Thursday, February 2, 2012

Downton Abbey: the problems of nostalgia

Here is an attempt at doing a quick review of the British TV series Downton Abbey. Which is not called, as I (like many) first thought, Downtown Abbey.

Having seen only rave reviews but not the show itself, I bought the box set of the first series for my mother for Christmas, crossing my fingers that she would enjoy it. She called me the the day after Christmas with enthusiastic approval - yay, good daughter points! - so when I was struck down by stomach 'flu the next week, I mainlined the whole thing as a much-needed distraction. (When I wasn't spewing toxic green goo from every orifice of my body, that is.)

Overall impression? I can see why people like it and I enjoyed it enough myself to finish watching at least, but though the visuals amazed and enchanted me, I was less than delighted by how it coped with the inherent problems of nostalgia. That is, the celebration of a lifestyle and era which are inaccessible to many and problematic from a historical standpoint, or, to paraphrase Louis C.K., the social privileges of time travel (if we think of nostalgia and watching period pieces as a kind of metaphorical time travel).

[General spoilers for series 1 and 2 below the cut]

There are many things to recommend the show, especially if you're a fan of period pieces. The fantastic scenery, costume eye-candy, classic British characters, and amusing if somewhat obvious plot lines - it's all very comforting and indulgent and fun the way escapist television is meant to be. But there was also a lot to question - about the role of class, sex, race, sexual orientation, and power, not only in the context of early 20th century Britain, but in the contemporary setting in which this series has been produced and consumed. So here is my not-so-short list of things that made me grit my teeth and cringe about this series:

1. I never liked the characters the show wanted me to like.

Take Lord Grantham. I gather I am meant to admire and respect him for his unfortunate commitment to a dying and exploitative social structure. I mean, sure, as far as characters go, he's noble, kind, mindful of his station, not extravagant with his power, and generally willing to forgive and help. He is probably as good as a lord as one might want to be subservient to, assuming one wants to be subservient to a lord. But he really is the 1%, and he and his kind are doomed, and I am HAPPY about that. For all that he talks about being a custodian, rather than owner, of a legacy, I really can't bring myself to fondly think back on the aristocracy, no matter how gracious they are to the servants.

And Mary! I truly detest Mary, but not for the reasons I am probably supposed to. Although I can't stand her for being so bloody egocentric all of the time, I actually sympathize with her unenviable position as the eldest child and therefore the most beholden to the pointless traditions of her class. I think the way that she puts strategy above romance is completely sensible and valid and wish that she wasn't depicted as being a cold bitch for doing so. So I don't find her romance with Matthew at all redeeming, because my problem with her is that she is a spoiled princess, not that she is pragmatic and unromantic. I also don't comprehend why anyone, among the characters or the audience, would care about such a pointless, boring person as Matthew Crawley. From the first few episodes, I had assumed that there would be a great deal more emphasis placed on his attempts to navigate and balance between his modern inclinations and the traditional setting into which he has been drawn. Instead, he seems to have rather quickly acclimated to the upper-class lifestyle and now his entire plotline revolves around the very typical question of whom he will marry. Once more, I get the impression that I am supposed to find him admirable or attractive in some way, but I find nothing concrete to recommend him. He started out as a bit of a tosser and then ended up as hypocrite.

2. Almost all of the show's villains are dissatisfied lower-class people.

It should be noted that in this show, "villains" are generally people who create conflict for other characters by being selfish, conniving, and disruptive, often secretly, as opposed to flagrantly evil or socially powerful agents. Some are regular characters and others show up only once or a few times.

Thomas Barrow, a footman-turned-soldier-turned-footman again, and Sarah O'Brien, a lady's maid, are two of the main villains throughout the series. They often work in cahoots, manipulating and exploiting other character for their own gain, all the while vocally disapproving of the status quo of the class system, resenting their own servile lot. Other examples include Vera Bates, the fiendish wife of one of the servant protagonists, who first extorts her husband and then kills herself to spite him by having him charged with her murder; Charles Grigg, a conman who attempts to blackmail the butler with knowledge of their mutual criminal past in one episode; Sir Richard Carlisle, a self-made man of the "new money" set who made his fortune through ruthlessness and exhibits considerable cruelty and contempt; and, to some extent, Ethel Parks, a housemaid who flirts with the soldiers recuperating in the household, is generally disruptive, and ends up getting pregnant and having to leave Downton Abbey (she becomes somewhat more sympathetic later on, but the slut-shaming continues). Extortion, blackmail, theft, promiscuous sexuality, and generally uppity-ness and rule-breaking are the conventional bad behaviours among these characters, and every single one of them relates their abusive behaviour to resentment of their class position and a desire for financial and social autonomy.

