Melissa Harris-Perry on why The Help hurts

Melissa Harris-Perry on why The Help hurts

In one of the most dramatic scenes of the likely Oscar-contending, mega-hit movie The Help, a black maid named Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) finally decides to get the best of her boss, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hilly, the racist antagonist brimming with piss and vinegar throughout the film, fired Minny after she is caught using Hilly’s indoor bathroom instead of the outdoor one. 

Minny comes back the next day and presents Hilly with a chocolate pie, seemingly a peace offering to try and win her job back. However, the pie Minny watches Hilly enjoy for several gratifying minutes is—SPOILER ALERT—full of Minny’s shit. Take that, long-standing racism in the South.

The shit pie scene, which elicits roars of laughter through the theater and is often called back for comic relief, epitomizes what many critics say makes the movie so darn, well, shitty. The film’s presented as a charming and historical look at racial oppression in the pre-Civil Rights Act South, but it’s really a continuation of the regressive stereotyping of black women in pop culture. Melissa Harris-Perry, a former University of Chicago professor and current professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, addresses some of those stereotypes in her new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, And Black Women In America. She has also criticized The Help on MSNBC, where she is a regular contributor, and live-tweeted her experience watching the movie for the cable network.

Perry will deliver the keynote speech for the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee For Civil Rights Under The Law on Sept. 15 and then speak to the National Black Graduate Student Association in Urbana on Sept. 18. Before that, though, The A.V. Club talked to her about The Help and Sister Citizen.

The A.V. Club: Why did you write the book?

Melissa Harris-Perry: My first book, Barbershops, Bibles, And BET: Everyday Talk And Black Political Thought, was on African-American political thought, and it’s primarily a book that doesn’t speak much about gender. I certainly feel a bit of feminism in the book, but I don’t think it’s specifically about the African-American women experience. I characterize the black experience in general. My own advocacy, political work, personal life, and academic research over the years tend to focus much more on how African-Americans think and the way they engage politically, but also just who we are socially.

AVC: One of the things you talk about in Sister Citizen is the pantheon of stereotypes: The Mammy, The Jezebel, and The Sapphire. Then, all of a sudden, one of the biggest movies is The Help, and it’s become one of the biggest books in the past few years.

MHP: I should start by saying I’ve read every single word of it—cover to cover. I noticed that for the third weekend in a row, it’s been the No. 1 movie in America. A lot of people have a lot of positive things to say about The Help.

For me, the concern is that it’s being billed primarily as a story told from the perspective of the black working woman. You can make an argument that the book and the film are interesting coming-of-age stories about a young white woman from the South. [The black women] are simply not representative, in terms of historically or the fact that they are still supporting characters in a story that is really about Skeeter. If it was being billed as a story about Skeeter, then I don’t feel so distressed. The fact is that the lives of these women in The Help continue to be imagined through the perspectives of the narrator and not revealed in what their historical complexities and contemporary complexities actually are.

My mom handed me the book after she read it and said, “This book is so much like yours,” and I was like—what!? It made me want to cry. In a certain way, my criticism is the kind of criticism that could easily be defined as an interacademic battle; that the big story here is that even bringing light to the reality of these women’s life is a good thing. We should celebrate that. But the problem, for me, is it continues to be told in this romanticized way and refuses to tell the accurate and historical story.

AVC: Do you see the stereotypes brought up in your book in The Help?

MHP: I suppose I see several things. One is the Mammy figure. In all her glory, you can say that the primary aspect of the Mammy figure is that what she does is magically fix things for the white woman in her life. The book is purportedly challenging that; the fact is that it reinforces it. What these women end up doing is help Skeeter get a career by giving her their stories. In the end, they’re all stuck in the Jim Crow South. She’s off to New York and has a career.

Also, you never, never question whether or not black women who work as domestics feel anything other than love, affection, and commitment for white children that they are in charge of. You can question the relationships with the white women, but never with the children. It’s again this sort of sense that she has all this love to give to the next generation of white women.

The second thing The Help does is it continues to endow black women with very few resources with almost magical domestic attributes. The scene both in the book and in the movie, around the part where [a woman Minny works for] has a miscarriage, and she’s kind of afraid that her maid steps in—it’s not that these things didn’t happen in real life, it’s that it’s told from the woman having the miscarriage and not from the perspective of the woman doing the helping. It’s the idea that the black women in this role are basically able to provide medical care, housekeeping, life advice, dating advice. They’re able to do all these things but somehow they can’t get themselves out of poverty or organize politically? It’s a little nuts, and it does reinforce this kind of magical representation of the black Mammy.

AVC: She breaks down the door to help the woman with the miscarriage.

MHP: Right. Also, the cooking scene! You have the white woman cooking this meal for the maid who has taught her how to cook, and then, the voice over saying, “After [Minny] ate this food, she got the strength to leave her husband.” It took everything I had not to walk out of that movie theater.

AVC: She lived happily ever after, I guess.

MHP: That is the exact opposite of how Toni Morrison described basically the same scene in The Bluest Eye. In her scene, Polly Breedlove is working for a white family and [her husband] Cholly is abusing her. Someone from the white family tells Polly she’s got to leave Cholly. Polly turns to her and says, “I just don’t see much sense in a black woman leaving a black man for a white woman.” No one is excusing black domestic violence and certainly not Cholly’s, which turns not only against his wife but against his own daughter. But I think that sentiment, that “I know you live over here in the big house but my family matters too. The choices I’m making in my life and the reality of racial oppression are such that this is for me to work out”—I wanted to see that in The Help.

