I am the 1 percent.
I didn’t want to see “The Help” because I’m not really one for lady movies, especially ones that appear to aspire to make white people feel better about racism. Yeah, I judged a film by online posts — and I’m not really ashamed of that even though I was wrong.
What was harder to admit, because it was painfully true, was that part of me didn’t want to see “The Help” because I didn’t want to look into the eyes of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and see my grandmothers. Unlike the exclusively white group of women who have encouraged me to see the movie and read the book, I don’t get to identify with Skeeter Phelan and Celia Foote — the most sympathetic of the film’s white characters. I’m forced to confront my family tree.
What ended up being most difficult about seeing “The Help” wasn’t the legacy of my nonagenarian grandmother — who read the book last summer, serving as a huge endorsement (who am I to be offended when she’s the one who lived through it?) — but in seeing these strong and bold black women who were forced to bend to the will of their white female employers. In them, I saw myself. And I had nothing to feel but shame.
Unlike the maids who populate “The Help,” I’m not serving white people in order to provide for my family. No, I’m putting the needs of my life’s many white women and men ahead of my own out of some sick brand of token guilt. I bristled at Bryce Dallas Howard‘s harsh tones toward Spencer’s Minny Jackson, all while thinking that if a woman now had yelled at me to cut her mother a slice of pie, I’d probably tell her to **SPOILER ALERT** “eat my shit” too.
Except that I wouldn’t.
No, I’ve taken all the black suffering and white privilege from “The Help” and flipped it, moving all that Sturm und Drang from those maids’ professional lives to my personal life. And worst of all, I’m not forced by cultural constraints and politics to put white people’s needs ahead of my own. I’m doing it out of my own compulsion, which makes me the oppressor and the oppressed.
[Before we go any further, let me say that not speaking up for myself and allowing my well-meaning, if selfish, friends and acquaintances to peer pressure me is a literal WORLD away from the oppression and near-torture the maids of the '60s endured. I'm drawing a parallel to connect to my experiences. I am not trying to overplay my self-inflicted martyrdom or at all undermine the sacrifices and struggles of the black women before me.]
I’m surrounded by well-meaning white people who are oh-so-eager for me to be happy, as long as my idea of happiness aligns perfectly with theirs. It’s the friends who are desperate for me to get into a serious romantic relationship — presumably so I too can enjoy the affirmation that comes from the affections of emotionally stunted 25 year olds with raging commitment issues. It’s the pals who daydream about where my career will take me one day, as long as my rèsumè isn’t more illustrious than theirs and as long as those new professional opportunities don’t take me to warmer climes with bigger, bustling metropolises. After all, I can’t make their lives easier if I’m out trying to improve mine. Who else will solve your personal crises?
It’s also in those same emotionally stunted 25 year olds, the dashingly handsome men who only want to tell you they love you when they’re positive that no one else is saying it to you; the ones only willing to praise your brilliance when they’re confident that no one else has noticed it.
This token is The New Millennium Help. No, I’m not raising white children and my friends don’t force me to pee outside and clean their homes. However, as the girl who feels like she doesn’t have much to offer beyond her not totally awful personality and average intellect, I’ve somehow assumed the burden of cruise director.
The people I went to high school with described me as “jolly” and knew me for my laugh. And ever since I was reduced to a skin tone, an adjective and a weird affectation, I’ve saddled myself with living up to it all. If I’m not the one making sure everyone else is always having fun at any social gathering, what am I doing there? I can’t just be there to enjoy myself! And after a decade of that, people have gotten used to it. And I’ve let them. So if I have an off day, or just don’t feel like socially whoring myself out — telling jokes, dancing or doing everything in my power to strangle the spotlight — to make people happy, I’m derelict in all those token duties. I couldn’t just be good enough; I had to be serving a purpose.
Such is the self-induced burden [though society and my peers certainly didn't do anything to counteract it].
I’m not mad at these people, though. I get it: A happy slave is a more productive slave. But because slaves couldn’t really decide or pursue their own fulfillment — surely picking cotton, raising other people’s children and cleaning up after white folks would not have ranked high on their list of dreams — masters got to dictate and define happiness for their servants. The men and women of the houses did this all while getting to pretend that they were humane and even altruistic, much like the housewives of “The Help” who didn’t mind sharing bathrooms with their maids.
As I noted previously, and just so it won’t get twisted, there is a gulf between what Minny and Aibileen – and their real-life doppelgängers — went through and my millennial whining. I’m a slave in the weakest sense and the only person cracking the whip is me. Life as a token in 2012 isn’t easy, but it’s cushy compared to any other options I’d have.
In a strange and juvenile coincidence, I decided in the last hours of Dec. 31, 2011 to adopt “eat shit” as my motto for 2012. It’s the phrase that has given me confidence as I’ve struggled to learn, at 24, how to put my needs before others when necessary. I didn’t realize I was taking unconscious lessons from Kathryn Stockett‘s playbook.
In place of baking unsavory pies or writing a vengeful — and in my case, lightweight — roman à clef, I should’ve stood up for myself. I should’ve told everyone who wrongly assumed I was only a big butt and a smile, solely there for the shuckin’ and jivin’, just how wrong they were. I accept the situation I’m in now, one largely of my own creation.
However, I’m refusing to play out what in some ways is the most depressing part of “The Help.” Those women were the cornerstones, the foundations, of the white families for whom they worked. But these maids couldn’t find empowerment in that fact due to the very real societal, financial and political hurdles. But unlike them, I have a choice.
The next time someone whines a request for me to do something I don’t want to do solely to please them, I can simply say “no.” After all, it’s a dangerous prospect to hitch your happiness wagon to someone who isn’t forced to tow it and isn’t bound to its success.
The stories of Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter, Celia and company all ended with a page turn and a fade to black. For me and the people in my life, it won’t be so subtle. It’ll be the sound of their lives’ metaphorical Jenga blocks crashing to the ground, which will be the first chime of my freedom.
I’ll be sure to thank all my friends for the help.