The Romanticized Victimhood of Black Women and “The Help”

Emma Stone (left) and Viola Davis (right) star in "The Help"

I was able to see “The Help” back in July for a pre-screen and even after sitting on the front row and watching the grossly distorted images courtesy of looking up vertical to a 30 foot screen, I walked away surprised at what I saw.  I was happy to watch a movie that told the stories of black and white women, side-by-side and across generational lines–I haven’t seen a movie like that.  For each main character from Aibleen and Minnie to Skeeter and her mother; Hilly juxtaposed to Celia Foote’s character and even the story of Constantine–all characters showed development from the beginning to the end of the movie.   I was expecting a movie similar to that of the “Dangerous Minds” or “Freedom Writers” that portrays the liberal whites as making a difference in the lives of the poor black and Latino children and ends with a storybook ending and usually throws in the death, by a bullet, of one of the children.

However, black women across the blogosphere didn’t see it that way.

Blog upon blog of black women prior to the movie’s release had begun the rants against “The Help.”  Some were coherent and others not so much.  Famous bloggers said they weren’t going to read the book or see the movie and gave their reasons why. I was left reading whole articles about why someone wasn’t going to see it based on what I felt were bad assumptions–prejudices if you will.  Perhaps because I saw the movie already I knew that much of what people were allegedly having a problem with as far as the concept of the movie was somewhat incorrect.

I think the promotion of the story was a bit misleading, probably for the sake of a white American audience.  But let’s be honest, this movie wasn’t intended to be a movie specifically for black audiences or a movie that didn’t really care whether blacks attended or not.  Fact of the matter is, blacks as a demographic are not a driving force when it comes to box office sales.  That being said, I think some of the beauty of the movie was lost in the marketing and promotion of it.

Nevertheless, black people–not just black women–as the opening weekend drew nigh became more and more critical of a movie that hadn’t even been seen and by most people who hadn’t read the book.

From the likes of Melissa Harris-Perry to other black female bloggers nationwide, this was still an incorrect image in which to portray black women.  This was still the same image of black women as subservient and unempowered that got many people bringing up the image of “mammy” and decrying the fact that Minny went on about fried chicken through the entire movie.   Some even found the pie-eating story unrealistic.  Harris-Perry tweeted that she thought the violence meted upon one of the other minor characters was the only realistic part of the movie.  Which left me asking So black women only identify with violence?

For the sake of this blog, I’m talking about black women, but I think at times this is true of blacks in general. [Yes, I’m aware I’m stepping into some murky territory here.]  I don’t say this often, but I do think there is a romanticized view of violence and victimhood that blacks collectively suffer from.  Collective suffering comes from systematic and collective oppression; we were uniformly oppressed in this country therefore we uniformly have some amount of suffering as a result.  What results is a “my oppression was worse than your oppression” matrix that groups contextually operate.

The tenor of the conversation that I’m reading about and hearing about surrounding “The Help” is that it doesn’t paint a realistic image of black women domestics in the South.  For Harris-Perry to identify with the violent part the most was highly disturbing to me.  Seriously, it got my attention; it was a tweet that stood out from the crowd amongst her others.  This leaves me wondering what is the view of historical black women or even historical blackness at that time.  The subtext that I read is that experiencing lynchings were an everyday occurrence in any given community, that everyone suffered from Night Riders from the KKK, that every black domestic faced sexual threats from the patriarchal white males in their households and that it was all really just that bad. News flash:

Black folks eat fried chicken.

Black folks are fat and eat fried chicken.

And watermelon.

Oh, and we clap our hands on the 2 and 4 beat in church as well.

I am not at all trying to minimize the historical oppression and struggle of blacks in a Jim Crow South, but I think far too many of us are succumbing to looking at history through too contemporary of a lens.  Based on just the stories out of my own family, the level of unempowerment that blacks faced on a day-to-day basis was serious and social conditioning was real.  It’s as though we’re ashamed of the image of black women that doesn’t show them being a triumphant and metaphorical Celie from “The Color Purple.”  The silent struggle of Aibleen resonated with me much more than the towering images of black womanhood such as Fannie Lou Hamer.   Hamer went to bat and was an outlier amongst thousands of unnamed black women who never mustered the courage to speak up, and on behalf those that had sacrificed their lives and their womanhood when they did.

