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The Help, Then and Now

2012 March 5

So Southern civil rights fairytale The Help didn’t prove to be the Oscar bait it was predicted to be, apart from Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, even though it has many of the necessary elements gloriously summarised in this Trailer For Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever.

At the time it was released the debates online reminded me I wanted to write something about the modern day ‘help’: the estimated 16,000 domestic workers who enter the UK every year, most of whom are women, and most migrating for economic reasons. Then on Thursday last week, Home Secretary Theresa May announced some changes to immigration law which will put the thousands of migrant women working in domestic service in the UK today at far greater risk of exploitation.

In case it passed you by when it came out, the plot of The Help is this: a young white woman (‘Skeeter’) returns from college with idealistic plans to be a serious writer. Rather than documenting the petty dramas of her affluent circle, she shocks them all by interviewing ‘the help’ and telling the stories of the black maids and nurses she and her friends were raised by who are subject to humiliation and exploitation by their employers.

Spoof poster for The Help reading 'White people solve racism'

Spoof poster by The Shiznit


UK mainstream film reviews were broadly positive, and steered away from any prickly issues around the representation of the black characters or the glorified role of the white woman writer. Although I’ve heard it praised for the strong female characters it contains, when I dipped into the US feminist blogosphere (sorry to use that word – if it helps I’ve started to imagine it as a sort of aquasphere, plumbing the depths of the sea of misogyny) it was a different story.

Hands up – I haven’t seen the film. But I wanted to share some of the interesting comments and criticism I’ve read which seem to confirm my suspicions that whatever positive portrayals of women the film contains come with a dollop of racefail.

There’s a good selection of excerpts from reviews over at The Frisky, and I’d like to quote more from the review at What Tami Said:

Skeeter is not Moses. She liberates no one, but herself… These black women liberate themselves… In 1955, years before The Help takes place, Rosa Parks, who once worked as a domestic, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and sparked a boycott that changed history. Many domestic workers would take part in that boycott, walking miles to their jobs in white people’s homes in a bid for their civil rights. How offensive to imply that what a group of grown black women needs is for a young white woman to come alert them they are “enslaved” and them lead them to freedom.

To me, The Help was less about race than it was about gender – about women of different races, ages and classes chafing against the ways society marginalizes them and restricts them and tries to own them. But that narrative, perhaps, does not lend itself to big box office receipts and product tie ins. (Yeah. Product tie ins.) So instead, we’ll get Nice White Lady Saves Po’ Black Folks – Jim Crow Edition.

Feministing also flagged a nice historical smackdown from Professor Melissa Harris Perry. And Jezebel pointed me towards this review in the New York Times:

What does remain, though, is the novel’s conceit that the white characters, with their troubled relationships and unloved children, carry burdens equal to those of the black characters. Like the novel, the movie is about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger.

Hmm. I think it might be a bit premature to let go of all the anger, you know.

I think it’s a fascinating debate, and I don’t feel I’ve got anything to add. Instead it made me think of the extent to which the problems and abuses of domestic service revealed in The Help are still with us. Of course, the film is dealing with a very specific place and time, but there’s an army of women workers today who are dished out the same kind of exploitation and degradation seen in the film, and worse.

In 2006 there were around 2 million domestic servants in Britain, more than in Victorian times. Of course, not all domestic work is exploitative. It even takes in gardeners at its broadest definition. But there is definitely something that makes me feel uncomfortable about the numbers of usually migrant women cleaning the houses of middle class women throughout the UK.

Rosie Cox captures my unease in her book The Servant Problem when she says “Employing domestic help is at best an individual solution to a social problem. At worst it is the use of another human being to enhance and display wealth and status.”

And as this recent OSCE paper on domestic servitude and trafficking points out, the conditions of domestic work make it easy to exploit workers:

…domestic workers have a crucial role in society, but, at the same time, due to the isolated setting of their work, they are especially vulnerable to humiliation, abuse, violence, exploitation and trafficking… As domestic workers are invisible, victims of trafficking for domestic servitude are even more difficult to identify and therefore, they rarely receive assistance and redress. The ILO estimates that there are 12.3 million victims of “forced labour” worldwide, 2.5 million of them as a result of trafficking.

