Last night's Academy Awards featured stars in glittery gowns and lint-free tuxedos. My husband has a low tolerance for the show, so after I got my fill of red-carpet gowns and shoes, we watched a best-picture nominee and followed the prizes via twitter. Yes, my husband wanted to watch The Help.
I read it, loved it, and blogged it last summer. As the movie gained traction, I have heard more stories about my life in 1960's Houston, TX, including the day my mom took me to the "colored" toilet in a shopping mall. She had a toddler who had to pee, and she saw a restroom marked for women. When she came out, apologetic store clerks told her the error of her ways. My own kids hear these stories and cannot believe that we ever allowed such stupidity.
I was really routing for both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis to take home statuettes last night for their performances in the movie adaptation of this book (although Meryl Streep is fantastic in everything she does). Both women brought such depth and grace to these roles that even my husband was impressed by the movie. However, the twitter feed eventually lit up with complaints about these women playing maids in this day and age.
I wonder if these same folks bitch about those playing maids and footmen in Downton Abbey "in this day and age?"
My disclaimer follows:
If you have seen my photo, you know I am not African American; I have a proud insect ethnicity (WASP). I have felt like "the other" on occasion in my life. When I started out in medicine, everyone immediately assumed that any woman was a nurse. Now, when every medical show on television has multiple female physicians, this happens far less often. The nurses in these shows remain overwhelmingly women, though, reflecting the current reality. D00ds are still doctors till proven otherwise.
However, I may not be as sensitive to racial stereotypes since that has not been part of my experience.
The Help is a period piece, a story of a misguided time that we must not forget. It's the story of invisible women whose story becomes part of the record. I do not remember this sort of issue with Morgan Freeman playing a chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, another flick set in 1960's Mississippi (although that film came out during my fellowship when I had a two-year-old child and may have missed the controversy).
What do those who complain about these actresses playing maids want? Better roles for actresses of color? Hell, I would like to just say better roles for actresses in general (that could be another whole post). Do they not want this story told? Because the world is better if we pretend this period never happened?
Or could this be another example of African American women being ignored? There's a museum for the men who waited on white people as Pullman porters and a book on the same. Should this work be adapted into a movie starring male actors, would they get put down for taking demeaning roles in a movie set in segregated US?
As I said in my original post:
The bottom line seems to be that housekeeping and childrearing remain undervalued. These chores require no specialized training, but they remain essential to our lives.
They are "women's work."
A male actor playing someone who takes on a demeaning job to support a family seems heroic. A woman playing a part where she cooks, scrubs floors, and raises others' children to achieve the same end...not so much. At least, for some. For me, the real value of The Help was making those women more than cardboard characters in the background. They were as brave and courageous as the men depicted during those same period dramas.
This week following the Oscars, we transition from Black History Month to Women's History Month. It's a great time to explore the contributions of black women to our world. And what a greater way to honor two amazing movie performances!
Even Meryl would approve as chair of the effort for the National Women's History Museum.