'The Help': Why Do Powerful Men Abuse Their Maids?

Buzz, Sex

A portrayal of Deep South discrimination sheds light on Arnold's affair and the DSK sex scandal.

The new film The Help is a timely example of art imitating life. Based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 New York Times bestseller of the same name, the movie, which opened in theaters nationwide on Aug. 10, weaves together the stories of three women—two disgruntled black maids, played by Octavia Spencer and Doubt's Viola Davis, and the fearless, white, recent college grad, played by Easy A's Emma Stone, who dares to tell their story—in early 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. Like the beloved novel before it, the motion picture illuminates the otherwise invisible life of the African American housekeeper. And while the Civil Rights movement has made strides toward abolishing racial discrimination in the Deep South and throughout the U.S., recent headlines suggest that domestic service workers are still suffering from abuse—including sexual.

In fact, an article in The Houston Chronicle aptly coins this "the summer of the help," pointing to the slew of latest news stories about powerful men who've abused their authority by sexually abusing domestic service workers. From Arnold Schwarzenegger's now infamous, marriage-ending affair with his family's housekeeper to the charges brought against former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the alleged sexual assault of hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, this phenomenon has become one that's impossible to ignore and begs the question: Why are powerful men abusing their maids? The Allure Of The Nanny: 5 Reasons Men Cheat With Women They Hire

According to a survey of some 500 domestic workers conducted by labor advocacy group Domestic Workers United, despite the undeniable progress towards gender equality in the U.S., 93 percent of domestic workers in the U.S. are female. Even more staggering, 99 percent are foreign-born. But, as the Chronicle article points out, sex- and nationality-based discrimination are not the only factors that make these women vulnerable to abuse. The problem dates back to slavery and continues in large part due to the blurry line between home and workplace that comes with the profession's territory. So while we live in a world where certain behavior belongs in the bedroom and other behavior belongs in the boardroom, the standards are relaxed for a job whose very description involves changing the linens and washing underwear. Things like "sexy maid" Halloween costumes don't help either. The Daily Beast: 'The Help': Behind The Scenes Of The Movie

What might help the help is some progressive labor legislation to regulate working conditions so that domestic workers will have the power to negotiate fair terms with their employers. Thankfully, the tides seem to be turning in that direction. Last year, New York became the first state in the union to pass a bill designed to protect nannies and housekeepers from workplace exploitation. More recently, a similar bill was approved in California, slating it to become the next in line to safeguard its domestic workers from abuse. And just this past June, the U.N.'s International Labour Organization adopted a set of guidelines that included weekly rest hours and a minimum wage.

With just 48 states to go, the near future promises The Help will become less of a contemporary account and more of the period piece it was intended to be.

Have you seen The Help? Do you think it's fair to compare pre-Civil Rights racism to today's headlines? Sound off in the comments.