Am I A Bad Human For Not Liking “The Help?”

Women like me will see “The Help” and think we’re like Skeeter because we have some black Facebook friends.

~ from Dyane Jean Francois’ review of The Help

The kind of book where helicopters never blow up

Before I start this post, I suppose I should say that I have actually read The Help. And also that I’m a blue-collar Caucasian who’s spent most of my life in blue-collar, majority Caucasian areas. Who didn’t like the novel The Help and saw no burning desire to see the film version. Does this make me some hateful, mean-spirited bigot who wants to return to a segregated 1950s America? Hell, no, it doesn’t. Let me explain first.
I have a few beefs with Kathryn Stockett’s runaway bestseller. No, I’m not jealous of her success with a debut novel, though her story is one any writer might hope to emulate. My main problem has nothing whatsoever to do with race, though race is the main theme at work. It’s more about the women of The Help. They are all stock characters: the noble, long-suffering African American maid, the sassy, younger African American woman, the gawky Caucasian girl who’s a little different (we know this because she has-gasp!-frizzy hair and is tall), the Mean Girl at the head of the cheerleading squad/Junior League. Sound familiar yet? Throw in the heroine’s chronically ill, nagging mother and you’ve got your superfecta.
As for the race part of things, I could hardly be called racist. I’ve read too much about the horrors of the Jim Crow years and their aftermath for that. The Help just feels like an afterthought next to, say, To Kill a Mockingbird or Warriors Don’t Cry or Malcolm X. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I picked up the novel upon its rise to the bestseller list. Being a librarian, I feel it my duty to read at least some of what’s popular out there to better serve my patrons. By about page 50, I knew exactly where The Help was going and what choices the characters would make. It’s one thing to use familiar tropes and quite another to be outright hackneyed. I was also shocked at how much The Help borrows from an excellent 1990 film, The Long Walk Home. (If you get a chance, watch it; you’ll be glad you did. Oh, and Dwight Schultz is in it too. Had to throw that in there.)
Then there’s the most important beef, the Big Bull of beefs. Reading The Help, I couldn’t truly connect with any of the characters. Yes, I could see a little of myself in the heroine, Skeeter, who doesn’t fit in with her country-club lifestyle and wants something more out of life. Or with Minny, the Sassy Gal who’s been fired too many times for mouthing off to her white employers. Hell, even Skeeter’s female literary agent in New York who tells her to Stop Whining and Be Productive. But I couldn’t really connect the way I did with some of my favorite literary protagonists: Randle P. McMurphy, Atticus Finch, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter. In the end Stockett didn’t make me care enough about what happened to her novel’s characters. When I’m reading, this is Cardinal Sin No. 1. I must become invested in at least one person in the story. I have to root for (or against) this person enough to make me keep turning pages. That never happened with The Help. Like so many assigned readings over the years, I finished it because I had to, not because I really wanted to.

"Ladies, we need to inject some action into this movie."

