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Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Dude's Guide to The Help, or Five Reasons Dudes Should Read The Help

Yep, I'm a dude and I read The Help. Can you believe it?

If you can, I hope you'll also believe I didn't read it only to curry favor with this blog's female readers. Nor did I read it only so I could write a gushing, positive review and bump up my traffic numbers. And I definitely didn't read it in order to time this post for the week the movie opens as a cheap stunt to attract new readers.

Actually, in all seriousness, the reason I read it is simple curiosity. No literary novel in the last several years has garnered the attention and readership The Help has. If there's such thing as a modern classic, it's it. So, to consider myself a well-rounded biblio-nerd, I read.

Even before I read, it was easy to tell why the large majority of The Help's readers are female: It's a story about women written by a woman. And just look at the cover — the washed-out burnt sienna/yellow color and the precious little birds surely are intended to appeal to women more than men, right? Those are probably enough to ensure most men will only give it a cursory glance. But I'm here to tell you, I liked it, and if you're a beer-swilling, fantasy football-playing dude like I am, you may like it too.

Here are five reasons why: 

5. Everyone likes a good literary revenge — It's not quite on the Monte Cristo scale here, but the cornerstone of this story is a good heaping helping of revenge. For those fellas not familiar, here's the dime tour of the plot of The Help: Two black maids named Aibileen and Minny in early 1960s, early Civil Rights-era Jackson, Mississippi, band together with a young white woman named Skeeter to write a book about their experiences as maids. Despite the risks to themselves and their families, the main reasons the maids agree to tell their stories is that they're angry about the blatant racism and indignity they're forced to endure, and the violence perpetrated upon others in their community (Medgar Evers has just been assassinated). They want people to know their society is broken. And so telling their stories is their form of civil disobedience, and their way to get back at the people who have treated them poorly. I love the idea of using a story as revenge, and if you're a dude, you should too.

4. Almost all the male characters are totally unlikable — Does that sound like a counter-intuitive reason for why dudes should read The Help? Granted, but here's the deal: With only two exceptions (Johnny and maybe Skeeter's father), all these male buffoons are pretty much models for what you don't want to be as a dude: at best condescending and racist and at worst a drunken wife-beater. So, as you're reading, in some weird way, you get a nice sense of "despite all my own short-comings, at least I'm not like these idiots." You feel positively enlightened. And that should always be an effect of a good book — in some small way, it makes you feel good.

3. Understanding the evil and ignorance of racism is important — As I read, I kept thinking, "this isn't an historical novel, it's a novel set in history." Yes, that's parsing hairs, but I tend to think of a historical novel more as a 30,000-foot-view of historical events. And in this novel, you're in the shit with these characters. In this case, that includes a deep, ugly, pervasive racism. James A. Michener once wrote, "Knowledge of the past gives men courage to face the future." But knowledge of the past also gives us courage to change the future. An ideal future is one without racism. And hoping for and working towards that should be the goal, no matter your race or gender. This novel helps you understand how disgusting racism is.

2. Emma Stone is adorable — I started reading the novel knowing Emma Stone had been cast as Skeeter, so she was my vision of that character all through the novel. Perhaps a tad shallow, I'll give you, but let me explain a little more. As this week's Entertainment Weekly article about the The Help movie says, Stone's "energy, her approachable beauty, her playful sexiness, and her specialty: a skeptical smile" make her "catnip to both male and female audiences." Yep, I dig Emma, and I think most dudes do, too. And so I conflated her with Skeeter, however fallacious that might be. Therefore, Skeeter is awesome. Yes, she's awesome on her own, but for dudes reading The Help, I'd suggest that "mistaking" Stone for Skeeter is a good way to get yourself interested in that character. It makes for good readin'. 

1. Good literature should be gender neutral — I know, that's a bit idealistic — and maybe even a bit contradictory, since I already told you The Help is a feminine novel (I don't mean that in a derogatory way). But for novels that, by any objective measure, are pretty freakin' good, I really think both males and females can find something to like. I took a chance on The Help, knowing full well it wasn't my usual cup'o'tea. But I read with the notion that if such a novel is universally adored, there had to be something there for me, too. And that's really the point of the post, to show dudes not to be afraid of this book. I could spend another 2,000 words enumerating the reasons why The Help is good, but just take my word for it, it is. Just ask your sister, wife, mother or any other female friends, and there's approximately a 100 percent chance several of them have read it and loved it. They can tell you why it's good. I just wanted to try to convince you to ask the question in the first place. Did it work?

Ladies, any other advice for dudes to get the most out of The Help?  Fellas, have you read it? What'd you think? 

22 comments:

  1. Glad you liked The Help,Greg-I got my mother to read it and we had some great talks about it. If you want to give your fellow dudes another reason for reading the book, tell them it's a perfect conversation starter.

