In today’s strange world, not many movies make it into my favorites list. There are even fewer movies with meaningful parenting content. But this week, Ronit and I watched “The Help” and it moved me deeply with its mix of race, gender, marriage, friendship, parenting and social status messages, its great characters and its deliberate plot that included a twist on the very last word.
On the face of it, The Help is set in Jackson Mississippi, but the social and financial pressures and the ways in which different people handle them are timeless. In fact, it is a lot easier first to analyze the characters in the film and THEN quietly admit that we behave in a similar way towards our friends, partner or children, at least sometimes.
I have chosen to focus on a few of the topics that have come up in my mind.
Who rules your world?
There is one particular woman in the film (called Hilly) who seems to control everybody around her, including her husband, her friends, her mother and, of course, the “colored” maids. She spends a lot of time and energy scheming to increase the separation of the races and get herself ahead socially in the process.
Sitting in the audience, it is very easy to hate her. After installing a separate toilet for the maid, the maid uses the toilet inside the house when it rains. Hilly fires the maid, who returns the following morning with chocolate pie. Hilly enjoys every bit of the pie, believing it was offered to her as an apology and marks her ultimate triumph over the defiant maid.
She tells her friend Elizabeth’s maid she is fired, with her friend just standing there looking like she is being slowly run over by a steamroller. She controls her husband’s face when he looks at another woman, called Celia. In fact, she goes to great lengths to isolate Celia and exclude her from every social event there is.
So who rules Elizabeth’s world? Who rules the maids’ world? Who rules Hilly’s husband’s world or Celia’s world? And who rules Hilly’s own world?
The pressures of the southern society, where the state governor and the legal system openly support racism, white women have no jobs, but they are measured by how well they keep a house without lifting a finger and men have to provide well enough for big houses, wigs, dresses and all the latest gadgets in order for their family to be accepted are great. Growing up in such an environment, it is probably more surprising to see people who are open minded and open hearted.
I often hear people call others unpleasant names or label certain behaviors in unflattering ways and it makes me cringe. We all have a background. We all grow up in some steam pot of parental dreams, financial pressures, social expectations, physical limitations and even pure coincidences that make us who we are.
People like Hilly Holbrook pour their own pressure over others and create a web of bad communication, strong actions and even stronger reactions. If you look around you, you may be able to find someone like her. Maybe these people are teenagers, “rival” neighbors or the lifelong competitor from high school, and maybe they are not so bad once you look for what rules their world.
Who is racist?
One of the most upsetting rules the maids have to follow is to never touch a white adult. When Minny sends her daughter to work as a maid for the first time, she lists this rule, among others, and says, “White people don’t like to be touched” (or something to that effect). She makes it clear that this rule is very important and her daughter must be careful to avoid physical contact with her employer.
Later on, Minny is interviewed by Celia for a new job as a maid. Celia describes her loneliness, her frustration with her inability to cook and her desperate desire to please her husband. She is white, yet she talks openly to a black woman about personal things and asks for her help.
When Minny accepts her offer, Celia jumps up, runs to Minny and gives her a big hug.
Minny looks very uncomfortable.
In another scene, Minny storms into Aibileen’s home and is upset to find Skeeter (the white woman who writes the maids’ stories in a book) sitting at the table. Her response, much like the response of many other maids, is that white people cannot be trusted and that associating with them is dangerous.
In many cases, we tend to see one group of people as more fortunate and as having all the power – white people, rich folks, jocks/cheerleaders, preppies, republicans, Christians and so on. We often call them “the majority”. Other groups use this perceived imbalance to justify many of their demands and that is OK.
But what various “minorities” sometimes overlook is how their own behavior contributes to the separation and to the conflicts. By ignoring white people who love to hug, black people can keep a blanket rule about all white people. By misinterpreting genuine attempts to help as dangerous and potentially misleading, any minority member can keep their own group suspicious of the “others”.
Ronit runs cultural acceptance workshops at various schools, where the majority of the children are of European origins. Ronit looks a bit darker, but there was an African man on her team called Ali, who is very dark.
When Ronit asks the kids to point out who is Australia, Ali is labeled an outsider and is put in “the box”, which symbolizes exclusion (or even a detention center). Gradually, the kids work out that anyone can be Australian, regardless of their name, language, religion and skin color.
However, at a school in an all-aboriginal area, Ali was the only one selected by the students as an Australian, despite his foreign accent and despite being Muslim. The children were so preoccupied by segregating people according to skin color, they were just as racist as the white kids were in other places.
Who is raising your children?
The movie starts and ends with the mention that the colored maids raised the white women’s children and there are many scenes that drive this point home. Caring for children was considered a chore, feeding little kids and changing diapers were messy and unpleasant and white women had to look presentable at all times. They could not afford to sweat or have smudges on their dresses.
Again and again, white parents keep their distance from their children and even treat them badly. Aibileen manages to get Elizabeth’s daughter to use the toilet and she is very proud of herself, but her mother ignores her in one scene and spanks her in public in another, because she used the toilet outdoors. The audience hurts with the child.
But is this so different to our life?
Are there no parents today who spend hours every day trying to please other people, clients, bosses and even colleagues, and leave their children in other people’s care?
Are there no parents today who try to keep their kids “in line” all the time and focus on how their children’s behavior and discipline (I really hate this word) reflects on THEM?
Are there no parents today who spend time complaining to their friends about their kids making a mess or asserting their independence, only to build rapport and gain social status?
The Help offers guidance to parents of every time and place through the behavior of Aibileen. She wraps little Mae in her arms, hugs her and comforts her. Then, she holds her arms, looks her in the eyes and says,
You is kind. You is smart. You is important
To which the grateful girl replies at some point
You my real mama, Aibi
Happy real parenting,