What’s astounding to me as a reader is the persistent presence of the white savior both across genres and across decades. An obviously problematic concept, it attempts to if not alleviate, maybe even rectify white guilt and bestow a sense of both power and purpose upon consumers of media. Civil rights becomes a pastime and a source of entertainment for the audience, but if this is the case, is there a proper way to include white characters into a story? It could be helpful as a call to action, as persons in a position of power certainly have the means to disassemble a racist society… but is that my conditioning as a white person to believe that the ability to adjust power imbalance lies in the hands of the oppressor?
Therein lies the problem. Is it our privilege as white audiences (and critics) to discuss civil rights and slavery from an almost impartial, critical point of view? While anyone who graduated second grade could tell you “racism is bad,” the line becomes blurry when people- even with the best intentions- attempt to tell or explain stories that are not ours to tell. Doing so inherently takes the power and ownership from African Americans and puts it in the hands of someone maybe at one time more societally equipped to handle the consequences. Now, however, because of digital media and participatory culture, that sentiment has become not only unnecessary, but harmful altogether. The production of mass media has permitted the belief in equality as a fashionable and not particularly difficult concept. The oversimplification of intersectionality as a practice of tolerating non-white people living in our world rather than genuine interracial harmony is present.
The Help, a 2011 film adaption of the popular novel, was directed and produced by, not one, but four white people- three of whom were men. The woman who wrote the novel was also white. The female protagonist is- you guessed it- also white. It’s no secret that the film was attempting to appeal to “alternative” white kids. You, too, can be the quirky, bleeding heart lead in your own story! It matters that this is a film because the ultimate goal of the industry is to sell. With that goal comes pandering to whichever group of people is the most likely to buy into it. The film could only exist during a time when racial equality and social justice is trendy. This intention inherently warps the integrity of the media being produced; it’s only done with the approval of consumers in mind. It influences the way characters interact and the outcome of the plot. This is, unfortunately, not a new trend.
Frederick Douglass’ The Heroic Slave is a fictional narrative about the Creole rebellion before the Civil War. It also features a white narrator obtaining a sense of purpose and a freer conscience through the assistance of an escaped slave who ignites a rebellion. We’ve discussed some of the issues and compelling qualities of the text, but it differs from The Help in a few ways. Because it was written by a black author, it possesses an anxious need to humanize Madison Washington. This is done through- again- his relationship to white characters over and over again. He’s made to seem like black excellence by meeting the standard of average white men, at least through the eyes of his white ally. The implication is that the rebellion wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of the white narrator. For the era, this was necessary for many of the same reasons as The Help: it had to appeal to white audiences.
The Help features black characters without considering how those black characters fall into or perpetuate stereotypes. Yes, some characters present are full and outrageously kind. But they can only exist in their relationship to the white characters. The story is called The Help, and whether it’s irony or not it’s still identifying the entirety of the black presence in the story by their status as maids. There’s a subconscious implication here that equality is only worth working towards within the context of whites maintaining their privilege. One of the characters has a brutal domestic violence scene, which falls into a stereotype of its own. While The Heroic Slave involves (to some degree) the empowerment of the oppressed, The Help features continuous scenarios of black people being oppressed and unable to fight back, including the all-too-topical police brutality scene. Compare this to a film like Black Panther, which includes an almost entirely black cast and was one of the most-watched movies of all time. The white presence is just not necessary, so logically one could surmise that the empowerment of black characters on their own is threatening to white producers. The cop-out, the easy solution- is becoming less popular and less acceptable.
Because of the release of The Help during the era of the internet, there’s immensely more pressure to blindly agree with the film. The nature of mass media is inherently participatory, but this only means that each individual has a consistent and readily available audience. Consequentially, each individual is subject consistent and readily given criticism. It makes critical discussion about problematic aspects of a film which is technically diverse a much more socially dangerous conquest. Additionally, it’s difficult to navigate exactly who lays claim to the right to criticize diverse media. Everyone has an equal voice, but not all opinions are created equal. A white person who has little to no experience navigating racially charged social interactions is going to see fewer issues than someone who has tons. The presence of the white leading lady and the entirely white production team makes it clear that The Help was produced by and for white audiences to be shallowly consumed, as the accessibility of the internet to people of color has made it significantly easier to share their points of view without the presence of a white narrator, and therefore the aforementioned plot device is not necessary as it was when The Heroic Slave was written.