Yesterday I came across this editorial by Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern Show fame) about how the popularity of the movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” doesn’t actually accomplish anything beyond mere entertainment because the story is fiction. Specifically, she comments:
In a nutshell, that is my problem with The Help. People are acting as if the events in the movie really happened.
Kathryn Stockton [sic] is a novelist. She writes fiction. There was no defiant Skeeter. There were no courageous maids and no bad white women got their comeuppance. The movie offers only broad stereotypes. We know just who to root for and who to hate. We all get to identify with the heroines and everything works out in the end when everyone realizes that Jim Crow segregation is wrong.
I read her comments and upon some initial reflection I thought – well, she’s right and she’s wrong. Technically, she’s right. No, there was no Skeeter, or Minnie, or Aibilene. But there was a Rosa Parks. And there were the Little Rock Nine. And there were many whites who risked alienation, physical abuse, or death to do right by persecuted blacks. So in that vein, no, “The Help” didn’t do anything to change civil rights. But that’s not really the point, is it?
The point is that there’s a lesson there. That’s the purpose of any work of fiction with a point of view. The author tells a story in a certain time and place to illustrate a particular perspective; to make us think about how the principles of that time and place might apply to our own here and now. The tortoise and the hare never actually raced either, but that doesn’t mean that the implicit message of the story isn’t still legitimate.
The problem with “The Help” is that for whatever reason people don’t seem to be taking the moral of the story out of the story. We aren’t applying it to our own lives. I actually struggled with this same issue in a post I published last year when I wrote:
I enjoyed the book. But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago. The discussion questions at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions. But they are all local to the book. They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc. And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same. …
It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment. It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was. And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.
But we are not perfect. We are not fully evolved. We are not immune to the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes. There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe. There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”
But what are those things? That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help. What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong? What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?
Is it something environmental? Is it the way we manage our food supply? … Is it fuel-injection automobiles? Is it prejudice against the obese? What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t? What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road? What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?
The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” But yet we have changed over time. We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs. And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers. At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic. At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.
So, it’s not that Ms. Quivers doesn’t have a fair point. She just didn’t fully identify the problem. Her article got my wheels spinning on this topic once again and I thought it worthwhile to explore it here one more time.
I hope you saw “The Help.” It was a great movie and a mostly-authentic representation of the book. (As is frequently the case in movie adaptations substantial nuance was lost with the translation to the screen, although the major plot points survived.) Nevertheless, the larger point of the story is lost if we don’t apply it to ourselves. Heavy stuff for a Friday, I realize, but important to reiterate from time to time nevertheless.