Tag Archives: movies

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?

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Twilight Does Have Elements of Feminism

13 Mar

I am the Queen of Horror. I love scary movies, sci-fi dramas, crime TV shows, and terrifying novels. There is nothing more satisfying to me than being afraid to sleep at night. It actually gives me a weird sense of pleasure to be unsure about my surroundings, worried about what poltergeists might lurk in the night.

A part of me really believes there are terrifying monsters out there that we know nothing about. That belief is what makes the concept of horror so terrifying for me– monsters can be real.

If this isn't a monster, I don't know what is

But just because I love a good scare doesn’t mean that I disapprove of the creative license many authors use to normalize vampires and werewolves, turning my much beloved, blood-sucking Dracula nightmares into the best boyfriends ever.

I’ve never really understood the need to demonize (har-har) pop-culture creatures of the night. Yeah, they lose pretty much all the classic embodiment-of-the-devil Christian symbolism so apparent in early vampire stories. And sure, modern day vampires lack natural drawbacks designed to make plausible the idea that everyone wouldn’t want to be a vampire. I’ll even grant that it’s pretty creepy that a vampire with a hundred plus years would want to date a seventeen year-old.

Can vampires be arrested for pedophilia?

But these criticisms don’t explain the colossal amount of vampire vitriol out there. Let’s take Twilight, quite possibly the most hated of the teen vampire films/novels around.

There seems to be some sense that the plot is too loose, doesn’t make sense, and has many contradictions, ultimately building “vampires” with abilities that don’t make any sense. Funny or Die takes on this criticism by pointing out that if Edward’s sense of smell is so sharp, he should be tearing Bella apart at least once a month. Cue period jokes.

And of course, there’s the well versed claim that if teenagers are going to be reading, they should be reading something good. Like, the stuff adults tell them to read.

I'm sure kids will enjoy reading these... in school

Probably the most damning evidence, from my perspective, is that the books and movies don’t portray a strong image of female agency and womanhood. But I’m not sure I agree with this criticism.

I wouldn’t say I’m a Twihard or anything; I read the books at 23 after participating in several years of tag-along smack talk, basically touting my wannabe hipster, English major cred. That’s right, I made fun of the books without reading them. I’m not proud of it. I give you permission to frown disapprovingly at me.

Done? Okay. So I read the books really fast (I’m trying to regain your respect, here) while flying home from Kansas. And I actually liked them.

I mean, they weren’t that bad. I had heard crazy amounts of criticism, stuff like, Stephanie Meyers doesn’t know how to use a comma, and,  Oh my god, the writing is Just. So. Bad! 

But I didn’t think they were that bad. Sure, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read. It wasn’t, for example, The Lightening Thief or a Dan Brown novel. Or The Hunger Games. Or The Sookie Stackhouse novels.

There were no hackneyed phrases that made me cringe, which is really rare. Even Philip Pullman used the drink Chocolatl so often it was like an irritating tick. There were also no really glaring plot-holes that I couldn’t look past– although perhaps my sense of disbelief was already so suspended that something sneaked by.

What did strike me about the novels is how poignantly they portrayed the anguish of a first romance, the crazy roller coaster of teenage hormones, and the fear felt by scared-out-of-their-mind parents. That seemed pretty well done to me. And many ladies I know feel that Twilight accurately depicts those tumultuous years.

Moreover, in the final book of Twilight, Bella wins. She is stronger than Edward, more confident than Edward, and willing to fight. And interestingly, it wasn’t even getting her man that made Bella so awesome– in other words, her success didn’t hinge on her marrying Edward. It was only when Bella gained supernatural powers, powers she had been begging for since book one, that she came into her own.

This is significant because Bella’s desire for unearthly, demonic power strongly contrasts with belles from other vampire dramas. Sookie in True Blood wants more than anything to stay a normal, delicate human so she can sunbathe and have babies. Elena in The Vampire Diaries feels the same way– she even lets her father die to save her from the horrific fate of being a super strong, super fast, immortal being.

It kind of seems like all those Twilight haters are a little bit freaked by a lady who wants some power at the expense of kids, her family, and humanity.

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