At first I thought I resented that a deeply flawed book has sold more than three million copies, spent more than 100 weeks on the best seller list, and is a major motion picture. The reach of the malignant message of The Help is far indeed but books I don’t like do well all the time. I don’t lose sleep over it. I also cannot deny that the book and movie have their moments. There were times when I laughed or was moved, though certainly, those instances were few and far between.
I think of myself as progressive and open-minded but I have biases and in reading and watching The Help, I have become painfully aware of just how biased I can be. My real problem is that The Help is written by a white woman. The screenplay is written by a white man. The movie is directed by that same white man. I know it’s wrong but in my heart, I think, “How dare they?”
Writing across race (or gender, sexuality, and disability) is complicated. Sometimes, it is downright messy. There is ample evidence that it is quite difficult to get differenceright, to avoid cultural appropriation, reinscribing stereotypes, revising or minimizing history, or demeaning and trivializing difference or otherness. As writers we are always asking ourselves, “How do I get it right?” That question becomes even more critical when we try to get race right, when we try to find authentic ways of imagining and re-imagining the lives of people with different cultural backgrounds and experiences. Writing difference requires a delicate balance and I don’t know how we strike that balance.
I write across race, gender, and sexuality all the time. I would never want to be told I can’t write a story where the protagonist is a white man or a Latina lesbian or anyone who doesn’t resemble me. The joy of fiction is that in the right hands, anything is possible. I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know as much as possible. When it comes to white writers working through racial difference, though, I am conflicted, and, I am learning, far less tolerant than I should be. If I take nothing else from the book and movie in question, I know I have work to do. For that reason alone, I don’t regret engaging with these texts.
I don’t expect writers to always get difference right but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women but she doesn’t try hard enough. Her depictions of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting. At one point in the book, Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a cockroach, you know, the most hated insect you can think of. Aibileen says, staring at a cockroach, “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.” That’s simply bad writing but it’s an even worse way of writing difference. If white writers can’t do better than to compare a cockroach to black skin, perhaps they should leave the writing of difference in more capable hands. In The Help, Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know or know nothing about.