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15 February 2012 @ 03:00 pm
vague Downton Abbey thoughts, sort of?  
I am puzzled about why everyone's puzzled that people like Downton Abbey. For example:

"The US cult of Downton Abbey"
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16731254

I suspect I'm the absolute wrong person to ask the question, since I give all of Masterpiece Classic's offerings a try even if I don't like them enough to keep watching--so I am not a part of "Downton fever"; I'm just doing what I usually do.

I'm also not madly in love with Downton, anyway. I wrote three pages about it the other day (whoops), but I will spare you since I don't have them with me. The short version, anyway, is that the only character I really care about at the moment is Mary, with an honorable mention for Matthew.

But I would really, REALLY like it if we could get past this simplistic idea that anyone who watches costume drama is thoughtlessly nostalgic for some time that didn't exist, or in desperate need of mindless escapism. Other genres don't get accused of this nearly so often, it seems to me, and I can't help thinking that it's because costume drama is seen as a women's genre. Unless it's a manly war film about a boy and his horse, in which case, Oscar gold, because we have to honor the stories of the past, you know. But not if they involve dresses or marriage or some escapist stuff like that. Nobody sensible cares about those stories.

(I really feel like you could rewrite this article using Janeites instead of Downton fans, and you would not have to make a lot of changes--you'd have the same puzzlement that a lot of ladies seem to like something, the same need for commentators to weigh in with their condemnation. I'm not saying that there aren't a bunch of things that I'd like to see Downton do better, because there are, especially now that they've added the WWI narrative but don't seem entirely willing to commit to it. Also, I would like to punch Branson in the nose. All the time. But that's a critique of the show, not of the people who watch and enjoy it, who have every right to do so.)
 
 
 
viomisehuntviomisehunt on February 15th, 2012 09:30 pm (UTC)
I read those both articles and feel it is time for both authors have a Coke and a smile, and relax. I watch it because its fun, its gossipy, its soap. The Nostalgia is for the days of UpStairs Downstairs, not a better time--especially considering my gender and complexion. World War I according to my Grandmother and older relatives would have been a challenging, but in many cases dangerous time for me.

Downton Alley is not as textured as far as class representation as the Original UpStairs Downstairs, or something as brutally honest as Gosford park, but it is written as romantic fluff with a dash of drama. I could understand this almost hostile attitude towards Downton watchers if the same critic lodged similar complaints against Pride and Prejudice or Nanny McPhee Did he? Both movies and books deals with concerns of the upper-upper middle class of England, just different generations. These stories don't deal in any detailed way with the serving/working class at all. In Nanny McPhee the servant is rescued from her life-- and I loved how Maggie Smith told her granddaughter Sybil that real life was a great deal more difficult when one makes than choice than the stories in novels.
Nothing indicates that it was written the sense, as UpStairs Downstairs was, to give balanced look at both classes. I think we are viewing the servants class from the view of someone like Sybil, who has romanticized the contentment of people who help nurture and take care of her home and family. I recently read an article about the stereotypes of the working and service class in Agatha Christie. Downton Alley reflects her more conservative view of class distinction, with similar stereotypes. The show could focus on certain practices that were exploitive and abusive towards the working and serving class, and females, to quiet critics. But I am fully aware of what I'm watching. I imagine Downton is England's Gone With the Wind, complete with the Butler as Mary's version of Mammy, in that respect.

La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on February 16th, 2012 01:44 am (UTC)
I imagine Downton is England's Gone With the Wind, complete with the Butler as Mary's version of Mammy, in that respect.

That's a really interesting comparison and I think it makes a lot of sense.
ramblin' girl: words words wordsbarefoottomboy on February 16th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
As an English person who's just moved to the US, this is indeed an interesting comparison.

I'm not puzzled by why people like Downton Abbey (it's pretty! and easy to watch! and soapy and escapist and none of that is a bad thing), and I basically enjoyed watching it (only seen S1 so far) - I just don't think it's very good. Or as deep as some reviews/fans have made it out to be. I certainly think it's very uncritical of the class system, which is something I'd like to have seen it do a bit more, a bit more like Gosford Park (which I still can't believe is written by the same person). It wouldn't have to be heavy-handed about it (though goodness knows DA is pretty heavy-handed about some of the period stuff, like the entail), just show a bit more of the reality of the system, rather than the slightly rose-tinted view that it seems to have.

