The Help

I'm going all out. This isn't a film about civil rights per se. The more I think about it, it's a film about women and the traps they created and found for themselves in 1960s America. The title of this film reveals a little of the emotional distance and detachment we see between the characters, and it's not always because they are separated by race.

There's so much you could discuss about this film, so I've only chosen a few ideas ...

Returning from college, Skeeter (Emma Stone) arrives back in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi with ambitions to be a serious writer. Following the prejudices of the day, the male editor of her local paper offers her the 'cleaning' column post and seeking help to fill the content, Skeeter seeks out 'The Help' for assistance. It's Aibilene (Viola Davis) the housekeeper of Skeeter's school friend who will speak first, prompted by the injustices she sees, as the Civil Rights Movement makes slow progress in the Southern States. Over time, more of the housemaids and cooks come forward to speak with Skeeter and finally have their voices heard.

Civil Rights
Jackson, Mississippi was a hot mess for Civil Rights during the 1960s. It was more violent, dangerous and tense than a Quinten Tarantino movie, and sadly, it was where civil rights campaigner Medgar Evers was murdered by Hilly Holbrook's (Bryce Dallas Howard) friends; the White Citizen's Council. And this is why this film isn't really about the Civil Rights movement as this momentous and heinous murder is a just background news report and a broken bus ride for Abilene.

Civil Rights is a complex period of American history with a rich mix of heroes and villains from all races. So to say this film is about civil rights is a bit reductive. It's not. It's really about women, who have no voice, (the Maids and Skeeter) getting a chance to make their's matter and be heard.

Feminism
No voice? Well, the devil makes work for idle minds.

The problem with no name that Betty Friedman wrote about was ten fold more in the Southern States during the Cold War. At least in the north it was 'patriotic' to be a doting mother, dutifully promoting capitalism by religiously cleaning with your mod cons (take that Soviet Russia). But in the South, if you're rich, you do as little as possible. Why? Because those historic slaves you had are now called 'Maids' and do all the work they've done for generations.

So if you can't work, clean or parent what are you left with? Childish obsessions which make rich pickings for petty drama.

Queen Bees and Wannabees
So who stops the white women being heard?

It's the ultimate queen bee Hilly Holbrook. With serpent like control, her gaggle of mini-me-wannabees flit around her, showing in no uncertain terms that her hateful views are the only ones that matter. Like all good villains, we see Hilly revel in her power, patronise and control all those around her, but ultimately take one big bite of humble pie. Literally. Best. Scene. Ever.

I think Hilly's character represents how women in America during the early 60s were little more than high school girls when they were expected to settle down and 2.4 their way to domestic bliss. Nothing more American than a woman who cares to win 'Yard of the Month' and essentially, this community never left high school.

Hilly is the same acid mouthed, pompous Prom Queen she ever was and the other women march to her breeding beat, popping out babies in a regimented order to be cared for by 'The Help'. They have no voice because society (as Friedman discovered) dictated they should be happy with domestic servitude. The only voices they have are among themselves, except fear robs them of that liberty as they're too scared to go against Hilly.

Human Identity

Friedman also argued that the problem for woman marrying so young and being encouraged to find sole fulfilment in housewifery meant they couldn't mature and find their human identity. It is only Skeeter, who rejects Hilly's hierarchy, who has been away to college, who has ambitions beyond matrimony and motherhood who finds her human identity.

She finds a way to quietly rebel against the inhuman treatment of the maids. While Hilly's crew are building humiliating outhouses, Skeeter sees the true value of the maids. She loved Constantine her own nurse and maid, she values Abeline's voice and respects Minnie's (Octavia Spencer) 'sass mouth'.

I think in a similar way, the maids learn from Skeeter a different identity for white people. Decades of oppression are not going to be swept away by seeing Skeeter in a different light, but it does work towards forming a new identity. Segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. You can thank Martin Luther King Jr. for that gem. It's true, by Skeeter and the maids coming together, the sense of heirachy is abolished. They speak on equal terms.

Community

Having recently moved back to the city I grew up in, I felt a little bit like Skeeter. Returning to Jackson she sees the same old hierarchy still stands. Every secondary school has a Hilly, and mine was no different, but it amazes me these Queen Bees can exert their influence long after the final bell has sounded. 

Skeeter is an outsider, but oddly plays along with those around her. Uncomfortable with what she sees in the group she still turns up at Bridge, goes to the benefit balls, even agrees to go on blind dates. She appears like a lost lamb. It's her female New York editor who tells her to 'write about what bothers her' that finally gives her the impetuous to go from lamb to lion. Ultimately, she becomes isolated but independent.

Ironically 'The Help' are a close, caring community. They worship, wash, clothe, feed each other with grace, taking time to laugh and enjoy each others company. For a group that has genuine fear of being 'outed' in society, who is exposed to very real and dangerous risks, they demonstrate true love and bravery towards each other.

By contrast, Hilly's queens control, bitch, isolate and manipulate each other - under what fear or risk? Not being invited to Hilly's Bridge club. Please, there are bigger fish to fry.

Men 

There are so few represented, it feels like a twilight zone. There should be a reverse characters Bechdel test. It seems you are either a violent brutes or passive husbands. Ultimately, the male characters appear non-existent.

Minnie has to suffer the violence of LeeRoy on a disturbingly regular basis. But William Holbrook (Ted Welch) has to suffer the humiliation of being emasculated by the common knowledge that Hilly is still sweet on ex boyfriend Johnny (Mike Vogel) the now husband of the vivacious and vibrant Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Interestingly, there must be tenderness between Minnie and LeeRoy as she wistfully recalls during her Crisco pitch it can be used to 'soften your man's hands.' Passion is as cold as Hilly's soul in her marriage as we see no affection in the Holbrook house. 

Skeeter's isolation, that I mentioned earlier, culminates in a strange 'love story' crammed into the edges of the plot. Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell) is a friend of ice maiden Hilly, who after behaving like a complete jerk during a first date, convinces the otherwise sensible Skeeter to go out with him again. This jars with me. Why does Skeeter go for such a prize twat? I can only conclude, that the overbearing, oppressive mantra of her mother (get married, have a baby!) has taken it's toll on confidence so she'll settle for anything. However, for a man who we are lead to believe loves an independently minded woman, he can't stand one who is for equal rights. Fortunately, Skeeter's bland indifference at his hissy fit exit suggests she's seen the light.

Here's another one from the great man himself "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy". This sums up the film well. Skeeter gets out of her comfort zone to be independent from Hilly, family and men who don't live up to her liberal values. Abeline takes courage from God to step out boldly and have the black women of Jackson heard.

Shamefully, this film has made me realise too many people (myself included) focus their lives on the comfort of petty, high-school-style dramas, while comfortably ignoring the real controversies around them. I'd like to think I could be an Abeline but I thank God, I've not been tested yet.


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