There are two exceptions to this pattern of characters. One, in the first series there is one housemaid who attempts to "better her lot" and is not villainized for doing so. However, most of the sympathetic servant characters (Bates, Carson, Anna, etc.) all revel in the life of servitude and express little to no dissatisfaction with the traditional way of life in the manor, and Gwen, the housemaid-turned-secretary, is personally dissatisfied but not resentful or critical of the entire class system. There is also one "villain" who does not fit the uppity servant type: the (classist, sexist, racist) Dowager Countess. But she is also played more as a comedic villain (racist old granny, essentially), and has never caused the same level of harm as done by Sarah or Thomas. Overall the message of the show is that the historical class structure is admirable and worthy of nostalgia, and that being critical of it is nearly always associated with being a bad person.

The handling of Thomas, specifically, as the sole gay character in the show, infuriates me. I'm appalled by how this character has been presented - scheming, promiscuous, amoral, vain, and cowardly. Although he was the first character to go to war, he was never depicted as being heroic for doing so, because he only joined up for glory before anyone knew how awful it would be. And when he injures himself to get out of the field, it's depicted as an act of extreme cowardice, although Molesley, another character who faked his way out of the draft, is presented as somewhat cowardly but still sympathetic.

Thomas has every reason to be resentful of his social situation, particularly as a marginalized queer person, but he is almost never presented in a positive light. His homosexuality is shown through him coming on to a few guests of the manor, and while he alludes to homophobic mistreatment and is occasionally teased or joked about by the heterosexual characters, we have yet to see the show actually condemn homophobic actions against this character. Nor is his sexuality ever presented positively. Rather, he is shown as grasping and selfish, constantly sabotaging and exploiting other characters for his own gain. There is one episode in which he is presented in a sympathetic light when he helps care for a wounded soldier, but by the very next episode he is back to causing strife and hurting people. One of the most retrogressive depictions of a gay character I've seen on contemporary television and, in my books, the biggest strike against the show.

3. The genuinely interesting political commentary is constantly subordinated to conventional romantic plots with skeevy gender politics.

Mary and Matthew are only one example. I was so disappointed to see Sybil's wonderful storyline about abandoning tradition and entering the workforce as well as the political stage get sucked up into an elopement/forbidden marriage plot by the end of the second series. I was much more looking forward to seeing her anti-sexism focus and her lower-class lover's anti-classism focus get hashed out in some kind of cool intersectionality plot, but that didn't really happen. Now that Edith has finally gotten out from under Mary's thumb, her character has blossomed as well, but I already fear that the third series will simply bring more of the same tired romance plots to supplant the rest of her character development. Yes, I understand that marriage among the upper-classes was a really huge deal and that the draw of period pieces usually is some kind of love and romance theme, but there's so much more that could be done!

Among the servants, it's not much better. Bates and Anna are sweet, but the series 2 storyline of Daisy, a kitchen maid, being railroaded into first an engagement and then a marriage to one of the footmen she likes but does not love made me want to vomit. (Okay, that might have partly been the stomach 'flu.) The show had hinted at a potential romance between them since the first series, but I was horrified to see its fruition with Daisy being guilted into returning William's affections so that he could go off to the front with "a girl back home", and then to marry him on his deathbed so that he could die knowing she was taken care of as his war widow, and then to acknowledge their marriage after his death despite her guilty conscience and discomfort so that his dad wouldn't be alone-- GAH!! Coerced "consent" is NOT ROMANTIC. That is all I can say about that without punching my monitor.

So that's how I feel about Downton Abbey - the visuals are stunning and Maggie Smith delivers some of the most hilarious "inappropriate old granny" bits you could want (if you actually want them - again, some of them are just racist, classist old granny), but once you dig into it a bit, it's the same old thing. Although they attempt to explore gender and class politics, that mainly amounts to lip service and at heart it's still a celebration of a era better left in the past. Enjoyable to the audience it's meant to cater to, but as far as the social politics of time travel go, it's no Kindred.

Speaking of which, does anyone have any recs for period pieces (movies, books, TV, whatever) that do a much better job of exploring and even having fun with the social politics of the past without celebrating the more problematic aspects of them? Please share in the comments!

EDIT 02/12/12: Just found this excellent breakdown of Downton Abbey's superficial challenge to the class narrative. The more I think on it, the more I feel that I was wrong to say that the handling of Thomas is the show's biggest misstep - it's certainly the most overt and immediately needling to me, but I think it's the subtle but imminently more pervasive reinforcement of the class hierarchy that really takes the flavour out of it for me in the end.

