Sunday, February 12, 2012

Maids and Madams

This discussion of The Help, has gotten me really interested in a comparison between domestic servants and race in the US and South Africa.  First, I turned to Zanele Muholi’s work on what she calls domesticated labor.  This first photo is from her "'Massa' and Mina(h)" project.  Thanks to Ellen for helping me find these.

For her interesting statement on the project, click here.

And one of our favorites:

For an extra delight, see this blog piece on Zanele’s work by the brilliant Columbia University professor Hlonipha Mokoena from the Africa is a Country blog:

I also asked my South African friend, Jabu Pereira, if she had seen the film.  She had many insights about the problem of having the film set from the white woman’s viewpoint that echoed many of our concerns over here. 

Then we turned to the experience of seeing the film in a largely white audience.  She said that she was one of three black people in the theater.  The white folks were quiet both throughout the film and when it was over.  They didn’t even laugh at the things that were meant to be obviously funny.  She said that she and her friends were cracking up but noticed how uncomfortable the rest of the people were.  They must have thought: "Has this happened to me?  Have I thought I was eating a delicious pie when I was eating s**t?"  What I thought was over-the-top humor really hit home for some people.  Who knew?

The audience Ellen and I were in was also largely white.  The black people seemed very moved by The Help and were not ready to leave when it ended.  We both noticed, however, that the white people laughed really loudly at any of the humor and they cleared out of the room quickly at the end.  But Elle and I had different interpretations of their laughter.  I thought they experienced the humor as a kind of comic relief that allowed them to escape from the tensions of the movie and dis-identify with the white racists.  Ellen, on the other hand, felt that the laughter had a darker origin—most white people’s custom of laughing at black people’s ‘antics’ on screen. 

Again, what I find most interesting are the contrasts.  If I were starting out in my career, I’d love to do a historical study that compares domestic workers, race and class in the US and SA.  There are so many similarities that the differences would illuminate so much in each culture.

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