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What’s not to like about the current box-office and best-selling success story, The Help?  An indictment of the last years of the Jim Crow South with a lot of uplift about what people can do to resist oppression, the novel and movie would seem to be something that only the most unreconstructed movie watcher could dislike. But as is so often the case in American popular culture, the situation is a lot more complicated, and a many liberal viewers are raising their concerns, making The Help a good topic for classroom semiotic analysis. The main complaint is that, as is so often the case with popular stories of this kind, The Help features an attractive white protagonist who leads a cast of nonwhite characters to a kind of victory over their white oppressors. “What’s wrong with that?” a student may well ask. Here’s where the construction of a system of signs into which The Help can be situated can be especially useful. For example, The Help can be classified with such films as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and other successful, liberal, well-meaning films that made audiences—white audiences, that is—feel good by showing them good white folk allying themselves with oppressed nonwhite folk against bad white folk. One could argue that the films provide nice role models, especially for younger white viewers, but the problem for many critics is that it implies that nonwhites can’t advocate for their own interests without benign white heroes to lead them. Good-hearted condescension is still condescension. But there is a further problem. The presumption of such movies is that the majority (the vast majority) of the audience is going to be white, and because of that, the movies have to pull a lot of punches. It’s okay to show that Native Americans or African Americans or Pandorans (avatars of American Indians, of course) have suffered at the hands of white Americans, but that redeeming white savior (John Dunbar, Jake Sully, Skeeter Phelan) ensures that the audience—who is expected to sympathize or identify with the white protagonist—does not feel singled out for criticism or blame. This not only takes the white audience off the hook, so to speak, it allows them to leave the theater feeling good about situations they really shouldn’t be feeling good about. Now, in constructing a system of related signs, we want to locate not only associated signs but differentiable ones in order to fully assess the semiotic significance of the topic. Within this genre of racially charged films that includes The Help, Toni Morrison's Beloved offers a particularly striking counter example. Here’s a movie (like the novel it is based on) that does not let its white audience off the hook with attractive white saviors. A raw, no-punches-pulled indictment of America's racial history, the novel is an academic classic, but the box office for the movie was disappointing. Hollywood got the message and has been playing it safer ever since. Which could raise a very good question from our students: “Is it possible to create hard-hitting entertainment that really indicts its audience?”  Movies like Beloved indicate that of course it is possible. But are we likely to find many examples of such movies in an industry governed by the profit motive? No, it isn’t likely. And there is the final exfoliation of a semiotic analysis of The Help. In its profit-driven context, popular art can tell some truth, but not the whole truth. “Humankind,” as T. S. Eliot put it, “cannot bear very much reality.” The better sort of art can be unbearable, but popular culture isn’t in the reality business.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.