Well, this is the first time ever that I’ve taken the “cultural studies” approach of featuring the themes of race, class, and gender in talking about a work of art. I’m, of course, against the “politically correct” tendency to reduce literary/artistic analysis to that trinity. And I’m especially “uncomfortable” with the word gender, not being sure that it refers to anything real. I know what “sex” is, both as an activity and as way of categorizing human beings (and even other animals) into two groups. But I’m not sure what gender is. I’m told it’s a social construction, but surely male and female can’t be completely detached from a natural foundation.
What’s fascinating about this movie is its subtle approach to race, class, and gender. Class, I will explain, is not just about the ruling class being oppressive. It turns out that there’s also “class,” in the sense of people being raised well or for being responsible. To be “classy” is to display extraordinarily admirable manners and morals.This film is much harder on the middle class than it is on the remnant of Mississippi’s aristocratic class. And it’s the aristocratic class and the class of servants that ally to overthrow the pretensions of middle-class racist tyranny.
Let me begin what has to be a project of several posts with some fairly random observations:
1. THE HELP is one of the most thought-provoking movies in a long time. It’s based on a best-selling book that I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read all the way through. That put me at a big disadvantage in the theater. I went to an afternoon show with my wife (who had read it), and theater was packed with women’s reading groups that had loved the book. The consensus: The long film was faithful to the book, but only to a point. Much was left out. That’s easy to believe, because the film was packed with fascinating characters, each of whom seemed insufficiently fleshed out. I’ve peeked a bit at the book, just to confirm some of my suspicions about the movie. But, as usual, I’m basically letting the movie stand on its own.
2. In terms of visual detail, this has to one of the best movies ever made. You’re convinced that this is exactly what Jackson, Mississippi was like in 1963. The middle-class parts of that city were pretty much like the rest of the country, except for three significant details. Every middle-class family had African American “help,” a maid who who was lot more than a mere maid. So the white women, like their more aristocratic ancestors, didn’t have to work. And there was extreme racial segregation, segregation that was, you might say, still in the process of being perfected.
3. The middle-class white women are so horrible you start to feel sorry for them. Their lives are pointless. Their aesthetically unimpresive houses are run and their children are raised by “the help.” Their unerotic, boring husbands have little interest in them. They don’t work themselves and have no ambition to work. So their lives are consumed by obsession with trivial pursuits—bridge clubs and stuff like that—and petty distinctions. Theirs is not aristocratic leisure, and their lives are creepily devoid of personal love and proper pride. The film has the appropriate moments when nature gets her revenge for their self-denial, but their response is usually more blind anger than tears of recognition. Surely the evildoing ugliness of these female, middle-class lives is exaggerated, and the two most prominent of these women in the film are presented as extreme cases. What drives the movie, more than anything else, is animosity against their kind.
3. The one pleasure of these white women, it seems, is tyrannizing over the woman who actually does work and love in their homes. They are utterly repulsed by physical contact with blacks, and their concern with hygiene (reflected in an intensifying effort to make sure the races use separate bathrooms) is really a desire to have no emotional connection with those over whom they rule without limits. Still, they turn their children over to “the help,” and let their hired women lavish loving affection on the their kids as if they were their own. What’s especially striking is the utter lack of gratitude of the white women for what they have, for all the help they have received.
4. The white, middle-class women’s (as one of the black women says) “godless” coldness was not peculiar to Mississippi. They remind us TV fans of Betty Draper on Mad Men, who also coldly dismissed the black woman she had hired to take care of her children over some imagined affront. But in New York, after all, there was no legal segregation, and African Americans were fully protected by the law. They were eligible for government benefits. So the godless coldness of early Sixties segregation made the lives of “the help” particularly precarious; they were almost completely subject to the whim of tyrants—tyrants who had no real class at all.
5. So the situation of “the help” in Mississippi was in some ways more unbearable than ever. Their material situation was not horrible. As long as they worked, they ate; they had their own very modest homes, and so forth. And it’s not like they were being worked to death as slaves sometimes were. What’s gotten worse is the whites’ indifference to their very being, their utter insensitivity to who they are particular beings.
6. The upside of middle-class life is that people work for themselves, the downside is that the relations among employer and employee becomes more all about the cash at expense of any sense of personal responsibility or affection. Life in middle-class Mississippi was all about the downside in the absence of the upside.There’s little evidence among the middle-class white women of the aristocratic virtue of generosity or magnanimity or the Christian virtue of charity, especially when it comes to “the help.”
7. We sometimes read the relations between the races were more more easy and familiar in the South than in the North, because the lives of blacks and whites were intertwined. Whatever partial truth there was to that observation, the middle-class whites of Jackson were working hard to make it complete untrue. They wanted to believe that they only owed the help cash, and very little of that, much less than they would be worth under any impartially individualistic or “capitalistic” system.
8. There was amazingly little freedom of speech in Misssippi at this time. We learn that speaking against segregation was actually a crime, and nobody (even the two admirable, privileged, smart young white people) was doing it. And the blacks, of course, had to be more cautious than ever, as the whites emotionally distanced themselves from any concern for and so any indulgence toward them. “No sassying” became the increasingly insistent motto of survival, because it was increasingly the case that one slip meant not just being fired, but being basically unemployable.
9. So the least we can say is that the federal government was way too slow in intervening in Mississippi, because things weren’t getting better “on their own.”