I'm generally happy when people fall in love with novels and want to talk about them. I love "Harry Potter" and think Oprah Winfrey's book club was a great thing (even if I didn't always agree with her interpretations). That said, I have never been as disconcerted by the popularity of a book as I have been by the success of "The Help." Random white women constantly want to discuss it with me, encouraging/demanding/hoping that I love the book. Between Obama and "The Help," I've never had so many white people I barely know look for ways to talk about race with me.
But I can't help but feel that "The Help," for all the talk that it is ostensibly about the racism that African American maids experienced under Jim Crow, functions just like Obama does in contemporary public discourse, to illustrate the end of racism. I know that's a funny thing to say about a novel depicting Mississippi in 1962, but the trajectory of the novel invites that feeling. One of the three narrators, Aibleen, says that she realizes she is more free than the racist character that destroys her livelihood, a claim that encourages readers to feel better about segregation because, in this logic, nobody can take real, psychological freedom from anyone. Freedom is really about how you feel, not about, you know, the law. It makes Jim Crow an inconvenience, not an obstacle. At the end of the film, Aibleen confronts the racist character, Hilly, who is overcome by tears at Aibleen's righteousness. The other black protagonist, Minny, is served a meal by her white employers, and the southern-belle mother of the film's white protagonist embraces her daughter's courage in confronting Jim Crow.
In short, "The Help" illustrates how people can embrace the humanity of others, even across difference. This is true. However, the century of black struggle for formal equality in the face of what was, literally, domestic terrorism every day more often teaches us how inhumane human beings can be to each other. I read an Amazon review of the novel that told a reader not to worry that they would have to read over 400 pages of depressing oppression. This is true -- "The Help" makes Jim Crow palatable. I don't think this is a good thing.
I know that some readers have truly felt that they understand something new from reading this book. I know that others are trying to come to terms, as Stockett was in writing this book, with the guilt and affection they felt toward their own black caregivers. Moreover, I know some African Americans have really enjoyed the book, as well. I have no doubt that the same responses will govern responses to the movie.
With this in mind, I've decided to stop bemoaning how much people love it. If you're not a cantankerous critic of racial representations like me, it is easy to fall into the pleasures of both the book and the Hollywood adaptations. Sympathetic narrators, sassy black women (and, in the film adaptation, those colorful, bold, white, Southern women that moviegoers like so much), individual triumph, bonding across lines of difference, and a discrimination story with a spoonful of sugar make it pleasurable. So go ahead, "Help" fans. Love it as a story that makes you feel good, and for some of you, that makes you think. But since someone told me that they actually read "The Help" in an anthropology class, I think it is important to remember, through your happy tears, what "The Help" does not help us know.
You can't know anything about the history of Civil Rights in Jackson, Miss. The Association of Black Women Historians has ably pointed out the failures on this front. People think they know about Civil Rights history, but we've barely scratched the surface. The slogan on the movie poster that "sometimes change can start with a whisper" is historically egregious, given the extraordinary activism leading up that moment. African American women had voices before Miz Skeeter gave them the idea (but we're not going to get a biopic about Ida B. Wells). The general story is that Rosa was tired, Martin had a dream, and after a few boycotts and marches, all was overcome. For the people who will say that I'm being overly critical, just think about all the amazing stories that have not been told, and then ask yourself why "The Help" is so popular, and what films we will never see.
You can't know about black women's lives in this place and time from this story. This represents only a portion of their lives. The movie offers a little more of their lives outside being the help than the books, by virtue of being visual. Did anyone who loves the book note that Stockett only gives Skeeter a full life because she can't imagine what black lives look like outside being the help? We hear about church, we hear about Minny's domestic violence situation and get a brief scene with her child, but the book is not about the complexity of their worlds. Some extraordinary literature about African American women is out there (and I'm not talking about "The Secret Life of Bees").
"The Help" should really be called "Seeing the Help." From observing the response to the book and hearing the applause after the movie, I think it was transformative for some white people to actually "see" these women at all, and for many African Americans, it is always pleasurable to have fictional representations that depict any aspect of our history. But we should remember that "The Help" gives pleasure largely through lying by omission.
I think there are still books to be written and films to be made about this group of women. I am not someone who believes that African Americans can never depict people in service. We should not devalue the people today and yesterday who hold these jobs and have complicated stories that are rarely told. The one shining spot in "The Help" is the magnificent performance of Viola Davis, who depicts Aibleen with dignity and grace. Do I wish that she could finally get a leading role in which she is not maid? Of course I do (and so does she). But "The Help" actually makes me want to see more stories about black maids, more multifaceted than the one that Stockett and Hollywood provide.