Queen Bees, Typewriters, and Fried Chicken: A Feminist Analysis of the Sisterhood of The Help
An Overview The Help is a critically-acclaimed film, based on a novel of the same name written by Kathryn Stockett. The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young woman, fresh out of college, who aspires to be a writer. Seeing the plight of the black maids struggling around her, Skeeter decides to write a book that will show what life is really like for black women in Jackson. To do so, she enlists the help of two black maids – Aibileen and Minny – to tell her stories of their experiences so that she can compile them into a memoir to sell. However, the close-minded, racist society around them doesn’t make the task an easy one.
Feminism, with a Twist In most feminist analysis, the women of the “text” are being oppressed by patriarchy, by men. However, The Help is rare in being a film that centers around a nearly all-female cast of characters – and even more importantly, it takes place entirely within the domestic sphere. For most women of the 1960s, their “power was rooted in…domestic life”(Rosaldo and Lamphere 37), whereas men ruled the public sphere – or rather, the business world. Women usually dealt with all matters of the home and with small-town community life, “in everything from charities and church clubs to baking contests….[where] she may forge a public world of her own” (Rosaldo and Lamphere 37).
Feminism, with a Twist All of the women of The Help, black and white, live, thrive, and work within that very domestic sphere, the so called “woman’s place”, and very rarely do men ever come into the film’s picture. The entire movie reflects this domestic sphere life. The white women in the story spend most of their time socializing, organizing charity events, and finding men to wed – while the black women are domestic workers employed by the white women, doing the household chores, the cooking, and taking care of the kids.
So for The Help, it isn’t men suppressing women…. The Patriarchy Pyramid
But women suppressing women, a matriarchy…. The Matriarchy Pyramid
….with Queen Hilly Holbrook at the top of the social order Within the domestic sphere, it was common for “women [to] have created fully articulated social hierarchies of their own” (Rosaldo and Lamphere 38). This hierarchy is determined by popularity within the community, where a woman gains power through likability, means, and “influencing…by her own immaculate example” (Wallace). Hilly Holbrook is the Queen Bee of Jackson because she leads the charity organizations within the community, holds the most parties, has the most social connections in the city, is married to a man of money, and she proudly upholds the virtues society then held dear – such as sexual purity and disdain for “colored folk”. The other women of the story treat and interact with Hilly differently based on her perceived status in their sphere, and this in turn majorly affects the direction of certain characters’ lives.
The Writer and the Queen Bee In Gilbert and Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence”, they discuss how in feminist texts, there often appears two character archetypes – the sweet, pure Angel and the crazy, ostracized Monster. Because of a patriarchal-dominated society, feminist writers had to portray the Angel as a character complicit with society’s restraints, an image of unthreatening purity and perfection, while “they project…their own despair into passionate, even melodramatic characters who act out…subversive impulses.” (1536) – the Monster. The author uses the Monster as a “double, an image of her own anxiety and rage” (1536), a character to safely act out the controversial feelings she experiences while the Angel, the heroine, assumes the stereotypes of the time in order for the author to publish her work without fear or opposition.
These archetypes are seen in The Help’s central heroine, Skeeter, and the primary antagonist, Hilly. However, although at first glance it would appear that the arrogant, ruthless Hilly would be the Monster, and Skeeter, our story’s noble protagonist, should be the Angel…..
In fact, Skeeter is the Monster Although noble of intention, Skeeter actually personifies the Monster by portraying a passionate, subversive spirit. While the southern female society which surrounds her demands that she be concerned only with finding a husband and settling down, Skeeter is instead extremely independent. She cares little for dressing up or going to parties. Unlike her friends who are content to be wives and mothers and social ladies, Skeeter longs to have a job, to be a journalist and make her own way in life.
By being a friend and ally to the black women who serve under the whites in their domestic sphere, Skeeter only alienates herself to her peers further as shameful, strange, and troubled. Like all Monster characters, such as the Evil Queen, Skeeter’s “rebellious impulses…are suitably punished” (Gilbert and Gubar 1536). Skeeter loses all of the childhood friends she once had, her boyfriend who is disgusted from her willingness to write a book that’s pro-Civil Rights, and is ostracized from Jackson’s social society. At the end of the film, she leaves for New York, for there is nothing left in Jackson for her, just the loathing of the women she once knew and grew up with, who – in her eyes – now only hold her back.