The Help is the kind of book (and film) that Francois’s quote suggests. In the end it’s not going to heal any racial wounds, build any interracial bridges. inspire some spontaneous singing of “Kum-Ba-Yah.”It’s the kind of story written by a middle-class Caucasian woman that middle-class Caucasian women read to feel a little more connected to the plight of poor African Americans. It’s the literary equivalent of dropping a few dollars in a Salvation Army kettle or sending cards to starving kids in Africa. Unfortunately the literary scene is full of these magical white guilt exonerators. With respect to the whole white-black conflict, my story is an odd one. I come from stock who didn’t arrive to this country until the early 20th century and certainly never owned slaves. Until high school I lived in largely Caucasian areas and attended homogenously white schools. However, I was raised by my parents to respect everyone regardless of race, religion or creed, and that’s still my maxim today. I fully believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s idea that we should judge not on the basis of skin color, but on the content of one’s character.
If only healing 300 years of racial wounds were as simple as reciting bumper-sticker quotes…or reading The Help. I stand by my dislike of the novel for those reasons described above, not for its necessary lack of literary merit or any antipathy towards its author. If you are a Caucasian with a true guilty conscience, why not tutor an African American student in need? It will do more good than reading a mere book ever could. And, if you want to read some really good books about the civil rights movement and African American history/apartheid in general, may I humbly recommend the following:
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (the famous South African novel, perhaps the best ever written about the injustices of apartheid.)
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (More written for younger readers, this is a terrific story about an average family inadvertently on the crossroads of history.)
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (Another YA-centric tale of a young contemporary of Rosa Parks whom history has largely forgotten.)
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines (One of those books you may have had to read for school but is well worth re-visiting.)
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson (It’s a picture book, and tells the fascinating story of the athletes of the Negro Leagues, including Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson.)
Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Beals (A story almost too painful to read; Beals was one of the “Little Rock 9” who integrated Little Rock Central in the 1950s.)
Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabene (This superb autobiography is a painful reminder that government-sponsored apartheid existed as late as the 1980s.)
Or if you’re feeling adventurous, simply head to your local secondhand bookstore and pick up The Autobiography of Malcolm X, To Kill a Mockingbird, Black Boy, or Black Like Me. You’ll leave feeling more satisfied, and probably for a little less money, than spending 2o bucks on The Help.

Now back to our regular programming at P&Q, fool!

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on January 7, 2012.

8 Responses to “Am I A Bad Human For Not Liking “The Help?””

  1. “It’s the kind of story written by a middle-class Caucasian woman that middle-class Caucasian women read to feel a little more connected to the plight of African Americans. It’s the literary equivalent of dropping a few dollars in a Salvation Army kettle or sending cards to starving kids in Africa.” This made me laugh out loud, and though I disagree with you, because I absolutely loved this book, I agree with that point. A lot of people read books like The Help to make them feel more connected and to make themselves look more understanding to cultures they otherwise know nothing about. That being said, when I picked up this book off the shelf, I was interested in it merely as literary junkfood and nothing more.

  2. I can agree with you there. In 100 years I can guarantee students will still be reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” but “The Help” will likely be forgotten.

  3. I, too, have read “The Help,” and I finished it just to say I had done so. You’re right when you say there’s no one to root for or against, nothing earth shattering or thought provoking. The most interesting character was the white trash girl who can’t cook, but she didn’t do near enough with her character or give her enough mettle to make her worth anyone’s time.

    “The Long Walk Home” is an excellent film, one with much more depth because there’s no clear cut lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Many of the women in that film were in the same boat vs. the men, and that made for a much more interesting dichotomy.

    Also, I love TKAM as much as you do….to the point I have considered naming my first son Atticus. And if anyone is interested in reading another fantastic Southern/African American book, I highly recommend “Cane” by Jean Toomer. I’ve read it three or four times, and it never disappoints.

    • Atticus would be a terrific choice as a boy’s name. I’m not sure about “Scout” so much, but Bruce Willis liked it, apparently. I have never read “Cane” but it is going on my reading list now. I always love a good recommendation. 🙂

  4. I don’t think not liking something or disagreeing with someone else’s point of view makes you a bad person. It isn’t anything where we are all throwing rocks at each other’s head because we don’t agree.

    Have you seen the trailer for Red Tails?

    • Yes I have. It looks very good, especially for a January release. As for the whole liking/not liking thing, you’re right. Most of the wars in history were over that sort of nonsense (just pick up Dr. Seuss’ “The Butter Battle Book” as a funny example.)

      • Or “How to Lose a Battle” by Bill Fawcett. Some really good examples in that book.

  5. I actually see ‘the help’ from a different perspective(I speak of the movie now, seeing as I did not read the book). One thing stood out for me and made me feel deeply. Doesn’t Celia Foote’s character somewhat add the point of segregation within races and not just between them? I found that as kind of a thoughtful addition that people before and now tend to try and hurt and destroy others that may not only physically differ from them but may not share the same ideals or behavioral patterns and things like that. And trust me, you are not a bad human for not wanting to see the movie-who can know what we would or would not feel connected to? 🙂

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