The Trouble with The Help: How Kathryn Stockett’s Antiracism Reproduces Jim Crow’s Races
Recently on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Sheryl Sandberg’s name was mentioned during a panel discussion on the issue of powerful women in the workplace. Sandberg was touted as a prime example of the sort of women who have penetrated the glass ceiling to occupy traditionally male positions of power and secure tremendous (in Sandberg’s case overwhelming) financial prosperity.
As Facebook’s multimillionaire COO, Sandberg was described in particularly glowing and laudatory terms by most everyone present as not only a consummate professional but also a dedicated mother of two. This last biographical reference was intended to highlight her ability to manage her dual roles as both a diligent professional and devoted mother without compromising either her maternal obligations or career goals and its enormous financial reward. Having just published a book titled Knowing Your Value, inspired by her understandable incredulity upon learning that her male co-host on Morning Joe earned a salary 14 times more than hers, Mika Brzezinski jumped upon the issue with a clamoring eagerness lest any one of the males gathered on set should find this an opportunity to malign Sandberg’s childrearing ability. Brzezinski asserted rather forcefully that children need never prove an obstacle for professional women intent on furthering their career and financial goals (and in the case of Sheryl Sandberg in particular, ostensibly furthering the feminist cause of women in positions of power) because Ms. Sandberg can always “hire help” with raising her kids.
Several points make this statement curiously suggestive. One might first be tempted to ask why Mika Brzezinski should immediately and in fact only mention hired help and not the possibility of Sheryl Sandberg’s lesser-salaried husband remaining at home to raise the children. Perhaps it was the predominance of men on set and their likely aversion to the suggestion of a domesticated man that stayed her tongue.
More curious however was the prevailing acceptance and implicit assent by everyone on set who both visibly and audibly agreed with Brzezinski. And this is curious because anyone watching that day or reading this now is readily aware that hiring domestic help in America most typically means hiring poor South American migrants who may or may not be in possession of the requisite, often difficult to attain legal documentation authorizing their ability to live and work in the country. This fact marks a crucial difference between said help and Sheryl Sandberg and her hypothetical desire to hire them. Because quite the opposite of Sheryl Sandberg’s employment, working as a private domestic caretaker will most certainly not include a living wage that covers medical, dental, vision, paid leave, and a pension plan, much less any legal recourse should your employer decide, for whatever reason, to terminate your employment.
But this isn’t what Mika Brzezinski or any of her immediate on set cohorts likely considered as they nodded their compulsory approval as Brzezinski declaimed the virtues of Sandberg’s maternal instincts. They were instead intent upon championing the fight for women in the workplace, their placement among the upper echelons of executive power and their right to earn hundreds of millions of dollars without becoming hampered by a 1950’s era set of expectations of female domesticity. And while it is good that Sandberg is not hampered by 1950’s era expectations, this doesn’t make it any more acceptable to applaud her putative exploitation of migrant workers in the course of expressing this era’s female empowerment. What masks this implicit exploitation of poor migrant workers, documented or not, by fabulously wealthy patrons is the conditioned acceptance that, so long as exploitation does not occur on the model of race, no such employer can necessarily be said to be prejudiced, insensitive, and most importantly, unjust.
Let me make clear that nothing said here is designed to impugn Sheryl Sandberg as such an employer. This article is neither an attack on her nor is this article a meditation on women in the workplace or immigration per se, and I have no idea nor do I particularly care whether Sheryl Sandberg even hires domestic help with the raising of her two children—her private family life is irrelevant to the larger issue at hand, since even as the COO of Facebook she yet doesn’t craft social policy, and she deserves much credit for her apparent brilliance and business acumen. Rather this introduction is designed to highlight how Mika Brzezinski’s comments and their uncontested acceptance by those seated around her on set (and ostensibly many viewers at home) represent a greater cultural acceptance precipitated by the role of race in configuring America’s social lens. Brzezinski didn’t say that Sheryl Sandberg can hire black people to help raise her kids, nor did she say Latino, Asian, Indian, Caucasian or Inuit help because she rightly didn’t see herself as referring to any particular racial or ethnic group. She was merely referring to the hirable help commensurate with privileged positions of power. And whereas in the U.S. this help may once have been almost exclusively black, today it is noticeably Latino, though for entirely different reasons.
