Feminist Solidarity in the Help: an Application of bell hooks to the Controversial Film

18 Mar

When I first watched the movie The Help, I was overwhelmed by the racist narrative of the story. In it a group of social, racist, wealthy white women are set up as the evil “mean girls” and two outcast white women, Celia and Skeeter, team up with their black maids to fight for equality. Skeeter interviews the maids and publishes their narratives anonymously, challenging the racist structure of the southern town.

I felt this was racist because the lead role was reserved for a white woman; a white woman was compiling and then narrating the voices of black women, colonizing their stories and reproducing them through a white filter; the racist women were villains in the traditional sense as they had no redeeming qualities, presenting a one-dimensional view of racism that might lead modern viewers to disregard or overlook more subconscious racism; in the end, the black women were presented as having more power than I felt was historically accurate, and also as having a close relationship based on egalitarian values with the white women. I saw this as an idealistic ending meant to alleviate the guilt and responsibility white people might feel about their role in racism.

All this, I felt, made The Help undeniably racist.

However, I am on a plane, and I am reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (lent to me by my wonderful major professor.)

In this book, hooks has a chapter titled, “Holding My Sister’s Hand: Feminist Solidarity.” The chapter focuses on hooks’ experience living through racial segregation in the south and the history of antipathy she witnessed between white and black women. hooks explores the historical roots of relationships between black and white women and connects this to the lack of black, self-identified, female feminists. She then offers suggestions to help heal the rift, restoring sisterhood.

For those who are about to comment and correct my capitalization, bell hooks uses all lowercase letters in her name.

hooks writes that this anger and mutual distrust is, at first, a result of white women’s secondary role in the patriarchal system; white women saw black women as sexual competitors and as a threat to their already limited social status. She explains that white women felt little sympathy for the humiliation and degradation that black women (especially slaves) experienced at the hands of white men, and were instrumental in rejecting moves for equality through marriage or inheritance that white men might try to enact with black women.

hooks argues that this narrative resulted in the mistrust and bitterness that black women felt for white women, noting that the shared experience of womanhood did not led to sisterhood. Moreover, the rise of feminism failed to heal this rift; hooks narrates that at the advent of the feminist movement white women were disinclined to listen to or discuss racism or their role in perpetuating it. Their refusal to acknowledge this conflict, according to hooks, led to the alienation black women felt within the feminist movement.

Until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women (and vice versa), until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups (hooks 102)

I wonder what hooks would think of The Help. Perhaps it is possible to see the movie as recognizing the conflict between black and white women, but also as a hope that sisterhood and solidarity can overcome even the most entrenched animosities.

After all, the movie depicts two black female characters willing to overcome their bitterness towards white women in order to work together with Skeeter, an early feminist, in order to challenge a social hegemony that enacted white patriarchal values enforced by the elite white women of the community. This is precisely what hooks challenges black women to do.

hooks calls on white women to “assume responsibility for examining their own responses to race” and to “recognize the truth of racial oppression” before they can move forward in feminist, anti-racism projects (106). I’m not quite sure Skeeter does this. Maybe someone who is more familiar with the movie can help me out?

However, another interesting intersection of hooks and The Help is the character of Celia Foote. Celia is a poor white woman who marries wealthy. hooks notes that she felt as though less wealthy white women were more able to talk about an accept racial inequality:

In conversations I felt that feminist white women from non-materially privileged backgrounds often felt their understanding of class difference made it easier for them to hear women of color talk about the impact of race, of domination, without feeling threatened (hooks 108)

Celia seems to live in a world where race lines aren’t drawn, and treats Minny (her black maid) like an equal. Although this isn’t quite the same thing as being able to talk about inequality, it is still interesting that Celia seems to be one of the only white women able to have a friendship with a black woman in the movie.

It makes me wonder: Did the author of The Help read bell hooks? And if so, was she trying to create a new narrative where white women recognized their racism and used their limited power to help their black sisters overcome oppression?

8 Responses to “Feminist Solidarity in the Help: an Application of bell hooks to the Controversial Film”

  1. Stephanie March 21, 2012 at 9:35 am #


    I saw this link on Emi’s social media outlet. I think this article: http://abagond.tumblr.com/post/8794316030/abwh-an-open-statement-to-the-fans-of-the-help explains your initial feelings of racism etc. I do think it is dangerous to try and give too much credit to such a movie. I do not see bell hooks in this film, rather I see all the things she was saying that caused problems. While one or two white characters listen to and empathize with their black counter parts, the film itself is the very dishonesty of past that keeps sisterhood out of reach. From stereotypical depictions of the black American family to making light of sexual harassment, I see no bell hooks and rather the white washing of American history to make it more palatable. This white washing keeps white women from admitting the past, and continues the distrust and hate bell hooks discusses.

