The Misrepresentations Of Class And Race In The Help

Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help in 2009 and received great reviews. The New York Times bestsellers remained unaffected for a year. The Help had sold 3,000,000 copies by the time the 2011 movie adaptation was released. The book had been published worldwide and translated into at least three languages (S. Jones 8. Stockett was a popular author, but scholars and historians have raised concerns about stereotypes and accuracy in Stockett’s characters. Stockett’s African American characters speak in a broken and marked version of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). However, all of Stockett’s characters are white, even those from the working class. This despite the fact that many of them would have Southern vernacular marks. Stockett says the novel perpetuates racial stereotypes. However, the “we’re all one” theme and the fact that Stockett’s white protagonist is successful in the end suggest that her popular acclaim was not due to a desire to heal racial wounds but to play into white fantasy. The film and Stockett’s novel, The Help, was a huge success, even though it used AAVE and perpetuated African American stereotypes.

The Help gained priority on the bookseller’s lists in 2009 and its movie release in 2011 put it back at the top. It was the New York Times bestseller for six consecutive weeks. Its success is evident both before and after the movie’s release. The book was ranked third on Publisher’s Weekly’s 2009 list of best-selling hardcover titles. It was also the first Amazon Kindle title ever to sell one million eBooks. It received a lot of promotion, including links to cooking and fashion guides for southerners, as well as style and fashion guides for women. There were also cross-branding efforts. Due to the popularity of the book and its extensive marketing, The Help movie was a huge success. According to Wilson (2012), the film earned approximately $170 million in domestic sales and $210 million globally. Although the movie was released in 2011, it did not receive a wide audience. Many viewers were concerned about the exaggerated African American lingo, the prevalent white savior trope, and the overt stereotypes of domestic workers. Both the novel and movie raise these concerns. Many viewers raised concerns about Kathryn Stockett’s novel, including the exaggerated African American vernacular and overt domestic worker stereotypes. Ida E. Jones was the National Director of Association of Black Women Historians. Her essay entitled “An Offene Statement to the Fans of The Help” describes her personal problems with race. “The Help distorts/ignores and trivializes black domestic workers’ experiences. We are particularly concerned at the representations and lack of attention given civil rights activism and sexual harassment. She says that the film depicts the Civil Rights Movement using rose-tinted glasses. It ignores the many adversaries such as sexual assault and inadequate pay that the women had. Skeeter, the white, preppy and upper-middle-class Southern woman who is the protagonist of the film, invalidates a violent, hard-fought movement. Jones contends that it mutes violence by suggesting, instead of racism being an institutional cultural psyche and a few troubled individuals, that racism is not. “Portraying dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi through a group attractive, well dressed women of society, while disregarding the reign terror perpetrated and the White Citizens Council makes racial inequality a matter of individual acts of cruelty,” (I. Jones 2014. Jones also argues Stockett has used Civil Rights Movement in plot development without giving it respect: “In The End, The Help’s story is not about the millions hardworking and dignified African women who lived in white homes to provide for their families and communities. It is instead the story of a white protagonist as she comes to terms with her own life, using myths about black women to help her understand herself.” (I. Jones 2014. Jones is not alone in raising concerns about The Help’s handling on race. But, The Help is still considered an essential piece of literature in many wine and cheese book clubs.

The popularity of The Help both as film and movie shows that many Americans do not know the truth about the story. Constance Ruzich’s essay entitled “Ain’t Anything Like the Real Things: Dialect Race and Identity In Stockett’s book The Help” argues that the African American population is able see the misused of dialect as shown on the screen and on paper. Stockett’s depiction of the maids’ language by Stockett isn’t true, so it’s perceived as insulting and demeaning and racist. Blake and Ruzich argue that the actual marks of African American domestic employees are not the problem. However, they do suggest that viewers and readers must be aware of the process called “enregistrment” when reading the novel. Barbara Johnstone who is an AAVE student in Pittsburgh describes the phenomenon as “if hearing a specific word or structure or a way of pronounced a word is connected to a distinct style of dress, grooming, or social alignments or any particular activity that could invoke and/or create the social identity” (Johnstone 2011. Asif Agha is able to talk with Ruzich and Blake about his work with Enregistrment. It refers to “the process by which an assortment of linguistic forms and features becomes linked with social identity and its accompanying ideology and cultural value.” (Johnstone, 2011). Ruzich, Blake and Johnstone argue that Stockett is trying to portray a black, poor, and educated social identity to his readers using this definition.

