Some Thoughts about “Downton Abbey” as Guilty Pleasure and Propaganda
I confess it reluctantly: I am addicted to the British television series “Downton Abbey” which I watch weekly (Sunday evenings) on “Masterpiece Theatre” on “public television.” One thing I like about it is—no commercials interruptions of the program itself. I also enjoy the stunningly beautiful scenery—inside the castle and outside in the English countryside and villages. I also watch now to find out about more about the only character who really interests me: “Mr. Bates.” Did he murder his wife? We may never know (but I hope to find out through some hidden clue). Did he murder “Mr. Green” who raped his wife? I suspect he did, but will he be caught? Unlike many female addicts of Downton Abbey, I suspect anyway, I have no real interest in “Mary’s” affairs, but I do love “Grandmama” (The Dowager Countess played superbly by Maggie Smith. I have never seen her in any film where she didn’t shine!)
Why am I talking here about Downton Abbey? Well, because it’s a fine illustration of what’s wrong with television even when it’s rising above the ordinary “wasteland” that makes up most of its programing. Let’s face it. With a few rare exceptions most of what blares forth from television is junk. I have access to approximately three hundred television channels. Most of the time there is nothing worth watching on any of them. Recently I finally (at the urging of my precious and precocious daughters!) subscribed to an online “streaming” provider of films mainly because of the abundance of documentaries available. My first enjoyment of it was “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” created and narrated by European philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Zizek may be an atheist but his incisive insights into public culture and its hidden messages are, to say the least, stimulating and thought-provoking. But I digress…back to Downton Abbey.
What I fear is that other viewers of Downton Abbey (henceforth DA) may take it seriously—as a reliable depiction of English life a century ago. I once saw a documentary purporting to convince that DA is meticulously researched so as to reflect what life really was like “back then and there.” Well, frankly, I’m not particularly interested in whether and to what extent it reflects accurately the clothes and manners of an English aristocratic clan and their servants.
One absolutely glaring historical fault in DA is the almost complete absence of religion from the lives of everyone in the drama. To the best of my memory (and I have seen every episode), the only times religion has entered the story lines were at weddings and funerals. Even then, only the trappings of religion were displayed—a few scenes of churches and clergy. So far as anyone viewing DA can tell, all the characters are totally devoid of religious belief and practice. That would not have been the case in rural and village England (or perhaps anywhere in England) a century ago! By all accounts I have read of that time and place, almost everyone was at least interested in religion and most people practiced Christianity. To entirely exclude the Church of England and its bishops, priests and theologians, is to portray castle and village life in England around 1920 falsely. The only reason this is a valid criticism is because the show’s creators and promoters claim that it is a faithful depiction of life in that cultural setting. It isn’t. It projects today’s secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.
A second glaring fault of DA (excuse me while I grind an axe but I think you will have to agree if you watch the program) is its treatment of the male characters. The female characters have their quirks, to be sure, but they are all (now that one is off the show) admirable human beings: sensitive, compassionate, reasonable, progressive, wise, patient, funny, and strong. And they are all victims of a male-dominated culture struggling to liberate themselves and others from oppression. You might argue that “Violet,” the character played by Maggie Smith, is the exception, but I disagree. She is portrayed as haughty and traditional, but she also supports the other female characters’ challenges to the “standing order of things” even with great reluctance and irony. She absolutely shines as the crusty old dowager with a soft inside always seeking to help the more risk-taking other women—even when they act boldly and push the envelope of conventional norms.
The male characters are all profoundly flawed human beings; not one is a truly likeable, sympathetic character. There isn’t a single one I would want to know; I would cross the street if I saw any of them coming toward me. The only one that is even slightly interesting is “Mr. Bates” but that’s only because he’s sinister beneath an outwardly kind and respectable demeanor. But even his kind and respectable demeanor is shallow and strikes one as fake. But at least he’s an interesting character. The patriarch of the family, “Sir Robert,” Lord Grantham, has gradually become a genuinely unlikeable character: stubborn stick figure, backward, anti-womens’ rights, defender of hierarchy and even oppression, rude, lacking in all real social graces and compassion (except towards his daughter Edith who, one suspects, he would throw out of the manor with contempt if he knew her secret life!). The Irish son-in-law is a wall flower with no spine, completely ineffectual even though he harbors progressive beliefs. His new love interest, on the other hand, the teacher from the village, is emerging as the new hero of the program with her progressive political rhetoric. All the male characters that matter (there are some who occasionally appear briefly but are not central to the story) are either sinister, stupid or stodgy opponents of everything new and fun. “Mr. Carson,” once a relatively likeable character, has become practically medieval. This is all a change; earlier seasons and episodes did not portray the “men of Downton Abbey” so negatively; but somehow they have all become strikingly unlikeable.
I cannot believe this is accidental; the creators of the show must think women (who make up the vast majority of DA devotees) like to see men portrayed as weak, sinister, unlikeable. Do they? I would not like to think so, but I suppose the creators of DA know what they are doing and do it for a reason. But this is a trend in popular culture—portraying men as violent or ineffectual drones with nothing special to contribute as men whereas women are increasingly portrayed as strong (sometimes violent but always justifiably so), wise and capable.
Note: If you choose to respond, please avoid simplistic advice such as “Just stop watching Downton Abbey if you hate it so much.” I believe it is important for me to know about popular culture and DA is an influential part of popular culture that many people think is authentically historical and even “highbrow entertainment.” Agree with my interpretation nor disagree with it, but give reasons in a civil and respectful manner.