The book The Help was recently recommended to me as an example of interesting narrative structure. The descriptor of “summer read” is generally enough to make me skeptical, but I quite enjoyed the book. However I couldn’t help but notice one thing: this is a book about racism, and the marketing itself for the book and movies seems to be displaying subtle racism.
The book is structured with three narrators: Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. The first two are black women who work as maids, and the last is a white woman who just graduated college and has moved back home. The first chapter is from Aibileen’s perspective, the second from Minny’s, and the third from Skeeter’s. The book then alternates perspectives in no particular order, with just one chapter in the later half written as a third person perspective when all three characters are in the same location briefly. It concludes with Aibileen’s perspective, neatly bookending the story in a mirror of how it began. The structure of this book comes together to make it most predominantly the story of the black maids, with Skeeter’s story functioning as an opportunity for change and thus motivating the plot.
Rather noticeably, the marketing for the book and the movie do not mirror this narrative structure but instead put Skeeter in the foreground. In both the book jacket and the movie trailer, Skeeter’s background is mentioned before the other two black characters. This change might make sense if the marketing were using this opening as an opportunity to indicate that Skeeter wanted to be a writer and thus would be interviewing the black maids, but instead she is merely introduced as being a member of the social scene in Jackson. Her role in pushing the plot forward is only brought forward after the Aibileen and Minny are introduced. In this way, it seems that the sole reason for listing her first is to frame the story from her perspective.
This leads me to wonder if there are marketing gurus in the book and film industries who believe that the story would not have a chance to be a success if it is pitched as a story about black women. As much as I would like to believe that this assessment is wrong, I can’t definitively say it is. Still, regardless of whether the marketing gurus are making an accurate assessment, it makes me sad to think that a well-crafted story about overturning racism is still running into a subtle form of that very problem 50 years later.