Equal Pay/Fair Wage

Times Haven't Changed for 'The Help' of Today

Friday, August 19, 2011

"The Help" has stirred controversy in its portrayal of domestic workers during the civil rights-era in the South. But it's also stoked interest in the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which New York State passed last year.



(WOMENSENEWS)--Over the past week, moviegoers have been flocking to see "The Help," a story of domestic workers struggling for dignity and respect in civil rights-era Mississippi.

What those viewers might be surprised to learn is that all across the United States, today's domestic workers are still living out that struggle a half-century later.

"The Help" has provoked its share of controversy. It's based on a book by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote from the perspective of African American characters using dialect. The film's African American actresses bring dignity and sensitivity to their roles, but even so, some feel that the characterization is too close to the ugly old racial stereotypes of the past.

These criticisms are important ones. But for many of today's domestic workers, "The Help" has been a breath of fresh air. Hollywood has never before put domestic workers of color at the center of a major motion picture. And domestic workers who have attended recent screenings together with their sisters have learned an important lesson: even when a film is less than perfect, good things can happen when the stories of those who are usually invisible move to the center of the screen.

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Despite its imperfections, "The Help" has provided an entry point for employers, workers and everyday people alike to engage in discussions around the current conditions and experiences of today's help.

Domestic Workers' Testimonies

After one screening of "The Help" in San Francisco, a 19-year-old woman named Karina, who has been a domestic worker for four years, addressed the audience. She spoke passionately about the vulnerability of today's domestic workers, who often face deeply exploitative conditions, unpaid wages, a lack of overtime and paid vacation or even physical and emotional abuse.

Karina's testimony brought some in the audience to tears. One viewer approached her afterward to say that watching "The Help," and then listening to Karina, had motivated her to extend job benefits to the woman she recently hired to clean her home.

Other powerful moments occurred at a series of group viewings during the movie's Aug. 10 premiere, which were organized by Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association. At theaters in San Francisco and the East Bay, employers and organizers talked with viewers about how the experiences of black domestic workers in the South resonate with the many immigrant women of color who work as nannies, housecleaners and personal care attendants today.

One woman at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland recounted her memory of growing up as a black woman in the South. For her, the movie was a powerful story of the struggle for workers' rights. It opened her up to listen to the current struggle in California for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which New York State passed last year after six years of organizing and effort by local domestic workers. As she left, the woman took postcards about the bill to share with friends and family.

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Yes, despite the stereotypes, it is an advance to see domestic work acknowledged and the exploitation of domestic workers made public. How heartening to know that California domestic workers are fighting for a bill like the one recently passed in New York. 35 years ago I produced a radio documentary about the history of domestic workers in New York -- with stories from the women themselves. Check it out on my website: www.gailpellettproductions.com The doc is called "I won't get down on my knees" http://gailpellettproductions.com/i-wont-get-down-on-my-knees-domestic-w...

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