Two Movies, One Gets it Right

Much has been written about The Help — the book and the movie.

The book contents remain locked in my iPad; I downloaded it several months ago but lacked the urgency to tap it open. The movie prompted a different response. I made a point of carving out 146 minutes to lose myself in the film after the August 10 opening sparked new debates about character authenticity and raised questions about who is best equipped to tell the complex stories of women living in a turbulent and racially charged time in American history.

Among the many commentaries I read about the film was this assessment by Chicago attorney and writer Kimberly Egonmwan. She makes a strong closing statement:

“We want to be seen as we are: women who are at the foreground of our own lives, and not in the background of someone else’s.”

Imagine my surprise when, after the depiction of societal oppression and civil rights struggles that brought me into the theater, I walked out identifying most directly with a background character.

Celia Foote is a young woman lost in a society that values everything she is not. She lived in a time when well-bred Southern white women were expected to marry well and have babies — lots of them — raised by “the Help.” Celia is not well bred, but she does have a heart of gold and unexpectedly marries well when she gets pregnant. In time we learn that Celia carries a painful secret — an inability to stay pregnant — something she initially hides from everyone, including her husband.

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Among the many scenes in this well-acted film that brought tears to my eyes was the one where Celia is openly shunned by vicious white women who refuse to allow her into their living room and their society. They leave her on the porch, as she describes “like a vacuum cleaner salesman.”

While her infertility wasn’t the reason she was left on the outside looking in, I felt her alienation viscerally.

I was also struck by the fact that, in the end, Celia had the only marriage that was genuinely happy.

Infertility in the 1960s was only a footnote in The Help, but it jumped off the screen for me, as it usually does. Not surprisingly, it’s one of many lenses through which I see society — past, present and future.

Coincidentally, earlier in the weekend, the film, Immediate Family, concerning a subject I know intimately, came to our TV screen. Made at the end of the 1980s, this film offered a weirder view — bad hair and all — of infertility. It was produced by Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill acclaim, which is, no doubt, how it made it into our Netflix queue in the first place.

The movie certainly put infertility front and center … but something about the in-authenticity of the protagonists, the melodrama, and the clunky bias of the times led us to fire the film midway into our viewing. I learned afterward that the Immediate Family screenplay wasn’t written by a woman who experienced infertility. It was penned by someone who was “struck that so many of her friends who had waited until their mid-30s to have children were encountering difficulties.”

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Curious that two different films shot in two different eras could portray a timeless experience in such startlingly different tones, but it was the film where infertility played a cameo role that hit the mark.

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10 thoughts on “Two Movies, One Gets it Right

  1. You know how (OK, maybe you don’t know) how they say that jury studies have caused prosecutors to bias jury selection for rape trials in favor of men? In other words, female jurors in studies acquit accused rapists a disproportionately high percentage of the time (assuming equally strong evidence). The theory goes that the female jurors theorize that the victim either consented or “provoked” the attack in some way that mitigates the defendant’s guilt (and therefore they vote to acquit) because if they have to accept that a completely innocent woman was randomly overpowered by a rapist, then they have to reintegrate their realities to encompass the idea that this could happen to THEM – no matter how careful they are and even if they don’t “deserve” it.

    This is a long preamble but I’m sure you can see where I’m going. I got married at a wee 23 and started ttc right away, and I certainly do think it’s regrettable that a lot of women put off building a family because they think that their careers are so time-sensitive and kids happen with a snap of the fingers – because I understand how very untrue that can be. But I also understand that you can NOT wait and NEVER take the pill and still be childless for life. And I think that women who somehow dodge the bullet – they have no fertility problems, despite the fact that they may have waited some time after they got married, or taken the pill (potentially bad for your reproductive system), or had sex before marriage (potentially encountering inflammatory STDs), or stepped on sidewalk cracks – or whatever – need to believe that those of us who do not have it so easy are somehow at fault for our difficulties. If it’s NOT our fault, then we don’t “deserve” it any more than they do – and therefore it could happen to them, the next time they ttc; or they could miscarry; or one of their babies might die; or their own precious children might have fertility problems. We have to have been “asking for it,” or they have to accept that they, too, are at risk.

