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[personal profile] nymeth posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Downton Abbey

Friends! I know that for weeks now the two or three of you reading this have been wondering where on earth the long-ago promised part three of my series of posts on the whole issue of showing and telling and balancing aesthetics, good storytelling and social conscientiousness is. Well, the truth is that it’s proving incredibly difficult to write. I knew from the beginning that I would end up with more questions than answers when I was done, but try as I might I can’t give my current collection of questions a shape that makes them worth asking.

I am not giving up, though – just putting it on hold. However, as I’ve been silent here for far too long, I thought I’d do something a little different today and tell you about my most recent addiction – Downton Abbey. My being hooked on this series is a direct consequence of the first ever periodical (hey, one can hope) meeting of two thirds of Lady Business, featuring the awesome future LB guest posters Meghan and Ana (this is not in any way a hint *cough*). Our absent one third was of course very much missed, but nevertheless many books were coveted, laughs were shared, Shakespeare was watched, benign gossip was exchanged, good food was consumed, trains were very nearly missed, much fun was had by all, and Downton Abbey was pressed into my eager hands.

Downton Abbey is a period drama focusing on the lives of the Crawley family and the large staff that runs their stately home. The series is set in the years before WWI, which to someone like me gives it immediately appeal. While some of the Crawleys try to figure out whether there’s a way of preventing their home, Lord Grantham’s title and his wife’s considerable fortune from going to an unknown distant relative rather than their eldest daughter, international tensions mount, women fight for the vote, and society inevitable moves towards change. I am now five episodes into the series’ first season, which has a total of seven. I imagine that I’m still in for some surprises, but I feel that by now I have a good grasp of what Downton Abbey is all about.

I’m not sure if I would rank the series among my all-time favourites, but one thing is certain: it’s excellent storytelling, and it constantly has me dying to know what’s going to happen next. As I’m fairly sure is the case with all of you, I’m addicted to story. Although books are my preferred way of satisfying this craving, I’m not at all averse to satisfying it through other media. Thanks to my recent reading slump, I spent months and months without experiencing the delicious thrill of being completely enthralled in a story, and let me tell you, I’d really, really missed it.

Anyway, Downton Abbey is a series whose appeal largely depends on our tendency to romanticise pre-war upper class living – although, as we will see later, this is not an entirely fair comment. I’ve been known to become annoyed with novels that do this, but if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m by no means immune to the lure of a good country house story myself. All historical periods are romanticised to some extent, so it seems unfair to pick on the early twentieth century in particular. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that most of my social history reading seems to focus on either this period or the Victorian era. Whatever the reason, I tend to roll my eyes at stories that don’t somehow acknowledge its dark underbelly, or at the very least the cost and social implications of this glamorous lifestyle. But of course, the best thing about Downton Abbey is that it actually does.

Downton Abbey does a remarkable job of balancing the romance and glamour of life at a stately home with the social insight that a twentieth-first century audience will undoubtedly have. I don’t think the series is actually particularly revolutionary, in the sense that most of the progressive values it espouses are easy and safe and widely accept in our day and age by people all across the political spectrum (e.g., women should vote. None but a radical fringe would argue with that). But at least there isn’t much about it that is careless or insensitive or dehumanising, unlike other stories of this kind I could mention.

The characters are all fully human regardless of their class or background, and the family’s servants are involved in storylines that are not only interesting in their own right, but don’t always involve their role as servants. Of course, the power dynamics between the upper class and their domestic staff are at the very heart of what Downton Abbey is about, but I was happy to see that the servants are allowed to exist as human beings beyond this. This is tricky to do well, because there were people who, for the sake of financial security and due to a lack of other options, often gave up their right to have lives of their own in the name of their employers’ well-being. The series acknowledges this, but it does so in a way that never really robs them of their humanity (and of course, now I’ve made myself really want to reread The Remains of the Day).

I said above that I didn’t think there was much about Downton Abbey that was insensitive, but there’s an exception to this that made me very, very sad. Why oh why does the one and only main glbtq character have to be so completely evil? (And the one supporting character wasn’t much better, really). I think Downton Abbey does a great job when it comes to representing women, and the main reason for this is the fact that there are so many of them. Because most of the cast is female, they’re allowed to be kind, scheming, competitive, smart, hard-working, lazy, ambitious, snobbish, gentle, thoughtful, competent, clumsy, awkward – you name it. The full spectrum of human emotions, behaviours and motivations is available to them without any ties between the nastier traits and their femininity being implicitly established, because for every example there is a different one to challenge it.