And in the eyes of 1960’s society, Hilly is the Angel Hilly, like all good Angel characters, treats the system she lives in – her matriarchy – with acceptance and submission. She never goes against the status quo, and goes out of her way to be the perfect Southern belle; orchestrating charities to feed African children, being the picture of hospitality to people who do as she says and doesn’t get in her way. She’s feminine, more than happy to never lift a finger in her home and hang on her husband’s arm for the rest of her life.
And she’s the most racist woman in town, spearheading the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative”, a bill that will require that all black domestic workers must use separate bathrooms from their white employers to “protect the health of their children”. Just like Angel archetypes of other texts – like Snow White – Hilly is praised for these ‘virtues’, which are treated as just and right. Hilly is not punished in any significant, lasting, harmful way for any of the cruel deeds she commits against maids nor for her snooty, demeaning attitude toward other women.
So the Monster takes up her Sword of Revolution…. In Cixous’s “Laugh of the Medusa”, she urges women to write, for “writing is the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought” (1646). Skeeter takes up Cixous’s war cry by brandishing her typewriter, driven by the desire to give the marginalized women around her a voice of their very own through the words of her written work..
So the Monster takes up her Sword of Revolution…. She embodies Cixous’s dream of women wielding literature as their sword to cut a path through suppressive culture – in Skeeter’s case, the matriarchy of Jackson’s domestic sphere – and shed a light on voices thus far silenced, and allow them to be heard. She wants to share the untold story of the black maids whom she lives with, day by day. Even if that desire is against the beliefs of her society, and leads to her demonization. The hope of people like Constantine, her black maid of whom she loved, being treated better by her matriarchal sphere through understanding their experience, is worth the risk to her.
Jackson’s Matriarchy and the Anxiety of Authorship However, Skeetersoon suffers the anxiety of authorship as she sets her hands to the typewriter. To write a pro-Civil Rights movement book in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 was against the law. White extremists could seriously harm either her or Aibileen and Minny, the maids she befriends to help write the book. Sharing a memoir of their stories about the white employers they’ve had in Jackson, particularly the women, would cause an explosive uproar among their matriarchy – especially Queen Bee Hilly. If anyone found out the three of them were trying to not only air the community of Jackson’s dirty laundry, but also write blacks in a positive light, would suffer extreme consequences – fired and worse. And so Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny keep their meetings a secret and tell nobody that they’re trying to write a book together. For them, “concealment…is a strategy born of fear and disease” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1534).
Jackson’s Matriarchy and the Anxiety of Authorship Much like how women writers would use the character archetypes to hide their subversive ideas, Skeeter changes all the names in the book to hide the identity of herself and the maids, and to have plausible deniability that the stories within aren’t about Jackson. They publish the book anonymously. The fear of discovery is constantly over their heads, and deters many maids from aiding them. That fear also pressures Minny to include a story within their book that she considers “insurance”, something Minny did to Hilly that’s so humiliating she’d go to her grave swearing it isn’t true.
Writing is the Ink of Identity In the matriarchy of Jackson, Skeeter lost her sense of self, her sense of belonging, because she didn’t fit in with the other southern women, neither in personality nor values. Similarly, being suppressed and mistreated by her white employers – especially the women – led Aibileen to lose her sense of self, her feeling of humanity, being considered for so long as inferior, as just an object of labor to the people around her. Both women felt otheredby their society, felt they somehow lacked. But through writing this book, both Skeeter and Aibileen are able to find themselves again. Cixous asked women to “Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth” (1646).
Writing is the Ink of Identity Skeeter wrote her love for Constantine and people like her into that book, stained the pages in the ink of her hopes for a better future for them. The book’s success upon publishing opens the door for Skeeter to pursue her dream of writing in New York, in a place that can accept her, and so at the end of the movie she flies to where she belongs. Aibileen, by telling her stories about the various families she’s worked for, by merely being asked to tell them – as if she mattered, as if she was a person with emotions – helps her to feel human again, to feel alive, and gives her the strength to keep moving forward to become a writer herself.
