Whether it’s an old Spanish proverb, or was created by the writer Philip Barry for his hit play, The Philadelphia Story, the sentiment is a sound one. The rich and famous are used to a different world and don’t understand all the rules of the real one, a lesson brought home repeatedly on the hit PBS show, Downton Abbey. CAUTION – spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t caught the first four seasons of the PBS hit, then you’ll be gratified to know that the characters in the melodrama are basically well-intentioned and nice. And if they’re not nice, they’re complex. Although I grimaced upon learning that the most mean spirited, manipulative character is gay, after watching the series unfold I’ve developed an understanding of Thomas’ personal demons while appreciating his softer side, as demonstrated when tending a blinded soldier. His line when berated by the redoubtable butler, Mr. Carson for his sexual orientation, “I’m not foul. I’m not like you, but I’m not foul,” rang in my ears like the iconic line of Sydney Portier’s character in In the Heat of the Night. It was the gay equivalent of “They call me Mister Tibbs.”
But what about the sexist attitudes of the time period (1912 – 1920’s)? What might one expect from the writer, himself a current Tory peer of the House of Lords, a well known conservative? In my case, it was so little I didn’t start watching until the tail end of season 3, and with only a hit or miss attitude toward season 4.
I was surprised. Sure, there is still the flavor of paternalism, the assumption of male domination during that time and place, but I was very pleased to see Julian Fellowes’ writing in the voice of a feminist at least part of the time.
For instance, the series begins with the death of a male heir, and the ensuing battle of the Dowager Countess and her daughter-in-law the current Countess, to challenge a law refusing to allow Mary, the oldest daughter of the current Earl of Grantham, to inherit either title or estate. Their challenge eventually comes to nothing, as all the men in charge assure them they simply cannot change the law. However, in a lucky melodramatic twist, Mary comes to love the new heir, they marry and upon his untimely death he leaves not only a newborn heir, but his part of the estate to her. Problem, if not solved, neatly sidestepped.
The third daughter of the house, Lady Sybil, is a forthright feminist. Supporting women’s rights, she gets involved with her father’s chauffeur, an Irish catholic rebel. For the first season and a half, Lady Sybil is the voice of women in the new century. She wears a *gasp* pantsuit, lobbies for women to get the vote, and chivvies her family to accept her husband who is far outside their class. Of course she pays for it with a painful death during childbirth, which some feminist critics have seen as a ‘fridging of the character, or killing her off to advance a man’s plot point, in this case her widowed husband, Tom, the lost-between-classes-Irish-catholic-rebel formerly known as Branson the chauffeur. However, Fellowes countered that with the ‘fridging of a male character (sweet William) to further the plot points of little Daisy, lowest of the kitchen help.
In an interesting aside, there are more strong male characters dissolving into deserved tears in this series,than I’ve ever seen before. By my count, Bates the handicapped valet, Lord Grantham himself, and schemer Thomas have all had emotional breakdowns over issues as wide ranging as potential joblessness, a wife’s miscarriage, and blatant homophobia.
But then came the dark 4th season. One conniving woman becomes so virulently cruel she commits suicide in such as fashion as to set her ex-husband up as her murderer. Another woman is raped, blaming herself completely, and viewing herself as unclean. Both seem problematic to a feminist.
Or are they? True, the vindictive bitch character is no stranger to melodrama, but the former Mrs. Bates is so delightfully self-serving she stretches the stereotype in the manner of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. A strong, manipulative woman long used to getting her way is finally thwarted, inventing a most devious revenge. If not exactly new, Vera. Bates is still more fully realized than most female characters of the trope.
And what about the sweet, innocent Anna who is viciously attacked by a member of a visiting VIP’s staff? Fellowes made sure that the audience saw for themselves what our societal demand that women be sexually pure, responsible for fending off all physical attacks, and forced into the saint/whore dichotomy can do to even the strongest of women. True, his feminism is clearly new to him as a writer, and not fully realized. He was called out by a wide variety of critics after that episode for seeming to divide rape victims into two categories (innocent, and complicit), but… But, I think he was truly trying.
And that’s why I think Downton’s Abbey is a series that feminists should watch. Julian Fellowes, one of the privileged straight white men who rule the world, is exploring the world of female suppression, and is fighting back. I’ll agree, he’s not there yet, but he’s examining situations through parallel stories that explore not only privilege, but sexism, and finds both lacking.
Everyone must start somewhere when becoming a feminist. In Julian Fellowes’ case, it started when his wife, Emma Joy Kitchener, a former Lady-in-Waiting to HRH Princess Michael of Kent and great grandniece of Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, was denied the succession as the 4th Countess Kitchener. Instead, the title became extinct upon the death of her great granduncle, who was without male heirs. In answer to Fellowes’ complaint, the Queen issued a Royal Warrant of Precedence on 9 May 2012, granting The Lady Fellowes of West Stafford the same rank and title as a daughter of an Earl, as if her late father had survived his brother and therefore succeeded to the title. The frustration he rightly felt on his wife’s part, has opened his eyes to the inequalities between women and men.
I’m going to watch his evolution through the complex characters of Downton’s Abbey with interest. Who knows how many other men and women he might encourage to examine their own sense of privilege, which can only be a good thing for any and all feminists.