Who'd want to wield a $149 handbag that reminds her of a character who wouldn't let another woman use her toilet? Who'd want a cake stand like the one belonging to a lady too emotionally incompetent to care for her own child? Though you can purchase a faux fur capelet in three easy installments, apparently you still can't put a price tag on enlightenment.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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