James Baldwin, in his essay “If Black English wasn’t a language, then tell me, what is?”, argues the institution of certain dialects because they belonged at the time that the language was born. This makes it difficult to distinguish between “correct” and incorrect speech patterns. He says that the arguments around African American dialects have their roots in American history. They also seem to have nothing to do what the argument is asking. This argument is not about language, but rather the role of language. Language, undisputedly, reveals who the speaker is” (Baldwin, 2001). Stockett uses language to describe characters, particularly African American English. However, the institution of correct English was classist. Stockett makes clear his markings in the dialects of African American characters. However, many white characters, including those of the working-class, retain a almost perfect speech pattern. Both the novel and movie suggest that certain dialects are linked with class and/or race intrinsically. Accordingly, the “marked” vernacular used by domestic workers should not be considered as one used by the working-class, but the more “correct” South American English used for white characters should (Ruzich& Blake 2015). Blake and Ruzich argue The Help contributes to an existing cultural enregistrement that links AAVE and the poor, uninformed, and lower classes.

The problem of enregistrment in The Help is made more difficult when one considers the language used by the white characters. Blake and Ruzich supported this criticism of the novel because they observed that Stockett’s dialogue was markedly less for dialect than it was when Stockett spoke. According to Ruzich & Blake (2015), dialect markers only occur in Stockett’s language. They are much more common than in Stockett’s black characters’ language. This contrasts with historical facts that both African American and White characters spoke an accented Southern American English (SAE).

This skewed dialect is a sign that Stockett, a middle class South African woman, created her own prejudices and translated them into her writing (Ruzich & Blake 2015. Because Stockett’s stereotypes are part a wider, more accepted discourse, this problem is magnified by the novel’s popularity among white readers. Stockett’s linguistic stigmatizations of black characters must be seen as more than just a reflection on one author’s prejudices. It should also be seen as a cultural indicator of the racial/class anxieties that are deeply woven in the sociocultural fabric American society, which embraces and popularizes these linguistic choices.” (Ruzich and Blake, 2015). Stockett’s handling the dialect of white working-class is a problem. Celia Foote is a Sugar Ditch woman who marries and learns basic cooking and housekeeping skills from Minnie, an African American domestic worker. The novel’s accuracy is especially interesting to historians, linguists, and historians because although she is of lower class, her character does not include as many vernacular markings. Kathryn Stockett spoke about the creation of Celia Foote’s hybrid English, despite the fact that Celia Foote’s history would have been the same as the language used by domestic workers. “It was great fun writing Miss Celia. I wanted to create an unprejudiced character. But what about dialogue? Hers was difficult to capture. It takes a lot of effort to really get into the redneck accents. Calkin, 2009). Blake and Ruzich wrote that this particular quote was particularly troubling because it showed how little Stockett paid to accented SAE and AAVE markings, which would have been used by all characters historically speaking. Stockett’s claim she portrays Celia as having a “deeply, thick redneck accent”, is difficult to reconcile. They argue that Stockett also claimed that Celia had a “deeply, thick, and redneck” accent. This kind of enregistrment is problematic when it is perpetrated in popular culture. It becomes more concerning when films and books that make misrepresentations about race are the most popular pieces of literature around the time. The movie’s dialogue of African American domestic workers is just one example of misrepresentation. It is possible to see that Stockett’s broken AAVE version and the misrepresentations in the plot and characters can be misrepresented as well as the film and novel being misrepresentative.

