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.

10 comments:

  1. I read and watched The Help because my mother spent part of her babyhood in Alabama with a black maid looking after her, though in the forties. My grandmother was Northern so I doubt or wad quite the same, but I wanted some insight into that period of her life

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gah, really need to check auto complete. "it was".

      Delete
    2. Which seems like a perfectly fine reason to read and watch it! I should be clear I think it is fine to read/watch The Help, but in general it seems like many people think that in particular I should want to (I assume because my kids are black) and so I wanted to explain my personal reasons for avoiding it. :)

      Delete
    3. Oh, I understand! I actually gained a bit of historical knowledge along the way (probably American History 101 but my own education was not in the US).

      Delete
  2. I read your first post about not seeing the help, and actually, I had been feeling similarly but didn't know how to articulate it. The whole idea of the story being a new or fresh perspective on historical reality seemed, well, ridiculous. But I was assuming I'd read the book or watch the movie because so many of my friends were interested in it. HOWEVER, after reading your post, I choose not to. And I feel good about how I have been able to articulate my why since that decision. Thanks :)
    ps why don't i EVER see you at school (though I know I'm never there, either)?!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read your first post about not seeing the help, and actually, I had been feeling similarly but didn't know how to articulate it. The whole idea of the story being a new or fresh perspective on historical reality seemed, well, ridiculous. But I was assuming I'd read the book or watch the movie because so many of my friends were interested in it. HOWEVER, after reading your post, I choose not to. And I feel good about how I have been able to articulate my why since that decision. Thanks :)
    ps why don't i EVER see you at school (though I know I'm never there, either)?!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh wow, Liz you are welcome! I miss seeing you at school too- I'm there twice a week. We should do a coffee date sometime if we have any overlap next quarter.

      Delete
  4. I completely agree, A. I also chose not to read the book or watch the movie. It's not so much that it sounds horribly racist (although there are plenty of problematic themes), but more so that this particular story, told from the white woman's perspective, is not very interesting or compelling to me. I'm not interested in any more white savior narratives.

    Thanks for posting. And WTF is up with that crazy clothing ad?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have followed your blog for a while, as I am also an adoptive mom. I enjoyed the book and the movie, as did my large company of black friends. I felt the story much more illustrated the shameful ways of the white women in contrast to the strong, honorable, and humble black women working for them than some "white savior" who turned it around. Discussing the book actually provided a really great platform for conversations with my friends about the experiences of both of our family histories and the way it made us feel as both white and black women today. We are in the South and these were very realistic stories (ashamedly) for many of our families not very long ago at all. I don't think its a problem that you have chosen not to read the book, but I do think it is implausible to relate the book that is dominantly a platform for the stories of the African American womens' experiences to an offensive ad that suggests the black women were just a pawn in a white woman's journal project without even reading it yourself.

    Please know I have and do really appreciate you and your perspective. It has been good encouragement to me and I just hope to offer a reasonable contrast while still respecting your decision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Callie - thank you so much for responding! I think that the particulars of your geographical location (and the fact that you made a point of reading/discussing with black women whom you have friendships with) is awesome, and a great reason to read it.

      Here in the PNW the story we tell about racism is that it doesn't exist here, and that it's something that happens "in the South" which isn't true at all. Some of the conversations I've had with folks here who have read it have focused on how awful it was "there" meaning the South, or "then" meaning back in the time period the novel is set in. Which is to say that I am sure my particular geographic location has greatly influenced my decision to avoid the book.

      And perhaps I should have been more clear about where the poster comes from - it was a blog that had altered movie posters making fun of all the oscar nominated films, not just The Help. The George Clooney one was titled "George Clooney is a really really Good Actor" or some such. Just to be clear - the person who made the poster definitely has seen the movie. :) Here's the link if you're interested: http://www.theshiznit.co.uk/feature/if-2012s-oscar-nominated-movie-posters-told-the-truth.php

      Thanks again for reading and for commenting.

      Delete