The film version of The Help debuted on August 10th and set box office records for a film that was aimed at book club ladies. It has earned 71.8 million at the box office in its first twelve days alone, rising to first place this last weekend over Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night. The film is based on a bestselling 2009 novel by white Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett about two black maids and a young white woman who collaborate to tell the stories African American domestic workers in the Jim Crow south. It is a fictional tale. No actual exposé of black domestic workers was written by black or white women in the 1960s. But the frame of the novel—the book within a book—gives the novel an air of authenticity that makes it appealing. Especially, perhaps, to white readers like me, who might feel like we are being permitted to peek behind the curtain of a distant, repressive past.
The novel has been celebrated for two years straight, winning accolades from People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and The New York Times. The film, too, has already garnered Oscar buzz, and the NAACP screened it at a packed theater in July, where, apparently, there wasn’t an empty seat or a dry eye in the house.
I settled down to read The Help earlier this summer to see for myself. While I was not entirely won over by the novel, finding the villain Hilly Holbrook, who campaigns for segregated toilets at the homes where black women work, to be a racist sorority girl cardboard cutout, and the white girl who interviews the black maids, “Skeeter,” a little too weirdo-goody-goody, what got me to sniffling into a tissue was the relationship between the black maid, Aibileen, and her white charge, a toddler named Mae Mobley. The girl child is ignored and possibly even emotionally abused by her birth mother, and Aibileen is there to soothe the child—to boost her ego and make her strong — even though she knows that Mae Mobley will likely grow up to be as racist and clueless as her mother. I was intrigued to learn that the character of Aibileen was based in large part on the author’s own childhood maid, Demetrie (actually employed by Stockett’s grandmother), who comforted Stockett during an especially rough patch during which her parents got divorced.
Both the book and the film have drawn considerable fire from scholars, historians, a very smart and funny blog called acriticalreviewofthehelp, and dozens of African American leaders and journalists. The criticisms are brutal, and, for the most part, hard to refute. A clear-eyed statement from the Association of Black Women (ABW) faults the novel and the film for recreating the Mammy stereotype. One of The Help’s main characters, Minny, is a big, fat, soft woman with a surly temper who loves to make fried chicken. Neither the book nor the film offers any suggestion that black maids, like countless other African Americans in the South and North, were organizing, voting, marching, and protesting.
The statement from the ABW also faults The Help for ignoring the problem of sexual harassment of black domestics by white employers. Instead, The Help represents black male characters as by far the worst men in the story. This criticism of The Help seems especially poignant this summer, as a recently released six-page story written by famed Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks hints at the likelihood that she barely escaped being raped by a white neighbor when she worked as a maid in the 1930s.
It is certainly fair to attack The Help on the basis that it distorts history, especially since Stockett meant The Help to represent real life in1960s Jackson, Mississippi. But is the Civil Rights aspect of the story—done well or botched—the only reason for The Help’s popularity and influence? I am not so sure. As I have consumed these different versions of The Help I have been wondering: have we really traveled so far from the nightmarish hierarchy and inequality suffered by women of color who lived in the Jim Crow south? What is life like for “the help” in today’s world?
For answers, I turned to a work of non-fiction, Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for and the Children They Love. The book, also published in 2009, reflects more than 100 interviews that author Tasha Blaine conducted with working nannies, three of whom she profiles in the book. The hardships faced by these modern day nannies do not compare to that of black domestics in the Jim Crow south, but many struggled with similar problems: forming loving bonds with the children but disagreeing with or disliking the children’s parents, being invited to family events but then being expected to perform as if they were servants, and putting up with the strange behavior of their employers—who were sometimes drunk, verbally abusive, or just plain mean.
If you think it is crazy to see a connection between a historical novel about black maids and present-day child care arrangements, consider this: a national organization, Nanny Biz Reviews, organized a series of “Nannies Nights Out” during the days after The Help opened. They encouraged nannies to see the film together and to use the outing as a way to network and have fun. While some found this preposterous, others commented online that they could relate to the maids in The Help more than any other fictional nannies. As one commented, “[T]here are still parents out there that want to treat all of us regardless of heritage, as second or third class citizens….Maybe for some it is to see how far we have come, and then on behalf of others to remember there are still ways to go.”
In the meantime, in New York State, which boasts one of the largest nanny populations in the country (the official estimate alone is 200,000), legislators last summer finally passed a series of laws aimed at improving the pay and working conditions of nannies. The “Nanny Bill” is significant because domestic workers, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations category of workers in 1935, have long toiled with low and/or under-the-table wages. Domestic Workers United, a New York union thatfought hard for the “Nanny Bill,” estimates that more than 50% of their members work more than 60 hours per week, and 26% live below the poverty line. The Nanny Bill gives domestic workers the right to days off, overtime pay, and holidays—similar to other workers.
The question of class is just one part of the contemporary nanny problem. Race, gender, and national status are part of the mix as well. In their book Global Woman (2003), Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russel Hochschild write about the ways in which an underclass of third world women have become the nannies, the maids, and the sex workers for the developed world.
So perhaps The Help is wildly popular in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Look how far we have come now that we don’t see maids as property to be passed along to our children as if they were slaves! But be careful if you find yourself leaving the theatre on too much of a joyous, Civil Rights high. We still have not solved the problem of childcare in this country—and global women have stepped in to fill the gap.
Viola Davis, the actress who may well win an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Aibileen, said, “The most revolutionary thing you could do is humanize the black woman.” What can we do, right now, to humanize those who toil as “the help” today?
Kathy M. Newman