“The Help” Yesterday and today

There has been a war of words over “The Help” since the phenomenal success of both Kathryn Stockett’s book and the recent movie adaptation.  One argument has to do with how Hollywood (and white authors) portray Black women.  A second argument has to do with applicability of “the Help” to today’s domestic workers.  The argument goes like this:  “It’s a great story, but it’s about the civil rights era.  It has nothing to do with domestic work today.”  The other side argues that today’s nannies face many of the same challenges as Abilene and her friend Minnie.  One side argues that to make the connection between today’s domestic workers and those living in the Jim Crow South is an insult to the violence and degradation faced by African Americans after slavery. The other says that to ignore the similarities to today’s domestic workers is to deny the oppression going on under our noses.  Which side is correct?

Both are. Nothing in contemporary domestic work can compare to the caste system enforced by the threat of violence and permanent unemployment that reigned in US prior to the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. The status of African American women as the ultimate “other” in American society made “colored woman” synonymous with “maid” and vice versa. Thus, the beautiful economy of Stockett’s title: “The Help” simultaneously captures what it meant to be a black woman in the South, and what it meant to be a domestic worker. Like those at the bottom rung of any caste society, the dirty work simultaneously defined both status and occupation.

But there is also a through-line to this story. Declared “obsolete” in the 1970s by eminent Sociologist Lewis Coser, domestic workers have not disappeared but rather, domestic work has proliferated as economic disparities have increased, and the 71% of mothers in the labor force seek relief from the double day of the first shift in the office and the second shift at home. Today’s domestic workers are overworked, underpaid, often unprotected by labor laws and made more vulnerable by immigration laws. However, there is no one group designated to fill the contemporary role of “domestic.” Rather, multiple groups of women, immigrant and native-born, fill increasingly specialized roles of hourly cleaner, mother’s helper, and nanny.

Black women in the south might spend a lifetime cooking, cleaning, and raising children for generations of the same white family.  In today’s era of competitive mothering, however, most employers are not content to have the same person who mops their floors raise their infants and toddlers. In my interviews for “Shadow Mothers,” I found that employers hired nannies based on “Ethnic Logics” – developmentally-specific criteria designed to match the right type of nanny with the age-specific needs of their children: a patient, older immigrant for infancy, an outgoing, younger au pair for the social-skill building years of toddlerhood, and perhaps someone with a degree in early childhood education for the crucial pre-school period. Rather than one all-purpose maid who stayed with a white family until her employer threw a tantrum, nannies now turn over based on children’s developmental needs. As one respondent who bounced between care for children and care for the elderly explained, “they either die on you or they go to pre-school.”

Employers have changed, too since the 1960s. The caricatures of status-conscious ladies of the “league” have been replaced by harried, working professionals. Their concerns have changed as well. The wife in the “companionate marriage” of the 1950s and 1960s concerned herself primarily with enhancing her husband’s status at work by being a hostess and by improving her family’s social status through engagement in civic and volunteer organizations. Mothering was an important, but lesser concern. Contemporary women, by contrast, are judged by the upward mobility of their children, not of their husbands. Evidence of “competitive mothering” is everywhere from Baby Einstein to enrichment classes for one-year-olds, to the long waiting lists for the best pre-schools. Demographer Susan Bianchi has shown that the at-home mothers of that golden age of the nuclear family actually spent less time with their children than do the working mothers of today.

Thus, in today’s domestic work relations, the stakes are higher in drawing the line between mother and not-mother. The white mothers in “The Help” express relief one moment at their children’s desperate clinging to the maid, and the next moment pitch a fit because the child misused the word ‘mommy.’ Among the nannies I interviewed, allowing a child to cross the boundary between “mother” and “not-mother” was often a firing offense. The employers in “The Help” were less threatened by children’s attachment to their maids because the caste line was unbreakable, and because mothers were not held so deeply accountable for how their children “turned out.” For the help of the 1950s and 1960s, the sacred, uncrossable barrier was the color line; for the today’s help it is the line the “mother/not-mother” barrier.

Explore posts in the same categories: Childcare and Domestic Work, interracial intimacy


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6 Comments on ““The Help” Yesterday and today”

  1. grouchosis Says:

    right on. But the mother/notmother line is now defined in more class than race terms and since social mobility for the children is the issue, a serious bond between the child and the paid caregiver is a threat to achieving that goal. The children who bonded with “the Help” a generation ago were never thought to be “held back” by that relationship, and thus were more able to fool themselves into thinking that this was a true “family” tie. Much of the criticism I have seen of The Help, both book and movie, by African American women has to do with the self-deceit of the now-adult children about the “selfless love” of their caregivers for them. This kind of self-deceit is less likely to thrive in the more blatantly contingent employee relationships of today. But is this a good thing or a bad thing? some of those “children” used their bond to acquire actual empathy later in life, but how are today’s children going to relate to caregiving andd caregivers when they too are grown?

  2. Mindy Says:

    Beautiful job weaving in your important research to provide insights re the movie and book, Cameron!

  3. Joannie Says:


    I have found the work by Jessica Benjamin in Like Objects Love Subjects and Shadow of the Other and the concept of intersubjectivity useful as a way of conceptualizing connections between mother/other and infant/child.

    I’ve also found the Bourdieusian notions of social and cultural capital useful for talking about the social construction of mothering – without talking about motherhood (which is very fraught).

    I haven’t seen the movie or read the book on The Help – which I will do soon. But I think its really interesting that this, along with Let’s talk about Kevin and the Australian book and series called The Slap – (amongst many others) are read and discussed by many today. What is means to be a mother is being held up to the light precisely because this relationship (along with what it means to be a father) is changing and we are thinking this through publicly. Hurrah – but wider questions in regard to the social structuring of care hasn’t really made it. This movie, it seems to me, exemplifies the trend by individualizing care through the female carer and the mother – rather than stepping back to reflect on how care has been privatized through the family. I like the work of both Eva Kittay and Martha Fineman in this regard. Their critiques of the family and the use of ‘dependency theory’ and the notion of vulnerability.

    These are abstract notions that are difficult to portray – do you know of any popular works that have taken up this challenge?

    Regards from Australia, Joan G

    ps: I’ve sent up an internet site at: http://www.maternalhealthandwellbeing.com – on this there is a link to a blog which I have called – Rethinking Care – please feel free to link up and leave some comments.

  4. I really feel like the critism of the adapted movie may just be due to over-sensativity, but I’m still open to hear more of their reasoning.

  5. I have also come across such people, having such weird and outrageous identifications. And I wonder, how did they have landed their previous jobs, with such kinds of identifications presented?

  6. I love that movie very thought provoking as well as funny

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