Skeeter Phelan is a bundle of contradictions. She's a 23-year-old white woman with a cotton trust fund and a college degree. She lives at home on her family's cotton plantation, Longleaf. And she devotes herself, at considerable risk, to a book featuring the real stories of the black women who work for the white families in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Contradictions abound, indeed.
She belongs to the Junior League and is in tight with other high-society ladies. She's been best friends with Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt (villainous characters) since grade school. But as the story progresses, Skeeter becomes more and more distanced from this safe social status and goes, as they say, rogue. She breaks all the rules and crosses dangerous lines – and we love her for it.
What cinches her new position of social outcast is the prank she plays on Hilly, who is trying to get a bill passed requiring Mississippi families to build outdoor bathrooms for their black employees. Well, Skeeter arranges for dozens of toilets to be dumped on Hilly's lawn, and got a big laugh out of us, at the very least. Hilly doesn't take this calmly, though, and turns Skeeter into a social pariah. So much so that Skeeter compares herself to outcast Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, which she's been reading (even though it's a banned book in Mississippi). She fears, somewhat jokingly, that like Boo, she'll choose to stay inside to hide from the ugliness of society.
As Skeeter's own friends shun her, the black community embraces her, though not openly (because it's too dangerous). After the release of Help, the preacher at Aibileen's church asks Aibileen to tell Skeeter "we love her like, like she's our own family" (29.107). After you read The Help, you'll probably love her too. She's brave, kind, and looking for the truth. She narrates thirteen chapters of The Help.
Skeeter gets her nickname from her older brother, Carlton. When she was born, he said, "It's not a baby it's a skeeter!" She's almost six feet tall and has incurably "kinky" hair, which she describes as "more pubic than cranial" (5.26) – eww. Like Mae Mobley, she doesn't exactly fit into the ideals of beauty of her society. Also like Mae Mobley, Skeeter has a close relationship with the black woman hired to care for her, Constantine. Like Aibileen does with Mae Mobley, Constantine taught Skeeter to love herself and not to buy into racial prejudices. Behind Skeeter's desire to show the points of view of the Jackson maids is her need to find out what happened to Constantine.
Constantine and Skeeter were confidantes for over twenty years. But, Skeeter stopped hearing from her during her senior year at college. When she comes home from school, Constantine has mysteriously disappeared and nobody in town will tell Skeeter what happened. Although Skeeter doesn't consciously use her interviews with the maids to find out about Constantine, it's always on her mind.
When her editor, Elaine Stein, insists that Skeeter include Constantine's story in Help, Aibileen finally tells her the truth – that Skeeter's mother fired Constantine after a confrontation with Constantine's daughter, Lulabelle, whom Constantine gave up for adoption when she was four years old. This, of course, doesn't go into the book. Betraying her mother is the last thing anybody wants Skeeter to do, as Aibileen points out to her.
In terms of Skeeter's story, The Help is a coming-of-age novel. Skeeter is bold, fearless, and she doesn't buy into the myths that black people are dirty and have diseases that are poison to white people. Her early relationship with Constantine makes such ideas totally ridiculous to Skeeter. Her desire to help the maids give voice to their experiences is also motivated by a desire to counteract harmful myths used to justify forced segregation, unequal treatment, and other abuses.
But, when Skeeter starts hearing the maids' stories, she realizes how little she really knows. When Aibileen reads her story aloud, Skeeter thinks, "I expected the stories to be sweet, glossy. I realized I might be getting more than I bargained for" (12.100). While there is definitely love and friendship in the stories, there is also rape, abuse, and humiliation.
The more Skeeter hears from the maids, the more aware she becomes of the legal, political, and social forces that are allowing these abuses to persist. Skeeter's real growth will probably take place after the novel ends, when she moves to New York. There she'll be exposed to a whole host of new ideas and perspectives that will help her understand the Jackson, Mississippi of her youth. The education she receives from her experience working on Help should be a good foundation.
Skeeter's mother, Charlotte, and most of Skeeter's friends think that women show their value by finding a man, getting married, and having babies – and doing it early. Skeeter isn't adverse to this – she probably would have gotten married if somebody she liked had asked her. But, alas, her unusual looks don't seem to draw too many guys. Her mother is afraid Skeeter has "unnatural thoughts about… […] girls or women" (6.66) and gives her "sexual-correction tea" (12.40) to help her if that's indeed the case.
Though Skeeter does like men, she is most interested in making a career for herself as a writer. For a while, she thinks she might be able to have both with Stuart Whitworth, a senator's son. Their relationship is passionate and romantic at moments, but we think Skeeter could do much better. (Even her mother agrees.) Ultimately, Stuart reneges his marriage proposal when Skeeter reveals that the book she's working on is not, like she's been saying, about the life of Jesus Christ, but about the lives of the black maids of Jackson. The man just can't handle the truth. We hope Skeeter finds lots more love in New York City.
Skeeter seems to have quite a few things in common with her author, including being born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett has this to say about writing Skeeter:
Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television. That said, I think I enjoyed writing Skeeter's memories of Constantine more than any other part of the book. (source)
Skeeter lives in the early 1960s and is in her early twenties when she works on Help in collaboration with Aibileen, Minny, and the other black women who agree to share their stories. Stockett grew up in the 1970s and is looking back on the experience from her thirties. Unlike Skeeter (it seems) Stockett is writing during a time where it's much more acceptable to write about race-based injustice.
But even with these differences between the women, you can bet Stockett gets her share of difficulty for writing about such a subject, even now. For one, there are certainly citizens of Jackson who don't appreciate Stockett's portrayal of their town. There are also critics and readers who think Stockett crossed a line by writing black characters from the first-person point of view.
Also like Skeeter, Stockett is inspired by the memory of the black woman who cared for her as a child. As we talk about in "In A Nutshell," Stockett's childhood maid Demetrie died when Stockett was sixteen. Skeeter's Constantine dies when Skeeter's away at college, but Skeeter doesn't learn this fact until near the end of the book. Unraveling the mystery of what happened to Constantine is Skeeter's underlying motivation for interviewing Constantine's colleagues in the first place. And that story, because it involves private details about Skeeter's mother, doesn't make it into Help, but does make it into The Help – we readers are trusted in ways the readers of Help aren't. Doesn't that make you feel good?
Like Skeeter does at the end of the novel, Stockett left Jackson for New York City to work in the publishing industry. This suggests that although Stockett might not have done anything as daring as publish an exposé while still in her twenties, she was dissatisfied with her community and didn't feel she belonged in it. It simply took her a while to digest her dissatisfaction and work it out into a book.