The movie “the Help” has of this writing (Friday, Aug 26, 2011) made approximately $82 million at the box office, against a production budget of only $25 million and a publicity budget quite likely of $30 million. The movie is well on its way to being at least mildly profitable, though nothing like the big-budget winners of say, Iron Man and Iron Man 2 or the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But still, the movie has been successful. It is worth noting the reasons why the movie (and before it New York Times best-selling novel) has succeeded in what the movie says about America … and Obama’s chances of being re-elected.
Of course, a good deal of the movie’s success has to do with counter-programming. It is quite simply the only chick-flick available now. Women like to go to see movies too, and the idea of say, sitting through Cowboys and Aliens or some other action film doesn’t appeal to them. In the same way that Jason Statham movies often take advantage of being the only action flick around, this movie benefits from savvy scheduling. The success of the novel, of course is reflective that the bulk of the book-buying public are women. No one would argue that Twilight is a work of great mastery, but women ate up that stuff like crazy. Romance novels from Barbara Cartland on have sold well, and if instead of Fabio on the cover there is the thrill of a hunky, glittery-gay vampire lurking inside the novel, well that’s just the market working to serve a hungry readership and audience.
And yes, the “help” even in say, early 1960’s Jackson Mississippi was far more likely to be named Frigidaire, or Kitchenmaid, or Hoover, than anything else. Few American housewives had domestic servants of any kind, back then, and even fewer today. Those who do tend to be on the rich side of things. The reality is that Rich and Powerful Black Men employ domestic servants, and these servants tend to be illegal aliens from Mexico. Not downtrodden Black women in the 1960’s caring for White babies. The real “help” was automation, and machines, that made domestic life entirely different, in rich countries first and then poor nations. Hans Rosling remembers how in Sweden, his grand-mother cried when she got her first Washing Machine:
Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, garbage disposals, vacuum cleaners, all made domestic life far easier for the 1950’s housewife. Allowing her to work outside the home in the 1960’s and onward. The help was not oppressed maids in middle class houses. It was machines, that transformed the brutal work of women in the house to one of manageable chores. Meanwhile Desegregation happened not because of some noble crusade by White women and Black people, but because Whites had already left places like Jackson and New Orleans, for suburban places far from Blacks. The cheap automobile, provided by Ford, GM, and Chrysler, allowed people to move far away from the urban life, including far away from Black people, and live in air-conditioned isolation, away from the hustle and bustle.
This process had begun, first in places like New Orleans, when the St. Charles Streetcar started running in 1835. People moved out to the more genteel, and isolated places along St. Charles (originally where just a few Plantations and houses stood). The same was seen in London, where the commuting process along regional railways started around the same time. If you could avoid living in the city, it was better. Less polluted and stinking (before the advent of modern sewage systems, the city meant chamber pots emptied out onto the street, and of course horse manure everywhere), people moved out to the country the way only Kings and Emperors had before. Technology is wonderful, it allows ordinary people to get wealthier!
In the 1950’s, people moved out of cities like New Orleans and Jackson, MS for the suburbs. In New Orleans, the White middle class moved to Jefferson Parish, or Metarie (home of Britney Spears), or even North Shore outposts like Slidell. Air conditioning and television replaced sitting on the front porch, desperately trying to catch any evening breeze, and gossiping with the neighbors. The great roaring White Middle Class withdrawal from public life dates to about that time.
So nope, the picture “the Help” paints of an oppressive domestic serfdom in the South in the Sixties was false. Whatever semi-serfdom operates today, is the province of celebrities and powerful people, any number of which are Black as well as White. Nearly all Americans cook their own food, wash their own cars, care for their own babies, and have no desire to change. Their only wish — more powerful technology to make each task easier.
Rather, the key to understanding “the Help” is the basic plotline. A young White woman, Eugenia Phelan, nicknamed “Skeeter” returns from College to investigate where the maid who raised her has disappeared to, and discovering a systematic series of racial oppression … writes a gossip book about the mal-treatment of the maids by her mother’s friends, and their scandals and secrets to boot!
Yep, no standing up to violent abuse by police dogs and firehoses on national television. No investigation of secret killings and burials of civil rights workers by police, at the risk of her life. No non-violent resistance to segregation’s uglier practices, with predictable violent consequences. Nope. The protagonist … writes a gossip book. The protagonist avoids “getting married” (her mother’s big dream for her) and instead succeeds in being an “important writer.”
In the movie, things are even clearer. The heroine is played by the much younger and hotter Emma Stone, while the bad women are played by older actresses. If you wanted a clearer picture of what “Civil Rights” today meant, you could not find one. Civil Rights amounts to a constant status-struggle by hip young women to over-turn the older women’s status and seize it for their own. This story is why the book sold so many copies, to female readers, and why the movie was successful, apart from chick-flick scheduling in the middle of “testosterone action Summer.”
For a significant portion of the White, professional, and female demographic, it is always 1963. But that 1963 is not the real version, but rather a fantasy construction of place where they and their projections are the heroes, defeating the forces of evil by … writing a gossip book.
That’s pretty thin. True, Obama does well with White College-educated Women, and poorly with all other Whites:
College Educated White women: 56% approval.
College Educated White men: 38% approval.
Non-College White women: 34% approval (lowest).
Non-College White men: 35% approval.
But even White College Educated Women, prone to using Black people in internal dramas over status with other White women (there are few male characters in the movie and book “the Help”) … need to eat. Or buy gas. Or clothes. All of which have gone up in price under Obama while wages and earnings remain stagnant.
Obama benefited from a perfect storm in 2008. An economic collapse and a Republican opponent who wanted to lose to gain the respect of the NYT and his daughter, who HATES HATES HATES Sarah Palin (echo of “the Help” by the way, you can see its power). Now instead of running against the Man, he IS THE MAN. Americans want results, not a symbol. Largely, people have tuned him out. His speeches tend to be followed by yet another drop in popularity or approval. Obama lost White men voters, but gained in White women voters in 2008’s Presidential election, to carry the day when adding all non-White votes on top of College Educated White women voters.
Yes, there are plenty of White College Educated women willing to play eternal status games, with “enemies” like Sarah Palin, or Michelle Bachman. But as long as say Republicans avoid nominating women who bear a resemblance to say, Sissy Spacek (one of the villains in “the Help”) and focus on economics and Obama’s responsibility for the same, status-games will not save Obama. No matter how much women like Meghan McCain want to gossip about Sarah Palin types. “Change begins with a Whisper” (the tagline of the movie “the Help”) but Hope and Change have left folks without much change … in their pockets.
Obama seems to be basing his entire re-election campaign on appealing to the inner “Skeeter” of his White College Educated Female supporters. While it is true that he allows them to play moral superior to those they have rivalries with (again see Meghan McCain and Sarah Palin) that’s thin soup these days. “The Help” shows how the Civil Rights struggle ends. In farcical idiocy, akin to the severely retarded and deformed Hapsburg Emperor who cried “I am the Emperor, and I want noodles!” at a state banquet.
The Help won’t help Obama.