Marginalization and “The Help”

I’ve been following a little bit of the furor around “The Help”, both the book and the movie, and though I have no intention of reading or viewing it I have an opinion about it.

First I read The Association of Black Women Historians’ article, An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. Then I read the Salon’s response piece, Why “The Help’s” critics are all wrong.

The first talks about the inadequate ways black women are represented and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism, and the film’s construction and romanticization of black women in the Mammy role.

The second says it’s fiction and the purpose of fiction is to inhabit someone else, it’s well-done, and the biggest image in the movie is of black people and white people talking to each other and trying to understand each other, which is cool and might help create opportunity for conversation on race issues.

I’m jumping all over that opportunity right now to explain what’s fucked up about “The Help” versus what’s cool about it.

“The Help” is, as I understand it, about a white protagonist coming of age and using the myths of black women’s lives to understand her own experiences. I think this is not in itself problematic and it’s normal for people to understand themselves by interpreting the stories of the world around them, but like a lot of things it’s all in the telling.

And, I would love to see more movies with major characters who are black women – movies about black women’s lives would be great, but I’d also like science fiction with black women protagonists, black women saving the world, black women in historical dramas, black women slaying dragons, black women telling their own stories.

So at a basic level, no big thing. Racial understanding and more movies with black women. Cool, right? But there are also some problems.

The first place this fails is that despite all the talk about black women it’s still a movie about a white protagonist in the savior role. It is not a movie about black women on their own terms or for their own consumption, but a white interpretation of black lives.

This is the thing about marginalization. It’s an experience where someone else interprets your life for you. It’s when someone else who doesn’t really get what your life is like tells you what it means and wants to act like they’re really enlightened about it.

It’s having them not get that the ways in which you are marginalized limit what you can say to them, or even in front of them.

It’s having them not get that because of the inherent power relationship, interactions are always tilted and having them tell your story is necessarily filtered through this lens and made to fit their view of the world.

If this movie opens up opportunities for dialogue and for people to try to talk to each other about their different experiences and become less racist, awesome. If it gets people to try to expand their reading or viewing experience to include more works about black women, awesome. If it gets people to demand that Hollywood make more movies about black women or just that aren’t all white men all the time, awesome.

If it’s more bullshit that reinforces stereotypes by dumbing down the realities of racism and the intersection of racism and sexism and smoothing over the horrors of history, that’s not awesome.

I imagine that a coming of age movie made by and for black people focusing on black domestic workers in the 60s in Mississippi would be substantially different.

For some reason Hollywood just didn’t make that movie this summer.

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