As I’ve said in the past
, ideally this is what would always happen. I think a lot of progress has been on that front when it comes to representing women (although now I occasionally see people complaining when female characters display vulnerability, which… is not the point of feminism. But that’s a subject for a different post). However, glbtq characters are miles behind on this regard. Ideally they should have the full spectrum of human behaviours at their disposal too. There are plenty of glbtq people who are not particularly nice, so why shouldn’t fiction acknowledge this? But. If in a series you have a single token gay character who turns out to be evil, and in addition to this they are very very likely one of a very small number of glbtq characters being represented in the totality of series being aired at that particular point in time, then you do have a problem. Because no matter what the writers intended when they wrote the character, those implicit ties are going to pop up. Their identity and their evilness are going to get interlinked in some people’s minds. There just aren’t enough counterexamples for that not to happen. We can say that those people are READING IT RONG, but the world being what it is, are they really? Can their reading really be disregarded?

As I said, I have not yet finished season one, so it’s possible that I might yet be surprised, either in the two remaining episodes or next season. Also! I had almost forgotten how nice it can be to eat a light dinner in front of the laptop while watching an episode (… or three) of something with M. Series are stories we can share immediately, instead of pressing books/rpgs on each other and waiting a few months or years until the other gets to them so we can finally discuss them. All this to say that if you have further suggestions of things I should watch (other than Inception or Buffy, that is. It WILL happen, Amy and Renay), please throw them at me. I feel clueless when it comes to TV, so I will fully trust your guidance.

Subscribers:26

Date: 2011-07-04 11:14 pm (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
Just FYI, Google Reader says you have 26 subscribers. Not that I hope y'all turn into braggarts, but STOP IT! It being that thing where smart people downplay themselves.

Date: 2011-07-05 03:33 am (UTC)
chrisa511: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chrisa511
I WANT TO WATCH THIS SO BAD!! AND I CAN!! So I don't know why I haven't yet >> But you've just made me want to watch it even more!! And I agree with Phillip in that y'alls blog and Y'ALL are all awesomely awesome, but I can totally relate, Ana in not feeling it all the time :p We're pros \o/ I know that for me personally I just get totally intimidated by y'alls posts and don't know what to say sometimes XD So that's why I am sometimes silent here. But I DO LOVE YOU!!!!

Date: 2011-07-05 07:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] irisonbooks.wordpress.com
Hmm.. You're right about the GLBT character, I hadn't considered that.

Um, not sure if you've seen this episode yet, I think it's in the first half of the season, so continue reading when you're past that:

There is one episode in the series that made me seriously question if I should like Downton as much as I do, it is the one in which one of the daughters meets a (Greek? I'm not sure anymore) man and they meet in the night and of course when she says no and no again, he continues to have sex with her anyway and it almost looks like the classical "When a girl says no she really means yes so just keep pushing on" scenario. I am STILL thinking about that episode and what to think :( Because on the other hand, it did perfectly show the vulnerable position women were in at the time and the culture of shame etc. But on the other.. I dislike that that should always be underlined and "accepted" almost.

Date: 2011-07-06 02:34 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
We've talk about Thomas at length elsewhere, but just wanted to say that I was rather disappointed when his character failed to have more depth after that amazeaballs crying on the stairs episode *heart breaks* (alright, alright, secretly I was hoping for extremly unlikely happy servant love affair and I have cast his lover in my head from an entirely different show). Also be glad that you did not see entirely misleading trailer for ep 3 which was cut to suggest heavily that Thomas and Pamuk would be getting together, because you might (like I did) have considered cutting DA out of your heart especially after unexplained sex death. The ending of DA made me stubborn, because it's clearly all 'You should hate Thomas now, for realz' and I was like 'You realise Thomas is being played by hot actor from Corrie, who died tragically and had a labrador right? And in this he's gay and has a waistcoat! Your powers are useless.' All to say I really hope he's in the next series and they don't continue to deny him a redemption arc.

As for the idea that Downton's social ideals are widely accepted I wondered what you thought of Mary in regards to that? She's very 'I want what is rightfully mine without having to marry' and I thought that was very brave writing. There's the bit where she says she didn't really care for her dead fiance, which could alienate her from the viewer. Also considering how sweet Matthew is I wondered if you thought audiences might react badly against her continued determination that she deserves the money, house, title etc. Is it widely accepted that women deserve the right to say no to marriage to a perfectly nice man? Is it accepted that women should to stand up for their own independence, even if a very nice man says he'll provide for her even if they don't marry? Thoughts? You pin down just what's great about the female characterisation so well here.