The difference between the domestic help of the recent past and that of today is that today’s pool of domestic help is not conceived upon a model of race associated with the black help of Jim Crow. Today’s help is instead produced exclusively by both a system of class and, in the case of undocumented immigrants, a legal designation that prohibits class mobility by preventing legal representation and the requisite hiring standards required by law for U.S. citizens. In this way, then, do Latino immigrants ensure a well-populated pool of cheap labor from which documented U.S. citizens may hire. They have become the new exploitable ‘help’ who can fill the jobs once reserved for blacks under the practices of Jim Crow.
In Mika Brzezinski’s world it is okay to accrue the gobs of wealth associated with the top 1% of 1% of income earners to which Sheryl Sandberg is a prominent member and thereafter hire an indigent (and perhaps illegal) immigrant to help raise one’s children for whatever wage one wishes to pay (less those aforementioned benefits like health, dental, pension and retirement) so long as the difference between Sheryl Sandberg and her domestic labor is not predicated upon race or ethnicity. In other words, post-racial Age-of-Obama 2012 is most assuredly not Jim Crow 1962 because race does not constitute the division between gentry and help. Today we take so much care to ensure that racial, ethnic, and gender differences should and will not account for differences in economic and social access that this attention occupies nearly all of our energies and political bluster. And while it does, we ignore the very real institutional differences that matter and which continue to create an increasingly stratified and unequal society. Namely a divergent class structure that has come to be the mark of the American economy for the past thirty years.
This emphasis on ensuring that race, ethnicity and gender differences don’t constitute sites of meaningful difference with regard to access to power and wealth is due in part to the fact that Jim Crow’s effects are presumed to yet reverberate in today’s 2012 economy. And so in the midst of one of this country’s worst economic downturns, news programs late last year were filled with pundits commenting on recent census data that apparently illustrated the widening wealth gap between whites and blacks. This sort of commentary is designed to appall us into believing that 2012 racism is still as potent and restrictive as 1962 Jim Crow era racism, nevermind that all of us in the now famous 99%—white, black, Latino or otherwise—have watched the incomes of the richest 10% rise by 400% over the last 30 years, with the average income among the top 1% quadrupling to an average of $27 million per year per household, while the rest of America’s incomes have remained relatively unchanged, with the bottom 90% earning an average of $31,000 per year per household.
A reader like myself thus harbored some hope that a book like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009 and set in Jim Crow 1962, might illustrate just what a race-based inequality looks like. It might further illustrate how the Jim Crow legal system produced racial differences and its system of racial hierarchies. Such a text might demonstrate how this racial hierarchy likewise obfuscated class hierarchies prior to its abolishment following the passage of Civil Rights legislation represented in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. A book like The Help might then have considered how, following Jim Crow’s abolishment, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King then championed the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement designed to address wealth inequality that, because Jim Crow no longer produced or segregated races, could now be more easily seen as universally affecting both blacks and whites.
And yet the reader who approaches The Help with these expectations is sorely disappointed. Because while The Help first enlists a historical Jim Crow setting and introduces wealthy white landowners and poor black maids, it ultimately excises legal differences in favor of essentialized racial ones. And even as the text first requires Jim Crow to establish the relationships between its white and black characters, any recognition of that system later becomes explicitly jettisoned from the text as being unnecessary and unimportant. This is important because Stockett’s recognition of those legal parameters betrays an acute awareness of the laws’ importance and the way in which they constituted the boundaries between her characters. It is the way in which Stockett rejects their importance that should call our attention to the book’s most troubling and ultimately disappointing feature. Because while The Help is not only concerned with demonstrating how white and black women can share a unique bond of friendship across racial lines, it also never attempts to challenge the principles upon which those differences are based. Instead Skeeter, the white journalist, says of the difference between herself and the black maids she interviews, “we are just two people. Not that much separates us,” despite the fact that the entire legal apparatus of apartheid produces an inescapable separation between herself and them (Stockett 418).
