Wanker Wednesday: My problems with “The Help”

January 20, 2010

in imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. I am not even making any coherent argument, not to mention grammatical errors! Run-on sentences! totally exposing myself as a feeble-minded person. Even the title spells “MEH”.

That being said, I feel this pathological need to be on the record, I guess. Since I have been treating this blog as my diary, I want everything that comes out of my head to be on here. So, sorry about this… mental puke…

I brought the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett with me on my flight back home last December. I have had the whole flight between IAD and Narita to ponder on this book. I won’t even attempt at writing a review since I am really not qualified to do so. And at any rate, there are already more than 1,400 reviews on Amazon.com. Furthermore, all the book reviewers in the major news outlets have done so and waxed poetic on this book, with one of them comparing The Help to To Kill A Mocking Bird.* I will just make a list of things that I have been chewing on. By Tap Tap Tap on my iPhone (without a SIM) and therefore heavy editing involved thereafter.

Spoiler alert: If you are thinking of reading this book, you should skip this. I will also be 100% honest with myself, which means I will be contradictory, at times nonsensical, and possibly offending, especially if you love the book.

Confession first: I enjoyed reading this book tremendously. Cliché, yes. Truth is: it IS a page turner. For me. From the moment when I opened it in August when I first received it, I could not completely put Aibileen out of my head until the Christmas week, when I finally had time to sit down and read the book in long stretches.

The stories are riveting. The voices are, as much as I hate using this word because it is often confused with “stereotypical”, or at the very least “archetypal”, the voices sound to me “authentic”. That is, when I was reading it, when I was caught up in the drama of the story that was being expertly told, when I was kept in suspense as to the safety of the women, when I was hoping with clenched fists and a racing hear that they would triumph over evil and that justice would be done. Well, justice be done to a certain extent, in the strict confines of the story-telling.

Now I ask myself: How many Southerners do I know? None.

Do I know any African American domestic help? Nope.

What do I know about Southern dialects and accents? Not a thing.

So what do I know about whether the book is “authentic” or not? Hasn’t this always been the gripe I have against books like Memoirs of a Geisha? That a fiction novel, on account of its main characters being of a non-white race, is evaluated and praised for delivering an “authentic” portrayal. Do we even care whether Dan Brown’s characters are authentic or not?

Damn the identity politics theories I read, classes I took.

I cannot help, in the back of my mind, though I immensely enjoyed the stories of these women, that a white woman took possession of the black women’s stories twice, especially after I read Kathryn Stockett’s personal note at the end of the book: like Skeeter in the story, Stockett wrote the black women’s stories and gained wild success.

I understand the above statement reeks of identity politics, but I cannot help the gnawing feelings in the back of my head.

What bothers me even more is Skeeter’s cajoling, forcing almost, these women into telling her their stories because she was told that she needed to write something that nobody had ever written before in order to get into the publishing world. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable with her motive: next to the all too real risk to the black women’s lives, her motif seems so trivial. Selfish even. What is the potential downside for her engagement in this feat? None too serious really. And indeed, there was a happy ending for Skeeter. But for Minnie and Aibileen the future remained uncertain.

Although I do wish something horrible would happen to the wrong-doers and was a bit let down when it didn’t, I do applaud the author for not cheapening the story by taking the easy way out. They are still in the mid 1960s in Mississippi and it is not like they are going to all of a sudden find true equality by the end of the book. I need to give the author props for not providing her White readers with an easy cathartic way to assuage the white guilt. “The villain that caused such misery is dead/appropriately punished, all is well in the universe. Now get on with your merry life.”

As I mentioned, the book received gleaming reviews. From White book reviewers. This could be racist on my part, and certainly identity politics at its worst as some might say, nevertheless, I feel I NEED TO know how an African American reader may feel about this book. NOT because a white woman from a privileged family in the South wrote this book, but because, again, despite my immense enjoyment of this book, and yes indeed I feel guilty for liking this book when I started wondering how my friends back in my graduate study classes would have said about this book, I cannot ignore the conflation of the tropes: 1. the White heroine being rescued, or finding self-realization, through Black folks around her that she does not socialize with, 2. Black people, unable to help or save themselves, being rescued by a White person.