Date: 2011-07-06 09:28 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Oh now that is interesting (not sure if you've seen it yet, have you mainlined the last two eps yet?).

I see Mary as ambivalent about marriage, but willing to marry for the social convention of having a husband (the only explanation I can think of for dead Titanic fiance who she clearly did not enjoy) or love (because that's what you did if you were lucky and met someone you loved, you married, because of social convention). After Pamuk she starts contemplating partnering for love, or at least attraction, rather than duty/convention/to secure her own money which she would happily have done before (she's looking to match with the duke initially, but after Pamuk she rejects nice but dim man whose name escapes me who could ahve made her perfectly comortable). And that brings us to Matthew - a man she clearly grows to love...but I do think she'd keep from marrying him if she could do so without a.) losing everything and b.) cutting herself off from everyone by flouting social convention. However, it's unlikely the show isn't going to partner them up for good at some point, they're the main love pairing and it's a historical drama. Unless someone dies that's the way it'll go (I don't see Downton as a show with dying, it's too cozy, but then I never saw the Cranford death coming and war is on its way so who knows). My personal preference would be for them to dump the money and run, but that doesn't really put Mary in any better a position of independence (it leaves her like Kitty from P&P but with more self-awareness).

Date: 2011-07-07 10:08 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I'm not sure if it's going to be a game changer when you see it, but it might make it more clear why I think the writers were being a bit brave with Mary. It's weird because I expected to see a lot of Mary dislike after the ending, but she really seems to have won everyone over - to which I say yay, lots of people like complicated women better than the saintly ideal of womanhood!

PS I lurve that Mathie is hooked on this too. Downton is going to get everyone in the end (except y'know some of the people in the new Upstairs Downstairs who think ITV stole their idea *rolls eyes*).

Date: 2011-07-06 07:45 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I definitely got the same vibes from having Thomas as the only GLBTQ character in the series. I don't want to spoil the rest of it for you, so I will leave my opinions for discussion on a later date (perhaps that next periodical meeting!).

I think it was partly the incredibly addictive nature of the story, partly my obsession with all things history, and partly the excellent depiction of the women in the series that hooked me so well. Like you say, it's amazing that there are women from all walks of life, who discuss things that aren't men (though they do discuss men as well), and who are treated as human beings who can be anything rather than token women. It's pretty rare to find a show on TV with many awesome women. And I love the upstairs / downstairs dynamic. I've been trying to find more like it since I saw this!

And I will happily write a guest post, once I figure out what to write it on and how I can possibly sound as clever about it as you three. :D

Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm (http://medievalbookworm.com)

Date: 2011-07-13 02:26 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Haha I have already attempted to push 'The Grand' on her :)

Date: 2011-07-06 08:55 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (downton - mary)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I really enjoyed this post! I feel about it much like you do; I don't think it makes my "favorites" list but the storytelling and most of the characterizations were well-done, and I always wanted to watch more. I think you captured what's great about this show very well, especially the balance between the romance and glamor of this kind of lifestyle, yet with awareness of a more evolved social conscience. And the plethora of female characters! All of which I actually think, sadly, *is* brave-ish writing, if not revolutionary. Maybe I'm just too easy, but showing women actively trying to challenge gender conventions, even ones that seem (or should!) out of date to most of the audience still seems too rare to me, and so much of the show is about the changing and challenged gender roles, and how the various women challenge them or don't.

One thing I thought the show did really well was slowly revealing characters. When we first meet Mary, she seems rather unsympathetic and cold, like we're not supposed to like her, but by the end of season I was completely in love with her and her struggle with the social conventions and expectations on her as a woman, the oldest daughter, etc. I kept hoping for something similar with Thomas, but alas, no, and I completely agree with you in being disappointed that the only gay character is pretty thoroughly evil. I remember thinking there were hints at his motivations at some points, which might have helped make him more sympathetic, but never enough.

Date: 2011-07-07 11:21 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (downton - violet & isobel)
From: [personal profile] chaila
Your comments above definitely make me want to think more about it! Especially Mary. I mainlined the whole thing awhile ago and didn't have much opportunity for discussing it or thinking any more about it. I definitely have to think more about whether the story is about Mary wanting independence or whether it's just an easy lesson about marrying for love, though my initial impressions were that she was actually sort of struggling with those conflicting things herself (though I don't expect to see her end up happily single). Now I sort of want to rewatch and see if it withstands a more critical viewing.

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