Racial Stereotypes & ‘The Help’

After reading the book a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the movie ‘The Help’ on opening day last week. I reviewed the movie for Christianity Today and decided to continue dialog about the book, movie, and racial reconciliation with Nicole Unice.

Also consider the comments of Nicole’s friends here.

Please join us for Part 1 of the discussion -

Nicole to Natasha: Is “The Help” offensive to black women? And is the idea of working as “help” offensive? 

Let me start off by saying that I am by no means speaking on behalf of all black women. I am a black woman who was loved and raised in South Carolina by my mother, who was also a black woman (born at the end of 1946 and grew up in the midst of the racial injustices addressed in the book), her sisters, my father’s sisters, and my grandmothers who were all Black women; you get my drift. So I will share from my personal experiences growing up in South Carolina in a public school system that was approximately 98% African-American and then having an undergraduate college experience where approximately 85% of the population was white.

With all of that being said, I do not believe that The Help in and of itself is offensive to black women. What you may find which was articulated well in an article by the Relationships Editor of Essence magazine for black women is the weariness of reading another book or going to see yet another movie where African-American women play the role of maids particularly because the novel was written by a young white woman. In the same manner, the idea of working as “help” is not in and of itself offensive; it was an honest (and sometimes the only) means of earning an income and contribute to their families.

So I say the concern and issue today is one of imaging, especially when so many Americans still live segregated lives. Of all of the fascinating careers where African-American women thrive in 2011, we are presented with another story of African American women who are oppressed and need saving from a young, inexperienced white girl who obviously has more to offer. For people who are actively engaged in intimate relationships with those of opposite races, this may not be much of a problem. On the other hand, this can be a major problem for those who do not fall into that category because subconsciously the mind is being trained that “this” is how “those” people are, hence continuing the racial divide. I’m thinking now of Aibileen’s (the lead Black maid) sentiment and concern for the white child that she was lovingly raising. She said, “I want to stop that moment from coming—and it come in ever white child’s life—when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites (pg 96).”

Natasha to Nicole: So have you thought about the issue of “imaging,” particularly how this story portrays African-American women and what it means to present it as a form of entertainment today?

I am so conflicted about answering this question! Because I thought the way the movie was written, it made me really like the black women. I didn’t like most of the white women! But that might reveal my inherent bias, my inability to see that some of the ways the black culture was portrayed are inaccurate.

The “Association of Black Women Historians” released a review critical of the movie, citing its inaccurate portrayal of the language (you is smart…you is important…) and the use of the word “law” for “Lord.” It also lambasted the portrayal of black men as drunk (which I don’t remember from the movie), abusive or absent. (the whole article is well worth reading).

And although I appreciate the reality that the movie can perpetuate black stereotypes, I would argue that if we are going to talk about stereotypes, how about the white ones?

The white men are represented as weak and passive, such as when Hilly’s husband gets up and refuses to be part of the conversation when Hilly’s maid, Yule May, asks for a loan. Skeeter’s love interest leaves because he can’t support her position on race. Skeeter’s father doesn’t stand up to his wife’s way of dealing with Skeeter’s questions about Constantine.

Southern women are represented as conniving, petty and manipulative, southern white men passive and more than happy to let their women deal with “the help.” Perhaps this is a completely accurate descriptor of white Mississippi in the sixties. But I can’t help but wonder if the same argument about black stereotypes also exists for white.

As for this type of movie as entertainment, I believe we have to look at the larger perspective of media and its use in shaping culture. Was Schindler’s List entertainment? Passion of the Christ? Black Hawk Down? Avatar? I think all good movies are designed to not only captivate our imagination but also get us thinking. And for that reason, I think The Help accomplished that.

The Help certainly made me think. It made me think about my responsibility as a woman, a white woman, a white woman living in the south, to be part of breaking down stereotypes such as those portrayed in the movie. After the movie, my friends and I had a conversation about our own relationships. We all agreed that we wished our lives were enriched by friendships with women of other races, but didn’t exactly know how to pursue them. Which raised an interesting question: (Stay tuned…discussion to be continued on Thursday.)

Reflection: In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch defines culture and the only adequate response to it. Culture is simply what we make of this world—our perceptions, stereotypes, images, the reality that we create, etc. “The only way to change culture is to create more of it (pg 67).” Therefore, we owe it to ourselves and each other to share more honest depictions of God’s image bearers.

As a woman, what (if anything) do you feel is your responsibility to breakdown racial stereotypes? How can we change the American culture, where racial divisions are still prevalent?

© Natasha S. Robinson & Nicole Unice 2011

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7 thoughts on “Racial Stereotypes & ‘The Help’

  1. I admire and respect both of you and your dialogue about this issue. I have not read the book or seen the movie YET so I am unable to comment regarding the content of the film. I am, however, an Asian-American woman and want to comment on breaking down racial stereotypes.

    I appreciate all efforts made to understand my Asian American world. One stereotype about Asians is that we are quiet and reserved. This is sometimes due to what we have been taught regarding honoring people who are older or have a higher rank. Speaking before the leader speaks or even making eye contact can sometimes be considered dishonoring.

