The Help, the film based on Kathryn Stockett‘s novel about the racial tensions between white families and Black maids in 1960s Mississippi may have been intended to make a statement about racism, but the film successfully wrinkles the notion of what it means to truly mother a child.
Between the cattiness of the Jackson housewives and the snide comments exchanged at the bridge table, the film’s most tender moments often occur between the maids and the children who they look after. The maids played by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis recount to the protagonist, played by Emma Stone, the convoluted experience of caring for white children. Despite their love for the children, they often to grow up to be just like their mothers, the maids say: overtly racist, demeaning, and smug towards the help. This conflicted experience of childrearing is revisited through out the film as Aibileen, one of the older maids in the community, has watched this new generation of young ladies grow up. In their early 20s now, these “girls” now have husbands and babies of their own and in many ways, are having their children raised by the same maids who have raised them.
Such is big point of contention between Miss Skeeter and her own mother, played by Allison Janney, after she inquires about the whereabouts of her beloved maid of 29 years, Constantine. She declares to her own mother that “she raised me!’ when pushing for the details regarding her fire.
When watching Aibileen interact with the lovely and full-faced toddler Mae Mobley, the audience sees a reenactment of all the white characters’ childhoods, as warm-hearted scenes between Viola and the toddler mirror that of Miss Skeeter and her own maid when she was young.
But biological motherhood doesn’t get such a rosy depiction, as many of the white, socialite mothers in Jackson don’t so much as acknowledge their children in the hallway of their own home. The babies and children are continually used as props, accessories, and markers for their mother’s own status in town. Perpetually being handed into another person’s care, the children of Jackson, Mississippi only come to know love and care through their maid’s hands.
Aibileen, although wary of telling Miss Skeeter stories about her experiences as a maid, reaches a point of strength when discussing Mae Mobley. She tells Miss Skeeter that when she comes to visit the baby in the morning, her diaper reveals that she hasn’t been changed all night. As if one child suffering under a lack of care isn’t enough, Elizabeth Leefort, Mae Mobley’s mother, comes to birth another baby — another child she won’t be caring for, Aibileen suggests.
“Miss Leefort shouldn’t be having no more babies,” she says adamantly. “Write that down.”
Fundamentals of physical care aside, Miss Leefort and the other women fail to even show any interest in their kids. It is for this reason that Aibileen and Mae Mobley develop their mantra which is repeated throughout the film.
“You is smart. You is kind, and you is important,” Aibleen tells the little girl, primarily because her own mother doesn’t.
Depictions of motherhood are further complicated by the fact that many of the maids spend time away from their own families to care for others. In the opening scene of the film, Skeeter asks Aibileen what it’s like to care for a white child knowing that her own kids are being watched by someone else.
She doesn’t answer, but simply gazes at a photo of her son.