thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Television, Class, and the American Consciousness: Downton Abbey

In Uncategorized on January 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

Sarah S.

I put off watching Downton Abbey because I knew I would get hooked as soon as I began. But I did put season one on my “instant” queue and knew the day would soon come. It has. Downton features a rather basic “upstairs, downstairs” premise and, aside from great acting and some unique characterizations, the plots of the first season break no new territory. Things get more interesting in the second season because they get more (soap) operatic with the advent of the Great War and its erosion of the stable worldview of the decades before.

Downton is a typical soap opera and a sweeping costume drama, and it’s decent in both modes. But the actors and the characters really keep the thing afloat. Amongst the standouts: Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the butler, whose commitment to the reputation of Downton Abbey is silly and dignified in equal measure; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter, who hides her tempestuous spirit in a cloak of cold disdain; Sophie McShera, the morally conflicted, much abused kitchen maid; and the ever-formidable Dame Maggie Smith essentially reviving her scene-stealing character from Gosford Park. As I recall hearing from one of the creators when the show first came out, these characters don’t know they’re living in history, just as we don’t. And the actors and writers do a marvelous job walking that tightrope.

This morning, this article from Slate caught my eye. The author, Katie Roiphe, essentially asks a question: Why do Americans, particularly in this moment of class fervor, root for the “1%” that populates Downton Abbey? Why are we so fascinated by the beautiful and the wealthy? Like so many such musings on Slate, I feel as if Roiphe whispers at an interesting idea but then fails to develop the argument into a yawp, or even a conversation. (A charge that could no doubt be leveled at many of my blog posts.) So let me attempt to answer the question, both for myself as a newly-minted fan and as an American worried about class inequality in the contemporary US.

There’s no denying that my interest in Downton Abbey stems in part from my interest in the time period. I am a student of modernism in Britain and America, a baby scholar of the First World War in literature and culture, a nerd for the style, politics, art, and culture of the first half of the twentieth century.  But modernist fan-girl tendencies aside, I am also one of those “people escaping into episodes of Downton Abbey [quite literally] in the midnight glow of their laptops” that Roiphe describes as the quintessential conflicted viewer of the show. So what gives?

I don’t think that as Americans we are merely schizophrenic in our responses to class because we secretly believe we could be rich if we just worked harder, as Roiphe claims. And while I think that there’s truth in her argument that we are fascinated by, even long for, the Brits’s openness about class, I don’t think that’s solely why we enjoy Downton Abbey, or Jane Austen novels (and their adaptations), or anything set in Britain really. I think there’s a different kind of fantasy fulfillment in place in Downton Abbey, and that’s a world where class differences don’t equal strife or much individual discomfort.

All the characters in Downton Abbey are there because they have to be there, they were born to their position and they all accept that as truth. And aside from occasional rumblings from the least likable, most villainous personalities, everyone is happy to be there. And the reason for this widespread satisfaction lies in the show’s portrayal of a benevolent, Tory feudalism that was almost as rare in the late 19teens as it is today, as it ever was. The lords and ladies of Downton  are good people, unfailingly fair as employers, unflinchingly loyal to the servants who are loyal to them. These people pay for their cook’s cataract surgery so she won’t have to face a life of blindness and they lend a hand when their cook or their housekeeper is caught pilfering food to give to those they also feel a responsibility to. The world of Downton Abbey insists upon a grace and dignity to doing one’s ordained duty, whether that be maintaining the estate, making the beds, or ensuring enough footmen serve properly “at table.” The pleasure, then, lies not merely in a lust for the wealth of the Edwardian “1%” but in a world where everything makes sense and where everyone gets their reward for following the established rules.

It is, of course, a fantasy–a soap opera, a costume drama. It takes us out of our normal, messy lives to a world where beautiful people wear beautiful clothes and cope with high drama yet where every happening makes sense within the confines of genre. Historical accuracy serves as m
ere verisimilitude. Contingency is an agreed upon illusion always enslaved to the inevitability of plot. And its status as such a fantasy reflects more in our contemporary moment than a rising class consciousness alone.

One additional point: Note how the marketing stills from the show support the rendering of a world safe in its prescribed boundaries with their orderly rows, clear hierarchy, and beautifully appointed framing and style. Intriguingly, tho, I could not find any “official” pictures depicting interactions between the nobility and their servants, even though their relationships make up a significant part of the show. Thus, the marketing also pushes the fantasy of watching the wealthy in their beautiful lives.

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  1. Great post, Sarah! I think you’re right that the nostalgia that propels the popularity of Downton Abbey has to do with the fantasy of an orderly, benevolent class-based past. I wonder whether that fantasy will show more darkening around the edges this season, with all the talk of the changes the war will bring/is bringing?

  2. Thanks, Sarah S! Liked your comment about the promo shots separating the denizens of each floor in a way that the show itself doesn’t (at least not as much). I was also thinking about the opening title sequence which (and this is my own hobgoblin-small mind fixating on what I’m also writing about in my work) shows always the polished *results* of the labor that is being performed by our downstairsers, and (strangely, considering how the show proper consciously avoids this) serves to *elide* that labor, turning it therefore into pure & packaged-for-consumption commodity: both for the upstairs family and for the viewer, who gets to experience pleasure vicariously by admiring the wainscoting.

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