A Sisterhood of Love The Help portrays no aspect of feminism more powerfully than it does the idea of sisterhood. Cixous wrote, “It is necessary and sufficient that the best of herself be given to woman by another woman, for her to be able to love herself and return in love the body that was ‘born’ to her” (1648). A woman loves herself most clearly, truly, and deeply when that self-love is founded through the eyes of another woman, a sister who first sees that goodness in herself, who becomes the proof that makes her believe in the beauty inside. Throughout the film’s story, this exchange of love – believing in another’s faith in you, so you can believe in yourself, in order to help them believe – occurs between all of the major characters. Most of the significant decisions made by the characters are influenced by the actions of another woman.
A Sisterhood of Love Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte Phelan, is dying of cancer and is close to giving up. But seeing the courage it took her daughter to write and publish her book, no matter what it cost her, gives Charlotte the strength to keep fighting against her illness – to want to keep living.
Kindness and Crisco When Minny is unjustly fired by Hilly who spreads lies to keep her unemployed, Celia is the one who hires her without judgment, hopeless at cooking and housekeeping and desperately needing help. Celia, too, is an outcast – hated by Hilly for “taking” her old flame, Johnny, from her, and also for being “white trash” – a supposed ‘slut’ from a humble working family. Minny eases Celia’s loneliness, becoming her friend and confidant, and being the solid support Celia can lean on when she is afraid her husband will abandon her upon finding out about her miscarriages.
Kindness and Crisco In exchange, Celia treats Minny with the respect, kindness, and care that her other employers never have. In gratitude for all Minny has taught her, from fried chicken to how to be brave, and for her friendship, Celia and her husband offer Minny a lifetime position as their housekeeper. With such unshakeable support and a promise of a stable future, Celia’s graciousness gives Minny the motivation she needs to leave her abusive husband and move herself and her children somewhere happier and safer.
Love Passed On As a young girl, Skeeter’s self-esteem is healed by Constantine, her beloved maid and mother figure. The two of them mutually adored each other, and Constantine would always share uplifting words of wisdom with Skeeter. Skeeter’s love for Constantine is the major catalyst that inspires her to embark on a personal journey to create the book The Help, to give a voice to people like her. Skeeter’s book, her treatment of Aibileen as a human with a story and a soul, in turn empowers and inspires Aibileen.
Love Passed On While Aibileen works for Elizabeth, one of Skeeter’s childhood friends, she takes care of her daughter Mae Mobley. Aibileen tells Mae Mobley these words every day, whether she is happy or sad – “You are kind. You are smart. You are important.” Mae Mobley’s mom neglects and abuses her, but Aibileen’s words heal the hurt her mom imparts, and makes her feel better about herself.
Feminism, and the Final Twist Mae Mobley grows up to be Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, who is the ultimate exemplifier of the exchange of love and the power women can find in writing. In an article she wrote for Mail Online, Stockett explains how she grew up in a southern family with a black maid – Demetrie, whom she loved like a mother. She tells the story, “When I grew older and awkward, when my parents divorced and life had gone all to hell, Demetrie stood me at the wardrobe mirror and told me over and over, ‘You are beautiful. You are smart. You are important.’ It was an incredible gift to give a child who thinks nothing of herself” (Stockett).
Feminism, and the Final Twist That love and self-confidence Demetrie gave her, Stockett held onto and cherished, and she was inspired to write The Help because of their relationship. Stockett wanted to heal the part of herself who, as a young girl, never thought twice about her beloved maid having to use a separate bathroom outside – she wrote, in order to find forgiveness from a departed Demetrie, and from herself.
“In one another we will never be lacking.” (Cixous 1655)
Works Cited • Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter, ed. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1643-1655. Print. Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter, ed. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1532-1544. Print.Rosaldo, Michelle, and Louise Lamphere. Woman, Culture, and Society. 1st ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974. 38-39. Print. Stockett, Kathryn. "This Life: Kathryn Stockett on her childhood in the Deep South." Mail Online.com. 18 July 2009: n. page. Web. 8 Dec. 2012. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1199603/This-Life-Kathryn-Stockett- childhood>. Taylor, Tate, dir. The Help. Perf. Viola Davis. 2011. Film. 8 Dec 2012. Wallace, James D. “‘The Paradise of Women’: The Domestic Sphere in Notions of the Americans.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art. George A. Test, ed. New York: Oneonta/Cooperstown. 78-93. Print.