    At any rate, that’s the phenomenon happening here. (And similarly, I see that a lot of infertiles who have gone on to have children have to rationalize to themselves that they “wanted it more” or “tried harder” or that other people “just gave up” – even if they conceived on their first cycle, or after they quit treatment – because the guilt of believing that they got a baby that someone else “deserved” just as much or more is too much to acknowledge.)

    Sorry for the novella :).

  2. I loved your review of The Help. I’m thinking of downloading it too.

    I think it is a very brave (and foolhardy) thing to make an infertile character or couple the main protagonists of a movie or book if you don’t have first hand experience. Makes me shudder at the thought of it.

  3. I have been avoiding the book — just the title of it puts me off, and I’m not even black! My rationale being, Oh, I don’t need another one of these “white people bad, black people good” over-simplifications. Tell me something I don’t know – I have southern relatives and I see how they rationalize things.

    I had no idea of the infertility tie-in, so I’m afraid I’ll have to at least see it now. But I DREAD absolutely DREAD any treatment of the childless thing — because it’s become received wisdom that people with children are better/happier, etc. When in real life, I’m sorry, but I see the exact opposite! I will be glad to see any kind of sympathetic treatment here, but I cringed at the racial angle, and I loved reading the article you linked, as well as the comments.

    And another good reason to see the movie is Viola Davis — who is a native of my state, Rhode Island, and from Central Falls, a city so impoverished it’s dissolving. Go Viola! And let’s hope for some non-maid roles in the future! I’ve worked as a maid myself, and never employed a black woman to clean my house. I have, however worked with many brilliant black women, often at higher stations than I, in big companies in New York. It’s shocking that the movies like to linger at a time 50 years ago instead of documenting what’s going on in black women’s lives right now.

  4. Pamela

    @Christina: I fully understand your desire to steer clear of the story, and I do want to underscore that Celia and the infertility story line in The Help is subtle to the point of being likely overlooked by the vast majority of people who screen the film. (My infertility radar can pick up the faintest occurrences.) There are many other gasp-inducing, prejudicial moments that take center stage. The acting is almost too good when it comes to the prejudices — large and small — held by the characters.

  5. I will second that — infertility/pg loss is a very small part of the plot of both the book & the movie. But it’s something that those of us “in the know” will understand & appreciate. I loved both the book & the movie, & I thought the acting was superb, Oscar-worthy in several cases. OK, it’s pretty improbable that a girl like Skeeter would have written such a book at that time & place, but hey, that’s why it’s called fiction. ; ) It’s gotten people talking about that time in history and those issues again, which can only be a good thing. I was part of an online book club that read it, and many of the women (mostly Canadians in their 30s) were absolutely shocked that such racism existed less than 50 years ago.

  6. Delia

    Interestingly, I read the book and didn’t like it for a number of reasons. The portrayal of Celia, however, was one of the few things I appreciated. It was no mystery to me what was going on there, though I guess it was supposed to be a surprise when her infertility is revealed.

  7. Pamela

    Funny, Delia, I knew almost immediately what Celia was hiding, too…

  8. Bea

    I am just here being amazed that a film got it right. I don’t know much about the specific titles you’re talking about, but perhaps I will have to keep my eye out.

    Bea

  9. Charlotte

    I just finished reading The Help and did enjoy the story. I too just “knew” that Celia was having trouble having children within just a few hints. I guess our radar’s are attuned to this issue now.

    I wanted to bring your attention to a wonderful BBC series that I have watched over here in Australia called “Lark Rise to Candelford”. I assume one of the writers has had issues with infertility as two main characters (one in season one and the other in season three) had issues with conceiving. One did eventually and the other did not. I thought it was beautifulyl and sensitively written. My husband and I had a cry a couple of times watching it due to the stage of our failed treatment. I would recommend it as a safe and beautifully handled series which touches on infertility. Amazon.co.uk has it in case you are keen!

  10. Pamela

    Thanks, Charlotte, for the recommendation…!

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