Girls on Film: Why 'The Help' Controversy Matters

Girls on Film: Why 'The Help' Controversy Matters

Aug 18, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


The Help

At one time or another, each one of us has been ignorant about a subject in which we are now well-informed; and while ignorant, we spoke out once, twice, or many times against the subject – probably in ways that would make us shudder, in retrospect, to remember.  It wasn’t until we learned about said topic that our opinions changed, making us become the experts or fans today. This is true of any part of life – politics, culinary preferences, historical knowledge, and of course, feminism, race, and cinematic entertainment.

The Help hit screens last week, quickly raking in nearly double its budget, becoming yet another women-led hit for the summer of 2011. But this achievement also shoulders a good deal of scrutiny. Focusing on a progressive, white Southern woman who finds success publishing the stories of black housekeepers in 1960s Mississippi, The Help has inspired a great deal of ire. Many are calling it yet another example of Hollywood’s interest in the stories of black people – only if they’re told through the eyes of a white protagonist.

But I don’t want to talk specifically about the book or film. I want to talk about the acidic, reactionary environment that surrounds this and any other controversial social subject. Topics like feminism and race are quickly shunned by many because they don't understand the subject's complexity, and they’re sick of hearing about it; they’re sick of the controversy. But controversy isn’t the problem at hand, it’s the “prolonged public dispute” that boils up around it. There are three distinct factors at play – the problem at hand, the voices critiquing it, and the media sensation that is prone to bubble up around it. These factors aren’t interchangeable. We can’t blame the problem for the sensation the media creates around it; they’re in the business of money, not public service announcements. Likewise, the media pumping the same story day in and out is not the same as a myriad of voices speaking out on a topic.

Cogent critiques about the film from black authors like Valerie Boyd and Martha Southgate (not to mention the myriad of other similar complaints by male and female writers of many races), have been quickly tainted by any number of ridiculous challenges to their authority. Blind, ignorant reactions try to prevail: “It’s just a movie,” or back and forth "no, you're racist!" banter, or “__ didn’t complain about __” (you can insert any person complaining about The Help and any other movie with black people into those spaces, and no, they’re not keeping a tally to check). But the best example of the reactionary backlash to genuine criticism, is the commenter who asked Boyd: “How exactly are you the moral authority here?”

This speaks volumes about the nature in which we react, and the systemic problem following issues of inclusion (race, sex, etc.) in Hollywood. First, we’re so ready to speak against another’s passionate questions that we might be led to something as ridiculous as questioning the moral authority of a black woman speaking out about the historic problems of black women and people? When a black woman points out problematic aspects about how The Help treats race, it’s her opinions and authority that are questioned, not the white writer trying to imagine what might have gone through the heads of black Southern maids in the ‘60s.

In an interview, author Kathryn Stockett herself said: “I’ll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right.” (Emphasis mine.) Though she researched, reading phone books, ads, and talking to people, she’s aware that the experience she wrote was as she imagined it. (And this is to say nothing of the real-world lawsuit that plagued the book. Stockett’s brother’s maid sued her because of the many resemblances between her and Aibileen, which was since thrown out on a technicality.) These are important aspects to consider when absorbing the film's message.

The Help

This question of moral authority also speaks to the exact problem that faces any minority trying to find a true voice in Hollywood. Everyone wants to see themselves and their experience in their entertainment because a filtered message isn't as strong as a direct one. White, black, Latin, Asian, man, woman – whatever your nationality, race, or sex, you want to see yourselves, not yourselves continually filtered through an outside party’s point of view. If every cinematic tale concerning white people was told through Tyler Perry, wouldn’t it be prudent for white audiences to question that? To point out what it gets wrong, and to correct the discourse?

The problem is further amplified by emotion and the sticky grey area of life. Even some of the most negative responses to The Help note its great performances and entertainment value. A film can be entertaining and problematic at the same time. This Disney offering is, as Anne Thompson aptly noted, “manipulatively effective.” It knows how to tug at the heart strings and create a group of satisfied black and white fans, even though it has what Dave White called the “pretzel of impossibility,” which is necessary to take a story like this and give it a soft, happy ending. In any work of art, manipulation is key, both of the subject and the viewer.

This is the key – not reacting out of blind love to a piece, but accepting that it is a manipulation with faults, and when a number of people who are intimately knowledgeable on a certain subject note its problems, it’s time to listen. (And this applies to any dichotomy of life, whether we’re talking issues of race, issues of feminism, or even a battle between liberals and conservatives.)

Ideally, we’d first take this controversy as a sign to be better informed about the subject matter at hand. Even the best message is tarnished when it follows on-going, problematic tropes, and they can't be stopped unless the public at large is willing to educate themselves and be educated by knowledgeable people. And that doesn't mean agreement, but rather the perks of being well-informed. Perhaps the quest for truth confirms your claims. If so, you've just bolstered your argument with facts. If not, you become more enlightened about a subject and can help make positive change for the future.

Finally, yes, it’s excellent to see black women starring in a major Hollywood movie, but by 2011, their own, direct voices should be heard. Some say that these are stories that haven’t been told and Stockett filled a gap. But as the Association of Black Women Historians points out, there are a number of black authors who have tackled this material well – fiction from authors like Alice Childress, and non-fiction works that hit on the very issues of The Help from the likes of Tera Hunter, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, and more. Even today, we must remember the struggle for access. If it’s nearly impossible to create a mainstream story about black people that isn’t filtered through a white protagonist, it’s silly to expect that publishers and producers would jump for a black creator writing about it.


Girls on Film Pick of the Week: ‘One Day’

One Day posterI thought I’d try out something new. After each week’s installment, I’ll point out a movie that’s worthy of your attention, preferably new. If you have any suggestions/comments, please @me on Twitter.

There’s nothing like starting off a new idea with a film that is currently sporting a gut-wrenchingly sad 25% fresh over at Rotten Tomatoes (as of midnight, Thursday morning). Lone Scherfig’s first big studio film, and follow-up to An Education, details one day, every year, in the life of two Brits – Em (Anne Hathaway) and Dex (Jim Sturgess). David Nicholls adapted his own book, which follows the pair as they evolve from innocent-eyed graduates to mature, working adults suffering all to human highs and lows.

I loved it. While not perfect, Scherfig managed to wonderfully capture both period ridiculousness (like putting on Tracy Chapman to get a guy in the mood) and the many imperfections of life, being both endlessly romantic and quite blunt about the misfortunes that can plague any romance. But as much as its romantic, it’s not really about love so much as the ongoing wheel of life, one that can pull you as far away from your desires as you can possibly bear, and also give you your dream come true, whether it’s realistic or not.

Side note: As someone deathly tired of the "glasses and a ponytail make a girl ugly" habit that Hollywood loves, I question those who apply the trope to Hathaway's Em. Yes, her young years show her as a fashion disaster, between the hair, the glasses, the flowing frocks, and combat boots, but Em isn't coded as ugly for this. Instead, she's the typically awkward young woman who slowly sheds the fashion disasters as she discovers how to shine.

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