    Also,since To Kill a Mockingbird is referenced quite a bit,The Help gives you a good excuse to either read/reread that one and see the Gregory Peck movie version-Gregory Peck has the same appeal as Emma Stone,after all:)

    In all seriousness,The Help is a book that can be read by all audiences and from what I've been reading review wise,the movie does it justice.

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  2. As the sort of woman who occasionally reads like a dude (at least as far as being repelled by washed-out covers featuring a bird line-up), thanks for this post. I saw a bunch of previews for The Help while I was in the States, and I gotta admit I have kind of girl crush on Emma Stone - picturing her in the novel makes it seem instantly more likable. The only other review I've read of The Help was about the racial politics of the book (this pervasive idea that a white person is always leading the charge when it comes to the civil rights era), but you've got me interested in reading it again.

    Oh, and it's nice to see a dude urging other guys not to make reading decisions based on the gender of a character or author. I do hope that by the time I am a World Famous Author, though, covers will be more awesome and appealing to both genders.

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  3. Great review. I especially love #4 - it's like How Not to be a Gentleman 101.

    I loved The Help, when it first came out, and I read it without Stone in mind, so when she was cast in it, I was skeptical. But I'll reserve judgement until I actually see the movie. You are right about her though - she's awesome, and if she's the reason a dude would read the book, more power to them.

    I'm seriously considering reading this once more before the movie comes out. Are you planning on seeing the movie? I assume so, so I can't wait to hear what you think.

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  4. I like your approach to this review, getting guys to read it, especially since there are so many reviews out there for it already. I might finally get around to reading this. And that's only partially because I sort of love Emma Stone so I'd like to read the book before seeing the movie.

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  5. Great review -- I'll never get my husband to read the book (he just doesn't read) but I am going to show him this to convince him that he needs to see the movie with me.
    To your point about the men all being unlikeable -- I guess that is true, though in my opinion the men were mostly in the background and I didn't form an opinion about any of them. It will be interesting to see how they are portrayed in the film.

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  6. A dude friend of mine read this book, and loved it. This was the dude-est of dudes...ex Vietnam Vet Marine, black belt, likes guns, doesn't smile much. I maintain that if he can read this and get something from it, then anyone can. Love this post!

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  7. Love this post! I'm going to show it to my husband and see what he feels about giving The Help a try.

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  8. I haven't read this one yet, but I hope to soon. I really like the way you structured this review - quite creative! And I couldn't agree more with your last point that "good literature should be gender neutral".

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  9. I love this post! I am dying to read the book, I just have so many others to read first before I buy/borrow this one. I'll probably see the movie before I read the book and maybe this will help me convince my husband to come along. Worth a shot!

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  10. I haven't read this yet, but I think I'll put it on my list now.

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  11. I really liked this book too, I thought it was heartwarming and a great story - and the revenge is very satisfying, I agree! I did, however, think that the examination of the emotional experience of the black women was somewhat superficial. I guess I felt like the depth of dissatisfaction, rage, sorrow etc was not explored. I guess on the one hand that is not really the tone of the novel, it's very safe read that way, and I guess it's not meant to be a deep examination of the inner worlds of the people of that time. But it did make me wonder if it was because the white-woman-writer couldn't conceive of it properly, or if she just wanted to avoid it altogether.

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  12. @lady T - You're right, it is a great conversation starter - though, really, that could kill your mojo just as quickly if you're suddenly perceived as a "girly man." ;) Yeah, I loved all the refs to southern lit - Gone With The Wind and Streetcar, too.

    @Ellen - The wrong idea that blacks needed whites to "help them" with civil rights is the main attack I've heard on The Help - it's a sidebar to the main article in EW last week, too. But that's clearly not the point of the novel and you'd be hard pressed to make the assertion that the novel is claiming that at all, beyond the fact that the white woman had the "in" with the New York publisher to publish the book. Indeed, she NEEDED the black maids to help her - Aibileen had to get together the people to help. And thanks for the props on urging other dudes to read women-penned novels. I have a friend who reads, but who flat out refuses to read novels by women. Drives me nuts.

    @home - Yeah, I am going to see the movie (probably some time after "30 Minutes or Less," though) - because, yes, Emma Stone is awesome! Plus, it may have a good shot at an Oscar nod (or Viola Davis might) and so that moves it up the priority list.

    @Red - You're right, too many reviews already - seemed silly just do another one. Everyone already knows it's good. Except dudes. But I like that Emma Stone may help you pick it up, too.

    @Suzanne - Stuart wasn't in the background, though - you had to form an opinion about him, didn't you? I really wanted him to be a progressive and to go along with Skeeter's ploy, since he'd been jilted, liked Skeeter because she was different than other girls, and continued to like her despite the fact that she'd be ostracized. Turns out she was too different for him, and he was just a product of his time, like the other males in the novel.

    @Sandy - Nice - your friend, me and my dad make precisely three dudes I know who have read it. All three of those have really liked it, though - and the dude you know sounds like quite the dude's dude. Good case study for other dudes to read. And yes, I'm going for a record of instances of "dude" in one comment.

