THE HELP (the film)--part 2: Eugenia
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
So here's some more on THE HELP.
My first post dealt with the film's display of the middle-class racist tyranny, mainly of women, in Jackson, Mississippi in1963. My opinion is that what you see in the movie is a true and neglected feature of the horrible history of slavery and segregation in our country. But I can't help thinking that the middle-class white women are shown to be worse than they really were. (They were plenty bad, and their lives were objectively repulsive and monstrously unjust. It's just that even really screwed up people usually have their good sides too.)
That's because the point of view of the movie comes less from the stories told by “the help” than by the young white woman who collects them into a bestseller. This woman came from an old and prosperous southern family. She didn't live in some middle-class housing development, but in what is probably an antebellum mansion with lots of land out in the country. She is very smart, ambitious, and believes she is destined to write very important articles and books. It's clear that her family is rich enough that she's never really worked and doesn't have to work.
Her mother, like almost all mothers, wants her to get married, worries that's she's a lesbian and all that, but isn't obsessed in some Jane Austen way about how her daughter is going to get by all alone. Her daughter gets a kind of joke job with the Jackson paper writing an advice column on doing household chores. She, of course, has never done any, and so she has to ask “the help” for answers to the various practical questions. She never has and never will do any manual labor. Hers is basically aristocratic leisure in the sense that it's still not true that she's been frittering her time away. She's working on her soul, in her way, and on ways to display her great individuality and singular enlightenment. She prides herself, with good reason, in not sharing the prejudices of her time and place: She's no racist and she's no Christian.
This young woman's name is Eugenia (aka “Skeeter”), which, of course, means well born. She's well born in the sense that she's born into a good family—a family, as her mom says, that's been distinguished over time by its courage. She's also well born in the sense that's she's been blessed by nature with extraordinary verbal/literary talent and at least somewhat extraordinary insight. So, like girls of her class, she goes to Old Miss, but doesn't get lost in the social life as much as she does in books.
On her shelf, we see To Kill a Mockingbird and Richard Wright's Native Son. Probably neither book was assigned in a literature class at the state university of Mississippi at that time. From To a Kill a Mockingbird she absorbed the admirable devotion to duty of the Southern Stoic lawyer Atticus Finch, who has the class to generously give his time and even risk his life for the rule of law and on behalf on a most noble and most unfortunate black servant. From Native Son, she comes into the anger of the oppressed and marginalized black person in our country, the neglected black pespecitve. She's thinks of herself as some combination of Atticus with literary ambition based on an insight that goes beyond the limitations of her class.
That comparison is not quite fair to Atticus, who risked a lot more and managed to stay home and continue to do his duty to his family and community rather than flee to New York, where anti-racist, Stoic, classy, literary southern ladies and gentleman were and will always be all the rage. That comparison is also not quite fair to Skeeter. She was also motivated by personal love.
Eugenia wasn't—or thought she wasn't (the actress Emma Stone, after all, is quite beautiful)--good looking. The boys told her she was ugly, and she wasn't invited to the big dances. The black woman who raised her (with the impressive name Constantine) told her both not to whine and that she was born for greatness. Eugenia both loved and idolized Constantine more than her parents. And she was clearly raised well, to be a genuine aristocrat, a person distinguished by her excellence. (A big and wonderful theme of the movie is how “the help” in general raised less-than-beautiful white girls to value their personal significance, to help them be who they were born to be.) The love between Eugenia and Constantine—between two quite remarkable woman—wasn't the kind that would diminish all that much when the white woman assumes the responsibilities of an adult member of her class.
Not only that, Eugenia's whole family genuinely loved Constantine and her family, including Constantine's beautiful, highly educated daughter. The members of the two races really did have an easy and familiar relationship, and so Eugenia's family allowed Constantine to keep working when very old, when her service was more trouble than it was worth. Skeeter's mom had one horrible day, when she gave into “peer pressure” (the whole DAR and its petty-tyrannical leader were at her house) and banished Constantine and her daughter from her house for what seemed to be a moment of insolence. The mom almost immediately regretted her cold act, tried to right it more than once, even sending her son to Chicago to bring Constantine “home.” But Constantine still tragically died of a broken heart, and the mom (and dad) did what they could to banish what happened from their memory. But the mom couldn't do the impossible; she was consumed with guilt and broke down when she finally told Skeeter the truth. The mom said her family's courage skipped her generation, because she had given in to the requirements of the conventions of being a beauty queen, a DAR favorite, etc. (Skeeter, of course, couldn't, given her lack of conventional beauty, ever have been tempted that way.) And she was extremely proud of her daughter's liberating and loving book, and even of her rising beyond the limits of her place in the direction of the big city.
Skeeter knows that the horrible betrayal of love here isn't just her mom's. When she comes home after college, she asks about the absent Constantine, but not ALL THAT insistently. She knows she too should have done more to look after her. When thinking about the betrayal here, remember that there really was lots of love, and these aristocrats did, for the most part, take responsibility for and were grateful (although not nearly grateful enough) for those that helped them live the way they pleased. Skeeter had the class to know that Constantine had been all about her in a way she had loved, but insufficiently appreciated. Her mom did too, even admitting that her own view was distorted by jealousy of the influence Constantine had had on her own daughter.
Skeeter's contempt for the middle-class women for not appreciating the perspective of “the help” is justified but excessive. For one thing, these women were her friends, and they did what they could to integrate her into their circle, set her up with suitable men, work on her appearance, and curb her weird and dangerous excesses. In thinking about the one-sided friendship between Skeeter and these women, I have to admit that I exaggerated their coldness myself in the first post. They lacked her education, her brains, and her opportunities. They, unlike Skeeter, didn't have what it takes to go it alone, and so they were stuck with living conventional—which means, among other things, racist—lives.
Not only did these middle-class women lack any insight into the black perspective, they weren't in any position to take on the aristocratic perspective. They weren't quite in a position to view a particular black woman with Skeeter's level of love and admiration. Skeeter was a bit short on gratitude again when she exaggerated their middle-class or conventional vices, and she wasn't big on seeing the selfishness of her contempt for them. Still, as I will explain, she was right to ally with “the help” in a literary effort to discredit them, to bring them down.
So this post is too long, and I have to break it off: But remember that I'm making the controversial “move” here of thinking about what's good about, as well as the limits of, the aristocratic consciousness.
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