This is a post about the politics of representation, postcolonial theory, and the Hollywood movie, The Help. And it begins with my Mom.
She called me right after seeing The Help and insisted, “You have to see it. You just have to.”
“I’ve heard it’s got a lot of problems,” I said. “Like, you know, it’s the same old Dances with Wolves, Avatar, Fern Gully problem of white person comes in and saves the day.”
“No, no, it’s not like that,” she told me.
So I saw the movie. And, well, it is sort of like that, actually. But not entirely. Anyways, before I started feeling smugly self-righteous about the film, I thought about the similarity between what the main character, Skeeter, sets out to do and what ethnographers like me are all about. The correspondence left me feeling icky, which is a word I borrow from Dana Stevens, whose review at Slate perfectly captures the ambivalence I felt about the film. As I tried to figure out what this ickiness meant, I realized it had a lot do with the vast amount of Edward Said I’d been reading lately, especially his reference to Marx about representation (and then Gayatri Spivak’s critique of Marx).
The Help, based on a popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, centers on Skeeter, a brash young idealist who, driven by a combination of personal ambition and a commitment to justice, sets out to tell the stories of local African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. The maids are terrified to talk to her, and she encourages them to speak, hoping that she can impress a New York City editor, embarrass the other pretty young things in the Jackson community, and also make a difference and help some people. She sounds, in other words, like quite a few of us ethnographers if we thought seriously enough about why we do what we do.
As an epigraph to Orientalism, Edward Said quotes Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten werden). As I read Said, the quote is important less for the first clause then the second, e.g., asking questions about the nature of representation and the politics that inevitably happen along the way. Yet that’s not precisely what Marx meant. In her famous article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (published in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture) Gayatri Spivak distinguishes between Marx’s use of the words vertreten and darstellen, both of which are translated into English as “represent”, and which mean “representation as ‘speaking for’, as in politics, and representation as ‘re-presentation’ as in art or philosophy.” She goes on:
These two senses of representation–within state formation and the law, on the one hand, and in subject-predication, on the other-are related but irreducibly discontinuous. To cover over the discontinuity with an analogy that is presented as a proof reflects again a paradoxical subject privileging.
Spivak’s intervention here is important for a few reasons. First, it corrects a misreading we might have if all we knew of Marx’s quote was that it opened up Orientalism. (Within The Eightheenth Brumaire as well, the quote’s context is clearly political rather than theoretical representation). Yet, more importantly, it sets up her incredibly important insistence on the reality of epistemic violence and the question of subaltern speech. There is not space in this brief post to explain why I think there might be less discontinuity between the two representations than Spivak acknowleges. Nor is there space to reflect on how much “what Marx meant” actually matters in terms of developing theory; that is, whether creative misreadings can actually move us forward as well as (or even more than) orthodoxy. These are big questions that deserve books, not posts.
What does deserve a post, though, is an acknowledgement of the problems of representation–in both senses–and how they relate to ethnographic work and The Help. These problems are central to the interrogations of ethnographic authority that have unsettled cultural anthropology since the mid 1980’s. Reflexivity, collaborative ethnography, and ethnography as cultural critique are some of the many strategies cultural anthropologists have used to lessen the power imbalance between the studier and the studied, but the imbalance still remains. (Interestingly, sociological ethnographers seem much less troubled by the politics of ethnography–their concern is much more about who the knowledge is for rather than how it’s produced).
Critics have raised a variety of political problems with both the novel and films versions of The Help, including a white woman’s writing in African American voices, a big deal movie about black women that features them as maids, and the simplistic presentation of saintly black women and evil white women. None of these criticisms are entirely fair, though they’re all onto something important, and, anyways, I think we can bracket them for our purposes here (though I’d love to talk more about them in the comments). For now, let’s take the politics of the movie’s production for granted and just talk about what Skeeter does. She is reflexive, she is in at least some sense a co-ethnographer, and her work is certainly a form of cultural critique. So why do I still feel so icky? Because her motives aren’t wholly pure? Well whose are? I think the real source of ickiness is that she’s able to do what she does because of a power imbalance. Why should she be the studier, or at least the initiator of the study, while others are not? As long as there are marginalized groups, and as long as those not marginalized are able to study them, such ickiness–despite all our best intentions–will remain. The fact that the movie ends on a positive note about one of the maids representing herself without Skeeter’s help doesn’t change much.
One quick illustration, and then I welcome your comments. Skeeter is talking to Aibileen, her most important informant, while Aibileen is getting on a bus to go home. Because she’s being talked to by a white woman, Aibileen has to stay and chat, and then misses her bus. Feeling bad, Skeeter offers her a ride home, not realizing the impropriety of such an offer. Aibileen has to walk home. This is not even a problem of representation, per se. It’s a problem of misrecognition, and a problem of ignoring differences in power. And then misrecognition and ignorance (or deliberate abuse) of power lead to the epistemic violence and misrepresensentation that Spivak and Said warn us about. These problems happen all the time in ethnography. It’s an icky situation indeed.