In the essay below, Associate Professor Trysh Travis of the University of Floridas Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research Center explores some of the controversy surrounding Kathryn Stocketts novel The Help, which has also become a major film of the same name. She argues that many people will view both the book and the film as not realistic. While BlackPast.org readers will certainly debate that point, her article does allow an opportunity to explore a much larger question: can any white author sensitively explore the deeply complex relationships between white women employers and their domestic servants.
Guess what? Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a multi-million copy bestseller and the basis for an Oscar-nominated film, is not very realistic. It traffics in stereotypes and fails to present the complexity of race relations. It downplays both the institutionalized violence (including sexual violence) of southern culture and the Civil Rights movement’s collective resistance to that violence, centering instead on a white heroine and celebrating her limited rebellion against entrenched racism as if it was another Harper’s Ferry. By focusing on the heroic white individual and her personal response to racism, the novel fails to realistically represent the world it narrates. Worse, it leaves intact the political, economic, and social structures that it pretends to critique.
As the Hollywood hype-machine began cranking for the film version of The Help last August, this critique was advanced by the Association of Black Women Historians (AWBH) and other progressive groups; it has now been revived for red carpet season. It’s a powerful argument, but with a key weakness: it ignores the ways that literature’s form (longstanding conventions about what certain types of fiction do and don’t attempt to do) constrains its content. Much of the criticism of The Help seems to suggest that if it contained more or different characters, plot elements, and details of place and voice it would be more “realistic” and