And….if it wasn’t for some courageous white people, the modern Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been what it was: a revolutionary movement.  A revolution happens in slow, incremental changes, not all at once.  Yes, there are watershed moments that make it in the history books, but the annals of history tell of countless stories full of unnamed men and women who used their own smaller acts of resistance against a system that they were unaware was unjust in the future hope of generations yet to come.  The Civil Rights movement in this country began when the African slave woman decided to pee in massa’s morning coffee back in 1621, it did not start with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in 1955 and end one decade later with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ella Baker

Is this a story worth telling by a black woman?  I answer with a resounding yes.  Would I pay money to go see it?  Yes I would, and I’d buy and support the book.  Am I entitled to my opinion of how black men are portrayed in the book?  Of course.  That’s one of the issues in the movie, the only image of a black man in the movie was a totally faceless one and that of an abusive one.  But, I resolved that in my mind because the movie made men in general take a back seat–this was a story about what it meant to be a woman–white or black–in the Jim Crow era South.

Seeing as how this was historical fiction, there was some basis for truth in this story.  I think this was the case of William Styron’sThe Confessions of Nat Turner revisted: black folks, particularly black women, were just incensed that this wasn’t a story told by a black woman.  While I discount people’s opinions of the book or the movie who have neither read nor seen it, I think many of those that read it or saw it had unrealistic expectations of the movie.  It seemed as though the likes of Harris-Perry were expecting this movie to be “The Color Purple Redux” with heavy elements of “Eyes on the Prize” documentary infused into it.

I think even if the bloggers who had issue with movie went to go see it, they’d be so jaded and be able to offer an opinion without severe bias attached to the judging process.

That’s it.  I just wanted to join the chorus of rants on this topic as well.  It’s officially dead and buried for me.  #ontothenextone

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


14 thoughts on “The Romanticized Victimhood of Black Women and “The Help”

  1. Thank you. I opened this post thinking “oh no, another ‘how the media always portrays us as suffering’ post.” Thankfully I was very very wrong!

    I read the book (admittedly, I was outvoted in a book club meeting. I wasn’t angry about the book or the subject, just not interested) and then as a group we went to go see the movie.

    And, I was entertained. I laughed. Out loud. Several times. I cried, also several times. It wasn’t an eye-opening experience, it didn’t tell a tale I’d never heard before. What it did was present several viewpoints of what is was like to live in the south during the 60s when black women predominantly worked as maids for white families. I mean, we know these events happened….So what if the story is the result of a white woman’s pen (go ahead and say it’s the result of liberal white guilt if you must)?

    Personally, I’d rather see a witty realistic portrayal of certain aspects of certain black people’s lives as told by a white woman than a far less realistic caricature of ALL black people’s lives as told by a black man (and in case that wasn’t clear, Tyler Perry I’m talking about you). There’s a lot in life to get upset about. There’s a lot in media to get upset about. The Help just isn’t very high on that list, all things considered.

    1. @24karats

      In realm of being fair, why wouldn’t a white woman’s POV not be equally as valid? I’m simply saying it seemed like some people were making this movie out to be one step above Hattie McDaniel’s role in “Gone With the Wind.” Honestly, MHP got on MSNBC and said that blacks portrayed in the movie took a backseat to the white characters–I don’t know what movie she was watching. smh.

      1. I’m not saying there’s anything with it, I’m saying that I think that is the reason for the strong reaction against the movie by those who haven’t seen it/read it, the theory is that the white woman’s point of view is going to distort the “truth” in order to justify, gloss or explain way white’s behavior during that time.

  2. Must make a point of seeing the movie. Historically, Black women (and poor women) provided for their families in the most honorable ways available to them.

    Interesting personal history–family lore: My maternal and paternal grandfathers made very conscientious decisions to not allow wives, daughters (the womenfolk) to work in the homes of ‘white folk.’

    On my mother’s side, the women did laundry (washing in a boiling pot of water in the back yard, and ironing with an iron heated by flames). On my father’s side, the family all worked farming to pay for the land that he’d been able to purchase because a white man bought the parcels and resold them to him. It was frowned upon to sell land (no mortgages) to blacks. To this day, that land is ‘heir property’ so that descendants would not be rooked out of ownership of it.

    Thank you for your take on this movie. Keeping it uppitty. Peace.

  3. I don’t think the comparison to “The Confessions of Nat Turner” quite fit. Styron took a person who was seen as a hero by many and turned him into a confused sex fanatic.
    “The Help” doesn’t appear to do quite the same level of violence to the historical record but it is yet another story showing white women (white people ) at the center of the story and another story showing black women (black people) as subordinant.

    Many people I know just don’t have any interest in those stories any more, no matter if they’re well made or have their heart in the right place. 2011 and the best role a black woman might get this year is playing a maid? Enough of that.

    1. @Shady_Grady

      I used Styron as an example not for comparisons of content, but comparisons of black people’s reactions.