    I appreciate that you are writing this blog. I am about to start a similar endeavor. I really believe that the more people offering experiences and opinions where feminism is concerned, can only humanize a movement, a philosophy that is wholly misunderstood.

    I look forward to reading more!

    • Caitlin Garzi March 22, 2012 at 8:08 am #

      Hi Stephanie! I’m excited to hear that you’re starting a blog– I can’t wait to read it.

      I agree that there are (still) a lot of problems with this movie, and even if (and that’s a big if!) the movie is trying to display black and white sisterhood, they make many missteps.

      However, I have this professor who asked our class, ‘what is the use of publishing something just saying that someone else’s article is racist or sexist? How is that useful?’

      At first I was really resistant, because I think that it’s important to point out racism and sexism when you see it. But then I realized that this professor was asking us to look at the racism, yes, but also at the reasons behind the racism, what the author might have been trying to do, how we might change the work, and what we might take away from the work despite (or perhaps because of) its racism.

      If this movie grew out of a desire for more relationships between black and white women, if this movie grew out of a desire for more women of color in the feminist movement, or if this movie grew out of a desire to humanize the stereotype of a black maid (as Viola Davis argues), it’s then important to see how those original goals were perverted. I think it’s equally important to recognize the original longing for reconciliation as something good, something hopeful.

      Of course, simply saying this movie is good because of the longing for reconciliation and overlooking the racism is not constructive, either. But dismissing the movie because of its racism fails to acknowledge to complex nature of racism in America today and all of the contradictions it entails.

  2. Stephanie March 22, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    “What is the use of publishing something just saying that someone else’s article is racist or sexist? How is that useful?”

    It’s interesting you quoted this. I think in the case of The Help, and other mainstream entertainment it is more important TO point out that racism, even if that is all that is being done. In the case of The Help it is praised for it’s message. The nuances described in the open letter I referenced before are not even noticed. While you and I may see The Help as a starting ground for discussion, that is not the opinion of mainstream culture. I don’t agree that it is wrong to only say something is racist. Often times you see that the racism is in fact counter acting the “intent” (although I would disagree that the intent was nothing more than white guilt and white washing history).

    The philosophy of my life is intent and seeking that and seeing how it is perverted, the problem is when the intent itself is flawed. To tell this story with the helpless help and the white woman writing for the salvation is in itself wrong. To desire sisterhood and piece as bell hooks described would take an honest look at the relationship of race between white and black women. The sexual objectification of other, the fear of sexual competition, and yes the guilt about the whole system. This is not present in The Help, instead it is a pat on the back and makes you feel good. There are no real truths. The characters aren’t true to history. It is a fantasy. Even with the best intentions the delivery is so offensive, it does lose value.

    To say it has value because of intent is the same old story of whites giving themselves kudos for wanting to do the right thing but not taking the care to ensure it isn’t offensive. I have a problem with that. Also I don’t think there was any intent for feminist sisterhood in this book, it was crafted for a specific demographic. I don’t know many black women that have read the book or seen the movie that does not walk out with a bad taste in her mouth, while if I have one more of my mom’s friends ask me if I read it with enthusiasm I will snap.

    If the film simply reflected the racism that was present then, then it would be worth while. The film warps history into stereotypes of black women. So by not being honest, but playing to a racist view of history (Oh Law’dy), it doesn’t seem like true sisterhood was the intent.

    My dismal above dismisses the movie/book because IT does not take into account the complex nature of race in America, in fact no care was taken to respect the memory of the Civil Rights Era. I think that to not dismiss this movie on those grounds is acting in an indifferent way to race relations in America. I suppose being in a position of privilege allows US to decide what has value, but when our sisters are hurting due to careless scripting and unchecked current day racism coming through a period piece I think dismissing it is the step toward sisterhood not the intent in a blatantly racist piece.

  3. Stephanie March 22, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    “But dismissing the movie because of its racism fails to acknowledge to complex nature of racism in America today and all of the contradictions it entails.”