    My suggestion in pursuing relationships with other Asians is to be aware of the communication pause. This is a generalization, but commonly in both white and African American communication, people talk over each other. In Asian culture it is considered rude to do that, so we wait for an appropriate pause in conversation before joining in. Unfortunately, the conversation usually blasts on and the pause never comes. Picture a communication freeway onramp and the Asians are trying to merge, but if the space isn’t made then the “quiet and reserved” stereotype continues.

    I look forward to the continued discussion here. Thanks for your willingness to discuss and learn and be in the process together.

    • Vivian, Thank you so much for sharing an Asian American prospective on how we see each other and how we communicate. I must admit that this (the talking in which you reference) is an area where I have been convicted. When we talk on and on with no breaking point it communicates clearly that we don’t care what the other person has to say; their position is not important to us.

      In my life, I know that the sin has been revealed in two ways: not extreming others higher than myself and not being quick to hear and slow to speak. Maybe what you reference is not an Asian way of communicating at all, it is a lesson to all of us of a more Godly way to love each other.

      Love, Natasha

  2. I, too, appreciate the Asian-American perspective. My brother is Korean and I’ve been keenly aware of the times/places we’ve lived where he has been literally the one Asian in the entire school. Not to mention the stereotypes we’ve vicariously experienced for him….thanks for your thoughts on the communication pause. Really helpful!

  3. Thank you so much for these thoughtful comments regarding The Help, and for your blog. How wonderful that you are calling on your faith to address issues about gender and society and justice. May God continue to bless your work.

    I have not yet read the book, The Help but I did see the movie tonight. I am a Jewish-American of Eastern European descent, (a.k.a. Caucasian/white Jew) and I am also a wife, mom of 2 and a clinical social worker. I live in NYC but grew up in the 70′s, in a Md. suburb just outside of Washington D.C.

    As much as I appreciate a film that’s attempting to address racism, discrimination and injustice–I also had a number of criticisms of The Help. Racism, sexism and classism seem to be so systemic and so pervasive, that they even emerged (whether consciously or subconsciously) in a project like this.

    Just a few thoughts to share:

    – Big surprise. Hollywood embraces another story principally focused on a “noble” white character who attempts to right the wrongs of racism and discrimination by “helping” people of color help themselves. The Blind Side Meets Dangerous Minds meets Mississippi Burning, etc. I am so tired of this! Why can’t more people of color get to the table in the literary world and in Hollywood as novelists and screenwriters, directors and producers? In my opinion here is still a great deal of gate-keeping going on, and I find it quite troubling.

    – Did it simply not occur to the director to provide adequate stage makeup to David Oyelowo, the actor who played Preacher Green? Why was he the only character who was drenched with sweat in each and every scene in the film, causing him to appear disheveled and unkempt? If it was summer in Mississippi, wouldn’t other characters be sweating, too?

    – Why the choice to make Octavia Spencer’s character Minny’s husband a perpetrator of domestic violence? And why not even give him one single moment of camera time? Why yet another faceless, demonized depiction of black male “brutality” and violence– was this really necessary? What did this choice imply as far as pervasive negative messaging about black males and their abilities to be competent husbands and fathers?

    – And why didn’t Viola Davis’ character Aibileen have a husband? And why was this actress instructed to gain 25 lbs for the role, yet even after that still had to wear extra padding? Why is Hollywood still choosing over and over to write and cast heavier-set, a-sexualized African American women?

    – According to my mother, who read the book, The Help, Viola Davis’ character Aibileen was an avid reader. Why were any such intellectual pursuits omitted from her film depiction?

    – And why did they cast Mary Steenburgen as a Jew? Did they need a celebrity and figured she could ‘pass” because she’s a brunette?

    The acting was stellar and God bless the author of the novel, for having broken what were likely generational cycles of racism in her family. But can we please, please begin to have more conversations about Hollywood’s reckless and pervasive use of stereotypes and their on-going detrimental effect on our psyches?

    Sorry I am so winded!
    Thx in advance for listening/reading.

    • Thank you for reading and sharing your comments, Frankie. I understand several of your concerns and voiced them in the article that I wrote surrounding this topic on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics website. All points are valid and well taken, some are way too big to address on the blog. Needless to say, there is a lot broken in Hollywood which is sad when they take such ownership of image-making. This is where the church really needs to step up and shine the light of God’s intended purposes for the relationships between his children. If you haven’t already done so, please check out parts 2, 3, and 4 of this discussion. I would love to hear your thoughts. Blessings, Natasha

  4. Natasha–

    Loved your article about The Help. I so appreciated how you focused on aspects of the story that were special, and love as well that you feel God has called you to reach out and break down barriers of class and ethnicity and culture.

    But I’m just curious– what did I mention that you feel is “way too big to address” on your blog?

    Blessings–
    Frankie

    • Hi Frankie, I was referring particularly to how Hollywood addresses and presents African Americans on the big screen. Several books can probably be written on that; it’s a point of contention in the African American communtiy. Have a great weekend!

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