Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a novel that deserves praise. It is well-written, with a vivid and fluid prose style and character depictions that invite immediate investment from the reader while also quickly establishing the inter-personal and social-political conflicts of the narrative.
The most obvious themes of the novel are also easy to applaud. Progressive ideas relating to female empowerment and racial equality are central to the narrative. Friendship and unity are the heroes of the book as much as its protagonist-narrators, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny.
Yet, when the novel was made into a successful Hollywood film, critics attacked the story for its social-politics. To these critics, the very area of The Help’s thematic strength seemed to also be the text’s weakness.
American Cultural Mythology
This myth is an element of the story-telling that occurs in our culture, but it is not limited to fiction. It is sometimes attached to real historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, a very potent figure in the American imagination.
Known as a self-taught, self-made man, Abraham Lincoln is the epitome of the American mythology regarding social mobility and self-determination within a free capitalist system. He’s the poster child of the American dream, going from a log cabin in Illinois to the White House and saving the country along the way.
Lincoln is often given credit for ending slavery. This is where the historical truth of Lincoln comes into contact with the White savior myth.
It’s true that he was instrumental in this act. But what about Fredrick Douglass? What about Harriet Tubman? These figures too worked tirelessly to defeat slavery in America. Abraham Lincoln is only one part of the story, yet he has come to represent the entirety of this effort. (Note: This is an arguable point. Not everyone sees Lincoln as a Gilgamesh-like hero who single-handedly toppled an evil institution.)
The only point being made here is a simple one – Lincoln has become a figure of myth insofar as he has become a symbol for the American will to end slavery. His virtues are our virtues. Lincoln is not merely a historical figure, but a symbolic one communicating an American cultural identity. If this statement is at all true, then Lincoln can be reasonably described as a figure of both history and mythology.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
The fact that American culture includes certain elements of mythology makes American culture normal. All cultures maintain mythologies. We just usually find it easier to identify other people’s myths than our own. And, again, this is not really a problem.
In the case of Lincoln and what he stands for, few would want to undo the power of his mythic status. Journalists writing about the Lincoln myth even suggest that the content of the mythology around “Honest Abe” reminds us of “the very definition of myth: a truth greater than fact.“
Lincoln is a positive and concise symbol of American values. He encapsulates a sense of American identity as much as any other figure.
So, What’s the Problem?
Where some people see a problem is when the over-arching mythology seems to generate a sensibility that sets ethnic limits the possibility for heroism and moral excellence in America.
Heroism should not be exclusive. That is what critics of the White savior myth say. They say this because they understand that our ability to recognize the heroes among us may be constrained by our cultural mythologies – historical and fictional.
The selection of Lincoln as a lone salvationary figure in the fight against slavery feeds into a mythology that may be damaging because it is exclusionary, because it does the work of “Othering” in small but persistent ways.
If our mythology reflects our sense of cultural identity, ideally we would want a mythology in America that trends toward contemporary American values of diversity, inclusivity, etc.
Some critics point to an opposite trend, however, both in the figurative pantheon of heroes that we make into statues and, perhaps more pointedly, in our fiction and filmic narratives.
The Myth of the White Savior
The observation that unites criticisms of this trend is often described in explicitly mythic terms, where the hero (White) is depicted as necessary to the salvation or redemption of implicitly weaker characters (minorities).
Writer Amanda Machado does a good job of encapsulating this notion, putting it this way:
We’ve all seen the white-savior trope in movies: the well-intentioned, generous, and kind-hearted white person comes and saves the poor, needy people of color who are desperate for help. Doesn’t sound familiar? Some examples: Glory, Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Django. Historian Kate Masur argued in a New York Times piece that in the film Lincoln “African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them”. Most recently, the New York Times also described how this trope existed in the movie Free State of Jones and a Native American writer also called out the same narrative in The Revenant. Asian-American actress Constance Wu also recently challenged the new movie The Great Wall, in which, again, white male actor Matt Damon leads a film that deals with Asian history. She said: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
Critics like Wesley Morris connect The Help to some of these same examples, arguing that “Skeeter’s expose is meant to empower both the subjects and the author, but “The Help” joins everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “The Blind Side” as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism.”
Agency & Otherness in The Help
The essence of the criticism here concerns agency and “Otherness,” two concepts that we discussed in our conversation on Waiting for the Barbarians.
Agency: Here, the argument is that the maids of Jackson, Mississippi are shown to be in need of Skeeter’s help to change their situation. Skeeter has both the moral and socio-cultural strength to help them, to “save them,” and they are lesser contributors to their own salvation than she is.