To better understand how Skeeter’s defiance of Jim Crow conventions does not amount to a refutation of the basis of Jim Crow identities, consider the account of Skeeter’s relationship with Stuart Whitworth. The son of a Mississippi state senator with designs on running for a U.S. senate position, Stuart Whitworth meets Skeeter shortly after having broken up with his former girlfriend, Patricia. The circumstances surrounding their break up, which Stuart’s father describes as having cast Stuart into something of a Romeo-like depression, turns out to center not upon the fact that Patricia slept with another man, which Stuart can forgive, but that she slept with “Some Yankee from New York” whom he describes as “one of those leeches, hanging around the school, cornering the teachers to do something about the integration laws” (Stockett 272). Skeeter, aware that Patricia’s secret lover was “an activist … with the civil rights,” then asks Stuart if the man was “colored” thinking to herself that “even to me, that would be horrific, disastrous” (272). Putting aside why Patricia’s sleeping with a black man would be singularly “horrific, disastrous,” the hostility with which Stuart and Skeeter both regard Patricia’s infidelity with a “scum … Yankee from New York” reproduces something like Tennessee Williams’s or William Faulkner’s Northern interloper come to instigate unrest by imposing Northern values upon the South (272).
Northern principles of universal legal justice in these accounts always represent an adversary of the familial cultural bonds commensurate with Southern identity. And it is this sort of model of Southern identity to which Stockett refers when she writes in her afterword, “Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too” (450). Stockett here echoes Faulkner by contending that if the South wants to change, it will change not through legal intervention introduced by the North in the form of a Yankee activist but rather through a change of personal, private habitudes instigated by Southern “children.” No outsiders, by which we are to understand no one born outside of its borders, may question Mississippi’s behaviors or attempt to impose any changes in those behaviors and customs. Stockett stresses this point further when she makes sure that we understand that it is Stuart’s dedication to his father and to his Southern culture that has prevented him from forgiving Patricia, saying, “I could’ve gotten over it. I could’ve forgiven her … But I knew, if it ever got out who he was, that Senator Whitworth’s daughter-in-law got in bed with a Yankee goddamn activist, it would ruin him” (273). Stuart is caught up with preserving his father’s career and maintaining the untraversable distance between Southern “culture” and Northern activism. And because Stuart refuses her not because she has cheated on him but because she has cheated on him with a “Yankee goddamn activist,” the message for the reader is clear: cheating is bad but forgivable, being an imperialist Northerner intent on imposing Civil Rights on the South is not. [i]
Stuart’s betrayal also emphasizes a point made earlier in the book, though more briefly, when Skeeter reads from “Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South” and tells herself “I’m not writing a book about Southern legislation” (Stockett 173). Moments later she realizes that “there’s no difference between these government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage,” and like Stuart’s betrayal, this passage demonstrates Stockett’s project of subsuming social concerns beneath familial ones, or of subsuming stateways beneath folkways (174). For only by conceiving of private folkways as primary to universal stateways can the idea that Hilly’s construction of a bathroom in the garage of her home for the exclusive use of her black help be considered first equivalent to and thereafter superior to legal acts by the State. And of course this belief completely ignores the fact that Hilly’s actions are only permissible because the laws sanction them. But because Northern interventionalists concerned with coercing desired behaviors from citizens by pressing legislators to “do something about the integration laws” are regarded as “scum” and unquestionably more vile even than the guy who sleeps with your fiancé, Stockett believes that only by somehow changing people’s attitudes, and not the laws that restrict how those attitudes may be expressed, might some form of racial justice be achieved (272).
