Hegemony of Narrative: “The Help” as Freedom Myth

“Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.”

~Michel-Rolph Trouillot
“Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

~ Althusser

What is required for an empire to maintain the subjugation, if not the compliance, of its darker subjects? The Imperials must manage their subject’s collective memories about, not only who they were, but who and where they politically are. Hegemony of narrative of both the subject and subjugator is an indispensable tool in the hands of the colonizer.

With the release of the film “The Help” came the usual adoration associated with cinemagraphic attempts at complicated feel-good stories about race relations. All the usual suspects were presented: the white liberal heroine-protagonist (Skeeter), the Black role players (Aibileen and Minny) and depictions of personal prejudice rather than institutional white supremacy as merely a social inconvenience. Like “Precious” and “Crash”, “The Help” has become a race film of sorts in the modern era; not an all Black cast, but, indeed myths which shape popular perceptions about Black life.

The cultural danger in this film (and others like it) is that, via cinemagraphic nostalgia, they so often succeed at (re)inscribing ahistorical notions about racial inequality that, at best appear to be matters of mere social misfortune often at the hands single individuals, or “persons unknown”, and at worst completely obscure the visceral thrust of triune forces which bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. The result of this? We enjoy a film’s romanticized representations of bad days gone by while being anesthetized into indifference toward the economic and social plight of our modern day “Help”.

Lest my disapproving criticism of the film stand alone, I join it with the chorus of other thinkers on these matters. Nelson George, filmmaker and author, wrote in the New York Times:

A larger problem for anyone interested in the true social drama of the era is that the film’s candy-coated cinematography and anachronistic super-skinny Southern belles are part of a strategy that buffers viewers from the era’s violence. The maids who tell Skeeter their stories speak of the risks they are taking, but the sense of physical danger that hovered over the civil rights movement is mostly absent. Medgar Evers is murdered in Jackson during the course of the story, but it is more a TV event, very much like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, than a felt tragedy.

Or professor Rebecca Wanzo:

One of the three narrators, Aib[i]leen, says that she realizes she is more free than the racist character that destroys her livelihood, a claim that encourages readers to feel better about segregation because, in this logic, nobody can take real, psychological freedom from anyone. Freedom is really about how you feel, not about, you know, the law.

Yet, a more thorough critique is rendered in an open statement from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). They speak to a problematic socio-aesthetic binary which emerges in the feature adaptation, and is patriarchal both in its asexual Mammy-gendering of Black women and its stereotypical portrayals of Black men and community.

“The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.”

And,

“We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood.”

The film’s distortion of narrative, on its own, could stand as an eruption on the terrain of sound historiography on the period. But this tragedy, as suggested by the ABWH, is deepened by class cues which sketch “the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness.”

In 1935 a crucial piece of worker legislation, the National Labor Relations Act, was passed. Known as the “Wagner Act” after New York Sen. Robert Wagner, who in sponsoring the bill, reasoned that “Men versed in the tenets of freedom become restive when not allowed to be free.” The National Labor Relations Act constituted a seminal democratic moment in American labor and union organizing. Wagner’s bill, among other things, guaranteed protections for union organizing independent of company domination, the right to strike, boycott, and demonstrate against recalcitrant employers, and banned firing as a coercive tool to control union ranks.

The constellation of its lofty achievements notwithstanding, where the Wagner Act failed in its attempts to enhance the democratization of American labor was in its shameful exclusion of Domestic Workers. Southern senators, in an effort to safeguard their own economic greed, saw to it that no domestic worker could ever unionize under the legal indemnity of the Act. Political cooperation was contingent upon the prohibition of the domestic labor force, of which 90 percent were Black women in the South. Hegemony of dominant narratives create sinister silences around this issue via its omission. That domestic workers were left outside of the protective legal umbrella of the Wagner Act often goes under/unmentioned even in college lectures and text.

Possibilities of protecting the collective interest of our modern day “help” must be central in the overall struggle for workers rights, understanding that domestic labor, unlike other labor, is isolated work. At this writing only one state, New York, has passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. California’s state government is under increasing pressure from organized domestic laborers and their allies to follow suit. In the context of the film’s ahistorical misrepresentation of the politics of Black women’s domestic labor there are existing ways to support private home worker’s economic rights. By organizing you can press your state legislature to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights law.

Links to organizing:

domesticworkers.org/ny-bill-of-rightsdomesticworkers.org/members#rifuerza-laboral.org/caringacrossgenerations.org/

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Marco A. McWilliams is the founding director of the Black Studies program at DARE and a Stephen G. Cary Fellow with the American Friends Service Committee.

BlackStudies.site // Twitter: @black_studies

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