Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Socioeconomic Status in THE HELP

Perhaps it should go without saying, but for those of you who don't know, I am not a black woman. That having been said, I have been unsurprised by and a little disappointed in the depth of the reactions to the theatrical release of The Help.

I have not seen any reactions to the film that have pinpointed the basis of some of the issues depicted in the film as being socioeconomic. That is not to say that there were not racial causes, because there were, but you can bet that the white people who were taking on the same jobs as the black women in the film were treated nearly as badly as the black women. Perhaps they were able to use the toilets in the homes where they worked, but I wouldn't necessarily count on it. (Maybe they could use the guest bath, which would then be sprayed down with Lysol really well so as to erase the traces of "white trash" after the household help went home for the day.) Regardless, I came away from the movie thankful that people who worked in jobs where they were not regarded as worth much of anything were at least depicted as more than caricatures and at most depicted as real live human beings with feelings. While the book does delve a bit more deeply and doesn't seem to have gained the mass criticism that the film has, I'm not going to address the book right now.

Perhaps there is some residual shame for us about the work our grandparents and great-grandparents once did, between not being paid well for it and being mistreated by wealthier people because of it. Regardless, I can only share what it was like in my own family. My four grandparents were all hard-working people who lived and raised families during the 1950s. None of them were college graduates (and only three of the four were high school graduates), and all of them worked at jobs that by today's standards, especially by today's middle-class, college-educated standards, would be considered demeaning. What was considered honest work at that time, even if it was underpaid, is now considered embarrassing. How many of us would be hospital housekeepers? Maintenance men? Assembly line factory workers? Dry cleaning workers? These were jobs that my grandparents held, all while caring for many more children than most people today care to raise. They were rarely paid enough by our standards to justify what we would consider humiliating, menial work, and they had to support large families on those meager incomes.

I know a little about the type of work my grandparents did. The summer after I graduated from college, I was desperate for a job to tide me over until maybe, hopefully, I got a teaching position for the fall. I ended up working as a nanny for a nice, relatively wealthy family and worked more hours than full-time and made less than minimum wage. The job description did not match what I ended up being expected to do, including household tasks and baby-sitting extra children. I had no choice; nothing better had come along. Thankfully, I was treated very nicely; however, I was incredibly embarrassed that THIS was what I was doing with my newly-minted college degree. I ended up using that degree to teach the following fall and again worked more than full-time hours and made less than minimum wage. That is somewhat expected among academics; we are just thankful we don't have to get our hands dirty (much).

I no longer feel ashamed of the work I had to do to get by that summer, and I am thankful for the experiences I had teaching even though they exposed me to attitudes I thought had died out years ago. I cannot tell you that I understand what it would have been like to have had the socioeconomic differences compounded by racist attitudes and social mores, but to ignore the socioeconomic piece in the film is to ignore a whole portion of social jockeying that still goes on today.

Perhaps talking about class makes people uncomfortable, but when, as one parent did at the private school where I would go on to teach, recommended that the school drop our benefits packages in favor of sending us all to a decent but infamous clinic in town since, after all, it was "good enough for [his] immigrant employees," I realized that attaining even a college degree did not guarantee any sort of social standing in our society. It remains to be about money, class, prestige...and yes, race, though your skin color matters little if you're still viewed by the wealthy as just another member of the working class. I don't mean to assert that all wealthy people are mean or uncaring; I have known of many who are kind and benevolent to the people they employ.

My concern about the many negative reactions to the film is that they are borne from a place of shame over socioeconomic issues that at the time affected more than just black women who worked for wealthy white families. They were issues that affected and still affect many people in the working class, who do the "dirty jobs" for everyone else.