What happens in The Help is that they kill off the children. Aibileen’s son is dead, so she doesn’t have to negotiate her own family relationship. They make Minny’s husband abusive, so it’s easy for the audience to cheer her breaking up her family. It’s a literary device to make it possible for white audiences to not have to encounter what was the primary challenge facing black domestics: how to rear and raise and love and be present for their own families when they were having to give it away to white families. Everything written by black authors focuses right on that complexity. Instead, this author has raised her hands in literary fashion to get rid of it all.

In the end, the only real hero is Skeeter. She is able to escape. She runs off to be a writer in New York despite the fact that she hasn’t really ever written. All of these stories, all of the ideas, and most of the language comes directly from these maids, but she’s the one that gets to go off to a safe environment in New York. These women are left behind. In this film, Viola Davis walks off at the end unemployed down the street and it’s like, “Oh, look. She’s free.” What kind of freedom is that?

AVC: That’s a really depressing last scene to end the movie with. You know that she’s unemployed and that she might not ever find work again. You don’t understand what she wants in life, because the movie never makes it clear. The movie makes it clear that they are strong and wise and hold back their feelings. Then, people clap and stand in the theater in the end. Are people just missing something?

MHP: I think that people got exactly what they wanted from the movie.  

On top of all of that, this might be the most horrifying part: They have these women bonding over Medgar Evers’ assassination by choosing to be a part of [Skeeter’s] book. I think, for me, what I find the most upsetting about this is black women actually did real things in real life in actual history in the wake of Medgar Evers’ death. It had nothing to do with wanting to tell their story to a young white college student. They actually organized on their own behalf. They actually had economic and fiscal propriety for their organizing efforts. Black women domestics in Jackson, Mississippi actually did something in real life when Medgar Evers was assassinated. We don’t have to imagine or tell it as a story about this fictional person. By telling the story this way, it either suggests that there weren’t real women who did real things or it allows us to ignore how much more dangerous, complex, and personal those stories were than this fictional one we’re getting.

The most dramatic piece of resistance that this author can imagine is the maid [Minny] making the bad girl eat her poop in her pie. That is silly. It’s ahistorical. It’s mean, and it has absolutely nothing to do with actually being liberated.

I could go on all day. The fact that there is only one act of violence in the whole film and it is perpetrated by a black man? When black women in that era give their own experiences, the No. 1 thing they talked about was how the white men who employed them were absolutely aggressive and how much fear they had about turning them down because of the fear of reprisal. So, no mention of that.

AVC: In your book, you talk a lot about the black strong women stereotype, which can easily be seen as a good thing. What are some of the downfalls to that?

MHP: No one is suggesting that we should all be weak instead and fall out and hope that somebody comes to save us. That’s not the alternative. I do think when we believe that black women are kind of born with an innate capacity to meet all of life’s challenges and that is basically a birthright, and if you’re not meeting all those challenges, you’re failing to live up to your black womanhood—I think the danger there is it’s its own argument against actually asking for help. It’s a failure to feel you have the right to ask the government for help, to demand all the rights of citizenship that other communities and other individuals demand as a result of their own identity. I’ve actually heard black women say all the time, “If it’s not slavery, how bad can it be? We’ve lived through worse.” It doesn’t have to be slavery. We have the right to ask for what other communities ask for. Sometimes I think we don’t when instead we take on the strong black woman persona. You somehow fail to live up to this authentic black womanhood.

In fact, I am as upset by the representation of white Southern women here as I am as the representation of black maids.They’re represented as catty, stupid, man-hunters and as completely inadequate mothers.

It’s bizarre the level of maternal inadequacies of these women, but because it’s assumed, because there’s any quality childbearing happening, it’s only happening by these black women servants. 

AVC: With the concerns you have with these types of movies, it seems like they’re really easy to miss just because how well the movie is made, how well it is shot, and how aesthetically pleasing it is.

MHP: When you go the see The Help, here are these two extraordinary black actresses giving as much light and roundness to these flat characters that anyone could imagine. 

You’re rooting for them. I think Emma Stone is really very good. We’re compelled to root for her and to root against the so-called bad girl, mean girl. Why not cheer it and think that this is all in the past and think it can be wrapped up in a neat bow? It’s beautifully shot. It’s got all the aesthetics of the South. They’re wearing the white historical dresses, making you think about Mad Men and on and on. But that’s exactly what makes it so insidious, because it covers over the truth.

AVC: You’ve talked about how you’re not trying to be a killjoy, because you believe these images do matter. Millions of people are seeing them. Even if it’s subtle, it reinforcing some type of stereotype.

MHP: If you sell the movie as a coming-of-age movie of a young white woman living in Jackson, Mississippi, I probably don’t see it. That was what the movie was. If it’s about whether or not she gets a boyfriend and a job, then I guess it’s a perfectly enjoyable movie to watch. But for me, the tone was about these women who were working as maids, and it’s fundamentally not. I don’t want to be a killjoy in that sense.

I discovered that the Home Shopping Network has a line of products inspired by The Help. That is a 21st Century reprisal of Aunt Jemima. The fashion items are all the items worn by the white women in the movie. Let’s say my daughter saw the film and wants to go buy fashion inspired by The Help. Is she supposed to, as a young black girl, go to the Home Shopping Network and buy the waffle iron? I’m a granddaughter to a woman that worked her entire life in domestics. It is nothing but honorable to do that work, but the commercialization of it, the selling of it, the enriching off the labor of those women is a continuation of the exploitation of black women. I believe it hurts and does not help.