Allison Graham argues in “We ain’t doing civil rights’: The life and times of a genre, as told in The Help” that one of the many ways race is misrepresented is the use of the Civil Rights Movement for idle discussion. While the story is about a privileged white woman and the Civil Rights Movement literature, the movement is used as background noise. She claims that even though the movie’s conclusion is positive, it only offers a “happy ending”, Skeeter and the domestic workers. The film shows that Abilene (and Minny) will not feel any further backlash because of ‘doin’ Civil Rights. This is the only hope for African American domestic worker. The novel and the film have a central character that is white, allowing the viewers to identify with him while feeling they are fully understanding the Civil Rights Movement. Tikenya Foster, a scholar, has raised concerns about The Help’s misrepresentations. (Foster Singletary (2012). Graham and Foster-Singletary represent two of many voices that criticize Stockett’s handling of racial and civil rights issues in The Help.

Many literary critics and scholars as well casual book bloggers seem to have noticed the flaws in the narrative’s portrayal of race. April Scissors outlines some of the problems she discovered in “The Help. A Critical Review.” The film and novel both have many scenes that follow a stereotype, she argues. This is especially true when middle-aged African American females expect these qualities (Scissors 2013). “It’s important to mention that Abilene was a black woman and could not tell other black women’s stories and have The Help get as many people as The Help. The Help might have been renamed “African American fiction” or “Black film,” because Aibileen was able to control her own fate. It is evident that The Help’s viewers and readers, particularly those from Southern Africa, are not impressed by its inaccurate portrayal of Jackson, Mississippi. Yet, it remains popular among them. This is what it says about the audience that will consume entertainment that has been widely discredited.

Some literary historians believe that the novel’s success is at least partly due to its tendency towards emotional responses rather than historical truth. Stockett wouldn’t have been able to close the novel by showing the extent of violence and struggles in Civil Rights Movement as well the lives and daily activities of domestic workers in 1960s. Hilly Holbrook, instead, chooses to rewrite all the racial injustices that African American domestic workers have suffered into one, tiny, and hateable character. Her defeat at the end is interpreted as a sign that all “racists will soon be defeated.” The movie’s main message is that domestic workers were subject to racial discrimination in the 1960s. This allows the audience to ignore this issue. Henneberger wrote in her review of the novel, “The book’s real attraction, it seems, is in its invitation for people to enter a warm bath in moral superiority to the racist ninnies who worry about what diseases they might get if the mothers who cook and care for their children also were to tinkle with their toilets.” (Henneberger (2011) According to Henneberger, the “racist archetype” is just a mean-spirited, poorly educated woman. The audience can ease the burden of these racial issues by placing them squarely on Hilly’s shoulders. This is why I believe that The Help’s popularity stems from the way it misrepresents race relations in 1960s America. It allows white guilt to temporarily disappear. In reducing racial injustices into a single antagonist, audiences trade historical truths for a short-term pleasure in a fictional story.

