‘The Butler’ Versus ‘The Help’: Gender Matters

While Viola Davis had to defend her role as a servant, Forest Whitaker has garnered only praise.

Screenshot from Lee Daniels' The Butler; Screenshot from The Help

So far the most popular sentiment from the film — repeated in several interviews — is the notion that black domestics serving white families were, in fact, subversive.  

“Just by their presence, by their dignity, by their dedication to their work, they were able to move things forward,” explained Whitaker on Good Morning America.

This is a radical shift in thought when applied to the debate about the lack of nonstereotypical roles in mainstream Hollywood. From Hattie McDaniel onward, the debate about whether or not black actors and actresses (along with screenwriters, directors and producers) should ever play the roles of the maid or the butler has been ongoing. Davis couldn’t escape the backlash for her role in The Help in 2011, but just two years later Whitaker has.

The most obvious difference between Davis’ Aibileen and Whitaker’s Cecil is the characters’ gender. Then comes the issue of class and access. Aibileen is a maid in a middle-class enclave in Jackson, Miss., serving up chicken salad and changing diapers. Cecil is a tuxedoed butler at the most famous address in the United States, serving tea in fine china to the leaders of the free world. They both wear the uniform. They both wear two faces.

But Aibileen’s world is dominated by women. She does “women’s work” — cleaning, cooking, care-giving. Cecil, though just as invisible, occupies space crowded by men. He’s “in service” and “serving his country,” as President Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman) puts it.

I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to think that for most — despite the effusive testaments to the legacy of maids delivered by Oprah and the film’s director, Lee Daniels — the role of the maid, no matter how dignified, is still considered less significant. It’s a story that audiences, especially black ones, believe has been told before.

To be fair, The Help and The Butler are two distinct narratives. The white characters, though presidents and first ladies they may be, are ancillary to Cecil’s story. The Butler is woven around Cecil’s life. By contrast, in The Help, Aibileen’s story is tightly tied to those of the white women around her, a narrative device that didn’t sit well with some because it reinforces the notion that black women’s stories cannot stand on their own.

Still, the onslaught of accolades for the recent batch of films starring black men in historically complicated roles, from Jamie Foxx’s Django to Whitaker’s Cecil and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup in the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, says something about how films featuring black actresses in similarly uncomfortable roles are perceived. And in a creative landscape where Harriet Tubman gets a “sex tape” instead of a starring role, I’m not sure if it says something good.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.