In July of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into effect the Civil Rights Act, in hopes of unifying the diverse group of people in America. Although it was a step forward for many, some people had trouble accepting the new laws and demonstrated their disdain through acts of violence and harshness. Sue Monk’s Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, engages the reader in instances of racism and prejudice through the eyes of Lily. Lily, the main character, is a young and naive protagonist who leaves her home in Sylvan, South Carolina to find out the truth about her mother. Along the way, Lily meets the Boatwright sisters, a group of sisters who come to accept Lily into their community, despite her being a different race. The Boatwrights help Lily to understand that people are judged based on looks all the time, but Lily also learns how to overcome stereotypes. The same occurs in Taylor’s film, The Help. In The Help, a young protagonist, Skeeter, gains a new perspective on life when she interviews the African American community in her neighborhood. Skeeter receives backlash for the new book that she wrote, full of interviews of African American people’s experiences, and learns that people are more than just their outside looks. Both Kidd’s novel and Taylor’s film give insight into the troubles that African American citizens dealt with during the 1960s through different characters, their conflicts with each other and their conflicts with society, while giving hope for a world without stereotypes and racism.
To begin, the conflicts between characters in both The Secret Life of Bees and The Help showcase discrimination, but also give hope for a better future. The first experience of unfairness occurs in The Secret Life of Bees when Lily was talking with Zach, a black teenager that works at the Boatwright sisters’ honey farm, about how they both like each other a lot. Lily thinks that she and Zach can be together, but she does not know of the repercussions that would face them if they were. Zach finally tells Lily, “‘you have to understand, there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you’” (Kidd 135). Zach knew that because he was black, and that Lily was white, there was no chance they could have been together. Kidd developed Zach’s character as a way for Lily to learn about the harsh realities of the world. Not only was he a love interest to Lily, but he was also a role model. Lily, after having been told by the people around her that black boys could not be nice and handsome, realizes that Zach is nothing like anything the school children said he would be. Zach helped Lily come of age and shape her identity as a beekeeper accepted into a new community. Although Zach believes that he and Lily cannot be together, he presents hope to Lily and the readers for a future where they can be together. Kidd wrote Zach to give hope to the readers for a more equal society. Through him, Kidd expresses her belief that in the future, it is possible to live in a society without racism or prejudice. Similarly, in The Help, Taylor brings light to discrimination through interactions between different characters in the film. In one scene, Skeeter gets into an argument with her boyfriend, Stuart, about the book that Skeeter had written. Stuart shows his racial intolerance by complaining to Skeeter that she should not have written the text. During the conflict, Stuart says, “‘Things are fine around here. Why go stir up trouble?’” (Taylor 125). After Skeeter’s and Stuart’s argument, Stuart leaves Skeeter because she supposedly ruined their relationship. Stuart is a prime example of how people stereotyped and judged people in the 1960s based on their skin color. Throughout the film, Stuart is characterized to be a nice, caring person, and it does seem that way when Stuart is with Skeeter. But in breaking up with Skeeter, Stuart is revealed to really only care about how different actions affect him. In this case, Stuart associating with Skeeter would only give him a bad reputation because of the society’s cultural norms. Taylor incorporated this character to show us that even the nicest people can be judgemental, critical, and racist. However, having Stuart leave is a sign for both Skeeter and the audience that the book Skeeter wrote is working, and is having an effect on everybody in Skeeter’s community. Both of these interactions between characters allow for the audience to see the effects of discrimination, but also give hope for a brighter future where all people are treated equally.
Given that it was the 1960s, the characters of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help also had conflicts with society and its cultural expectations. Near the start of The Secret Life of Bees, Rosaleen, Lily’s caretaker, is unjustly arrested by the local police for not giving an apology to a group of men whom she had spit on. Later, Lily finds her in the black patient area of the hospital and asks her about her injuries. In response, Rosaleen says, “‘After [Lily] left, that policeman called Shoe let those men come in for their apology’” (Kidd 46). All Rosaleen wanted to do was register to vote, but she was brutally beaten, harassed, and hurt. At a base level, Kidd included this moment to display the vulgarity of the South in the 1960s. However, Kidd also incorporated this scene as a way to teach Lily about the harsh ways of the world. Prior to this moment in the novel, Lily had not encountered a moment of prejudice or injustice on this scale before. Lily did not see why Rosaleen would not just apologize to the group of men, but as time goes on, Lily starts to understand how individual acts can eventually change society. At the start of the novel, Lily believed that racism was this brute force that could not be reckoned with. As the novel goes on, Lily experiences many moments, like Rosaleen standing up to a group of racist men, that teach her the hard truths of the world. This growth that Lily has is a way for Kidd to tell us that it is possible to live in a society without racism and prejudice; it just takes time and growth. The same kind of growth also occurs in The Help, when Aibileen, a maid who agreed to be a part of Skeeter’s novel, is helping Skeeter to write her book. During this scene, Aibileen, Skeeter, and another maid, Minny, are debating about how to finish the book. Suddenly, Aibileen says, “‘They killed my son… [The white foreman] drove to the colored hospital and dumped him there’” (Taylor 78). Aibileen expresses that because no one was willing to help her son, he had no chance to survive. Aibileen believes that Skeeter’s novel has the ability to change their community, and maybe even save lives. By telling this story, Aibileen gives a commentary on society during the 1960s, and how society is capable of change. Aibileen believes that if her son or herself were white, then maybe her son would still be alive. Without Aibileen’s story, Skeeter may have not been motivated to finish the novel. Taylor including this scene in the movie not only gives a vivid description of what struggles African Americans had to go through in the 1960s, but also helps the audience understand why Aibileen wants Skeeter to finish the book so badly. Near the end of the film, Skeeter’s novel finally goes public, and Taylor gives the audience hope of a less judgemental society through a newfound sense of equality in Skeeter’s community. Both Kidd’s novel and Taylor’s film give a sense of hope towards the future of the world, and the possibility of getting rid of stereotypes.
As evidenced by the conflicts between characters and the conflicts between characters and society, Kidd and Taylor allude towards a future without racism and prejudice. Both Lily’s and Skeeter’s growth are ways for the audience to reflect on their lives. Although society has made progress, many instances of stereotyping can still be seen in today’s world. For example, one story that changed the world was Malala Yousafzai’s story. Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman because she was an advocate of girl’s rights in Pakistan. Fortunately, she survived, and she has used her story to establish the Malala Fund, a charity dedicated to giving girls across the world access to education. This is only one of many stories that have changed lives. Everyone has a story of discrimination. For those whose voice is not loud enough, someone needs to speak for them.
- Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. Penguin Books, 2002.
- Taylor, Tate, director. The Help. Dreamworks, 2011.