Not Feeling Good About The Help: Revisionist History and Other Pop Culture Burnt Offerings

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You *know* it’s bad when the historians got to jump in and correct folks. – AJP

“We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popular rendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking 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.” – An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help, Association of Black Women Historians [Racialicious]

Romancing Mississippi, 1963

Romancing Mississippi 1963

Romancing Mississippi 1963

Do you see the maid in the corner, the help? I didn’t notice her at first as her dark hair and maid’s outfit blend into the background. What catches the eye is the golden glow that surrounds the whiteness in the foreground: neatly groomed, clean, orderly and civilized as the rose. The design of the advertisement and sales pitch stop consumers from thinking about how the scene got that way.

Set in Mississippi 1963 … the movie made us cry, the clothes and furnishings made us swoon … bring a little southern charm into your home.

A little southern charm … Who ironed that table-cloth? Who washed and pressed those clothes? Who will wash the dirty dishes and polish the silver? How much was that work worth? More important than all of that: how did those folks in the foreground gain their money and social position? They look so honest and clean, so charming. We must assume that those good people worked hard for everything in their possession which entitles them to everything, including the help, rendered invisible in the corner. This advertising campaign, intentional or not, is an example of what stands for truth in white privilege land, circa 2011.

I knew a woman who ran away from home at age 15 and headed North to escape Jim Crow. Like many black women who joined the *Second Great Migration, she had picked cotton and cleaned white folks homes in the South and in the North. I remember her stories of being pulled out of school to work and thirst in the hot sun; long days spent cooking and cleaning: bent over wash tubs, sweating over hot irons and raising other people’s children. She never forgot the roaming eyes and hands of men, insults, separation, the Klan and all that history that I thought was so well-known. I have been under the impression that there are many books, films, television shows, poems, speeches, testimonies, photographs and paintings of the history of the violent South. But I must be wrong because now comes this Glo MSN advertising campaign based upon the film, The Help, to create a confusing narrative.

Mississippi 1963 garden party incomplete without a black maid

Your Mississippi 1963 garden party will be incomplete without a black maid to wait hand-and-foot on you and your charming guests. There is no need to get your lily-white hands dirty or miss an opportunity to gossip about your neighbors. And don’t worry your pretty head ... Mammy is always discrete.

The woman from Louisiana, she taught me so much by sharing what she lived so I cannot in good conscience support pop culture burnt offerings such as books, movies and advertising campaigns and their associated products that construct a feel good narrative about the violent South or that create impressions of an unblemished North. I am sorry that I wasted my time watching The Green Mile (1999) and Forrest Gump (1994). I despise Gone with the Wind (1939) and admire Hattie McDaniel; I hold many of the Golden Age of Hollywood films in contempt. What I want to know is who in the hell at GLO MSN decided that Mississippi 1963 is an ideal lifestyle to imitate?

Ain’t I a woman too? A Soul Killing Reality of Being The Help

Miss Scarlet and Miss Melane, strolling with the help in tow

A pleasant afternoon stroll: Southern belles Miss Scarlet O’Hara, Miss Melanie Hamilton and faithful Mammy, the ever vigilant protector of the purity of white womanhood.

To me, it’s more a movie about relationships, how these white women relate with each other and then how they relate to the women … who work in their homes – Octavia Spencer, who played Minny Jackson in The Help

Over the past few years, it’s become practically a ritual that a star-driven movie about female-friendship and empowerment come out every summer, usually in August, and usually based on a book-club favorite … They all traffic in themes about female identity. – Steven Zeitchik

What am I supposed to learn from these scenes from The Help used in an ad campaign designed to sell me on the charms of Mississippi 1963? Which female identity is the most desirable? Who am I supposed to identify with? Who would I choose as a role model to get those “feminine wiles?” What are those “friendships” all about?

In Gone With the Wind (1939) Miss Scarlet O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), used her feminine wiles to try to break-up a relationship. She later married a man who told her that he didn’t give a damn. Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), otherwise known as Miss Scarlett’s surrogate mother, chastised her for pursuing Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a character engaged to Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), the flower of white southern womanhood. Miss Scarlett replied, fiddle de dee and went on her way. Mammy’s direct manner was acceptable because Miss Scarlett’s reputation, better known as the purity of white womanhood, was at stake. Further along in the film, Mammy shyly hiked up her skirt to show the stockings that Mr. Rhett Butler (Clark Gabel), brought her from Paris. That scene, like so many from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, provided comedy relief at the expense of black humanity.  Which brings me to a soul killing reality of the “feminine wiles” image and in both movies: no feminine wiles for Mammy – no femininity at all. Until 1868 Mammy was by law, three-fifths of a human being, so forget about being a woman. Fast forward to Mississippi 1963 and into 2011: the three-fifths compromise  superseded by the 14th Amendment passed after the Civil War and Mammy is now euphemistically called The Help. As Mammy, the maid or The Help, in Mississippi 1963, black women labored under enormous inequity and they certainly were not Miss Scarlett and Miss Melanie’s friend and any display of “feminine wiles” or assertions of equality in front of her white employers would have been met with some sort of punishment: as in Gone With the Wind, in Mississippi 1963 white employers had the right to  do their worst to the help.

mammy to scarlet ain't i a woman

The answer in the 19th century, 1939 and 1963 was the same: no. And yes isn't always forthcoming in 2011.

Fantasy and Reality Meet in Television Land

When I read the open letter from the Association of Black Woman Historians, I thought of the 1990s  television series, I’ll Fly Away. I enjoyed the series for the same reason as Sandhya Jay at Fidelia’s Sisters.

The thing that this show illustrated, however, was that job cost her time with her own family, and that she was aware of this cost and not absolutely delighted to be raising someone else’s children instead of her own. Her relationship with the white family is transactional, and while she cares about them, they are not the center of her world; they are her job, a job that by its very nature is built on inequity, even with a family who seek to be non-racist. For all of its efforts to illustrate a complex life experience, The Help misses the mark on this point—which is, I suspect, exactly what makes it so much more appealing to folks.

In I’ll Fly Away, I saw the woman from Louisiana through Lilly Harper (Regina Taylor),the black maid. Art imitated life through Lilly, tired of subordinating herself and her dreams to the hubris and ambitions of white people who paid low-wages as well as little and no respect. Which suggests a scene from the cable television series, Mad Men, when Betty Draper’s (January Jones), friend told her that she could make her girl stay. That girl was Carla (Deborah Lacey), the black maid who commuted long distances and forsook her own family to help raise the Draper children.

The black characters have it tough too, no question, and Mr. Taylor includes enough scenes of Aibileen and her best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), cleaning white houses and polishing the silver — and cooking meals and tending children and smiling, always smiling, even as they pretend not to hear the insults — to remind you that this is at least partly about backbreaking, soul-killing black labor. … What does remain, though, is the novel’s conceit that the white characters, with their troubled relationships and unloved children, carry burdens equal to those of the black characters. – Manohola Dargis, NY Times

Everyone hates a critic, but I love them when they save time, money and a bad time out. I won’t have to sit through The Help and want to spit at the screen. I won’t want to slap Miss Scarlett or waste precious time wondering if the Civil Rights movement even happened. At end of the movie, when the lights go up, I won’t have to wonder why in the hell people are smiling.

Related: An African-American housekeeper wants a judge to reinstate a lawsuit that claims Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestselling novel-turned-move “The Help,” used her likeness without permission.
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