Internalized language stereotypes within The Help
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009, received critical acclaim upon its release and it remained number one on the New York Times bestseller list for a year. By the time the 2011 film adaptation of the book went to theaters, The Help had sold 3 million copies, featured in the New York Times bestseller list for over two years, and had been published in 35 countries and translated into three languages (S. Jones, 8). The popularity of Stockett’s novel was widespread, yet many historians and scholars have raised questions about the stereotypes that the novel perpetrates and the accuracies of the dialect of the characters. Stockett writes African American character’s dialogue in a broken, marked form of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) while representing all white characters, even those of the working-class, with very few vernacular markings despite the fact that most, if not all, characters would have had Southern vernacular markings. The novel plays into the racial stereotypes that Stockett claims she was trying to eliminate, but the feel-good “we’re all the same” themes and the fact that the white, upper-middle class woman protagonist succeeds in the end suggests that the popular acclaim may have come from an audience playing into white fantasy, not one seeking to reveal truths and heal racial wounds. I argue that the major success of Stockett’s The Help and its consequent film, despite its misuse of AAVE and its perpetuation of African American stereotypes, suggests that its audience might subscribe to those same stereotypes.
The Help gained immediate priority on the lists of book clubs since 2009, and the release of its movie in 2011 sent it to the top of the charts yet again, heading The New York Times bestseller list six times during its 103-week tenure. The success of the novel, both before and after the release of its movie, is not insignificant: it was ranked number three on its list of best-selling hardcover books in 2009 by Publisher’s Weekly; it was the first single Amazon Kindle title to sell one million eBook copies; it won the 2010 Indies’ Choice Award given by the American Bookseller’s Association; and it won the 2010 Book of the Year for Fiction given by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (Wilson, 2012). The film enjoyed a large promotional push that included links to southern recipe and cooking guides, women’s fashion and style guides, and further cross-branding efforts. The Help film was highly successful, probably due to its vast marketing as well as the book’s popularity. The film grossed approximately $170 million domestically and $210 million worldwide (Wilson, 2012). However, the 2011 release of the movie was not met with only a public appeal: many viewers raised concerns about the exaggerated African American vernacular, the overt domestic worker stereotypes, and the perpetuation of the white savior trope. These concerns are all apparent in both the novel and the movie, which suggests that the large audiences that gave them their popularity are willing to look past— or maybe not even see at all— the problematic depictions of race and the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s.
The conversation surrounding Kathryn Stockett and her novel began immediately after its release— it was controversial because some readers found it to be disparaging towards African Americans and a complete misrepresentation of the Civil Rights Movement. Ida E. Jones, the National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians, succinctly described many of her own problems with race in The Help in an essay entitled “An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help.” “Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice,” she writes, “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism,” (I. Jones, 2014). The film, she argues, portrays the Civil Rights Movement through rose-tinted glasses, and in doing so it ignores the constant adversaries like sexual assault and less than adequate pay that the women had to deal with. It invalidates an entire violent, hard-fought movement by suggesting that it was people like the preppy, upper-middle class white Southern woman protagonist, Skeeter, who really spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, Jones argues, it completely mutes the violence by suggesting that racism was not an institutional cultural psyche, but a handful of problematic individuals. “Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness,” (I. Jones, 2014). Jones further argues that Stockett has used the Civil Rights Movement as a plot development strategy without giving it the respect that she believes it deserves: “In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own,” (I. Jones, 2014). Jones is far from the only scholar to raise concerns about the handling of race in The Help, and yet the book is still considered a keystone piece of literature in many wine-and-cheese book clubs.
The popularity of The Help, both film and movie, suggests that large numbers of Americans are comfortable either ignoring the stereotypes represented, or simply do not recognize the fallacy of the story and the language used by its characters. Constance Ruzich and Julie Blake argue in their essay entitled “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: Dialect, Race, and Identity in Stockett’s novel The Help,” that the African American community, by contrast, is able to see the misuse of dialect as it is shown in the film and on paper. “For many in the black community and/or for those with experience and understanding of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Stockett’s representation of the maids’ language does not ring true and thus is perceived as insulting, demeaning, and racist,” (2015). Ruzich and Blake continue to suggest that the actual markings within the dialogue of the African American domestic workers are not necessarily the problem, but the process of “enregisterment” that readers and viewers undergo in consuming the novel as entertainment. Barbara Johnstone, who works in the Pittsburgh area studying AAVE and coined the term, describes it as “if hearing a particular word or structure used, or a word pronounced a particular way, is experienced in connection with a particular style of dress or grooming, a particular set of social alignments, or a particular social activity, that pronunciation may evoke and/or create a social identity,” (Johnstone, 2011). Asif Agha, who can be put into conversation with both Ruzich and Blake and Johnstone because of his work with enregisterment, defines it as “the process by which a collection of linguistic forms or features becomes linked to a social identity and its accompanying ideological and cultural values,” (2003). Using this definition of enregisterment, Ruzich and Blake argue that the social identity Stockett attempts to portray to readers through the marked dialect of the African American domestic workers is that of being black, poor, and uneducated.