EDIT 02/17/12: Emily Manuel at Tiger Beatdown does a far more thorough job of taking apart the compulsory heterosexuality of Downton Abbey. Spot on.

6 comments:

  1. PoliticalguineapigFebruary 5, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    So, I have a question: Are all shows that feature a character that's queer or not white obliged to show that character in a positive light all the time? Personally, I read Thomas as being sneaky just because that's how he is- he's out for number one, and being queer is only incidental to his character. Or perhaps he's out for number one because he knows the world isn't on his side and the only way to get the world on his side is to reach a point where rules don't matter.
    If I were a member of a minority group, personally I'd be rather annoyed if the only characters that were like me were the ones that were written to shat out kittens and rainbows on command. I always did like the villianesses more than the heroes.

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  2. @ Politicalguineapig

    Actually, I have a predilection for villains too - almost always more interesting than boring old protagonists.

    But the issue I have with Thomas's portrayal is that his homosexuality *itself* has been made part of his villainy (more through thoughtlessness and weak writing than anything else). I'm not opposed to there being queer villains, so long as queerness itself isn't used as a lazy writer's way of saying, "Ah ha! Watch out for this one - he isn't to be trusted", the way you can always pick out the Disney villain in the movie because he or she is the one who "looks" evil (e.g., disfigured, pointy hair and eyes, strange skin colours, like very pale or green, etc.). Thomas's character isn't *quite* that obvious, but the writers haven't shown themselves capable of really effectively differentiating between a queer villain and a villain who is also queer.

    They'd be able to get themselves out of that rut in a couple of ways - A) make an effort to explicitly condemn some of the homophobic behaviour by the other, less villainous characters, even if only as a nod to the audience (I don't expect them to launch a Pride parade in early 20th century England, of course), B) make him a more interesting villain!! As it stands, his motivations are very... unidimensional. He is their convenient asshole, ready to shit out a new turd of "making life hard for everyone else" whenever they need him to. Rounding out the character altogether would make him less of a prop where all his characteristics get fused together in a single purpose (being a nasty little queer sod). They've started to do that with the other main villain, Sarah O'Brien, so I know they're capable of it. And/or C) include more queer characters of varying characterizations.

    The last one there is kind of the crux of it - no single character should have to shoulder the burden of representing an entire demographic, especially one so diverse as gay people. But because there are so very few gay characters, it puts inordinate pressure on that person's characterization, and the results are usually lackluster because of it. If all the gay characters on TV were the kind to, as you said, shit out "kittens and rainbows on command" that would be hellaciously boring and tokenizing. But it's really not much better to have them all be "gay best friends" or "sexually-warped deviants".

    I'd still take a background queer with barely any screen time, though, over one who cheaply reinforces the idea that gay people are inherently untrustworthy and twisted, because I was already getting that message a lot everywhere else, on TV and in real life. If they aren't going to do anything with his sexuality as part of his character development and make him a queer character worth watching (even as a villain! I really don't have anything against villains, as long as they're good villains), then I would rather they had never made him gay in the first place. I feel like they must think they are earning "liberal" points in diversity representation for all the wrong reasons.

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  3. Dude, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I had even complained in an article on Season 1 about how Fellowes treated Thomas and his homosexuality.

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  4. At the beginning, the handling of Thomas didn't irritate me much. He seemed interestingly situated, and at first I liked it better that at least he'd had some fun, as compared to the unlucky valet in *Gosford Park* who never got to attend to Ivor Novello. And with either Mary's first suitor who balked or with the Turk, one could view Thomas as more victim than villain. Then the character quickly went downhill, and unnecessarily.

    At least the brief flicker of romance in the second season helped more than it irritated. It removed Thomas from that class of young man, the forerunner of what today would be called "Gay for Pay" - ick! ick!! ick!!!

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  5. @ Rosie and Douglas

    Yeah, I thought I might not be alone in that viewpoint. I wonder if they get any amount of fan pressure? Maybe the next series will see some better episodes?

    I have to say, that one good episode in series 2 kind of made things worse for me because I got my hopes up...

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  6. As far as William and Daisy, I found it helped to think of it as more of a War-related line than an unsatisfactory romance. I was afraid that William would be sent to Downton in danger of dying. That could have made a huge mess. As it was, Granny Grantham's involvement in the deathbed wedding struck me as one of the strongest examples of your original point.

    As it happened, just before the second season started airing here, I'd rewatched *Dandelion Dead* with particular attention to Lesley Sharp's performance as the pharmacist's daughter. It was an interesting snapshot, raising the question of how young women coped with the postwar gender imbalance.

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