Stockett’s project is thus not to erase the architecture of Jim Crow’s putative inherent differences, but to have “women realize” that they are “just two people. Not much separates us” (418). The goal here is that women will discover a shared identity that transcends essentialized racial differences, regardless of the fact that the apparatus of Jim Crow remains in place to make those differences unavoidable. Skeeter after all wants to write a book that shows “the point of view of the help,” since “no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about” dedicating her life to a white family (106). In this way Stockett wants her readers to understand the help’s point of view in order to erase the distinction between a reader’s perception of inferiority and superiority, and not surprisingly for an author who writes in her afterword that Mississippians are “full of pride and shame, but mostly pride,” it turns out that a good number of the help, like Eula, are actually fond of their employment and their employers (449). Rude and disrespectful employers who perceive inherent inferiority in their black domestic help simply need an attitude adjustment that Skeeter hopes might be wrought by reading her book, but because Skeeter is “not writing a book about Southern legislation,” she doesn’t necessarily care if the law declares them inferior and keeps them in positions of servitude (173).
Stockett’s representation of the inner complexity of Jim Crow and the varying attitudes toward racial others thus begins to look rather apologetic, if not altogether nostalgic. Her characterization of caring and paternalistic whites may provide a foil for Ms. Hilly’s vitriolic racism, but it also has the effect of saying, ‘see, not all whites treated blacks like second-class citizens, and some even went so far as to buy them houses and take them on vacations,’ as in the case of Eula, who speaks in glowing terms of her employers’ doting attention to her needs. “When I asked for a raise they gave it to me. When I needed a house, they bought me one … They been so good to me” (Stockett 255). Skeeter’s father says of his help, “I’ve got twenty-five Negroes working my fields and if anyone so much as laid a hand on them, or any of their families,” and becomes so overwhelmed with emotion that he cannot find the words to describe how he would punish the hypothetical miscreants who would dare harm his ‘Negro field hands’ or their family (268).
Stockett’s project here is to make the domestic help less the victims of apartheid than complicit additions to their employers’ families. This sentiment pervades Skeeter’s reminiscences of Constantine, her family’s domestic labor when she was younger, and the pain that attended their final separation. This attempt to redescribe a social relationship predicated upon laws (Eula and Constantine are domestic help not out of obligation, but a necessity circumscribed by Jim Crow laws) into a private one of familial relationships (in which Eula and Constantine are imagined to be domestic help out of love) is precisely what Stockett describes in her afterword, saying that “there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray” (451).
The problem with this sort of redescription of socially governed relationships as private ones echoes the account which opens this essay. Stockett’s solution—that of a mutually respectful and compassionate relationship between domestic labor and employer—doesn’t produce a necessarily more just society. And so if Stockett’s goal is for white women under Jim Crow to see themselves as ‘not so different’ from black women on a scale of common humanity, this doesn’t exactly require either the white or the black woman to see herself as ‘not so different’ from the other on the model of social differences—in fact, Jim Crow altogether obviates the very possibility of their being ‘not so different’ from each other. A white woman’s heart, even Ms. Hilly’s, may be swayed into seeing that not much inherently separates her from a black woman’s, but Jim Crow produces and sees clearly the difference between the white and black woman in every instance. Jim Crow sees nothing but that difference. The law is therefore as indifferent to Skeeter’s agenda as Skeeter is to the law. If Skeeter were to sway the heart of every woman in Mississippi with her book, the law would yet dictate that there are differences between the white and black woman. Furthermore if ‘taking care’ of your black help as though they were family equals some sort of success, that in no way precludes you from willingly embracing a society built upon the hierarchical distinction between whites and blacks. All that has changed is your particular caretaking and treatment of that domestic labor and not the structure by which that labor is produced.
And so while Skeeter may believe herself to be somehow “free, like Minny” as she leaves Mississippi for a profitable job with a New York publisher, the fact that Minny is decidedly not so free as Skeeter is a curious irony upon which Stockett chooses to end her text. Only insofar as Stockett is concerned with a mental liberation from racism can this make any sense, because Jim Crow doesn’t care what you may think, it only cares about what you are. This is why it does make some sense for Stockett to ignore the subject of repealing Jim Crow laws in The Help. Insofar as laws are considered secondary manifestations of attitudes toward racial difference and not the basis for socially constructed racial differences, she may as well leave them unaddressed.
