It was my interest in Feminist research methods that compelled me to read the novel, The Help by Kathryn Stockett recently. Feminist research is important. Without it, we would never be granted access to the lives of women who fall outside the categories that Hollywood and Academia have been kind enough to grant us.
Skeeter- our protagonist in The Help utilizes qualitative Feminist research methods, (despite never naming them as such) in asking her participants for ‘herstory.’ However there is an underlying feeling that seems that she does so not because she truly wants to see change, but for the sake of furthering her own career. The reader is directed to see Skeeter’s actions as being praiseworthy, and they certainly might be seen as so, particularly when placed in contrast with the corresponding (repugnant) actions of the other white characters.
All of the characters are taking a risk by their involvement with the said research. Skeeter faces exclusion from her social circle and loses her tennis partner, whilst the domestic helpers who generously share their stories potentially face marginalisation and violent reprisal in a time and place where lynching was a regular occurrence. The fact that there is such discrepancy in the risks taken by the characters is not something that is highlighted. Skeeter’s bravery is painted as commendable, as liberal when in fact her actions are in many ways self serving… It is actually Aibileen, Minny and their fellow participants who should be seen as the true activists in this instance. In sharing their stories, they are not only risking their own safety for the sake of a higher cause, but they are entering into a conceptual process in which they stand face to face with their own internalised oppression and challenge the values and assumptions they have been taught their entire lives. (Given all the more weight by Skeeter’s refusal to share her own story in its entirety, of her family’s ill treatment of their own domestic help.)
We see evidence of just how remarkable and empowering this process is as Aibileen’s stories to her child-charge begin to take on hidden messages of assimilation and equality. This is a far more powerful personal experience than Skeeter’s equivalent- her rejection of Leslie Gore’s ‘It’s my party’ in favour of Bob Dylan singing ‘Times, they are a changing’ whilst listening to the radio.
Of greater interest than Skeeter’s relationship with Aibileen and Minny (which in fact re-produces unequal race relations in a new way) is Minny’s relationship with her ‘white trash’ employer Celia. At times, we are directed to see Celia as unaware and lacking in insight, despite the fact that she is overtly challenging inequality, perhaps because she does so in such an immediate sense as opposed to Skeeter’s intellectual one… As if she didn’t know that white women were not supposed to eat lunch at the same table with their domestic help, let alone hug them or call them a friend. She just doesn’t care, and her willingness to challenge segregation is far more admirable than the author leads us to believe.
I might add that I enjoyed reading The Help. Perhaps I just wish the fact that it was written by a white woman had been less obvious.