The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help: In Praise of Labor Done with Excellence

After a couple weeks avoiding it and another couple of weeks resigned to seeing it because I promised someone I would, I finally got to the movies today to see The Help, the blockbuster film based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Turns out Labor Day was exactly the right day for me to see it, because it helped me to focus on what The Help really was about, that is, work done well.

I avoided the film initially because I am persuaded that these feel-good treatments of black life and racism are actually counterproductive to real discussion of race relations. Sharper minds (and pens) than mine have eloquently articulated exactly what is wrong with the book and the film beginning with its ahistorical assumptions and its light treatment of the civil rights struggle.

For those of you who have been under a rock for the last few months, The Help focuses on a young white woman known as Skeeter (or Miss Skeeter to all the black characters) who after graduating from Ole Miss in the early 1960s is trying to make her living as a writer. Motivated in part by her grief over the unexpected loss of her own nanny, she choses to confront in subversive ways (never overtly) the racism and injustice inherent in the relationship between her junior league friends (perniciously headed by their president Hilly Holbrook) and the women who work in their homes. To prove yet again that the pen is mightier than the sword, and implicitly to suggest that it might even be mightier than the civil rights demonstrations, Skeeter interviews "the help," the community of African American women who make their living taking care of white people like herself. Please note that I said that the book and the movie are about Skeeter, not about the black women. Although Viola Davis renders the most noteworthy (Oscar worthy?) performance as Aibileen, the central black character and one of the narrators in the novel and the movie, this movie is decidedly NOT about black women or their perspective, since everything about her and her life, including the things we hear in her voice, focuses on white people. How we are told she feels about her work, especially about the children for whom she cares, is a obviously a figment of the fantasy life of white people like Stockett who hope that the black people who worked for them loved them.

This brings me to the primary point of this blog posting, that is, the under-appreciated and under-paid but powerful and life-giving professionalism of people who care for other people for a living — a fitting subject for Labor Day. This struck me particularly forcefully at the the end of the film (spoiler alert) when Aibileen loses her job taking care of the Leefolt family. The film focuses on the goodbye between Aibileen and the toddler Mae Mobley with tear-jearking melodrama that implies heartbreak for Aibileen who is losing a(nother) beloved child. What I realized, though, is that however much the child may be heartbroken at having lost the one person in the world who understands that she (and all children) has inherent human worth (too bad her parents didn't figure that out), the caring between Aibileen and the child is born of the WORK of caregiving done so well that it looks and feels like love to the object of the caring, whether it is or not. In another instance, the work of Skeeter's caregiver Constantine looked and felt so much like love that Skeeter actually imagined that her maid Constantine died of heartbreak at having to leave her to live with her own daughter.

That's the beauty of caring work that is done with excellence; it always looks so much like love that it is easy to forget that it's work, sometimes back-breaking, soul-numbing, spirit-exhausting hard work. Ironically, because of this beneficiaries of the labor end up devaluing it. Because it is so well done that it looks easy, they take it for granted and oftentimes resist remunerating it for what it's actually worth or even for what was agreed upon.

The teacher does her/his job with such grace and love that we imagine simply that she/he was born to teach and refuse to acknowledge the painstaking attention and even special study required to deliver lessons that make sense to individual children. The pastor ministers with both fire and gentleness and we acknowledge that the Lord has called and gifted her/him, but we forget that she/he has invested a lifetime of study (with degrees and student loans to prove it), along with hours of prayer and the burden of being on call as well as being called. The list goes on and you can feel free to add to it in the comments section.

By pointing out that work can look like love, I don't mean to suggest that professionalism and genuine human love and affection are necessarily mutually exclusive, only that the latter is nearly totally irrelevant to the point if the working person does her/his job well. I want to know that daycare providers will make a child feel loved whether they like that child or not. I want to know that teachers will teach every student whether their personalities jibe or not. I want to know that hospital and nursing home aides will treat vulnerable patients with kindness and compassion whether or not the patient elicits warm feelings. Finally, I want to insist that those who do this work and all work that makes our lives possible should be treated with dignity and have their professional excellence honored with decent pay and benefits. Happy Labor Day!


Toby said...

Yes. That is, this essay too is work done in excellence. Labor Day is an incredibly apt moment to consider the merits of this film and its messages, intentional and unintentional. The only thing I would add is that the work of the actors is also a species of this kind of work to render the humanity and the lack of humaneness by turning over their talents and personality to material as flawed as this and producing art worth consideration in spite of its failings. An artist too renders service of care in less than ideal circumstances. As DuBois said most powerfully: God is Love and Work [God's] revelation.

Anonymous said...

I love it - your post, that is! Very well written reflection on The Help in light of the millions of men and women that labor, many times behind the scenes, to make others look good. That this service is done with such excellence, that it, in the end, imparts feelings of love, is in itself a tall order, especially given the backdrop (though ahistorical in this movie and book) of the era. My mother worked as a domestic for years, long after the civil rights era, but still during a time when Blacks couldn't get a fair shake on many levels. Still she did it with a resolve and determination because her family depended on it, not because she just loved the little children for whom she cared (I doubt that she did...maybe a little). I suppose it looked like love to them. It was because she loved us - her real family - that she did what she did. Those she helped could never co-author her story, much less tell it!

By the way, I still haven't seen it, though I've read the book.

LeQuita Porter said...

Thank you Dr. Callahan - because of this note I will now go to see the Help. Have avoided it - even with stellar reports from my loved and trusted friends. One close friend likened it to the life her grandmother lived - who supported all their families all of her life - it resonated with her because of this experience. But as I read your note - the tears came to my life as I considered your statement "caring work that is done with excellence" and the importance of valuing and recognizing the work that goes into an end product that looks and feels and is in essence love to the receiver. Thank you this day for this Word - it has pricked my heart and blessed my spirit. . .I look forward to seeing this movie now. . .without the bias I had before. . .but through the lens of a caring God who places emphasis and power on everything that we do. . .with excellence.

Paula Penebaker said...

My dear Leslie, I loved your post on The Help. I read the book and saw the movie. I think yours was a particularly thoughtful reflection with the Labor Day twist.

I have had interesting discussions with black people who expressed anger about a white woman telling "our story." Most didn't read the book because of that, because she couldn't possibly have "told it right." I've had to remind them that it isn't our story, it's her fictionalized story of her life with us. The fact that she wondered what life was like for the help was a big deal to me. As we saw, none of the other women did.

Perhaps her next book, a nonfiction work, will document how her contemplation about the lives of black domestic workers has directed her to live a more purposeful life.

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