In his essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” James Baldwin, argues that specific dialects become institutionalized because they had belonged to the people of privilege at the time of the language’s conception. With this in mind, the idea of “correct” and “incorrect” speech patterns becomes hazy. He writes that the arguments surrounding African American dialects are “rooted in American history and [have] absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument seems to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker,” (Baldwin, 2001). By describing characters through their marked vernaculars, Stockett is suggesting that particular speech patterns correlate with different races, specifically that African American English is more marked with “inaccuracies,” although the institutionalized creation of “correct” English was in itself classist. Stockett’s markings are clear in the dialect of the African American characters while many of the white characters, even those of the working class, maintain a nearly pristine speech pattern. In this way, both the novel and the movie are suggesting that specific vernaculars are aligned with class and race intrinsically and that the marked vernacular of the domestic workers should be recognized as a dialect used by the working class while the more “correct” version of Southern American English used by the white characters should be viewed as one with the upper-middle class (Ruzich & Blake, 2015). Ruzich and Blake argue that The Help adds to a preexisting cultural enregisterment that links AAVE to the poor, uneducated, and lower class.
The process of enregisterment in The Help becomes even more problematic when one considers the markings (or lack of markings) in the dialogue of the white characters. Ruzich and Blake support critiques of the novel on this basis, because upon close study of the lines of dialogue, they found that “the speech of Stockett’s white characters, no matter their social class or rural/urban differences, is significantly less marked for dialect than that used to give voice to the black characters in The Help. In the language of her [Stockett’s] white characters, dialect markers occur approximately once in one-hundred words, as compared to the language of her black characters, in which dialect markers occur approximately once every ten words,” (Ruzich & Blake, 2015). This is offered in juxtaposition with the fact that historically, both African American and white characters would be speaking an accented form of Southern American English (SAE).
The implication of this skewed form of dialect within the novel and the book suggests that, as a middle-class woman in the South, Stockett formed her own prejudices that translated into her writing (Ruzich & Blake 2015). This problem is exacerbated due to the novel’s popularity within white audiences because it suggests that Stockett’s internalized stereotypes are part of a larger, more widely accepted discourse. “The linguistic stigmatization of the black characters in Stockett’s novel, then, needs to be viewed as something much larger than a reflection of a single author’s individual prejudices, but rather, as a popular culture indication of the racial and class anxieties that are deeply woven into the sociocultural fabric of American society, a society that embraces and popularizes such linguistic choices,” (Ruzich & Blake, 2015). This problem is highlighted by Stockett’s handling of the dialect of the white working-class, which is represented by Celia Foote, a woman from Sugar Ditch who marries into wealth and is taught basic housekeeping and cooking skills by one of the African American domestic workers, Minnie. She is specifically interesting to linguists and historians looking at the accuracy of the novel because, despite the fact that being a lower class woman is intrinsically part of her character, she does not have nearly the amount of vernacular markings that the domestic workers do. Despite the fact that historically, Celia Foote’s language would have been just as marked as that of the domestic workers, Kathryn Stockett actually spoke in an interview about how she created Celia Foote’s half-broken hybrid English. “I had a lot of fun writing Miss Celia. I wanted to create a character who’s so poor that they’re beyond prejudice. But in terms of dialogue? Hers was the hardest to capture. When you really get down into deep, thick redneck accents, you kinda have to take out all your teeth before you can really pull it off. But I do love those accents,” (Calkin, 2009). Ruzich and Blake wrote that they found this specific quotation particularly disturbing because it shows the true lack of attention that Stockett seemed to pay to the markings of AAVE and accented SAE, which all of the characters would historically be speaking. “Stockett’s assertion that she depicts Celia with a “deep, thick redneck accent” is difficult to reconcile with the comparatively infrequent markers of dialect found in Celia’s speech,” they argue, “In fact, after examining the linguistic features of Celia’s speech, it is unclear in what sense Stockett “took out all her teeth” in order to represent a character she describes as “so poor that they’re beyond prejudice.” Instead of highlighting differences between rich and poor, Stockett’s novel underscores the differences between black and white,” (Ruzich & Blake, 2015). This type of enregisterment becomes problematic when it is being perpetrated by popular culture, but it becomes even more concerning when books and films that play into the misrepresentations of race become the most popular piece of literature about the time period. The problems with the dialect of character in the novel and movie are far from the only example of misrepresentation of African American domestic workers, although it may be arguably the easiest one to point out directly. When one considers the failings of Stockett’s version of broken AAVE in tandem with the misrepresentations found in the characters and plot itself, it becomes clear that the novel and film could be considered not only misrepresentative of a culture, but at times flat-out inaccurate.