I imagine this book already optioned by a movie studio. Or soon will be. Anyway you look at it, it IS going to be a great vehicle for some of the outstanding African American actresses, and god only knows how hard it is for a good script with a strong minority character lead to make it all the way to some head honcho’s desk. I do hope that the script and the actor that portrays Leroy would breathe some more life into him rather than the one-dimensional wife-beater. When in doubt, we reach for the things we share as women: abusive husbands, cheating boyfriends, sexist Chauvinistic patriarchs. In that process, our men are further demonized. Joy Luck Club immediately comes to mind. I can’t watch that movie without cringing. Not a single man in that movie is worthy of loving. Is it why it was accepted by the white mainstream audience? “Poor Asian women. They are so much better off over here. Away from their men.”

When The Blind Side came out, and the Internet was all abuzz about what a feel good movie it was, it immediately raised the mental red flag for me. “Feel good” means, to me, “Not for you. You are probably not the target audience/reader. Stay home. Otherwise you won’t feel good.”

I asked an African American columnist whether she planned to see the movie,

“No. We don’t consider that movie an attractive idea.” She said coyly.

* The surest way to incite heated debate against the worth of any book is to compare it to the beloved To Kill a Mocking Bird… So if you hate someone, yeah, go ahead and compare them to Harper Lee.

{ 20 comments }

TheKitchenWitch January 20, 2010 at 4:46 pm

I read the book and enjoyed it. But of course, NOTHING is To Kill a Mockingbird, as you so wisely pointed out.

I’m not sure…I mean, if you have a great story to tell, an important story to tell, does it matter if it’s your own story or someone else’s? I didn’t see Skeeter so much as “bullying” the stories out of these women as much as I saw their deep distrust and disbelief that she would hear/trust what they had to say. And also, if nobody has ever given you a voice, it’s a shocking and foreign discovery to find that you do, actually, have one. I think that was part of the reluctance too–if nobody has ever assumed you had anything to say, do you?

Good stuff. Lots of ideas to think about.

And obviously, they were afraid for good reason. You are right about that.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:39 pm

“if nobody has ever given you a voice, it’s a shocking and foreign discovery to find that you do, actually, have one. I think that was part of the reluctance too–if nobody has ever assumed you had anything to say, do you?”

100% agreed! Like I said, I rather enjoyed this book. It’s not until afterwards that I started thinking about “representations” etc. I also think I may have “Obama-ed” this book, i.e. I had such a high expectation for it because of all the rave reviews that I became unfairly critical of it…

magda January 20, 2010 at 5:28 pm

i am so ignorant, it would not have occurred to me to be critical of a book that i enjoyed reading. you are in a league of your own. i barely have time to read a few good blogs, piecemeal. if there are not pictures or the pages hold more than 12 words, i don’t have much support for that sort of reading. i hate flying but think i would give myself to a long flight if i could do so alone, so i could do some sustained reading.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:41 pm

LOL. You just called me out for being crazy. I know. I am. 😉

Having kids does change your perspective: now if my flight gets delayed, “Well, at least I am not flying with kids.” If I have to go wait in line somewhere, “Well, at least I don’t have kids that need to use the bathroom.” If I have to use some icky public restroom, “Well at least I am not changing the diaper here.” 😉

mrsblogalot January 20, 2010 at 6:03 pm

I think I read To Kill a Mockingbird somewhere in my past but don’t remember it all that well…don’t hate me. But I loved reading and will always remember a good mental puke (-:

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Thank you for loving “mental puke”… LOL. That’s 50% of my material here… 😉

secret agent woman January 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm

I’ve never even heard of it, but now I’m kind of intrigued having grown up mostly in the South (Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee).