Thus for Stockett and ostensibly a majority of her American reading audience, these racial differences are ‘meaningless’ only insofar as what 1962 society got wrong was how they matter, not that they matter. Changing a system predicated on essentialized racial differences is unimportant for Stockett because for her, essentialized racial differences aren’t wrong: people’s misunderstanding of how essentialized racial differences matter is wrong, and this is why the subsequent solution is to find a way to communicate across those differences and convince people that those differences don’t matter.
This is why Minny and Aibileen can have a conversation in which Jim Crow is reduced to belief and non-belief in “the lines,” wherein Aibileen claims that she “used to believe in em. I don’t anymore. They in our heads” (Stockett 312). And while it’s true that Minny says “I know <the lines> there cause you get punished for crossing em,” it is Minny’s destiny in The Help to be the pessimist whose heart and mind must be swayed by the resilience of Aibileen and Skeeter. Minny must be swayed into believing that “Some folks just made those <lines > up, long time ago” (312). The problem for Stockett, however, is that those made-up lines didn’t just construct a system of racial hierarchies, they produced racial identity altogether.
Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark case that ushered in federally sanctioned Jim Crow laws, came to define those racial “lines” by means of the “one drop rule” in which one drop of black blood in one’s ancestry determined one’s blackness. Blood, or today genetic, bases for inherent racial differences are recognized as archaic and fallacious beliefs with no scientific basis. And this is why Aibileen’s remarks about lines that “some folks just made up, long time ago” is accurate—Jim Crow was nothing more than a social construct devised by rankled Southerners following their defeat in the Civil War and in response to Reconstruction (Stockett 312). But what Aibileen fails to understand, because Stockett herself fails to understand it, is that those ‘lines’ aren’t just lines between whites and blacks, but the lines that produce whites and blacks. So while it’s true that lines that unfairly catalogue whites and blacks into a hierarchical system in which one race is superior to another are mistaken, because those same lines also constitute the imaginary difference between ‘white’ and ‘black’ races, the ‘white’ and ‘black’ spaces that those same lines produce must also be mistakes. And if the lines that not only divide but also produce races are wrong, it leaves Stockett’s goal of having the women of her novel understand that “not much separates” them an empty cipher. Either Jim Crow separates ‘white’ women from ‘black’ women, in which case there is an undeniable legal structure that separates them, or there isn’t Jim Crow, in which case what separates a white woman from a black one doesn’t require a tutorial, much less a 450 page text, to prove it, since the removal of Jim Crow removes the racialized difference altogether.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Stockett is not concerned with removing race. Her text is predicated upon the difference between Skeeter and the black help, which in 1962 Mississippi is a racial one, and she writes her text in such a way as to make us understand that the lines between races, and not the racial construct itself, are wrong. This is why Aibileen will describe these differences as “just positions, like on a checkerboard,” in which the hierarchy is only a fabricated social one and the surface upon which the playing field is constructed, devoid of the signifying lines and corresponding partitions, inherently equal (Stockett 312). On the one hand this metaphor serves Stockett’s purpose well: the checkerboard itself really does constitute a level playing field upon which the partitions (such as Jim Crow’s racial partitions) are only added later. This is what it means to qualify the object, in this case the physical board itself, in such a way that its significance is, accurately, absent. The board devoid of signifying lines that are added later is just a piece of wood in the same way that the field for a game of soccer before the administration of boundaries and goals is just a natural pasture. In the same way too are bodies, as natural objects themselves, devoid of significance or signifying features outside of those that are later added by social codes.
