So the “The Help” opened yesterday at a theater near you. It should do well, particularly among the “Chick Flick” set, and like many, I’m looking forward to seeing it.
I enjoyed the book for a couple of reasons: First of all, it made fun of the Junior League, a great organization of women to which I have devoted a great many volunteer hours and nearly half my life, but still appreciate its very special culture, north or south, east or west. You have to have a sense of humor to make it as long as I have.
Secondly, I’m a sucker for a story about seemingly unlikely friendships and people who have the courage to form them. Remember that show, “I’ll Fly Away?” I cried at every episode.
But here’s the thing about The Help: Place the story in the south of the early 1960s and everyone thinks that racial segregation and discrimination happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “Phew, glad we’re done with that” or “Thank goodness I didn’t live in the south back then.” It might as well have taken place in outer space.
Cut to New York’s Upper East Side in 2005, just steps from Park Avenue and, quite coincidentally, at the headquarters of the Junior League. There’s a party going on: Someone’s turning eight. Upon arriving to fetch her own son, my friend was surprised to find women – babysitters of varying ethnic backgrounds – gathered together in a separate room, on a different floor from the festivities. Before heading upstairs, she stopped to greet those whom she knew, and had to ask why they were not with their various charges. She learned that the mother had requested that all of the babysitters wait in this holding room until the party was over. Puzzled, my friend went on to the room where the children were gleefully partying and asked the birthday boy’s mom what the deal was with the nannies being excluded. The mother scoffed, “Well, you don’t want the help to be where you socialize, do you?”
There it is: “The Help.” In New York City, 2005, and I’m pretty sure that’s no isolated incident. Go back a bit and read my earlier entries on the Nanny Syndrome and invisibility. That’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg.
No, we are not done with that. Women of color still make up the majority of the domestic workforce throughout the country. They’re expected to. I could be wrong, but their relationships with their employers don’t seem terribly different from those between the maids and the Junior League gals in “The Help.” Look around: You’ll see what I’m talking about. For example, practically every recommendation, or request for a recommendation, that I’ve seen for a babysitter or cleaning lady carries the word honest. Seriously, would you suggest someone who wasn’t?
Seven years ago, I shared and elevator to my apartment with an older woman, who turned out was visiting my neighbor in a very swank, minimal minority building. We chatted about the weather on the way up, but when we parted company on my floor, she said, “Oh, you work for the woman next door?” “No,” I told her, “I am the woman next door.”
The official slogan for “The Help” is “Change begins with a whisper.” Clearly, we haven’t been whispering enough. There’s still time, though.