Saturday, August 13, 2011
Why "The Help" Isn't Helpful
So I'm going to do it. I swore I wouldn't, but I just couldn't help myself. Ever since I read The Help in July I have wanted to write a post about it. A post explaining why I disliked it.
It seems everywhere I look I see people raving over this novel. And with the movie coming out today I can't turn around without seeing a splash of yellow and purple. I read the book because it came so highly recommended. After reading it I could understand why people enjoyed it, but I did not understand how it became a national phenomenon.
So I am going to do something really unpopular. I have worked up my courage in order to tell you all why I strongly dislike a book that I am assuming the majority of you love. I don't do this to be condescending, self righteous, etc. I just think that someone should politely point out some of the problems with this wildly popular read.
(WARNING: this may include some spoilers.)
Let's just get this out in the open. The Help is not literature. Calling The Help literature is like calling a hamburger a fillet mignogn. I love a good hamburger. But it isn't steak. It just isn't. So let's call The Help what it is. A juicy hamburger. It is not a "classic." It won no awards of any merit. It will not be studied by English majors in 2022.
I did enjoy The Help on a purely entertaining level. Stockett tells a great story. She kept me turning the pages...fast. But as I turned the pages I KNEW what I was consuming was mediocre writing. Sort of the way I can't stop eating mediocre potato chips. They taste good going in, but leave me unsatisfied and malnourished when finished.
The Help is a predominately plot driven novel. You want to keep reading to discover what happens TO the characters, not necessarily to learn WHO the characters are becoming. A good novel has a mixture of both...but always defers to character development. An Author must always be willing to alter her plot if what she has chosen to occur no longer makes sense for her characters. Stockett's characters made choices based on what needed to happen next in the predetermined plot. These choices were not always in line with their character. I believe most readers easily overlooked these issues because the story was so engrossing. I also believe these problems would be more glaring upon a second reading.
Example: Why did Yule May steal from Hilly? It wasn't like her. Well, she had to steal at that point in the story because Skeeter had to discover the evilness of Hilly. How Skeeter managed to go so long without fully grasping Hilly's evilness is a mystery. One of MANY mysteries. Maybe this doesn't bother you. That's fine. It bothers me.
And about that evil Miss Hilly. Why was she so clearly, relentlessly wicked? Well she, like every other character, was a sort of stereotype. The hateful white queen bee? Check. The sympathizing, bolder white woman? Check. The wiser, maternal black woman? Check. The sassy, firecracker black woman? Check. The ditzy, blonde bombshell? Check. I actually thought Celia was the most interesting character with the most unusual story, but Stockett never fleshed it out or resolved it for us.
These literary criticisms (among many others) have already been leveled from a variety of sources. That's not why I am taking the time to write this post. If The Help was just a mediocre novel gaining a lot of popularity I would simply zip my snobby lips and ride it out, but there are themes running throughout The Help that I find very problematic on a sort of moral level.
The Help seems to suggest that black people need white people to tell their stories. I don't say this simply because Skeeter literally writes out their stories. I got this impression throughout the novel.
Although the story was told in three different voices, Skeeter was clearly intended to be the heroine of the tale. Stockett should have never attempted to write the story from the perspectives of the three women. (Um, why weren't Skeeter's sections of the book written in a dialect like the maid's sections are?!? Isn't she from Mississippi???) I realize Stockett was trying to "share" the story so that it didn't seem like it was centered on the white people. But I truly think this backfired.
Stockett could have easily written the novel from the perspective of Skeeter and been much more convincing. Of course, Skeeter is not a very compelling character. She is thin (literally and figuratively.) She never seems to grow over the course of 400+ pages. Sure she starts halfheartedly sticking up for some maids in front of her white friends and starts dressing like a hippie. But those are shallow changes.
Skeeter never seems to grasp the significance of what she is doing with Aibileen and Minny. She always seems most interested in telling the maid' stories so that she can be daring and break into the publishing world. She never seems to be aware of the thickest of prejudices running through her culture...or even herself. Didn't it seem that Skeeter used the maids to accomplish her personal goal of getting published? It all bugged me. People are being lynched because of their race, a lonely, hurting woman is being ostracized because of other's prejudices, and her mother is dying of cancer, but nothing will keep Skeeter from what she wants for herself. And in the end she gets what she really wants without much personal loss at all.
Sure, she loses the boy, but she was going to marry him. He was racist and she would have said YES. He simply wouldn't have her because of her book. What would have been more interesting, more beautiful would have been if she handed back the ring because she had blossomed into someone who had richer beliefs about mankind and wouldn't marry a man who thought of others as lesser. Someone unafraid to challenge the ugliness in the world.
Skeeter never goes there. To the soul changing, heart transforming place of self awareness. Of pain, of truth of LIFE. Stockett never takes her there. Aibileen gets the closest. But no. It all falls short. And by never taking her characters there, Stockett never takes US there. We get to read this entertaining story about one of the ugliest times in American history and come away feeling sort of nice about ourselves. We never have to face our own prejudices. We never have to dialogue with these characters about deeper issues.
Isn't is amazing that nowhere in the novel do Skeeter and Minny and Aibileen really sit down and hash anything out apart from deadlines and the fear of being caught? It is all nicely glossed over. Sure, one angry maid comes in to confront Skeeter, but Aibeleen quickly shooes her out the door. This is what Stockett does throughout the course of her book. Shoo the most challenging issues and emotions out the door so she doesn't have to deal with them.
Skeeter gets to do this great thing for these black maids and gets to feel good about it without ever having to deal with the most challenging issues and emotions. This, I am afraid, is the story I see played out again and again in my line of work. I see well meaning folks strive to help Africans. They accomplish something and feel kind of good about it. It may even have been difficult. But in the end they never get to the very raw, life changing, soul stripping places through their service. They never go there.
This is why the tremendous popularity of The Help troubles me so much. You may say I am being nit picky, but I can't help but wonder why more people aren't noticing these themes. Why people aren't asking more questions. So I am asking them and hoping by asking them others might begin to ask them too.
Ultimately I believe that The Help cheats us. It cheats the types of women it strives to represent. It cheats the women reading it who are not asked to search their souls. The Help does not help any of us as we seek to learn to understand one another or ourselves.
At least that is my little opinion.
So here's your chance. Push back. Argue with me. Tell me why you loved it. Let's talk. I love a good discussion. Leave a comment below. I genuinely want your opinion. I PROMISE I won't think less of you. Did the Help help you? Do my criticisms hold any weight? Let me know.
UPDATE: Make sure to read my follow up post Aibileen's Reading List!