Therefore Stockett is right in this sense: the difference between black and white bodies are, at their most basic, the differences between spaces on a checkerboard before their significance is later added by apartheid’s rules. But her accuracy on this point becomes a failure on another, for just as she understands apartheid systems to be social constructions, she yet believes that a refutation of that construct consists in a refusal of belief even while those rules still govern the field. This is why Aibileen will say of those lines that she “used to believe in em” and “don’t anymore” (Stockett 312). And in The Help this becomes a viable solution even when you are still subject to what Minny rightly describes as “get<ing> punished for crossing” those lines because the field is still marked by those lines and the significance they carry (312). In other words, the game is still in play. The rules of apartheid still stand, and your actions are limited by those lines and those rules and the blow of the referee’s whistle.
This is precisely where Stockett’s metaphor of positions on a checkerboard works against her message. In the progress of the game, it is those ‘lines’ and the rules they signify which make all of the difference. One doesn’t get to say, in the course of the game, that the rules have been “made up” or exist simply inside of one’s head—that fact is understood at the outset, and the players either agree to abide by them or are forced to abide by them through the penalties imposed by the referee. That is, of course, unless those rules are changed. In such a case the lines and the signifiers may change, even though the physical object of the board or the field upon which the game is played does not. And changing the rules of the field in such a way as to eliminate the lines that distinguish between “black” and “white” players, rules that are not simply a matter of preference or belief but a social reality in which those differences exist and determine your movements on the field, like or believe in them or not, would require undoing apartheid’s lines. And of course, eliminating that distinction would also eliminate “white” and “black” players, since without Jim Crow apartheid “black” and “white” (or, perhaps more aptly, “negro” and “white”) no longer exist.
Only by writing under the presumption of the inherentness of race is Jim Crow no longer necessary, since race removed from socially constructed models of race like Jim Crow will always mean invoking an essentialized, bodily mark of difference. Operating upon the presumption of essentialized racial differences, Stockett thus understandably turns instead to a concern with private attitudes and sentiments toward those essentialized differences. But if the perceived differences that 1962 got wrong were abolished in 1964 and 1965 under the pretext that the racialized differences upon which Jim Crow was based were a mistake, it shouldn’t constitute any less of a mistake to presume that those differences still exist today. And it is this belief in the inherent existence of races that constitutes the conceit upon which Stockett has based her text, with the further goal of demonstrating to contemporary audiences that, despite those racial differences, people are the same and “not that much separates us” (418).
In this sense Stockett is right: nothing inherently separates any one black person from any one white person. But in this same sense Stockett is also entirely wrong: differences between a white person and a black person in the 1962 setting of her book are the inescapable product of Jim Crow apartheid that constitutes the basis of their separation and the imagined superiority of one over the other. The problem with The Help, then, is that there is an undeniable and ever-present gulf between whites and blacks in every moment of its 1962 Mississippi setting that is produced entirely by Jim Crow, even though Stockett wants us to believe that Jim Crow isn’t what matters and isn’t what ultimately separates them. And because that Jim Crow gulf is entirely contingent upon Jim Crow’s division of races, one can only believe that Jim Crow is irrelevant if one also believes that Jim Crow was somehow never really the issue. Instead, people’s attitudes toward racialized others, independent of Jim Crow, must then be the issue. The conundrum, then, is that Stockett first enlists Jim Crow as the basis for her text and then proceeds as though it were irrelevant, thereby leaving Jim Crow’s races intact at the end of her book and ostensibly long into The Help’s 2009 publication.
And thus the trouble with The Help becomes the same trouble that attends contemporary discussions of inequality. So long as ‘the help’ is strictly a product of class hierarchies (the help is the help because they’re poor, and Sheryl Sandberg or Skeeter or Miss Hilly is the employer because she makes much, much more) and not because of racism, then even today’s neoliberal seems able to rest easy, even in light of a vastly larger statistical inequality than that experienced by Americans in 1962. What contemporary antiracism wants, and what The Help wants, is to first illuminate inherent racial differences and thereafter eliminate racism. And curiously for The Help, it enlists Jim Crow apartheid and the races that it created but thereafter attempts to reproduce race independent of that system.
