**SPOILER ALERT: There are no plot spoilers here, though I do give away one line of dialogue that doesn’t reveal anything about plot.***
If you haven’t heard (and if you haven’t, I imagine you have no internet or TV access and won’t be reading this blog), the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, opened yesterday in theatres across the country.
I have not read The Help yet because of all the controversy surrounding the book—is it a moving story about a group of women trying to do their part in the Civil Rights movement? Or is it another one-sided portrayal of a white person helping black people overcome oppression designed to make viewers feel better about our country’s problematic history? (Like The Blind Side and Remember the Titans before it.)
I was afraid to find out the answer to that loaded question, so I avoided the book even while so many people I knew were devouring it. But when some friends of mine who had read the book and loved it were going to see the film on opening day, I couldn’t resist the chance to see a story I knew so many Americans would soon be experiencing (and discussing).
There are many notable things about the film—the fact that the trailer makes it seem lighter than it is, the fact that it bravely includes harrowing moments in our nation’s history, and the fact that it does an outstanding job of showing some of the ugly ways white people used to treat black people and children. At the very least, I admire the film—a mainstream one out of Hollywood—for doing the latter with such unflinching honesty.
But what I want to talk about today is what pertains to this blog, and that is how the women’s bodies were depicted in this film, which I found to be just as shocking and admirable as the unvarnished depiction of emotional and physical abuse.
Not long after the film opens, we see one of “The Help”—a maid named Abilene (played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis, pictured below)—caring for her employer’s two-year-old daughter and declaring that “Babies love fat!” while she hugs the child and reads to her.
Davis is not fat by any stretch of the imagination, but she isn’t skinny either. She’s normal. And once you see her standing next to her employer, a virtual reed of a woman, her point is obvious—women, especially good mothers, were not meant to be thin.
This is a jarring thing to hear in a film that came out of Hollywood, where thinness trumps almost everything (including talent), and it’s not even a statement I wholly agree with—thin women can obviously make good mothers—but it’s still noteworthy in that it’s saying something we so rarely hear in a movie today: curvy women have something to offer.
Not only does the film directly address the issue of body size, it also directly addresses the ways in which we create self-esteem problems in young women.
We find out that, throughout her life, Skeeter (shown above, played by Emma Stone) has been told she’s not attractive—by her mother, by the boys in her school, by society. And we see the same thing happening to Davis’ young charge, who also has a mother who doesn’t believe she’s beautiful (even though, oddly, I thought both of the actresses were beautiful).
These negative messages are counter-acted time and time again by “the help,” the maids who were in charge of raising these children and who taught them the importance of believing in themselves.
It’s also notable that, in many scenes, Skeeter resists being made up to look like all of the other young women in her town and is perfectly content to go out in flat shoes and wear her curly hair unstraightened. (Though sometimes, as shown below, she loses that battle.)
Though the body image issue is tackled directly in these random moments, it is addressed indirectly throughout the entire film by showing women who are not stick thin over and over and over again. Not only are these women shown, but some of them are even held up as models of beauty.
There is one woman in particular, Celia Foote (shown above, played by Jessica Chastain), who is seen as the sexualized object of desire by the men and the women in the film. Chastain’s character wears pedal pushers and halter tops and dresses that highlight her curves to the nth degree, sending the implicit message that having full hips and thighs and breasts and a big round butt is the ideal.
When was the last time we saw a woman with those kind of curves turning up the heat on the big screen? Sure, we see that with Mad Men‘s Christina Hendrick’s on television, but to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I saw a woman we are supposed to see as attractive in a Hollywood film with those kind of curves.
I’ll be honest, it was completely refreshing.
It was also refreshing to see women of all sizes looking real—especially the maids who had bodies of every size hidden under shapeless uniforms.
I’m not going to lie—there was something truly liberating about seeing Octavia Spencer’s breasts hang down lower than they normally do on a young woman in a Hollywood film. I actually wanted to stand up and cheer, “Look at her breasts! That’s how I look without a bra!”
Of course, the theatre was too crowded for that kind of display.
And, as I already said, even Hollywood ingenue Stone appeared many times in unflattering clodhoppers and unslimming buttoned-up dresses.
Not to mention that Allison Janney’s desperate portrayal of Skeeter’s ailing mother was something Hollywood hasn’t seen as often as we should have since Gloria Swanson first did the same when playing Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. In fact, I predict Janney will win an Oscar for this film since she appears without makeup and with very little hair on several occasions, and the Academy is known for rewarding women who “uglify” themselves.
But it wasn’t just that the women looked real, it was that their bodies looked different.
Even the young women of the “junior league” (pictured above) who never stepped out of the house without their makeup perfectly applied and their hair perfectly set, looked unfamiliar to me beause they wore clothes that highlighted and enhanced their curves rather than hiding them.
And this made me feel a great longing for a time when women’s curves were appreciated, even shown off. I’m not proposing that we all go to work in our bikinis, but I am proposing that we reconsider why it is that the way women dress has changed so dramatically since the middle of the last century.
Many, many things have changed for the better (one of them being that we are welcome to wear as little or as much as we want or to not dress like a woman at all if we so desire; another being that we can now elect black people to national office rather than send them to a different bathroom), but the way we see our bodies and society’s current obsession with thinness is not one of them. It’s important to admit that it’s dangerous to have nostalgia for a time that when so many of us—women and minorities especially—were treated as second-class citizens or even worse, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish we could resurrect this one aspect of the past.
Yes, The Help is an imperfect film that raises all kinds of important questions about why we’re not letting black people be the heroes in movies and stories about black people, but at the same time, it does something right: it reminds us that we have not always believed that babies are the only ones who like a little fat.