Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Looking for help to understand The Help.

By Lisa Boehm, Professor of Urban Studies, Worcester State University.

I have been trying to search for reasons that I am uneasy with the largely passionate, positive response to the book and the film, The Help.

In 2009, I published a non-fiction work of my interviews with African American women who had largely worked as domestics and taken part in the Second Great Migration to the North.  About five million women and men left the South for the North between 1940 and 1970, transforming the history of American cities and the nation as a whole.  Yes, I am a white woman, and I even have unruly hair like The Help’s Skeeter Phelan. The Schlesinger Library website even referred to me as "the real Skeeter Phelan." (I donated the oral histories from my book to the Schlesinger, which funded the project with its Oral History Grant.)  When I read the novel The Help I could not believe how the process of interviewing in the book sounded like what I had done in real life.  Yet I am still uneasy with the picture of domestic work and the black southern experience as outlined by The Help.  It is incomplete, at best.

The Association of Black Women Historians has written an "Open Letter to Fans of The Help, in which they state:
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help.   The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism."

I have been wondering if it is possible to portray the kinds of unrelenting violence that southern blacks encountered in the Jim Crow South in a fictional vehicle, either novel or film, which has as entertainment as its primary purpose.  A non-fiction book or a documentary seems better suited to the subject matter.  So would any novel or film draw the kind of criticism some are heaping on The Help?  Is it this particular subject that cannot be well done in a fictional genre, or is it just this particular story that rubs some people the wrong way?

 I understand the need to work through important themes, emotions, and issues in the past via fiction.  Certainly we have an endless stream of films and novels related to the Holocaust, World War II, 9/11 and other tension-filled historical moments.  Yet with these stories, we are better able to fit them into the framework of history that we already know.  Saving Private Ryan is not our only exposure to the history of WWII; we add the movie to what else we know.  Unfortunately, many Americans are not aware that until the late 20th century, MOST African American women working outside of the home for wages labored in domestic settings or related service jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings.  In domestic work, African American women came to interact on a daily basis with the white families that employed them, and the interactions were filled with complications.  White families often thought of their employees as family; black women sometimes formed friendly relationships with their employers but they rarely extended this feeling of "family" without great trepidation.  I would bet that the white women crying in the film around me when I saw it on the opening afternoon were not rushing home and ordering my (or anyone else’s) book on domestic workers to learn more.  We leave The Help thinking we know the whole picture.  But that is a mistake.  There is far more to this story to know.

Those who have not read The Help will not know that the novel’s white characters are portrayed with a thick dialect, represented by broken English and spelling changes like substituting "Law" for "Lord."  The characters frequently say "reckon," a word I never encountered in my oral history work.  White characters, who presumably would have southern accents as well, were given no such spelling changes.  The white characters are also drawn in a quite silly fashion, and they look even more flat and silly in the film, juxtaposed against the weighty acting done by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in their roles as African American maids.  If the majority of whites are silly and ignorant, it lessens the serious nature of the racism they espouse, and distances a white audience from this kind of prejudice.  We often find a sort of simpering, slapstick South portrayed in mainstream films, a world of honeysuckle and sweetened ice tea that does not resemble the world today, South or North.  Thus it is easy to leave the film and say, "Boy, I am glad things are not like that now.  We have certainly come a long way.  I cannot believe things used to be like that."  After the death of Medgar Evers in the film, the tension of the film is quickly cut by a funny vignette where we see the maid Minnie vacuuming a stuffed bear.  The laughter in the theater showed how quickly the violence could be worked through, and how much we wanted to move away from that uncomfortable feeling.  Maybe we need to sit a little bit longer with uncomfortable emotions.

The pain of the discrimination faced by a generation of women who could often only find work in domestic settings is still felt today.  Many of these women still live among us.  They have passed stories of their pain to their children.  Seek out the searing artwork of Willie Cole, whose mother and grandmother labored as domestics.  Keep reading.  If The Help whetted your appetite, try to learn more.  I am seeking a book group that would follow up their reading of The Help with my own book, Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009) and see what they think.  What do we not see in the novel or the film?

