The Help, Then and Now
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.
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.
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.
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.