Paying for Affection

Do y’all remember that show on HBO a while back about strippers? I think it was called G-string Divas or something. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. The premise of the show was, well, naked women. It’s HBO after all. But the interesting thing that was going on in the show is that they’d talk to the men about the strippers and stripping and the men would go on and on about how the women liked them, and how they came to make the women like them, through showering them with money. And then they’d go talk to the women, who would speak very frankly about how they could tell which men would be willing to give up a bunch of money if the women pretended to like them and so the women pretended to like them. And the women would often discuss how they really didn’t like the men at all.

I used to watch that and think “Man, how could any guy watch this show and still go to strip clubs and think he could trust any encounter in there as real?”

But then I finally got it, I think after the 400th music video with strippers fawning over the stars or the 400th movie in which, yes, the main female character is a prostitute but she does really love the main male character (see, for just one example, Jonah Hex). At some level we do know that the woman we shower money on in exchange for her affection is probably acting like she likes us in order to earn that money, but we hate that. I think we really, really, really want to believe that we are so awesome that we’d be the exception, that we’d be the person a gal like that would really love, if only circumstances brought us together and money is just the circumstance that brings us together. And I’m not saying that there aren’t occasionally strippers or prostitutes that come to care genuinely for their clients as people and friends and not as clients, but that is a small sliver compared to the large psychic space we afford that fantasy culturally.

At least, wanting to believe is one part of it. I think there’s another, kind of more sinister urge, to tell women in precarious situations that everything about them can be bought, not just their bodies, but even space in their hearts. It is a way to abuse women–to insist that, no matter what you make us do, you can also make us love you.

I’ve been reading a lot about The Help lately, since the movie is coming out and over at the discussion at Shakesville, someone linked to this post, which is all about the history of the trope of the loving mammy. If you follow the internal links in the piece or just start reading anywhere in the whole blog, you get an amazing, in-depth history lesson in the trope of white women who love the black women who raised them and who assume that the black women loved them back AND that the bond between these white women and black women is so special, the white women can then speak for those black women.

And I thought–damn, that’s a lot like the stripper/hooker problem. It may be the rich white woman equivalent of the stripper/hooker problem–you (or your family) is giving money to a woman to love you and to provide you with the fantasy that this love is genuine and untainted by the fact that this woman is being paid for her affection and you have the privileged of never having to know that. Which is not to say that there aren’t women who worked in white households and raised white children and didn’t come to really love and care for them. Of course there were and are.

But the need for our culture to believe that’s the pervasive and common dynamic and to tell stories over and over again in which that’s true?

Yeah, then, you have to figure there’s something not quite right and worth thinking critically about going on there.

12 thoughts on “Paying for Affection

  1. The Help bothers me so much because i feel like the author exploited the experience of black women to propell herself and her career.

  2. I dunno abt the analogy. Maybe the heart-of-gold stripper fantasy is a luxury as imagined by a)nerdy imagination challenged writers b) men more well off. The rap version is the ride-or-die gal, and the relationship is more equitable, both people coming from the same circumstance. Instead of finding the true love in the wilderness, one finds the woman who will let you hold $500 till Friday or hide you from the gendarmes. In return you do not act like a trifflin brother and pay some bills.

    Its less intimate a notion. Far less than the mammy scenario.

    I actually think psychology would be more instructive in answering the question why the loving mammy notion persists. We all expect the mother figure to love us unconditionally and return said love. Children idealize their parent figure( and many people don’t deal well with the reality).

    So it isn’t surprising that people are clueless about the power structure, even those (or especially those) you think should not be clueless.

    It is not lost on me, the messed-up-idness, that one can purchase that kind of one-way affection. The social inequities complicate the matter, and when presented as commerce for our enjoyment, then the Marxist view of the situation is helpful but not sufficiently explanatory.

    One more example of the two way burden slavery placed on all of us.

  3. Mark, it’s true that in these days of nannies and day-care race is a complication but not the main issue. I have a (white) childhood friend who worked for years doing daycare in her home because she loves working with babies. I have a (Puerto Rican/Cuban) friend who needed daycare for her kids but agonized over it because she was afraid they would end up loving the (white) caregiver more than her. Real life is complicated.

    I actually think that the author of The Help, whose name I forget, was aware of complications, but just not a good enough writer to deal with them.

  4. I read “The Help” — there was no revelation to me. It reminded me of people I know. And reminded me of people I take lengths to avoid. As I read the book, I imagined people I knew as the characters.

    That is exactly how a lot of people in Jackson, MS (and many places in the country, not just Mississippi) act, speak and view the world, even to this day.

  5. Kathryn Stockett.

    And this book falls into my “books written by younger people are often problematic” theory nicely. I think if she’d written this with 15 more years under her belt it would have been a much richer, more nuanced story.

  6. @texasmere – delicious chocolate pie can be found at Arnold’s on 8th Avenue here in Nashville; the best I’ve ever had. I imagine if they serve caramel pie it would be a little piece of heaven on a fork.

  7. Beth: no. No thank you. Not after that book. :) Plus my mother/grandmother’s recipe was pretty hard to beat. Though, as you know, I don’t eat a lot of stuff like that anyway.

  8. Mark, that’s a good point. It is probably extremely difficult to come to terms with the idea that the woman who raised and cared for you might not have cared about you as much as you cared about her. Add to that the dynamic of it being your parents who paid for and arranged this transaction, it gets very emotionally complicated.

  9. But in the context of the Help that dynamic was made even worse by the white girl who loved the black nanny feeling like she could rescue the nanny. I know I’m not articulating this well at all. But it is the same squickiness I got from the Blind Side.

    I’m sure these white people love their black nannies and sports heroes. But it seems like the love is always groundedin what the black person can do for them, not in who the black person is apart from the tasks he or she performs. And then add to that the dynamic of the white person having to “save” the black person because all of the black people around their beloved black person are bad influences. In The Blind Side it was the project kids. In the Help it’s all the sterotypical drunk-and-useless black men. In fact at one point, iirc, the black women characters in the book make it clear that they have to go out and work for the mean white ladies because the black men are all “no-account.” (i swear it felt like that phrase “no-account” got used a billion times.)

    So yes, the children love the women who are paid to love them. And maybe those women have generous and gracious enough spirits to love the children back to some degree. But then for the white children to make a sociocultural value judgement that raises their pet black person up by demeaning others….I dont see the love in that.

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