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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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