Lisa Krissoff Boehm Phd is author of Making a Way out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Mississippi, 2009), Popular Culture and the Enduring Myth of Chicago (Routledge, 2004) and co-editor of The American Urban Reader: History and Theory.  She teaches urban studies and directs the honors program at Worcester State University.


  1. I have not read The Help, but I really wanted to. I feel as though Lisa is criticizing the book based on the fact that she actually studies that time period and the dialect as well as everything that went on in that time period. The author of the help clearly is as knowledgeable on this time period as Lisa. Lisa has to remember that this is a work of fiction and that of course the author isn't going to be able to set the period as nicely as someone who studied it for their whole lives could. As I said before, I have not read the help, but Lisa seems almost disgusted by how this author portrays her characters and book. We also have to take into consideration that this work of fiction was a bestseller as well as a hit movie. I don't know really what the whole book is about but the fact that Lisa crucifies this book for not getting every single detail perfect according to a historical standpoint is making me want to read it more. It is not a biography of the women of this time or a work of nonfiction, and I think that Lisa has to realize that not absolutely every part of the book is going to be correct historically. I don't think many of the people who read it wanted a history lesson. Instead they wanted a pleasurable book they could enjoy. If Lisa wanted it to be perfect according to her then she should write her own nonfiction book and make sure she gets everything historically accurate according to the time period.

  2. What made me want to read this little article on The Help was because all the women in my family absolutely loved and praised both the book and movie. I feel as if Lisa was taken aback by this book and its’ author because of the lack of clarity and realism that The Help failed to portray, unlike the work that she had been researching on. I know that Lisa might have been upset that the book did not cast the most truthful light on African Americans, but from what I have heard from the people who have read the book, I find the book to be classified as a human interest piece, rather than it being read for educational purposes. The Help was actually on some of my friend’s summer reading lists (they were going into the twelfth grade.) And because of that, that is why I believe that Lisa somewhat over analyzed this simple "fun read" of a book.

  3. OH MY GOD!!! This is a sociology website that shows how these pieces of (pop) culture make up how we see/interact/connect with our world. Racial disparities exists, and when artifacts of our culture (such as this book turned to film) touch on these disparities they have tremendous power in shaping how people see those disparities. Saying Dr. Boehm is being too critical really misses the point of the article, as well as this website. And Laura, Dr. Boehm DID write a nonfiction book on the subject, if you commented on this article because you had to for class, you should've read the whole thing.

  4. Jason Smith, TWS managing editor here, wanted to throw a nice quote from Walter Lippman which I think helps add to this nice review by Dr. Boehm...

    "Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable. Any description in words, or even any inert picture, requires an effort of memory before a pciture exists in the mind. But on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you." --Walter Lippman (1922)

    I think this helps bring out Dr. Boehm's point, as well as the Open Letter from the Association of Black Women Historians. The image presented in the book and film leaves out a large portion of the true history that took place during the Civil Rights struggles. Part of thinking sociologically about this film is recongizing its place within the structure of our society.

    I hope this comment is helpful to students who read through this, and make them take a breather instead of making reactive assumptions or posts after they read this article.

  5. I have not read The Help yet but I have heard that it is a great book and was also a very good movie. Having said that, I feel like Dr. Boehm is reading too much into the book and is criticizing it a lot for it being a fiction piece. Granted, she does know what she is talking about and does study the material for a living but if you are just reading the book for fun, I do not think all of these criticisms matter. Knowing more about African American women and the conditions they worked in would be beneficial for the reader so they understood where everything in the book comes from. I think Dr. Boehm also tears apart the way the white women were portrayed. The book is fiction so I don't think that she should have over analyzed it the way she did. If she had critiqued the way working conditions were portrayed I think I might have agreed with her about the way it was described in the book. I do agree with her that people who read this book or see the movie should base all of their knowledge on just that. You need to read other books or watch other movies to get a full understanding of what is going on.