Otherness: The fundamental racial conflicts in the novel concern the conception of Black people as “the Other,” a group subjugated by and subject to segregation, discrimination and mistreatment without recourse to legal or social protections.
Critics point to Skeeter’s savior role in the narrative as an unfortunate use of the White savior myth, arguing that this character strips agency from the people she seeks to aid and in doing so effectively maintains at least half the trouble of “Otherness” by implicitly saying the maids are powerless.
There are no categorical walls broken down to undo “Otherness” but instead categories remain intact (and may actually be reinforced via the moral structure of the novel embedded in the White savior myth).
The Schism between Civil Rights Realities & the White Savior Myth
In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, this particular myth strikes a nerve. Critics are animated in their attacks on the novel (and especially the film) by the notable state of affairs that is demonstrated in this situation – where, in 2009, the White savior myth can be active in a work of historical fiction set in a historical period whose actual popular heroes are Black figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X.
In this context, how can the White savior myth function with any success? What does it say about our culture (and its active mythologies) that The Help and other texts like it can not only “get away” with this mythic-symbolic narrative but achieve great popular and financial success along the way?
It’s a schismatic situation. The critics want to highlight this schism. In doing so, they don’t all want to tear down the book or the movie. Not entirely.
These critics have a hard time applauding the positive elements of The Help without also drawing attention to the complex and troubling reality that this schism illustrates. At least, that is one way to contextualize their critiques of the novel and its film adaptation.
As you will see, the critics who bring cultural criticism to bear on The Help are quick to acknowledge the strengths of the book and the film.
The task for you will be to evaluate the validity and strength of the criticism(s) they offer and decide what is the most appropriate balance between an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of The Help within the context of cultural criticism.
Vernacular Narration in The Help
Stockett’s choice to render her White narrator’s voice in standard English and her Black narrators’ voices in vernacular language forces us to ask some ethical questions.
When all the characters speak in The Help, their dialogue is indistinguishable in terms of contractions, vocabulary and pattern.
They sound the same when they talk, regardless of race. Skeeter sounds exactly like Abileen. Yet, when their thoughts are rendered on the page the language is remarkably different.
How should we take this? Is it an accurate depiction of real difference?
Or does this choice of narrative style do the work of “Othering” the Black characters in the novel, implicitly suggesting that they think differently than White characters even if they sound the same when speaking? Is this intentional and done to prove a point?
Is this “Othering” an innocent and perfectly acceptable method of illustrating the realities of life in Mississippi where undoubtedly there was a wide divide between these groups – socially, politically and, also necessarily, personally?
Is Stockett’s choice to use the vernacular for some characters best seen as a stylistic admission to the content of her statement in the afterward when she says, “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think that is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand” (529-530)?
(In other words, does she write these characters in a different language because she truly cannot do it any other way…?)
Or should we see Stockett’s stylistic choice as a symptom of the cultural mechanisms that created the historical differences she acknowledges in that quote and seems to want to overcome in writing the novel?
Is she unconsciously engaging in the process of “Othering” her Black characters, defining them with an emphasis on alterity? Is she demonstrating how race becomes reified, becomes something that people believe in, becomes a map of divisions, difference, etc.?
You can reject these questions as the paranoia of an overly-sensitive cultural moment. You can say that no one is perfect and leave it at that.
You can go a step further and say that Stockett’s novel presents positive, strong and even noble Black female characters alongside a mixed-bag of White characters and that this fact is so obvious any further examination of the social politics of the novel are unnecessary and counterproductive.
You can also point out that Kathryn Stockett’s stated goal is to try to better understand a person she grew up with. That person happens to have been Black while Stockett is White. Stockett recognizes the difficulty of this task and admits it.
In writing the novel, she is trying to achieve something that we can all agree is valuable and good. If we highlight any missteps along the way, aren’t we actually shutting down progress?
That is also fair.
But to use a reference to the fables that started out this course, we should be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
This novel may be a sheep. This novel may be a wolf. It’s up to you to decide.
It’s “Just” Entertainment
Representing Black characters as existing in a fundamentally different mental world from the White characters raises ethical questions. But this book is not meant to be a hard-hitting work of history and politics.
It’s written like a “summer beach-read.”
Can books like The Help be “just” entertainment?
But, wait…isn’t it also written as protest fiction? If so, can it still escape ethical scrutiny? And if it doesn’t escape, can it stand up to scrutiny?
These are questions to consider as you analyze this novel.
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