On which note: I definitely don't think that everybody watching Downton Abbey is nostalgic for the past (or for a specific reinterpretation of the past), or that they have a conservative view of the (historical and/or still current) class system, but I suspect the DA writers do. (Really, Julian Fellowes? The most disadvantageous thing to be when looking for a job is a viscount? Because all people will see is your title & they'll dismiss you for it? *facedesk*)
viomisehuntviomisehunt on February 16th, 2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
Gone With the Wind, the novel, as egregious as the stereotypes and glamorization of the Confederacy and institution of Slavery were, featured a passage where Mammy tells Scarlett: (Paraphrased) I'm no longer your slave, I'm choosing to stay, I will do my job, but I will not compromise my principals. Her attitude legitimized her position and vocation as a paid servant. Service is a perfectly honorable position, and managing an large house hold is an art. In the USA, especially in the South, it was simply difficult, if not perilous in some regions for a person of color to seek other vocational opportunities. However there are person who choose service because they enjoy organizing, design, and ritual.
I enjoyed the scene where Matthew, insults his houseman's profession to his face, and then had to re-evaluate it for that reason. I don't think Matthew understood that his appearance and the appearance of his house and grounds, were a reflection of his Butler's skill.
Who would not want someone to help around the house? I have no problem going to the hair dresser, or getting my nails done, or a pedicure, when I am capable of doing these things myself -- I look forward the polish of the work of a professional--especially one who takes pride in their product.
I am not British-- but I've read the history of that time, and around 1913, there were other vocational choices, the Liberal and Labour Unions had joined forces to further education and employment opportunities, and the class struggle was more extreme than it was here.
The difficulty between classes comes when there is abuse, exploitation, or other expressions of entitlement in a household. Where Sir Billy in Gosford Park exploited his female serving staff--We don't see that in Downton Abbey until this season.

ramblin' girlbarefoottomboy on February 16th, 2012 09:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, agreed on service as a valid choice, and on the Matthew/valet scene, absolutely.

I think my problem with the class stuff in DA is that it doesn't seem to acknowledge that at that time and in that place, for most of these people, service wasn't a choice. That was starting to change, and yes, the Gwen storyline does go into it a bit, but I do feel that they're looking at the country house system through rose-tinted glasses.

(This is not helped by the creators' commentary tracks going on about how nice the family was to give all those villagers jobs, and wasn't it great that the aristocracy lived lives that required being waited on hand and foot, thus ensuring lots of employment for the lower classes? etc. I may be paraphrasing somewhat, but that's the gist.)
viomisehuntviomisehunt on February 16th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
I think my problem with the class stuff in DA is that it doesn't seem to acknowledge that at that time and in that place, for most of these people, service wasn't a choice. Thus my comparison to Gone with the Wind. In Gone With The Wind, the public is presented to a Slave-State America where the nice white people gave their black servants a place to live and work to keep them from idleness, mischief and crime. It’s beyond insulting to suggest people were Happy to serve-- as opposed to choosing to serve rather than starve and face violent opposition to any effort at independence and social/economic/educational advancement. Again I‘m not British but I did question whether Britons in the early 20th century were still forced to choose service as survival--and possibly a safer vocation than working in factories and the mines? If so, it is not surprising that early NAACP advocates and equal rights Advocates in the late 1890s-through after World I found allies in the Liberal and Labour party in the UK. Black History is filled stories of these alliances. In the USA there was industry for the working person, and skilled trades, the railroads, and plenty of opportunity to start new businesses. But working conditions were often horrific, and there were practices that makes the practices of those persons hiring illegal immigrants seem almost beneficent.
This is not helped by the creators' commentary tracks going on about how nice the family was to give all those villagers jobs, and wasn't it great that the aristocracy lived lives that required being waited on hand and foot, thus ensuring lots of employment for the lower classes? etc. I may be paraphrasing somewhat, but that's the gist I completely understand. Although there were schools for POC, there was a period when Independence came at a great cost. Consider the comparitively sanguine portrayal of the struggle of women of color in something like The Help as opposed to the Truth of what these family face. I know, because even soften, the Help was an emotional piece, many people don't understand the criticism. The characters in the Help more likely faced the consequences of Sophia in the Color Purple who was beat and maimed in front of her children and spouse, and forced into service. (A female relative who lived in Mississippi during that time period (the sixties) was attacked and crippled in front of her child for merely agreeing to teach at a integrated pre-school). I completely understand the notion of approaching the kind of Rose tinted view of the division in something like Downton with reservation.


ramblin' girl: as a garden poppy in full bloombarefoottomboy on February 17th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
it is not surprising that early NAACP advocates and equal rights Advocates in the late 1890s-through after World I found allies in the Liberal and Labour party in the UK.