And unfortunately for those subjugated by a system of cheap labor today, eliminating racism or simply believing oneself somehow outside of that class system doesn’t really equal overcoming it. Similarly, if you were black under Jim Crow, believing yourself something other than your colored status wouldn’t equal escaping Jim Crow, as the end of The Help so aptly demonstrates. At the book’s conclusion, Jim Crow is intact, Skeeter goes off to a lucrative job, and her black interviewees remain poor domestic labor though somehow happy to have had their stories out even if it does nothing to change their status.
But just as yesterday’s American help was comprised of a pool of poor blacks bound by an oppressive and racist apartheid system, today’s American help is composed primarily of a pool of poor immigrant labor, and because that pool is not produced by a racist apartheid system, it is somehow deemed acceptable. At least for the Left, the concern is that this labor not be subject to racist slander and racist attitudes. Thus the solution is respect for immigrants’ heritage and family values. For the Right, the concern may be better put as whether that immigrant labor exists within the bounds of the law and whether that same labor properly admires and abides by ‘American’ values over those of their own particular heritage. The problem is that both the positions of the Left and the Right do little to achieve better legal representation and social access for said immigrant labor, except insofar as the Left may argue for granting citizenship rights to undocumented workers without ever really accomplishing it.
Perhaps this is why The Help has sold 5 million copies and became a top contender for best picture at the Oscars. The Help reminds us that race and racism and domestic labor in 1962 is no different from race and racism and domestic labor in 2009 and 2012, and it comforts its readers and viewers with the idea that justice can be attained through a mutual appreciation and understanding not only that one race is no different or superior to that of another’s but also that one’s wealth is no different or superior to that of another’s poverty.
Thus so long as the disparity between Sheryl Sandberg’s hundreds of millions of dollars and her putatively low-paid, uninsured help is not occasioned by a racist society, that society is presumably just. And what The Help further teaches us is that so long as the mistress and her help understand one another and understand that “not that much separates” them, any laws that might ensure that there is no legal basis for racial separation can just as well exist, or not—“there’s no difference between these government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage, except ten minutes’ worth of signatures in the state capital … Jim Crow or Hilly’s bathroom plan—what’s the difference?” (Stockett 174). For The Help, Jim Crow can remain, as it does at the end of the book, or it can be abolished, as it historically was, because one or the other makes no difference. The Help imagines that differences are inherent racial ones, not socially constructed ones, and that what matters is understanding that those differences don’t matter, even when social differences like class do.
For both Stockett and Mika Brzezinski this is the final trouble with the help: that the help fails to appreciate when others appreciate that there is no difference between it and Miss Hilly and Sheryl Sandberg. Of course, that failure on the help’s part becomes a different sort of success, since it highlights our mistake—the mistake of ignoring that social differences do exist, like or believe in them or not. And if one doesn’t like them, the solution isn’t to imagine that social differences are private ones best solved by changing private sentiments but instead are solved by changing the social system that produces the unjust differences. And of course, the best example of changing an inherently unjust legal system is the abolishment of Jim Crow, proving The Help unequivocally mistaken. And while this abolishment subsequently resulted in a more just society in the sense that it eliminated the mistake of race and racial hierarchies, it doesn’t also mean that a world in which Sheryl Sandbergs properly respect and appreciate the poverty of their help is a more just and equal society, either.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.
[i] Stuart is so distraught over his former fiancée’s dalliance with a goddamn Yankee (one can only imagine how upset he might have been had the man been black and a goddamn Yankee, as Skeeter had feared) that Stockett conveniently dismisses Stuart from the remainder of the text after this exchange. This is because Stuart’s role has served its purpose. Stuart’s story was designed only to allow Stockett to jettison Civil Rights and the discussion of stateways represented by the legal activism of his fiancé’s lover in favor of folkways represented in the idea of Southern culture and tradition and symbolized in Stockett’s “Mississippi mother,” and so it is hardly necessary to keep Stuart’s plaintive character in the story. In this way Stockett performs an interesting rhetorical flourish by representing the wholesale mistrust of Northern Civil Rights activism and highlighting how Skeeter’s agenda is entirely different from it.