Acts of grace in The Help

maureen

Hilly Holbrook is what happens when Mean Girls grow up in the mid-twentieth century South. Hilly is the firmly ensconced queen bee of 1960’s Jackson society. She sets the trends. She pronounces who’s in and who’s out. Hilly uses her influence to hurt those who offend her and advance those who follow her. Hilly seems to honestly believe her own hype. She considers herself superior to others in her social circle which is considered superior to other white people in Jackson, where white people are considered superior to black people. Hilly represents the small-minded, mean-spirited face of Southern pride.

Even Skeeter refuses to confront Hilly. College has broadened Skeeter’s perspective and shifted her allegiances but she knows how it works. Hilly’s pride has to be preserved. Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny work under the radar to accomplish their agenda. Skeeter and Minny employ some of the same passive-aggressive tactics Hilly uses in order to undermine Hilly. The toilets and pie are funny and Hilly has it coming, but what compelled me about The Help are the powerful acts of grace. Skeeter’s determination to operate outside her comfort zone and help tell truthful stories that might contribute to change is an act of grace.

Like most outsiders, Celia Foote sees Hilly’s group as the social pinnacle to which she aspires. She wants in, but she will never get in. If marrying Hilly’s ex boyfriend is not enough, Hilly considers Celia “white trash” and is determined to shut her out. Hilly not only rejects Celia’s friendship, she tries to make sure that Celia has no other friends. Celia is the most alone of all the women. Such as they are, Hilly and her crew have each other, Aibideen and Minny have a community and a church, Skeeter has her mom and the writing group of maids, but Celia longs for the companionship of other women. It is Minny, who has experienced segregation, abuse, and racism, who takes Celia by the hand, teaches her, and walks her through her pain. Minny’s compassion for Celia is an act of grace.

The Help emphasizes the relationship between black maids and the white children they help rear. When Skeeter returns from college she does not feel her journey to adulthood is complete until she connects with Constantine, the family’s long-time maid. Constantine’s support and kindness toward Skeeter is a legacy of grace. But Constantine has mysteriously disappeared. It’s  revealed that Skeeter’s mom Charlotte betrayed Constantine out of fear and pride. Though it’s too late to make amends with Constantine, Charlotte’s repentance, her willingness to change, and her support for Skeeter is an act of grace. Grace doesn’t always restore a situation but it always restores a soul.

Like Charlotte, Elizabeth Leefolt is intent on maintaining her status and meeting the standards set for her by other people. Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter Mae Mobley does not meet the standards for beauty and grace expected of Southern society women, and Elizabeth is more interested in conforming than in comforting.  In embarrassement, Elizabeth rejects Mae Mobley. Aibideen’s daily liturgy to Mae Mobley, “You is kind. You is smart, You is important,” is an act of grace.

The Help inspired me to ask what acts of grace might counter the meannesses I see in the place and the age in which I live.


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