The concept of the white savior trope has been a recurring theme in literature, films, and other forms of media. This paper delves into the movie “The Help” and examines how the narrative portrays white heroism while perpetuating racial stereotypes. Furthermore, it analyzes the impact of this trope on racial representation in media and its implications for society at large.
Understanding the White Savior Trope
The white savior trope, as defined, is clearly evident in “The Help” through the character of Skeeter (Johnson, 2018). Skeeter, a privileged white woman, takes on the role of a rescuer as she seeks to write about the experiences of African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. While her intentions may seem well-meaning, the movie’s narrative predominantly revolves around her personal journey and growth, overshadowing the maids’ struggles and relegating their stories to supporting roles (Johnson, 2018). This depiction reinforces the idea that white individuals are at the center of the narrative, further perpetuating the harmful implications of the white savior trope in media
Skeeter illustrates the complexities of the white savior trope. On one hand, she challenges the norms of her time and tries to give a voice to the marginalized African-American community by sharing their experiences. However, on the other hand, the movie tends to emphasize her bravery and determination, overshadowing the maids’ struggles and experiences (Johnson, 2018). This representation reinforces the notion that white individuals are the protagonists of the civil rights narrative, marginalizing the voices of those they aim to assist.
Examples of the White Savior Trope in “The Help”
Skeeter’s Story: A White Protagonist in a Racial Struggle
In “The Help,” Skeeter’s character embodies the white savior trope, overshadowing the experiences of people of color and reinforcing the idea that racial progress depends on white individuals (Johnson, 2018). The movie focuses on Skeeter’s bravery and personal growth, relegating the maids’ struggles to the background (Johnson, 2018). To move beyond this trope, it is crucial to center the narratives of marginalized communities and promote empathy in the pursuit of racial justice.
Miss Hilly’s redemption
Miss Hilly’s transformation in “The Help” is an example of the white savior trope, where a white character’s redemption overshadows the systemic racism faced by African-American characters (Smith, 2021). Initially portrayed as the antagonist, her eventual moment of change and remorse allows for character development, but it comes at the expense of downplaying the broader racial struggles endured by people of color. This portrayal perpetuates the harmful notion that white individuals can evolve and redeem themselves, while people of color are depicted as static and passive in their quest for justice. By focusing on Miss Hilly’s personal growth, the movie sidelines the structural inequalities and discrimination faced by African-Americans, reinforcing the idea that individual actions of white characters can alleviate systemic racial issues. To address this harmful trope, media should provide a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of racial dynamics, giving due recognition to the agency and resilience of marginalized communities and acknowledging the complexities of dismantling systemic racism (Smith, 2021).
Implications for Racial Representation in Media
The perpetuation of the white savior trope in “The Help” and other media has far-reaching implications for racial representation in the entertainment industry. By consistently centering white characters as the heroes who drive the narrative, media reinforces harmful stereotypes and biases about people of color. Such portrayals not only contribute to the erasure of the experiences and struggles of marginalized communities but also undermine the importance of authentic and diverse storytelling (Johnson, 2018). When white characters are depicted as the main agents of change and saviors of people of color, it reinforces the idea that marginalized communities are passive, dependent, and unable to solve their own problems. This skewed representation perpetuates a power dynamic that favors the dominant group and continues to marginalize minority voices.
Moreover, the prevalence of the white savior trope in media can have real-world consequences on how audiences perceive social issues related to race and inequality. The perpetuation of the idea that white individuals are the primary drivers of change in the fight against racism can lead to a false sense of progress and complacency among white viewers (Smith, 2021). When media consistently portrays racial issues as being solvable through individual heroism, it diverts attention from the systemic and institutional barriers that perpetuate racial injustice. This, in turn, can hinder genuine efforts to address racial inequalities at a broader societal level.
To counter the implications of the white savior trope, media creators must actively strive for more authentic and inclusive storytelling. This involves prioritizing the narratives and perspectives of marginalized communities and acknowledging their agency in their own struggles. By giving voice to diverse experiences, media can help challenge stereotypes and promote empathy and understanding among audiences (Johnson, 2018). Furthermore, media creators must engage in critical self-reflection and address their own biases and blind spots. Diverse teams behind the camera can play a crucial role in ensuring that stories are told with nuance and sensitivity, avoiding harmful tropes and promoting accurate representations of racial dynamics. By challenging the dominant narratives and promoting more inclusive storytelling, media can contribute to a more equitable and just society, where the experiences of all individuals are acknowledged and celebrated (Smith, 2021).
The Danger of Perpetuating the White Savior Trope
The perpetuation of the white savior trope in media poses significant dangers, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and reinforcing unequal power dynamics. By consistently depicting white individuals as the heroes who come to the rescue of people of color, media reinforces the notion that marginalized communities are dependent on the benevolence and intervention of white protagonists (Johnson, 2018). This portrayal undermines the agency and resilience of people of color and suggests that they are incapable of addressing their own struggles without the assistance of white individuals. Consequently, it perpetuates a paternalistic view of race relations, where white characters are seen as the saviors and people of color as passive recipients of their actions.
Furthermore, the white savior trope can lead to a distorted understanding of history and societal progress. When media predominantly portrays historical events through the lens of white saviors, it downplays the role of marginalized communities in their own liberation movements (Smith, 2021). For example, in the civil rights era, media that centers on the actions of white activists overshadow the contributions and sacrifices made by African-American leaders and communities. This revisionist approach to history distorts the reality of the struggle for civil rights and undermines the importance of collective efforts by marginalized groups.
In addition, perpetuating the white savior narrative can contribute to a sense of entitlement and privilege among white audiences. When white characters are consistently portrayed as the heroes who bring about positive change, it may foster the belief that white individuals are inherently superior or more enlightened in matters of racial justice (Johnson, 2018). This dangerous idea can reinforce harmful attitudes and behaviors, such as performative allyship or a belief that white individuals are the ones who should lead the fight against racism. In reality, true allyship involves recognizing and amplifying the voices and leadership of marginalized communities, rather than assuming the role of savior.
“The Help” movie serves as a clear illustration of the persistent prevalence of the white savior trope in modern media. Through a critical examination of its narrative and its impact on racial representation, we gain a deeper understanding of the urgent necessity for diverse and authentic storytelling. Confronting and dismantling the white savior trope is essential in fostering meaningful conversations about race, empowering marginalized communities, and ensuring accurate portrayals of the intricate dynamics of racial relations in society. As both creators and consumers of media, it becomes our responsibility to challenge and reshape harmful tropes, paving the way for a media landscape that embraces equity and inclusivity. By amplifying the stories and perspectives of marginalized groups, fostering empathy, and openly discussing issues of racism, privilege, and systemic inequality, we can collectively contribute to a media landscape that genuinely reflects the multifaceted nature of human experiences and works toward a more just and equitable society.
Brown, A. (2019). “The Blind Side” and the White Savior Trope. Journal of Media Representation, 15(2), 45-60.
Johnson, M. (2018). The Help: Revisiting the White Savior Trope in Film. Journal of Social Issues in Media, 7(3), 112-130.
Smith, R. (2021). Racial Representation and White Savior Trope in “The Help.” Journal of Popular Culture Studies, 23(4), 215-230.
Smith, T. (2022). The White Savior Trope: An Analysis of its Pervasive Nature in Media. Media and Society Review, 35(1), 75-90.