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  13. Here's another reason: you can play the "sensitive man" card after reading it. It's a ridiculous card and terrible that it exists, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work from time to time.

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  14. Great post. I don't know that I could ever convince my husband to read this one, as it's not his usual fare, but I saw the movie last night and I think he would really enjoy it. Emma Stone was superb as Skeeter!

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  15. @Jenny - Please report back - I'd love to know how convincing I was.

    @Brenna - I think you'd probably like it. And thanks for the props - yeah, I wish more people agreed that good literature IS gender neutral. Sadly, my experience is that most people think there are definitely male and female books.

    @Julie - I hopeful the movie does the book justice - it's gotten pretty good reviews so far, but based mainly on the performances of the actor. I haven't heard much about how true the movie is to the novel. Should be interesting to see and compare, especially if you see the movie first.

    @Trish - Go for it!

    @mummazappa - I think trying to delve into the "emotional experience of the black women" in any sort of depth (you could argue that there is some attempt at that - and it's not bad) would've just created a case where there were too many balls in the air. And, also, it may have come off as disingenuous - especially since dealing with the already very touch subject of racism. Stockett does mention in the Acknowledgments that she can't begin to imagine what it was like for the black women, but has tried to render their experiences faithfully. That may be a clue, also, as to why she didn't plumb the depths any deeper. And you're right, it was a part of the novel, but not really the full aim of the novel.

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  16. @ReadingApe - Yeah, I thought about that reason - but I discarded the "sensitive man" card mostly 'cause it's too easy. And I hate it too. If you want to play that card, get a puppy.

    @reviews - Great to hear a first positive review from someone who's seen the film. I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but I'm also excited to hear Emma Stone is good. She can do no wrong, right?

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  17. Nice one! This was skeptically added to the TBR (or rather 'to be bought') list due to the massive popularity/film coming out/girly looking cover etc....(and I'm a girl!) It didn't look my cup of tea but rave review after rave review is pushing me more towards it. Particularly this one as, even as a woman, I'm never too keen on books that are heavily aimed at female readers.

    My bf read 'The Paris Wife' reluctantly at first and loved it. It's so important to give things a try. I'm never too bothered about crime/thriller novels but I think I'm going to give it a pop...

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  18. You've convinced me. If I put myself in the library wait queue, I'll get to read it in like 2015. So, I'm buying this one. I understand with the concept in #4, but I don't think self-congratulation for not being a wife beating, racist douche is necessarily a reason to feel good about your own shortcomings. However, the argument is for the gratitude that feeling provides, and you make a valid point.

    Excellent and fun review!

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  19. Hmmm. I think I'm one of the only people in the world who hasn't read this book. I'm skeptical for a few reasons - the first being that Kathryn Stockett seems to think she can genuinely write from the perspective of a black woman because she had a black maid once. Another reason is that the story and characterizations seem WAY too polarized - either a character is completely good or completely bad.

    However I do trust your judgment Greg. What do you think about my hesitations? Should I just go ahead and read it?

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  20. @Relish - I was kind of in the same boat - definitely not cup'o'tea, but each review (and affirmative response to the question of whether dudes would like it, too) moved me close to picking it up. Your BF liked The Paris Wife, eh? That's another one I've been really curious about.

    @Clinton - Ha-I suppose you're right: Not being a wife-beater doesn't get congratulations. But I must admit I did feel positively enlightened to read the book in the first place, and then compared to those guys, I'm a saint. ;)

    @IngridLola - I never really understood the people who are angry that she wrote from the perspective of black maids and it being authentic or genuine. Trying to understand the world from someone else's perspective is exactly what fiction IS! It's imagining the world in others' shoes. Whether or not her account is more or less authentic because she had black maids is irrelevant to me. Anyway, she sort of addresses the issue in her "acknowledgements" section - so maybe just give that a quick read to see if that quells your hesitations. Yes, many of the characters are either good or bad (most of the male characters are bad), but there are several who are not, or are at least conflicted. Characters do change over the course of the novel, too - sometimes in surprising ways. So I'd say it's an over-generalization to say ALL characters are either good or bad, and all stay good or bad.

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  21. Greg, good point about trying to understand the world from other people's perspectives. I just think that civil rights especially is a very sensitive topic, and it seems a little wierd that a white woman is trying to write about it from a black woman's perspective ... doesn't it?

    I'm glad you didn't think it was as polarized as I thought it might be. It sounds like I just need to suck it up and read the book so I can join all these conversations.

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  22. Greg, I read The Help when it first came out, and while the writing is engaging, and I liked aspects of the book, in the end I disliked it. There was something that didn't feel honest to me, and it would take more words than I can fit in this comment to explain my deep discomfort with The Help. But it seems I'm in the minority. I do appreciate the way you left your gender-specific comfort zone with this one!

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