Thursday, February 16, 2012
No help for me.
Recently I posted a link to this altered movie poster for The Help on my facebook page, and a fairly typical conversation ensued. It's one I've had with a lot of white people lately, because many of my friends and family assume that of course I will have read, watched, and be interested or moved by The Help. This poster captured, in what I felt was a light and humorous way, why I'm not interested in that particular story. But I'm having a hard time explaining that to the nice people who are shocked and then shortly afterward sort of offended that I don't want to support it in any way. I usually end those conversations by simply reiterating that if I am going to read something to do with the history of black civil rights in our country I would prefer that it be a work that is written by a black person and told from a black person's point of view. This is especially true if the story is fiction. It doesn't necessarily mean I think The Help is racist or that anyone who reads it is racist. (I am learning that when talking about race with my people -the white people - it is very important to be clear that whatever comes out of my mouth I am not accusing any individual person of being racist. It makes us very upset.)
So I've been looking for a way to explain why I don't find The Help compelling enough to invest time and money in. And then I came across an article on Jezebel recently about a picture in a scottish clothing catalogue that featured a white model and a black model. Jezebel, one of my favorite feminist pop culture blogs (warning - if you poke around much there you'll find colorful language and the occasional NSFW item) points out that while it is nice to see a black model, she is basically a prop in the picture. Initially one might look at the picture and think "oh how great, some diversity- a white person and a black person hanging out, selling clothes together." But if you look closely, nothing the black model is wearing is for sale. The implicit assumption is that her presence in some way augments the desirability of the white model. Readers of the catalogue should want to be like the white woman, a pretty white person in a striped cardigan hanging out with a person of color, but they would never want to emulate or imitate the person of color. She's just there for show. This is problematic.
The Help is probably a fine book in that it may be compelling and well written. It is likely a good movie in that it features stand out performances by good actresses, nice costumes, accomplished cinemetography, etc. But it is, ultimately, a story about a white person who learns things from the oppression (by white people)that some black people she knows are suffering from. It's written by a white person who claims she learned things from black people who suffered from oppression by white people. Like the photo it features black people but I'm not convinced that it is about their experience as much as it is about the experience of white people who observed black experience. Which isn't compelling to me.
I also get this nagging feeling like it is a story that has been told too many times. The vast majority of African-Americans who were enslaved, belittled, and oppressed by white folk in this country did not have a plucky white person going against dominant culture to help them out. And yet somehow many survived, persevered, even triumphed. That's the story I want to see on screen, the book I want to read.