What can be learned from 'The Help'


I watched The Help for the first time recently (thanks Netflix) and have since watched it another two times. Every time I watch it, I pick up different points of interest and issues of relevance today, let alone in 1960s Mississippi as the film was set.

The Help follows the story of African-American maids and the injustices they faced working for white families. The voices of the black women had been silenced until Skeeter, an empathic young white woman decides to interview them and publish the revelations in a book. The film is underpinned by the broader issues of racism for example shown by segregation of bathrooms, and feminism in that the elevated white women where seen to be nothing without a husband. Other than being telling of these social conditions, the context of the interviews in the film can be learned from to inform our own sociological research.

Skeeter's motivation for conducting her in depth interviews was to expose racial inequality from the perspective of those marginalised, to detail what life is really like in their own words. The rationale for the research was stimulated by a desire to empower people less fortunate. Initially Aibileen, with whom she already had a bond, was approached as she was most likely to agree to participate and then her friends had the courage to get involved. This snowball sample was effective in building a network of trust, allowing Skeeter to gain the respect that would encourage others to come forward without being too scared to tell the truth. The difficulty for an interviewer to navigate a reluctance to speak, or the keenness to go off on tangents, is shown during Skeeter's draining and time-consuming data collection (how apt!).

Anonymity was vital for both the author and participants, otherwise Skeeter would have faced legal action for 'siding' with the black maids. Changing the names of the participants reduced uneasiness about 'telling tales' on their mistress and the subsequent repercussions on their job. However, it turned out that the specificity of personal instances (yes, I do mean that chocolate pie) made participants identifiable to their wider community. This threat to anonymity is something that I can relate to in my own research as there are so few female farmers in Norfolk, many are acquaintances who may be able to make connections to specific individuals. 

Have you watched or read The Help? What did you think?

Comments