Of course, none of this touches on the fact that there is a larger stigma we place on household help than any other work, which probably comes from feminism and the belief that a woman (mother) taking care of a house (including her own children) must be wanting to do something "bigger" with her life than to care for children and a home. That does not mean that some days it does not get monotonous, but there is not a job out there for which that cannot be said at some time or another. Monotony seems to be our lot in life on this earth. These days we have so much fun that sometimes we even find our entertainment boring; perhaps that is a good sign of how spoiled we have become as a society.

I am a member of a local e-mail list for moms where there will frequently be postings about needing a nanny, what to pay a nanny, how to decide on nanny benefits, etc. I am not going to be ridiculous and liken this talk to slavery, but the idea that these mothers think nothing of asking women they do not know and would never associate with outside of this situation to watch their children, imbue values to them, feed them decent meals, coordinate their activities, transport them across town in a large city, and then think they can pay them ridiculously low amounts of money is SAD. I feel for the women who take these jobs and are told that "tax-free money is its own benefit."

These days, at least in this part of the country, it's not poor black women who care for the children of wealthy white women; it's poor Latinas. And in 50 years when a bright young woman--who may not be white--writes about her Latina nanny in a fictional way and ascribes kind motives to her but doesn't play down the racism enough for some people or doesn't play up the racism enough for others, I will not be surprised.

The racial issues in this film are not dealt with deeply, but when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie that dealt with anything deeply? Perhaps Schindler's List? These days, many of us realize that if we want to see a movie that is deep and provocative and shows us a realistic and/or in-depth way of looking at something, we see the indie films. For someone to see The Help and be disappointed because it did not offer a fully realistic portrayal of racial issues in the 1950s is like someone seeing The Titanic and being disappointed because it did not offer a fully realistic portrayal of nautical engineering. At a certain point we have to realize that one cannot cram into two hours what many of us should be spending multiple days and weeks studying as part of independent research just to be more informed citizens. Especially when a topic is as deep and still as relevant as 1950s racism, this movie is not going to cut it; however, for the person who somehow has had his head in the sand or did not, like I did, realize that the segregated toilets issue affected even household toilets, it can be a way to tell about the issue enough that the viewer's interest is piqued. Further study is his own responsibility. I do not think, however, despite what some reviewers have said, that anyone is going to come away from this movie thinking we should go back to that time period. White people are not portrayed 100% positively and are painted with as broad of a brush as the black women, again despite what reviewers have said. The only white women who are sympathetic to the black women's cause are the goofy Celia and the naïve college graduate (of course, people only learn racism is wrong when they go to COLLEGE, didn't you know that?) Skeeter. Clearly poor women like my grandmothers who did not marry wealthy men must have all been racists. Yet they were not. So even in the depiction of who can be tolerant, the movie falls apart. Yet not a word on this from any of the reviewers--and if you can think of one who touched on this, please let me know.

I have not attempted to tell the story depicted in the film; the merits of it are an entirely different subject. Whether this film was a good film or not, it brought some fascinating issues to the forefront. I agree with the reviewers who have indicated that it is not for a lack of trying that black screenwriters have not had their works put on the big screen. I hope they will keep writing, and I do not believe the success of this film detracts from that at all. Again, Hollywood will produce what Hollywood will produce. Much of it will be vapid, most of it will be superficial, and all of it is made to make money. If you want more than that, stick with the independent films.

Or better yet, read a (non-fiction) book or two about that time.

1 comment:

  1. Way to go, Sarah! :) It's good to have someone spread some honesty about what the world. My grandfather worked long and hard to support his wife and 4 children post-depression. My mother tells how they lost their house because he could not make the $25 a month mortgage payments. He even cleaned houses just to make enough to put food on the table for them.

    Now, I must add that he eventually found a good job in a foundry where he worked past retirement age, because he couldn't stand to just sit home and read, although he loved reading. He only had an 8th grade education, although you never would have known by his speech. He was not a racist, although I do not recall them having any black friends. It just wasn't something that was done much at that time.

    The Bible tells us that in all labor there is profit. . . we have forgotten that true Christianity is about humility and service, not leadership or exaltation.