- Bodies that (Don’t) Matter: Regulating Race on the Toilet in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help
“I think if God had intended for white people and colored people to be this close together for so much of the day, he would’ve made us color-blind” exclaims Minny, a black maid in Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help (2010).1 This bestselling drama about domestic servants in 1960s Mississippi (also adapted to film by Tate Taylor in 2011) circles around the proximity of black and white women in the U.S. South. So “close together,” and far from “color-blind,” these women are forced to confront one another’s bodies. The white women of The Help frequently cannot understand or confront blackness, in all its embodied and lived materiality. In attending to the novel’s investment in feces and urination, this article will explore the visceral corporeality represented in Stockett’s novel.
The narrative concerns a white southern writer—Miss Skeeter—who, on seeing the daily struggles of the black servants that sustain her domestic world in Jackson, Mississippi, decides to write down the lives of these women. Skeeter thus embarks on a difficult project of interviewing local maids, starting with Aibileen (her friend’s maid) and later talking with many other black women from the town. Eventually, the interviews become a book—Help—that is a bestseller across the nation, especially in Skeeter’s own town of Jackson. Skeeter’s narrative clearly mirrors Stockett’s own, as she is a white woman who was raised in the South by a black woman. She sees the novel as a response to that particular past, a form of both personal and cultural memory. Stockett is certainly not the first white author to represent this key southern relationship: Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) and Ellen Glasgow’s The Woman Within (1954) are memoirs featuring [End Page 259] memories of their “mammies”; more recently, Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change (2003) connects the lives of a young, white, Jewish gay man and his family’s black maid. The tradition of white writers excavating memories of the South’s reliance on black labor continues into the twenty-first century and is sure not to disappear soon. Literature’s role in the “production of cultural memory,” Astrid Erll tells us, is an “ongoing process, characterized by a dynamic interplay between text and context, the individual and the collective, the social and the medial,” and thus we must attend to the mediation of the southern past in The Help.2
While public responses to the novel and film have been largely positive,3 those in the academy have problematized The Help in a number of ways, most particularly in relation to the representations of race.4 Focusing here on the matter of embodiment and bodily processes, I suggest that Stockett’s novel, through its attention to toilets, feces, and urination, demonstrates the central tensions and disavowals of race relations in the Civil Rights-era South. In his History of Shit, Dominique Laporte suggests that “socialization is regularly subverted by the politics of waste” in that “To touch, even lightly, on the relationship of a subject to his shit, is to modify not only that subject’s relationship to the totality of his body, but his very relationship to the world.”5 Thus, reading The Help’s representations of toileting illuminates the workings of socialization in the segregation-era southern home, workings that the novel dramatizes through distance from and proximity to human waste. I draw on Karl Abraham’s argument that in the psychoanalysis of neurotics, “we are accustomed to find that anal and urethral sensations are closely related to infantile impulses of love,” though these feelings can also develop into sadistic impulses and the release of unbearable unconscious affect.6 Bodily processes are intimately tied to psychic processes. In short, psychoanalytic accounts of bodily procedure augment Laporte’s understanding of socialization and its undoing through waste. Developing a reading of The Help through Abraham’s theories of excretion, Sigmund Freud’s “anal character,” and Sándor Ferenczi’s concept of “hysterical materialization,” I argue that the frequency with...