Race, Class, and Gender in THE HELP (the film)

Well, this is the first time ever that I've taken the "cultural studies" approach of featuring the themes of race, class, and gender in talking about a work of art.  I'm, of course, against the "politically correct" tendency to reduce literary/artistic analysis to that trinity.  And I'm especially "uncomfortable" with the word gender, not being sure that it refers to anything real.  I know what "sex" is, both as an activity and as way of categorizing human beings (and even other animals) into two groups.  But I'm not sure what gender is.  I'm told it's a social construction, but surely male and female can't be completely detached from a natural foundation.

What's fascinating about this movie is its subtle approach to race, class, and gender.  Class, I will explain, is not just about the ruling class being oppressive.  It turns out that there's also "class," in the sense of people being raised well or for being responsible.  To be "classy" is to display extraordinarily admirable manners and morals.This film is much harder on the middle class than it is on the remnant of Mississippi's aristocratic class.  And it's the aristocratic class and the class of servants that ally to overthrow the pretensions of middle-class racist tyranny.

Let me begin what has to be a project of several posts with some fairly random observations:

 1. THE HELP is one of the most thought-provoking movies in a long time. It's based on a best-selling book that I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read all the way through. That put me at a big disadvantage in the theater. I went to an afternoon show with my wife (who had read it), and theater was packed with women's reading groups that had loved the book. The consensus: The long film was faithful to the book, but only to a point. Much was left out. That's easy to believe, because the film was packed with fascinating characters, each of whom seemed insufficiently fleshed out.  I've peeked a bit at the book, just to confirm some of my suspicions about the movie.  But, as usual, I'm basically letting the movie stand on its own. 

2. In terms of visual detail, this has to one of the best movies ever made. You're convinced that this is exactly what Jackson, Mississippi was like in 1963. The middle-class parts of that city were pretty much like the rest of the country, except for three significant details. Every middle-class family had African American “help,” a maid who who was lot more than a mere maid. So the white women, like their more aristocratic ancestors, didn't have to work. And there was extreme racial segregation, segregation that was, you might say, still in the process of being perfected.

3. The middle-class white women are so horrible you start to feel sorry for them. Their lives are pointless. Their aesthetically unimpresive houses are run and their children are raised by “the help.” Their unerotic, boring husbands have little interest in them. They don't work themselves and have no ambition to work. So their lives are consumed by obsession with trivial pursuits—bridge clubs and stuff like that—and petty distinctions. Theirs is not aristocratic leisure, and their lives are creepily devoid of personal love and proper pride. The film has the appropriate moments when nature gets her revenge for their self-denial, but their response is usually more blind anger than tears of recognition. Surely the evildoing ugliness of these female, middle-class lives is exaggerated, and the two most prominent of these women in the film are presented as extreme cases.  What drives the movie, more than anything else, is animosity against their kind.

3. The one pleasure of these white women, it seems, is tyrannizing over the woman who actually does work and love in their homes. They are utterly repulsed by physical contact with blacks, and their concern with hygiene (reflected in an intensifying effort to make sure the races use separate bathrooms) is really a desire to have no emotional connection with those over whom they rule without limits. Still, they turn their children over to “the help,” and let their hired women lavish loving affection on the their kids  as if they were their own. What's especially striking is the utter lack of gratitude of the white women for what they have, for all the help they have received.

4. The white, middle-class women's (as one of the black women says) “godless” coldness was not peculiar to Mississippi. They remind us TV fans of Betty Draper on Mad Men, who also coldly dismissed the black woman she had hired to take care of her children over some imagined affront. But in New York, after all, there was no legal segregation, and African Americans were fully protected by the law. They were eligible for government benefits. So the godless coldness of early Sixties segregation made the lives of "the help" particularly precarious; they were almost completely subject to the whim of tyrants—tyrants who had no real class at all.

5. So the  situation of “the help” in Mississippi was in some ways more unbearable than ever. Their material situation was not horrible. As long as they worked, they ate; they had their own very modest homes, and so forth. And it's not like they were being worked to death as slaves sometimes were. What's gotten worse is the whites' indifference to their very being, their utter insensitivity to who they are particular beings.

6. The upside of middle-class life is that people work for themselves, the downside is that the relations among employer and employee becomes more all about the cash at expense of any sense of personal responsibility or affection. Life in middle-class Mississippi was all about the downside in the absence of the upside.There's little evidence among the middle-class white women of the aristocratic virtue of generosity or magnanimity or the Christian virtue of charity, especially when it comes to "the help."

7. We sometimes read the relations between the races were more more easy and familiar in the South than in the North, because the lives of blacks and whites were intertwined. Whatever partial truth there was to that observation, the middle-class whites of Jackson were working hard to make it complete untrue. They wanted to believe that they only owed the help cash, and very little of that, much less than they would be worth under any impartially individualistic or “capitalistic” system. 

8. There was amazingly little freedom of speech in Misssippi at this time. We learn that speaking against segregation was actually a crime, and nobody (even the two admirable, privileged, smart young white people) was doing it. And the blacks, of course, had to be more cautious than ever, as the whites emotionally distanced themselves from any concern for and so  any indulgence toward them. “No sassying” became the  increasingly insistent motto of survival, because it was increasingly the case that one slip meant not just being fired, but being basically unemployable.

9. So the least we can say is that the federal government was way too slow in intervening in Mississippi, because things weren't getting better "on their own."



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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.