The film and novel have enjoyed great success. However, I hesitate to say that a book buyer is the same as a strong supporter. Although I would love for the book to be popular because of the negative conversations about race, I believe that this would be too optimistic and that its popularity is due to its use of white fantasy stereotypes. Blake and Ruzich agree with Blake, saying that Stockett’s novel’s success in the marketplace can be explained through its ability to address the emotional as well as political needs of her readers. According to them, these “emotional & political needs” include the need to relieve white guilt and to feel connected with a white protagonist who wins in the end. “It can be argued that the main concern of this book isn’t social justice and black people. It is instead about white people trying figure out the roles they will get in a social space in which a Black man is President of The United States. A black man from North America who doesn’t speak like Uncle Remus.” Ruzich & Blake 2015. This is particularly problematic given that this novel is the only one that portrays Southern life during Civil Rights Movement. While The Help is not a complete history source, many movie-goers consider it the best source of information about the Civil Rights Movement. Ann Hornaday reviews the novel and agrees that it might not be well-received despite historical inaccuracies. She lets the reader experience the book on their own, but warns that the novel does not address the problem of race. “Surely perspective and taste will dictate whether viewers will view “The Help” as a celebratory celebration of interracial transcendence and healing, or a patronizing portrait which trivializes such alliances by reducing the drama to melodrama. My paper claims that The Help’s representation of African Americans in the text was popularized by white fantasy. But I completely understand and recognize the importance of reading texts with problems. It reveals the inner workings of both the author and the reader. The Help was published in a time when white guilt was elevated by the slow recognition and treatment of police brutality. The novel was therefore a suitable remedy. Popularity of the novel is likely due to its ability to simplify racial injustices into one antagonist, the way it used white fantasy stereotypes to promote the story, and the fact that it was written in a social climate where these issues were not being acknowledged. The movie made these themes more accessible. It opened a debate that the country was anxious about regarding historical racial tensions. The Help does not acknowledge the fact racial issues have been an important part of American History. The Help also fails to recognize that racism is an internalized misunderstanding of another race. And that there are still racial tensions today. It instead suggests that racial injustices can be overcome with shitpie and are a past phenomenon.

The paper, which was written in conclusion, was designed to detail the misrepresentations and racial stereotypes in The Help. I discussed the movie and the film’s popularity. I also used quotes from critics for an understanding of both the public opinion and the specific instances in which Stockett misrepresented African Americans. Finally, I considered the reasons why the movie is so popular, despite the obvious problems it has. Blake and Ruzich are among those who argue that Stockett’s linguistic discrimination of black characters in Stockett’s book “needs be viewed not as an individual author’s prejudices but rather as a popular culture indicator about the racial or class anxieties deeply woven into American society. A society that embraces such linguistic choices.” (2015). Aibileen repeats the mantra, “You’re kind.” You are smart. The phrase “You is important” is an example of uneducated dialect that is not in line with the standard American English that the character would have been expected to use. Stockett claims that her writing is inspired by the memories of her African American Nanny are not reconcilable. She admits that she wrote from childhood memories and not from true Southern American English. The popularity of The Help’s approval indicates that people were able to find comfort in its portrayals of the 1960s, and the muted descriptions about the Civil Rights Movement. The Help tells the story of a “white savior” who uses domestic workers’ stories as an excuse to write a book on Civil Rights. It tries to ease white guilt by portraying racism as one, definable character that can be defeated. The book also depicts the “good” people of white as the heroes. The Help’s success was likely due to its ability to quickly and quietly heal racial wounds. It was able to end racial tension and eliminate white guilt. The movie also provided the “feel good” feeling that is expected from a movie.

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Calkin, Jessamy. In The Maid’s Tale, Kathryn Stockett investigates the issue of slavery and racial discrimination in the Southern United States. July 16, 2009. Web. 24 Sept. 2012.

Foster-Singletary, Tikenya. Southern Quarterly. Vol. 49, no. 4, Summer2012, pp. 95-107.

Graham, Allison. “We Ain’t doing civil rights”: The Life, Times, and Stories of a Genre. Southern Cultures. 20, no. 1, 2014, pp. 51-64.

Henneberger, Melinda. “Southern Discomfort. 138, no. 6, 25 Mar. 2011, p. 7.

Ann, Hornaday. “Using Stereotypes in Racism Explicitly.” Washington Post, Nov. 2008.

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Jones, Ida E., et al. “An open statement to the fans of the help.” Southern Cultures. Vol. 20, no.1, spring 2014, pp. 32-33.

Jones, Suzanne W. “The Divided Receipt of the Help.” Southern Cultures vol. 20, no. 1, Spring2014, pp. 7-25.

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  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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