Slavery is prohibited in the UK under the Human Rights Act. But until 2009 the UK did not have a criminal law dedicated to the particular circumstances of forced labour and servitude, and victims were falling through the gap. Liberty and Anti-Slavery International successfully campaigned for a new law to protect women like Patience Asuquo, who was paid only £2,155 over three years working as a domestic servant for a solicitor in London. She was regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and her passport was held by her employer, whose husband told her that she had to stay in the job for four years in order to remain in the UK.

Last year the International Labour Organisation made a historic decision to extend international labour standards to domestic workers all over the world, a change which will mean the rights of up to 100 million people will be better protected.

However, with its usual efficiency the current government has announced changes to visa rules which may undermine this recent progress by leaving foreign domestic workers in the UK more open to exploitation. Under the new plans domestic workers won’t be allowed to switch employers or to stay in the UK for longer than six months, meaning that it will be harder for women to escape abusive or exploitative employers and will be more likely to use illegal routes into the UK to avoid detection and deportation. Well done, The Government.

Migrant domestic workers are one of the most marginalised and exploited groups, and they are overwhelmingly women. The problematic representation of black women and the civil rights movement in The Help seems even more insulting in the context of ongoing exploitation of women from deprived areas in Europe and the global South in the homes of a new generation of wealthy white employers.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. March 5, 2012

    Good post. I’ve not seen the film either, but I did read the book, and found critiques of it very useful.

    “But there is definitely something that makes me feel uncomfortable about the numbers of usually migrant women cleaning the houses of middle class women throughout the UK.”

    Mm-hmm. It also seems to be dovetailing with the whole pushing of – for want of a better term – Downton Abbey chic, in a way that makes me twitchy.

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 5, 2012

      Yes- I read recently that Upstairs Downstairs is back for another revived season… I’ve not seen it so I’m not sure what it’s like (or whether it engages with class issues rather than just …portraying a situation?) but it seemed worth mentioning.

      • March 5, 2012

        Yes, there’s the whole Titanic anniversary too, with the nostalgic romanticism of social stratification, and of course the bizarro-world rhetoric around workfare and ‘job snobs’… Workfare actually seems like a very obvious intersection of class, race, and gender. I should probably write on this seperately and not derail the post though.

        • Miranda permalink*
          March 5, 2012

          *waves the Totally Yes Write On It sign* – I’m pleased we’re talking more about these intersections on here.

  2. Viktoriya permalink
    March 7, 2012

    But there is definitely something that makes me feel uncomfortable about the numbers of usually migrant women cleaning the houses of middle class women throughout the UK.

    I think I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. I’ve re-written this response about six times, so let’s hope seventh time’s the charm!

    1) On the film. Having watched it, I agree that it was about a white woman swooping to the rescue. It was also about how the underprivileged require someone with privilege to act as a megaphone. I find that pretty problematic as a statement, but not if we confine it specifically to the publishing industry. It’s interesting that both the writer and the publisher are female – men feature only tangentially in the film – and so are the readers. To put it another way, it is a book about women’s work, written by a woman for women readers. Yes, I thought it was massively exploitative. Yes, I thought the implication that all these women needed was Skeeter to save them was stomach-turning. Yes, it missed the point quite a bit, quite a lot of the time.

    BUT – is domestic work is somehow inherently degrading? No.

    2) Let’s own up – I have a cleaner. She works for a cleaning agency, and comes in twice a month. I have chosen to have a cleaner, because after doing X hours of staring at a computer monitor, or coming in off a 3am flight, I don’t want to them have to scrub the bath.

    But, then – I also don’t want to have to move my own furniture, so I hire a removals firm. If I want a coffee, I often buy it. If our garden was any bigger than a postage stamp, yes we would consider a gardener. And if I had a car, I most certainly would go to a car-wash to get it cleaned. Of all of these things, in a hosuehold of two women, it is the cleaning that gets singled out as problematic.

    Additionally, while my employment of a cleaner is the cause of some consternation in the office, precisely no one has any problems with my male colleague having a cleaner. Incidentally, he has the same cleaner. But that’s ok. Because he’s a bloke. (I live in a household of two women. Surely in between overseas trips, the annual accounts and security training involving forest chases with men in balaclavas, one of us should have done the dusting?)

