Bright Lights Film Journal

Scatological Cinema, or Why The Help Stinks

“The perverted subtext is that black maids ain’t squeamish about shit the way these prissy white ladies were.”

Culturally sensitive film goers find it hard to accept that The Help has reached the stratosphere of Hollywood success, currently pulling in several Oscar nominations. Many critics have lambasted a white male director's chutzpah to tell the story of the tribulations of black maids in the 1960s South, as best exemplified by Valerie Boyd's insightful review here.

Beyond annoying, The Help actually angered me over a bizarre aspect of the film that I have not seen mentioned in any reviews I've read by white or black critics.

The Help has got to be the most scatological movie in Hollywood history. I've never seen so many references to bodily waste and toilets in one mainstream film. Below are five notorious examples. (This review assumes the reader has seen the movie, so the plot and characters are not explained in depth.)

1. A big focus of the film is on the maids' inability to use the bathroom in their white employers' homes. Of course it was an issue in those days, and the film did use other examples of racist working conditions, but I was dismayed by the inordinate amount of attention on this one aspect of the racism — the forbidden white bathroom — to exemplify the inequality of races. Minny is filmed inside her employer Hilly's bathroom sitting on the toilet doing her business, then lowering the lid, flushing the toilet, and getting fired for this rebellious act. Aibileen starts to enter her employer's bathroom, but hesitates at the door to listen in on the white women as they play a round of bridge talk about the necessity of separate bathrooms for maids. We are shown Aibileen entering a port-o-john built just for her while the innocent little white girl looks on confused that she cannot accompany her beloved nanny. The bathroom seemed to be this film's Exhibit A for tense racial relations in Southern households.

2. Of course the big prop of the whole movie was Minny's chocolate cream pie given to Hilly after she fired Minny for using the family bathroom. It is unimaginable that any flavoring could eradicate the smell or taste of excrement that Minny added to the recipe. But anyway, this shit-pie was referenced over and over and over again ad nauseam. It was a prominent element in the movie's story line.

3. Skeeter, the non-complying white friend, mischievously mistyped a newsletter announcement so that instead of readers bringing coats to Hilly's house for a charity benefit, Skeeter wrote "commodes." Skeeter was motivated to get back at Hilly, who had chastised her for getting too friendly with "the help." But why would Skeeter choose toilets as the vehicle for her practical joke? Given the subject of their antagonism, what message was Skeeter supposed to be sending? And the mise-en-scene was so preposterous: the supposedly "dropped off" commodes were meticulously arranged in Hilly's front yard as if it were a kinky sculpture garden.

4. In the commode lawn scene, the little white girl sits on one of the displayed toilets, and her mother, aghast, grabs her off the seat, spanks her, and turns her over to Aibileen, who earnestly consoles the child. The film could easily have made the same point of a comforting maid were the setting changed to a grocery store with the kid grabbing a soft drink, spilling it, and embarrassing the mom. But no, it had to be toilets. The perverted subtext is that black maids ain't squeamish about shit the way these prissy white ladies were.

5. The film seeks to make the point that these white Southern moms didn't know how or didn't want to raise their youngsters, but the black domestics did so and with love and empathy to boot. One way this got depicted is in the scene where Aibileen is teaching the little white girl who sits on the toilet how to pee-pee while her mother literally runs from the bathroom. Learning to urinate is an important rite of passage in a child's life, but there are many milestones in childhood — tying your own shoes, for example. Tacky is an understatement for how the filmmakers used potty training to make their point. Translate the subtext of this scene, and you get a message that pristine white women are terrified of anything related to bodily wastes while earthy black women are naturally sensitive and thus adept at introducing children to their bodies.

Only white Hollywood would make a mainstream movie where toilets and shit are used as significant tropes to tell a story of black-white relations, as if the topic is right up black folks' alley — which it just may be if you're a white filmmaker who consciously or unconsciously regards blacks as some sort of raw, primitive species.

And of course, Minny's pie just had to be chocolate, not peanut butter, pumpkin, or pecan. Bull shit.