Allison Graham in “‘We Ain’t Doin’ Civil Rights’: The Life and Times of a Genre, as Told in The Help,” argues that one of the many ways in which race is misrepresented in the novel is its use of the Civil Rights Movement to generate idle discussion. The movement acts as background noise to the actual plot, which is centered around a privileged white woman, although the book is marketed as a piece of Civil Rights Movement literature. She further argues that the conclusion of the movie, although it achieves its “feel good” intent, really only suggests a “happy ending” for Skeeter and some extra money for the domestic workers involved. The only light at the end of the tunnel for the African American domestic workers is that “the film gives no hint that Abilene and Minny will feel further backlash from ‘doin’ civil rights,’” (Graham, 2014). By focusing the entire story on a “white savior” protagonist, the novel and the film are allowing white audiences to relate to the main character while feeling as though they understand the Civil Rights Movement completely. Other scholars, like Tikenya Foster-Singletary, have raised many concerns about the misrepresentations of color within The Help: “Stockett’s handling of race slips in a number of ways, marring the novel’s ultimate task and weighing it down with the problematic language and details for much of the story,” (Foster-Singletary, 2012). Graham and Foster-Singletary are just two voices in a large pool of critiques who suggest that there are problems with the way Stockett’s The Help handles racial issues and the Civil Rights Movement.
Many literary critics, scholars, and casual book bloggers seemed to pick up on the overt problems in the description of race within the novel. In her essay entitled “The Help: A Critical Review,” April Scissors discusses some of the issues that she found within the text, such as the lack of African American male characters, which perpetrates the stereotype that African American men are not involved in family life at all, and when they are, they are violent (like Minnie’s abusive husband who is only shown in the film as a threatening shadow). She also argues that many scenes in both the film and the novel follow a stereotype by suggesting that African Americans must be religious and forgiving. Especially when these qualities are expected from middle-age African American women, the line between what is a “black mammy” stereotype and what is an accurate depiction of domestic workers becomes blurred (Scissors, 2013). “It is important to note that as a black woman, Abilene could not tell the stories of other black women and have the book be received as well as The Help has. If a black author wrote the book, or if the story allowed for Aibileen to be in charge of her own freedom, The Help would be relabeled as “African American fiction” or a “Black movie,” marginalized by its topic and not half as successful,” (2013). It is clear that many readers and viewers of The Help, especially Southern African Americans, find it an inaccurate depiction of life in Jackson, Mississippi, and yet its popularity among audiences seems unaffected. What does this suggest, then, about the audiences that are willing to consume entertainment that is widely viewed as inaccurate?
Some literary scholars argue that at least part of the success of the novel was due to its tendency to bend more towards the audience’s emotional reaction than the actual historical truth. By revealing the full extent of the violence and struggles within the Civil Rights Movement and the lives of domestic workers in the 1960s, Stockett would have forfeited the ability to bring the novel to a tidy, optimistic close. Instead, she chooses to collapse all of the racial injustices suffered by African American domestic workers into a single, bit-sized and hatable character, Hilly Holbrook. With her defeat at the end of the novel, it is assumed that the defeat of all “racists” would follow. In this way, audiences are allowed to ignore the issue that the movie claims to push: the racial injustices of domestic workers in the 1960s. Henneberger writes in her critical review of the novel that “the book’s real appeal, it seems to me is in its invitation to ease into a warm bath of moral superiority over the racist ninnies in the book, who worry about the diseases they might catch if the women who cook their food and raise their children were also to tinkle in their toilets,” (Henneberger, 2011). The audience, she argues, is given an archetype of a “racist,” who just appears to be a mean-hearted and largely under informed woman. By placing the racial problems of this period squarely on Hilly Holbrook’s shoulders, the audience can take the weight off of themselves. In this way, I argue that some of The Help’s popularity comes from its misrepresentation of race relations in the 1960s because it allows for the momentary ease of white guilt. By allowing racial injustices as a whole to be condensed to a single antagonist, audiences are trading historical truths for the temporary pleasure of a fictional story.
