The Truth About The Help

Melissa Harris-Perry hated the film The Help. You can see her memorably scathing, outraged review here. This morning, ahead of the Oscar’s, she had a really illuminating segment on the real history of African American women domestic workers, the economic and sexual exploitation they have suffered, their role in the Civil Rights Movement, and the disservices that the acclaimed blockbuster movie did them.

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In first part she summarized the exploitative economics domestic workers are subject to and then she was joined by Barbara Young of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Micki McElya (author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America), and Elon James White for an important round table discussion.

Here is the Amazon description of McElya’s book:

When Aunt Jemima beamed at Americans from the pancake mix box on grocery shelves, many felt reassured by her broad smile that she and her product were dependable. She was everyone’s mammy, the faithful slave who was content to cook and care for whites, no matter how grueling the labor, because she loved them. This far-reaching image of the nurturing black mother exercises a tenacious hold on the American imagination.

Micki McElya examines why we cling to mammy. She argues that the figure of the loyal slave has played a powerful role in modern American politics and culture. Loving, hating, pitying, or pining for mammy became a way for Americans to make sense of shifting economic, social, and racial realities. Assertions of black people’s contentment with servitude alleviated white fears while reinforcing racial hierarchy. African American resistance to this notion was varied but often placed new constraints on black women.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Smith Powell

    I enjoy MHP very much and I enjoyed the analysis of The Help; however, I thought she and a couple of her guests were critical of the film because it was not the film they wanted it to be. I think that is unfair. There are other films that can be made, should be made, about that era; but I don’t think that should distract from this film and what it does.

    One comment resonanted with me in that the commenter thought the film was more about the coming of age of the white author. As a white who well remembers nannies, the film was painful to me as I relived my experiences as I came of age during the 50s and 60s.

    I also appreciated Ms Young’s comments and I thought MHP and the other members of the panel should have drawn her out a bit more.

  • Alisha

    I had no interest in the book, but ended up picking it out of a bin somewhere for a dollar so I read it. It felt fluffy and naive at best. It felt like whitewashing. I did some research and found this VERY in-depth analysis as to why this book is actually pretty offensive in a LOT of ways. Check out

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    I have not seen the movie yet, but recently read the book. And I think she’s complaining that it’s not serious enough.

    I’m old enough to remember what it was like. I can’t vouch for the black characters, but she totally nailed the white ones. If you lived in the South in the 60s and into the 70s, you knew a Miss Hilly, and you knew a Miss Celia. And there was heavy, unspoken pressure to conform to the norms … the dress codes, the manners, the deferring to the Miss Hillys of the town or pay the price by being shunned or worse.

    The bathroom controversy is a metaphor – a domestic proxy for the larger issues. But it’s so true. Damned straight there were women who would refuse to plant their butts on any toilet that black butts had touched. They had been reared that way, to think of it as being as unthinkable as eating roast beef and cheese is to an observant Jew … to the extent that one woman left a party because the only bathroom in the apartment had been used by blacks. She couldn’t get over her early conditioning.

  • mikewelsh

    Did The Help show the horrors of the time to the fullest extent? No, it could have easily been a torture porn extravaganza, but it was not. That said, most of the racist people I have met don’t even realize they are racist. What this film can do is make people take a look at the way they treat other people, whereas a more horrifying film would have them thinking “I’m not like that! I’m a nice person.” The Help was far from perfect, but I don’t see it anywhere near as badly as many have made it out to be, and if it causes a few people to reevaluate the way they treat domestic works or those of another ethnic background, then good.

  • Sarcen

    My thoughts are that I stopped giving Ms. Harris-Perry’s words any real consideration last August when she decided to use her substitute-anchor time on TRMS, the recent Oslo shooting tragedy and (non-explicitly) the whole 9-11 cross rowe to insult basically all non-believers. She deliberately used word games to define faith in both a religious and a non-religious way, conflated those ideas and denigrated reason and ultimately science in a very intellectually dishonest way.

    Watch and tell me that you, as an atheist or secular person, still have any respect for her.

    • sambarge

      I have to agree. I generally like MHP’s writing and analysis but her insistence on religion being an integral part of race (!?) and her general disrespect for non-believers is more than I can handle. I tried watching this morning to see her review of The Help but I couldn’t get past her “diversity” panel that included a Muslims Lesbian, black Christian man and a white Jewish woman. Wow. All three Abrahamic faiths? Pretty f**king diverse.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I find her hit and miss. She says some incredibly clueless things sometimes but other times broaches issues no one else does.

  • sambarge

    There are positive and negative aspects to the movie, The Help. On the plus side, it is one of the few Oscar nominated films that offered roles of substance to women – white women and women of colour. On the negative side, its dramatic portrayal of women of colour in the service industry during the Civil Rights era was anemic at best.

    These are hardly new or revolutionary ideas. I tried to watch MHP this morning but couldn’t get past Irshad Manji in an earlier segment so I missed The Help. It doesn’t seem that anything new was said.

    I do hope that Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis will get great film opportunities now that they’ve gotten such Oscar buzz and won a few other awards. They need to play something other than a cleaning lady.

  • Ray