    More to the point, why is cleaning – or cooking, or child-rearing – something that women should be ashamed to pay for? Is it really the case where we get to get up early, go to work, come back home, cook dinner, feed the baby, and clean the house, because relinquishing a part of that to a professional is somehow a betrayal of – what?

    Moreover, we’re not demanding that business stop employing cleaners, and that all staff do their own cleaning. It’s just in the domestic sphere. Just in the household, in the area that affects women. (Arguably, if an office stops having the cleaners come in so often there would be a marked increase in the number of women doing the washing up, but that’s just based on personal experience.) I’m not seeing any demands or comments on how exploitative it is to have a handyman, or a plumber, and why don’t middle class men wash their own bloody cars. But plumbing is a dark art, and surely cleaning is ‘just’… straightforward? Obvious? Dull? (Tell that to any data entry clerk or call-centre worker.) No: it’s menial. You call in a plumber, and you listen to them tut, and charge you a ludicrous amount for tightening a bolt. You call in a gardener who uses special green fingers to stop your roses from committing mass suicide. You take your car to the car-wash, and there is no way you could achieve that finish with a bucket of soapy water.

    And then you call in a cleaner. And you think, “oh, I could have totally managed that myself, only I don’t have to.”

    The problem with domestic work is 4-fold:
    1) it is valued too meanly. The cost-per-hour is too low. It implies it is low-value work, rather than the work being underpaid.
    2) women would otherwise be pressured to do the work themselves. Not instead of doing some other chore – no, in addition to feeding the baby and preparing the financial report and dealing with the removals men.
    3) it is viewed as an optional luxury, much like some people view childcare, rather than a key activity that needs to be accomplished, and it is well and good that we remunerate well for it.
    4) it is viewed as such low-level work, so ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’, that those who perform it are treated incredibly poorly. So you have the trafficking and abuse problem.

    I don’t see the solution for this as yelling at middle class women (I don’t qualify; I’m foreign) to stop hiring cleaners and do their own hoovering. No one is requiring middle class men to wash their own cars, and being outraged if they go to a car-wash instead. No one views working at a car-wash, or a valet service, as somehow incredibly degrading, risky and not-quite-right.

    More to the point, there is also sexual trafficking to feed the sex industry. Quite apart from the question of whether one is anti-porn or sex-positive (or whatever variant one favours), NO ONE is saying that the onus is therefore on women to provide ‘their’ men with sex so that there isn’t a demand for a sex industry and therefore sexual exploitation.

    Fundamentally, while I agree that the sector is riddled with abuse, and that migrant women are incredibly vulnerable, speaking as one of those migrant women – and the daughter and niece of those who have cleaned, and cooked, and stacked shelves, and all those ‘degrading’ positions we tut over – NO.

    The solution is not to simply take away some more jobs, and tell women to be more efficient at running their houses, that this is their responsibility and this work can’t be ‘farmed out’. It is to recognise the value added by the domestic service industry, to ensure that the work is adequately remunerated, and that if someone chooses NOT to employ a cleaner, then it is not ipso facto additional work for the woman. Most importantly, I’d say dissolving the link between ‘cleaning’ = ‘degrading work’ would be a good start.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      March 7, 2012

      Thanks for a brilliant comment. I basically agree. I don’t think there’s anything at all degrading about domestic work, apologies if that seemed to be implied. I mean, childcare? That’s pretty damn important. I think it should be much much better paid.

      And my discomfort is just that, it’s not a condemnation or an attack. Rosie Cox nails it for me: “employing domestic help is… an individual solution to a social problem.” I should have said explicitly but to me the ‘social problem’ is as you say a) the social and cultural expectation that women will still do the bulk of domestic work, which leads to employment practices which fail to adequately support working parents and b) the low status of what is perceived to be ‘women’s work’. And possibly even c) long working hours culture.

      It’s not my business to tell people how they react to said problem. I wouldn’t feel comfortable paying a regular cleaner, but I definitely would feel comfortable paying a gardener or a nanny. *Shrugs* People have their lives to live, I don’t think it does any harm (and as you say, it does create jobs) but I don’t think it helps tackle the problem either.

      What does do harm is the lack of legal protections and fair wages for domestic workers, especially migrant workers, and that is something I do condemn.

  3. Sarah J permalink*
    March 23, 2012

    An update on the progress of the ILO Convention here for anyone who’s interested:

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