Perhaps, then, the widespread success of both the novel and the film is suggestive of the consumers, although I would be hesitant to claim that a buyer of the book is equivalent to a firm supporter of the book. I would love to suggest that perhaps the book’s market popularity comes from the conversations that are generated about its misrepresentation of race, but I think that would be far-reaching optimism and that, in reality, its popularity comes from its perpetration of white fantasy stereotypes. Ruzich and Blake agree, arguing that “the commercial success of Stockett’s novel can be explained by its attempts to meet the emotional and political needs of her audience,” (2015). These “emotional and political needs,” they explain, include the need to alleviate white guilt and the need to personally connect with a lead white character who becomes triumphant in the end. “It could be argued that the central concern of the book is not about social justice for black people, but rather is about white people trying to figure out what roles they will still get to play in a social landscape in which a black man is President of the United States—a black man from the North who doesn’t talk like Uncle Remus,” (Ruzich & Blake, 2015). This becomes especially problematic when considering that this is one of the few novels written by a Southern author that depicts Southern life during the Civil Rights Movement (however inaccurately) at all. The Help is an inadequate source of history, but for many current movie-watchers, it is the most information that they’ve received about the Civil Rights Movement at one time since high school. In Ann Hornaday’s review of the novel, she concurs, stating that many of her worries come from the fact that the novel might not be popular despite the historical inaccuracies, but because of the inaccuracies. She leaves the reader to experience the book for themselves, but to be aware of the problems surrounding race as depicted in the novel. “Surely both taste and perspective will inform whether viewers will find “The Help” a revelatory celebration of interracial healing and transcendence, or a patronizing portrait that trivializes those alliances by reducing them to melodrama and facile uplift,” (Hornaday, 2008). Although my paper argues that the misrepresentations of African Americans within The Help probably added to its popularity among white audiences through its perpetration of white fantasy, I do completely recognize and understand the importance of reading texts that propose problems because it reveals the psyche of not only the author, but of the audience. I would argue that The Help was published at a convenient time in American history in that white guilt was heightened by the slow recognition of police brutality and the novel offered a quick-fix remedy. The social climate in which the novel was published, its perpetration of white fantasy stereotypes, and its tendency to reduce racial injustices into a single antagonist in order to act as if they have been completely resolved probably added to the novel’s popular appeal. The movie’s release made the same themes even more readily available and it opened a discussion that the country was nervous to have about historical racial tensions and it offered a clean, although not complete, answer: “racism is bad, so don’t be a racist”. The themes displayed in The Help ignore the fact that racial tensions are historically an intrinsic part of American history, that racism is an internalized misunderstanding of another race and not a mean-spirited individual, and that racial tensions still exist today. Instead, it perpetrates themes that suggest that racial injustices are a phenomena of the past and that racism can be defeated with shit pie.
In conclusion, this paper was meant to describe, in detail, the misrepresentations of class and race in The Help while asking what its massive popularity suggests about its audience and their willingness to accept such stereotypes. In this paper, I outlined the popularity of the novel and movie, used quotations from critics to gather an understanding of the popular opinion of each, discussed specific instances of Stockett’s misuse of AAVE and misrepresentation of African Americans, and considered what its popularity despite its obvious problems says about its audience. I found that many scholars, including Ruzich and Blake, would argue that “the linguistic stigmatization of the black characters in Stockett’s novel “needs to be viewed as something much larger than a reflection of a single author’s individual prejudices, but rather, as a popular culture indication of the racial and class anxieties that are deeply woven into the sociocultural fabric of American society, a society that embraces and popularizes such linguistic choices,” (2015). Even Aibileen’s repeated mantra in the film, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” is marked by a form of uneducated dialect that is not in coherence with accented SAE, which the character would be historically speaking. Stockett’s claims that she draws directly from memories of her own African American nanny, in my opinion, offer very little reconciliation because it is an admittance that she consciously chose to write from childhood memory instead of a true form of Southern American English or African American Vernacular English. The fact that the popular audience’s reaction to a piece of art as problematic as The Help was widespread approval suggests that people found comfort in its dramatized versions of the 1960s and muted descriptions of the Civil Rights Movement. The Help tells a story in which a “white savior” protagonist uses the stories of domestic workers to further her own personal agenda of being a journalist while claiming to be a book about Civil Rights. It attempts to alleviate white guilt by personifying racism as a single, definable character who can be defeated and it paints the “good” white people as the heroes. These characteristics of The Help probably helped in its vast success because it was received by an audience eager to fix racial wounds quickly and silently. It offered a way to resolve the racial tension, eliminate internalized white guilt, and provide the “feel-good” sensation required of an enjoyable movie, and it was accepted by an audience too eager throw away historical truths to bask in the warmth of white fantasy.
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Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?.” The Black Scholar, no. 1, 2001, p. 5.
Calkin, Jessamy. “The Maid’s Tale: Kathryn Stockett Examines Slavery and Racism in America’s Deep South.” The Telegraph. 16 July 2009. Web. 24 Sept. 2012.
Foster-Singletary, Tikenya. “Dirty South: “The Help” and the Problem of Black Bodies.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 4, Summer2012, pp. 95-107.
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