      We may have to disagree, I didn’t see black women as subordinate in this movie. For me the story centered around Aibleen and Skeeter and was very much an ensemble cast as far as I was concerned. What makes you see them as subordinate?

      Beyond that, I think people are having more of an issue with the accepting some historical realities: black women were maids in the 1960s–a lot of them. If we’re going to tell the story of that era, we should be truthful to the times. The only other option for me is to not tell the story, which I’m against as well. Sounds like we have a hard time accepting where we came from and looking into the mirror of our past.

      1. Sorry to be late on this, Uppity. But to answer your question I think being a maid is almost by definition subordinate. We already know that history; we know what happened. The story has been told repeatedly. Let’s move on. How about something different that features blacks in lead or heroic roles?

        How about a magic fantasy story about 19th century black magician and Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph? Or an epic movie about Antonio Maceo Grajales and Cuban Revolution? Or a romance story around black homesteaders in turn of century Oklahoma/Nebraska? Or a retelling of Nat Turner’s revolt? Or an adaptation of one of John Ridley’s cynical shoot-em-ups that keeps the Black characters instead of white washing them. Or a movie about a ditzy black chick from the sticks who moves to the big city. Or.. etc.
        I am just really tired of the limited range of cinematic depictions afforded to black people. We get Tyler Perry, maids, black best friends and that’s pretty much it.

  4. I am white, and 65 years of age, and we read this book for our all white reading group. I did not live in the south but came of age during the civil rights movement, and like many my age MLK is our hero too. OH and yes we also ate fried chicken and watermellon.

    The ‘Help’ is about one aspect of black woman’s (domestics) life in the south, and I thought it did a very good job portraying the relationships of white and black women, the cautions blacks had to take to survive, the terrible insults they had to endure, etc. I also did not see the black women as subordinate in this move, but brave strong women, taking care of their own females, putting up with the indignities they faced each day with fortitude, and taking chances in a height of the civil rights movement. To my surprise the movie was done well, and presented the most important points on discrimination and focused the black women, and their relationships good and bad with the white women, and also dealt with the ‘white trash’ stigma.

    When I first started reading the book , I did not like it as white washed, white woman’s view of blacks but as the book progressed it dug into the relationships, good an bad between white women and black domestics. The author also used as references material a book by Susan Tucker, ‘Telling Memories among Southern Women”, oral accounts, of domestics and white employers.

    It gave me an opportunity to discuss the civil rights movement with my daughter. I think it this book could actually be used as a tool for discussion in diversity education.

    I suggest reading the book and then seeing the movie before forming opinions.

    1. @Bernadette

      Thanks for commenting!!

      I think your experience from reading the book is one we don’t want to talk about and deal with. Too often we, in this country, paint with broad historical brushes that may work for elementary school, but far too many of us carry those sentiments into adulthood. It’s unfair to categorize all white people as racists during the 1960s; the modern Civil Rights movement moved forward with both blacks and whites working together. As far as i’m concerned, I appreciated the stories that were told in the movie.

  5. the issue with novelist Kathryn Stockett’s use of “black” dialect, her nearly uniform portrayal of BLACK MEN as cruel or absent, and the lack of attention paid to the SEXUAL HARRASMENT that many black women endured in their white employers’ homes. Furthermore, its unacceptable for either the book or the film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment

    1. @Byron

      Thanks for your comment!!

      While I agree that that the movie (I haven’t read the book) didn’t portray these aspects of black manhood or black womanhood, thus black life, I still ask, in all fairness, was that the intent of the storyline? Same thing when I watch movies like “The Color Purple.” “The Color Purple” didn’t portray one black male in a positive light–not even the pastor of the church. But, I have to be fair, the story wasn’t really about black men, it was about black women. Beyond that, this movie never set out to portray a comprehensive life and story of black women across the South and attempt to conflate many histories into one character. While I agree that the movie didn’t, I don’t think that was ever the original intent and therefore an unfair expectation of the story itself.

  6. I agree with Shady Grady. I assumed most black people’s objection to the movie was the same as mine. We’re tired of White Hollywood picking time periods were black people were second class citizens. If you want to talk about creativity then there’s all kinds of settings, plots, stories, ideas for movies that don’t have to be placed in racialized eras. How about a sci-fi film, a fantasy film starring black men and women, an adventure film. The here is where I disagree with Shady Grady. We don’t need to limit black actors to settings in Post-Colonial America. There’s African civilizations, and I don’t mean the primitive villagers stereotype, there’s the future, there modern romances and there’s fantasy where you can make stuff up. Who says that black people have to play in racialized roles? Apparently Hollywood does and only wants to see black people in subservient roles in prejudiced time periods because THEY’RE prejudiced.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s