  6. hey folks. thanks to everyone so far for commenting. as a sign of respect, we should refer to folks as dr., or professor, or mr. or miss or ms or, in the parlance of academic writing, simply by their last name. jason Smith nails it on the head as does anonymous. Dr. Boehm IS reading into the film--that's what social scientists do. if she simply retold the story of the film, wjat would be the use. Our job as social scientists is to anlyze THE MEANING of the film.
    Of course, this is the job of art as well, and the person who wrote the book and the director who made the film WANTED you to read into it. Artsists work on multiple levels and the purpose of fiction is not just to tell a bedtime story, but to achieve an emotional and intellectual MEANING as well. In other words, artists WANT you to read into their story. The Help is intended to have you recognize a basic "humanity" that exists despite the segregation and racism. in some ways it transcends these divisions. It's a noble and admirable message, but one that, as boehm and many others have argued, is too easy to pretend exists in real life or exited in these particular cases. If all the story and film did were to use historical realityas a TROPE for talking about humanity, we might give it a pass, but even historical fiction is SUPOSED to be relatively accurate. what Boehm and others suggest is that they are highly inaccurate. Thus, the story about humanism is damaged by the wrongness of the story itself.

    what is the source of the wrongness? the very same racial bias that fed into our history of oppression and segregation and exploitation. the book and film are written from an idealized white perspective and not surprisingly overlooks much of the violence (physical and emotional) and discrimination that characterized these relationships.

    In the end, it is all of our jobs as citizens trying to engage a sociological imagination to inform that imagination with the scope and trajectory of historical reality, not just the skewed version of books or films that would like to feed us a "feel good" scenario.

  7. I have not read or seen the movie The Help but I heard it was good. I believe that Dr. Boehm's criticism is to harsh considering that the book is a work of fiction. I understand that the concept and basis of the The Help are true issues but I believe that the book was intended for a good read not a historical novel.

  8. I saw the movie The Help and loved. Not knowing very much about how African American women were treated then, I learned a lot from the movie. Though the movie does briefly touch about domestic violence, I do agree with Dr. Boehm that for the most part this aspect of an African American’s women life was ignored. However, I think Dr. Boehm over analyzed the movie and book for being fiction. The main story line of the movie was to show how African American women were treated at work, as maids, and I personally though it was well done. The book and movie as Dr. Boehm said, were made for entertainment purposes and therefore couldn’t be 100% accurate or it would have been more of a documentary. Dr. Boehm critiques the white women in this movie for being too silly and “it lessens the serious nature”. However, I don’t see this as an issue because the women were portrayed like that for entertainment purposes.

  9. Having both read The Help and seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, I found this article very fitting and appealing to read. However, like many others have said, I also feel that Dr. Boehm is reading too much into the book and over criticizing the work of a fictional artist. Nevertheless, I do believe that Dr. Boehm does have the right to be critical since she has studied this particular time period for quite a while. With that said, I feel that if you do want to see the movie and/or read the book, The Help, I suggest going into it with a opened mind and not searching for precise and accurate historical content.

  10. Having both read The Help and seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, I found this article very fitting and appealing to read. However, like many others have said, I also feel that Dr. Boehm is reading too much into the book and over criticizing the work of a fictional artist. Nevertheless, I do believe that Dr. Boehm does have the right to be critical since she has studied this particular time period for quite a while. With that said, I feel that if you do want to see the movie and/or read the book, The Help, I suggest going into it with a opened mind and not searching for precise and accurate historical content.

  11. While I agree that 'the help' downplays the degree to which the African American women portrayed in the movie (I have not read the book) struggled and were subject to abject discrimination, I believe it has some value. I teach intro to sociology at a college in the south and I am fairly certain that my students are more likely to get at least some notion of what their region was like 50 years ago from a movie that does not tap into their barely submerged defensiveness.
    In my classroom I am using the student’s interest in ‘the help’ to stimulate other information seeking so that they will get a more complete picture of not only the racism, but understand about those who fought and died for civil rights. Much as I would like them to immediately and fully realize the atrocities of racism that went on at the time of the movie and the vestiges that continue, if they become self-protective or even begin to feel a bit guilty they will not hear the message.
    And, Dr. Boehm, I will purchase your book –because I now know it exists and in-spite of the unfortunate coincidence that both you and S. Phelan have ‘unruly hair.’