    Also I did not simply call it racist, I did say the why, what and where the mark was missed, as you prescribed. I am unsure of how I didn’t do my due diligence for The Help. If anything I did more work than they did. If you point out the racism and all of it’s symptoms then you are doing all that analysis you wanted. The only thing I can find wanting in my first response is the nod to the possible intent, which in light of glaring issues feels inappropriate, “at least they meant to do the right thing”.

    “I think it’s equally important to recognize the original longing for reconciliation as something good, something hopeful.”

    Disagree. If that is truly the goal then more care would have been given, maybe more historians involved, instead we were given a stereotypical view of history.

    And if these were the original goals then it is worth mentioning, but not equal to the harm the piece does/ has done. It has reinforced stereotypical ideas, and many are unaware.

    I do appreciate your positive attitude, but I think in this case there has been too much ugly done in the film that it is recognizing the wish to do good is actually just propping up the white ego, and disregarding the view of those offended. I don’t think it consoles many that they meant well, but just produced a racist slanted view of the Civil Rights Era. Privilege must always be kept in sight and be checked, otherwise we are only helping discrimination.

    • Caitlin Garzi March 22, 2012 at 11:54 am #

      I don’t expect my post to change your mind, and I won’t respond to you systematically (my posts are meant to provoke thought, not to be conclusive). I have heard many of these arguments before and I think they are valid and worthwhile.

      But, I see academics and intellectuals dismiss the popular through intellectual, well-reasoned responses without fully understanding or considering their complications, complexities, or mass appeal. It’s important (for me, at least) to recognize the shortcomings of popular culture, but also equally important to see them for *all* that they are– and the successful ones are rarely one dimensional.

      Moreover, as a white, straight woman, I think it’s important for me to not dismiss or overlook the decisions black female actors like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer made in participating in the movie. I do not expect them to speak for their race, obviously, but I do want to listen, like bell hooks asks us too. It is important for me to not co-opt racism conversations, but to hear and be open to the voices of others. Though I might learn towards seeing _the Help_ as dangerous, I want to see why many do not. I want to hear them.

      Of course, you might notice that I say these are my goals– they are important to me. You might have others, and those are equally valid and I respect them, but they shape the way we approach this conversation.

  4. Stephanie March 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Oh, I by no means expected to try and devalue your opinion, I apologize if it came across that way. I just guess I wanted to point out that while the actresses did find the movie a positive thing, that many historian societies and black women’s organizations did find the movie offensive and that much of the support did come from a place of white privileged, and that is concerning. From the first post I was speaking from a place of having listened to the concerns of black historians, scholars, and regular everyday women. So while I value the opinion of the supporters of the film, I do think it is dangerous to have a kind of relativism of opinion when it comes to these issues of race, gender, class, etc.

    I think we can agree that pop culture is a reflection of our society, and I suppose that is why I am troubled by the portrayals in the film.

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t utilizing your blog as intended. I guess I just got excited about the opportunity to have a little back and forth with someone about such a difficult issue that has a clear vision of herself and opinion. I hope to have my blog up in a couple weeks: midwestfeminist.com , and I do hope you put your two cents in as my hope is to have these kind of conversations. I have to remember other people aren’t always interested in a back and forth. I guess I just love bringing the philosophy of feminism, post modernism, and post colonialism into pop culture.

    Anywho, Sorry for any offense, it was unintended. If you ask Emi I just get really excited about things, and get a little to into it. I love talking to people with differing opinions, as you can see above. I want you to know that my enthusiasm only speaks volumes about your ability to produce a thought provoking post.

    Take Care!

    • Caitlin Garzi March 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      It’s true! I am not much for vigorous debate! I used to be, but for the past two years I’ve been exploring feminist rhetoric for my research. It’s more about exploration and intersections, and openness to contradictions and ideological conflicts. Rather than being sure of my opinions, I guess now I’m just more aware that my beliefs and identity(ies) conflict with and conform to patriarchal society and with each other. And mostly I am just trying to map and understand those conflicts through conversation and writing. I kind of talk about it more in my Valentine’s Day post.

      I wish there were more people reading this blog, so one of them could have a back and forth with you! Sadly I don’t think any of my readers feel strongly about the issue– but maybe eventually! I do appreciate all the commenting, though. I will be sure to check out your blog when you put it out.

  5. esquaredg March 22, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    I love that two of my super intelligent feminist friends are now in dialogue! I wish I were more informed/confident…or that I enjoyed any form of debate, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin here. I love reading the back and forth, though. 🙂

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