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The controversy of The Help and the Mammy figure

The movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett‘s The Help is currently on circuit in South Africa, and the book has enjoyed months on the New York Times bestseller list. While the movie deals with racism in 1960s America (which isn’t all that long ago), it might have an interesting angle for South Africans. After all, Eve of Madam and Eve fame has made it to the front cover of Playboy magazine (a position shared by the famous Marge Simpson), has been in a live-action sitcom and starred in twenty-two annual collections of the comic strip. She is both a stereotype and not, a fixture of South African life and media since 1992. For thousands of black women, being that person working in someone else’s house and raising their children is as familiar. For most white South Africans, the maid or domestic has been part of life since very early childhood. With this in mind, perhaps The Help may be an important movie for South Africans to watch and discuss.

The Help has been seen as controversial because some say that it panders to existing Hollywood stereotypes of ‘Mammys’ and ‘Madams’ rather than challenging these caricatures. But opinion is divided, as some say that it transcends these two-dimensional roles to become something uplifting and heartwarming. As discussed in the Guardian,

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on The Help. For the fans, it’s big-hearted and gently radical, a film that gives a voice to the dispossessed while posing as a white girl’s coming-of-age tale. For its detractors, however, it’s a reductive essay in racial profiteering, another slice of the same old ham. According to a statement released by the Association of Black Women Historians: “The Help distorts, ignores and trivialises the experiences of black domestic workers.” Far from being empowered and liberated, The Help’s domestic drudges represent “a disappointing resurrection of Mammy”.

–  Is the Help helping? Domestic Servants on film in today’s Hollywood” by The

It is worth seeing if only to understand where both sides of this argument are coming from. I personally feel that there are books that deal with these complex issues far better and with less of the Hollywood touch. What do you think about The Help? Have you read it yet?

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One Response to The controversy of The Help and the Mammy figure

  1. Pam Miller October 21st, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    South African women read the book or go and see the movie. It will haunt you more than Bishop Tutu at the TRC, as it impacts on you much more directly.

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