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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Critical Thinking


Maj Tom and I were listening to NPR the other morning. They were interviewing Viola Davis, the amazing actress who played Aibileen on The Help. She's been getting some flack from the African American community for playing a maid. In fact, the movie has gotten criticism because of the focus on Skeeter, the white woman who is the driving force behind empowering the black maids. One thing I heard was that too much focus was on Skeeter when it should have been on Aibileen.

As a story-teller, I was wondering what would have happened had Skeeter been relegated to a smaller role and Aibileen been the bigger role. I think it was a delicate balance. Aibileen was so (justifiably) depressed and defeated. I think if the movie had been primarily from her point of view, it would have been more demeaning, in a way, because we would have seen her as she saw herself: a beaten nobody in a deep, dark hole until a young white hand reached down to pull her out. Instead, we see her as Skeeter sees her--a strong, abused, valuable woman with a story.

So twist it around. Take out Skeeter and make the young journalist one of the maids' daughters--Constantine's daughter, maybe, come down from Chicago to get the story of her mother. But from that point of view, the prevailing emotion would probably be resentment--of both the disrespect the women put up with and the fact that her mother raised white babies when she should have been raising her own daughter.

Instead, from Skeeter's point of view, we get affection and gratefulness mixed in with the righteous indignation. The problem with seeing only the bad in the maids' situation is that it marginalizes their lives and the value of their work. Skeeter, for all her naivety, adored, respected, and appreciated Constantine in a way that a resentful daughter might not have been able to.

Another role Skeeter played and was that of the audience-sympathetic dumb puppet. She allowed us to discover information that a more knowledgeable main character would have already known. She also gave us a sort of emotional compass, allowing us to put ourselves into the story in a way that was safe. It's nice to be able to sympathize with the hero.

One more thought, and that's about theme. Was this movie about civil rights? Because the rights of the women didn't change much. I say it was about marginalized women (Skeeter and the maids) finding their voice, realizing they had an important story to tell. Skeeter and Aibileen didn't change the culture; that wasn't their character arc. But they both because writers--tellers of stories. It was as writers that they realized they were kind, they were smart, and they were important.

Point of view's a tricky thing, especially when it deals with such a sensitive topic. What do you think?

In other news, Kersley Fitzgerald gets her first nephew this month! Just as soon as her sister, cheesentoast, stops hogging him all to herself and lets him out to see the world!
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