The purpose of a film is not only to entertain the viewer, but also to inform him/her. Movies often incorporate views that are structured by the time period in which the narrative takes place. According to Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis, authors of Film: A Critical Introduction, “these systems of beliefs, values and opinions, also known as ideologies, derive from deep-seated feelings about the world and about human society, and therefore, are not necessarily bound by the rules of logic” (310). Todd Haynes and Tate Taylor, directors of Far From Heaven and The Help respectively, undoubtedly integrate these principles into their films. Far From Heaven discloses the life of a typical housewife, Cathy Whittaker, who discovers that her husband, Frank, is homosexual, while she also develops feelings for an African American man, Raymond Deagan. The Help, on the other hand, follows a newly educated author, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan on her journey to write from the point of the maids, who are in charge of raising white children. Both movies validate similar racial and gender ideologies of the 1950’s and sixties that shape each of the plots.
Racism plays a tremendous role in both films. In each movie, the racial ideology was that white people were superior to black people. First, in Far From Heaven, Cathy faces scrutiny from her family, friends, and community for interacting with Raymond. When rumors spread about the two spending time together, Eleanor Fine, Cathy’s best friend, refuses to even engage in a conversation with her. Even Frank, who has to hide his homosexuality from the public, judges Cathy for interacting with a black man. Eventually, Raymond’s daughter pays the price when a few white neighborhood boys attack her because they do not approve of her father’s relations with a white woman. Raymond declares to Cathy, “I’ve learned my lesson about mixing in other worlds. I’ve seen the sparks fly. All kinds.” Clearly, interracial affiliations were not acceptable during the fifties, and anyone who was involved in such relationship would be punished. The black population was constantly belittled and treated unfairly. This same racism occurs in The Help. In fact, it acts as the foundation of the entire movie. The New York Times states that this film is, “about a vision of a divided America that is consistently insulting and sometimes even terrifying” (Dargis). The film takes place during the civil rights movement, as black people started to gain liberties. Each maid involved with helping Skeeter write her book tells of the horrendous stories that come from working for white families. For example, white employer Hilly Holbrook starts a movement to build outdoor bathrooms for the black maids because, “they carry different diseases.” People often claimed these ridiculous ideas to be true due to their extreme racist beliefs. The Caucasian population was able to force black people off the bus, brutalize them, talk down to them, and limit their job opportunities because they were “superior”. In both films, the black women were working maids. They answered to the white owners of the houses and raised their children for them. There were paid below minimum wage and received no benefits. Clearly, in both movies, the black population was taken advantage of due to the ignorance of the white characters, which mimicked the opinions of many during the fifties and sixties. Another common ideology is the difference in gender roles featured in both films.
The role of women in Far From Heaven and The Help mirrors that of the time period. The white male suppressed women, similar to the dominance of Caucasians over African Americans. Typical roles for women included cooking and cleaning – if not completed by a maid -taking care of the children, planning fundraisers, and looking pretty at all times. In Far From Heaven, Cathy chooses to stay with Frank, even after seeing him with a man, because of his oppression. Frank also asserts his dominance over Cathy when he strikes her, subsequent to a failed attempt to be intimate with his wife. Anthony Oliver Scott of The New York Times pronounces that, “Frank’s misery transmutes, all too easily, into cruelty directed at his wife” (A 50’s Picket Fence Around Love). Basically, he acts out towards Cathy due to his anger and inability to accept his sexuality. Even after this event, Cathy has to cover the bruise to keep up with her “perfect” appearance as a mother and housewife. Movie critic Roger Ebert agrees that Far From Heaven confirms the conventional values of the time when he says, “[It is] a movie that knows exactly what mainstream values were in 1957.” On the other hand, Skeeter, in The Help, is not the typical girl of her time period. Her role challenges that of women in the sixties. First, she went to school with hopes of becoming a journalist. Careers that were available to women during the sixties included nursing, reception, teaching, and writing. Although not many ventured out into the working world, as seen through Skeeter’s group of girl friends, she still wanted to make something of herself. Second, Skeeter was not interested in the idea of marriage, as she explained to her dumbfounded mother. Despite society’s expectations at the time for a female to marry, Skeeter was more interested in working on her book. In time, Skeeter starts to date Stuart Whitworth, who does not approve of her book and breaks off the relationship because of her association with the black maids. Another character that feels the dominance of her male counterpart is Minnie. After she bakes a pie for her former employee, Hilly, filled with human feces, her husband is outraged and beats her. Domestic abuse was common due to the view that women were inferior. Overall, these female characters are forced to live in a male dominant world, where they must answer strictly to the demands of the men. Skeeter differs from Cathy however because she does not succumb to the pressures of society.
Social Ideologies can be verified or challenged, as seen in Far From Heaven and The Help. Racism is a huge factor in developing the plot for both films. White supremacy over the black population is clearly depicted through the scrutiny that Cathy and Raymond’s friendship faced and also within the horrible treatment of black maids during the sixties. Black men and women faced horrible beatings, assassinations for involvement with the civil rights movement, and extreme accusations. Aside from racism, all women during the civil rights era were plagued with male dominance. Women were only granted the chance to work certain jobs, and carry out what their husbands entailed on a daily basis. It was also common during the time period for husbands to abuse their wives. While the vulnerable character of Cathy Whittaker confirmed these gender roles in Far From Heaven, The Help tested them with its character of Skeeter, who preferred to do and say what pleased her. Both films mainly established the social ideologies that came about during the fifties and sixties. Exploring the mainstreams of the time makes for a dramatic film, and reveals the harsh realities of our nation’s past.
Dargis, Manohla. “‘The Maids’ Now Have Their Say.” The New York Times. 9 Aug.
2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
Ebert, Roger. “Far from Heaven.” RogerEbert.com. 15 Nov. 2002. Web. 13 Dec.
Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. “Film and Ideology.” Film: A Critical Introduction. 3rd ed.
Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon, 2011. 310. Print.
Scott, Anthony O. “A 50’s Picket Fence Around Love.” The New York Times. The New
York Times, 8 Nov. 2002. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.