I read and watched To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid and named my first dog Atticus. My grandfather, who was a law professor from Savannah, reminded me of the book.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Actually would love to hear what you think if you do get a chance to read the book. I have a feeling that it is going to be a movie soon though. Just a hunch.

Elly Lou January 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I can’t read it all ’cause I’m going to read the book. PS you DO know a southerner, even if you’ve never heard her drawl. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure some of your mental puke got on my cowboy boots. I better scrape this off on the sidewalk before it sets.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:43 pm

LOL.

I can’t wait to hear your Southern drawl. In the mean time, can I envision you as Sacrlet in my head?

Jane January 20, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I really enjoyed The Help. As you said, the stories were compelling and the characters “authentic.” But like you, there were some unsettling things about it. For instance, did it not bother anyone that Aibileen was supposed to be so well read (with Skeeter checking out classics from the “white” library for her) and her spoken english was so atrocious? Minnie had better grammar than she had. And as you pointed out, there wasn’t one male character (except for maybe Skeeter’s father but he was so far in the backgroud I barely remember him) that had any redeeming qualities. I admit. I scarfed that book down in 2 days. I thought I loved it. But after it had time to settle in me I began doubting my initial reaction. Thanks for putting into words many of my problems with the book.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm

“did it not bother anyone that Aibileen was supposed to be so well read (with Skeeter checking out classics from the “white” library for her) and her spoken english was so atrocious?” THIS is an excellent point!

By the way, did Oprah talk about this book yet?!

honeypiehorse January 21, 2010 at 2:36 am

To kill a mockingbird is one of the most beautiful books ever written.

Absence Alternatives January 22, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Judging by the detractors of “The Help” on Amazon.com, you are not alone in thinking this. :-)

Lynne January 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm

1. You do so know a Southerner.

2. It’s difficult to write Southern accents—nay, any accent—without being a tad stereotypical. (I won’t bring up the “L” for “R” thing, because I know how you hate that.)

3. I probably won’t read this book. Not because I have any sort of social conscience, but for the following reason alone:

It has been compared to TKAM, and that is SACRILEGE on the highest level. You might as well compare it to The Bible.

I refuse to read it now on principle.
.-= Lynne´s last blog…Muskrat Hate =-.

Absence Alternatives January 25, 2010 at 10:04 am

I need to hear your voice. Just sayin. In the mean time, you sound like Scarlet in my head also. 😉 (Ok, if that is considered to be an insult, DON’T be mad!!!)

LOL @ the last line. As I suspected, it is really not a blessing to be compared to TKAM…

Velva January 24, 2010 at 9:24 pm

You wrote this book review all on your iphone? That is “bleep” ing impressive!
.-= Velva´s last blog…Baked Ziti =-.

Absence Alternatives January 25, 2010 at 10:05 am

Nah. I “tapped” it out, with lots of spelling errors and grammatical errors etc. I of course cleaned it up before I posted it. Dude, I had about 10 hours to kill on the flight!

pixielation January 25, 2010 at 8:26 am

I read it recently too, and I love it. But like you – how would I KNOW if it was authentic?

I found it a page turner, mostly because I knew something bad could happen to any of the maids. The society of the time – who would beat up a man for mistakenly entering the wrong toilet – could have hurt them in the same way.

I did find Skeeter’s reasons for writing less than alturistic – but then again, that’s pretty realistic in terms of motivation. Not everyone crusades because they are selfless. Many people do have agenda’s for their actions. Or they start because of a self motivated desire, and continue because they see more of the big picture. That part seemed very plausible.

Part of me wanted the other white women to “see the light”, but it was a hard entrenched mindset.
.-= pixielation´s last blog…Pants on the floor? No star for you! =-.

Absence Alternatives January 25, 2010 at 10:09 am

Yeah, I agree. It was a page turner and I couldn’t wait to read more because I wanted to make sure none of the “maids” were found out, etc. I also believe that because of the rave reviews, I may be overtly critical of it. If I am honest with myself, really, is it a better piece of literature than say the entire True Blood book series? Yup. And you don’t see me trying to tear apart those books. LOL.

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