I did not know that, that is really interesting!

I should say that I don't have a particularly in-depth knowledge of the period, but it's my impression that yes, there were beginning to be other options for the working/servant classes (& that this change snowballed after/as a result of WWI). And that the forces keeping people in service in the Edwardian era were largely economic, coupled with some social pressures.

Certainly nothing like what POC of the time (and later) faced, though.

(Apologies for hijacking your comments, tempestsarekind!)
viomisehunt: Walter Tullviomisehunt on February 17th, 2012 01:45 am (UTC)
Apologies for hijacking your comments, Oh, no, it is I who should apologize for hijacking your thread. Mea Culpa.


I did not know that, that is really interesting! Usually when people talk about boycotts, or the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement they are talking about Rosa Parkes, but This Lady set the stage for people like Mrs. Parkes and before her This Lady who went on to finish her education in the UK and Italy.

Of course the POC connection to the Labour Party is best illustrated by the November 13, 1913 election of John Archer. Also London hosted two of the Pan African conferences. That is not to say everything was roses and tea for Britons of African ethnic heritage-- just the opposite in fact. So it is interesting that except for Dickens, many of these period Dramas are set far from the Maddening and quickly changing Crowd in London.
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on February 17th, 2012 02:07 am (UTC)
Just popping in to say that there are no apologies necessary! I haven't been able to contribute to the discussion, but I'm glad you're having it!
La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on February 17th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
I certainly think it's very uncritical of the class system, which is something I'd like to have seen it do a bit more, a bit more like Gosford Park (which I still can't believe is written by the same person).Gosford Park</i> wasn't Fellowes' project on his own, which probably had a lot to do with it--since he was writing the script for a reportedly picky director (at least that's what I've heard about Robert Altman), I have the feeling that a lot of the classist attitudes got tamped down.

It wouldn't have to be heavy-handed about it (though goodness knows DA is pretty heavy-handed about some of the period stuff, like the entail), just show a bit more of the reality of the system, rather than the slightly rose-tinted view that it seems to have.

I absolutely agree with that. I enjoy the show as a piece of escapist entertainment, which seems to be the prevailing sentiment in my circle of friends. I don't think I've actually met anyone who thinks DA is particularly deep, which is why every time I see one of these articles, I'm skeptical.
harder, harder, hardest; i am the artist: being human -- bourgeois funradiantbaby on February 20th, 2012 06:33 am (UTC)
I can't help thinking that it's because costume drama is seen as a women's genre.

I think you've likely hit the nail on the head there. It's funny, but that reminds me of when I was 18 and first went to college as an English major. All the other girls in my English classes were obsessed with Jane Austen and I had, up to that point, not been interested in her works because I was this butchy, punk-rock tomboy and thought they would be 'too girly' to read. It wasn't until later that I put those prejudices aside that I found I actually quite like Austen. I don't think they feminized me in any way -- they were just interesting stories. I think costume drama fits in a similar place in my head and is something I've only really been getting into the last 10 years or so (though I fully admit I've always loved when Brits do costume drama, as I think they have it down to an art).

I don't know, I have mixed feelings about Downton. I watch it (even on the British schedule) and I am quite entertained by it (though I think I prefer S1 to S2). I think the class issues in it are something that I am curious about as it is a bit of an alien world to me and that is a big part of what keeps me watching (even though I know it doesn't explore them in a deep way). I also like the fluff of it and ship Matthew/Mary like burning. I don't think it's because I'm a woman that I enjoy these things though. I'm pretty still damned butch at the end of the day. ;)
tempestsarekind: elizabethtempestsarekind on February 21st, 2012 02:20 am (UTC)
I think Austen gets a strangely bad rap a lot of the time: people decide they don't like her without actually reading her, because she's got this reputation for being frilly and super-girly. And when you read the novels, they're not like that at all: they're sharp and clear-eyed and funny. (I feel like this makes it sound like "super-girly" is a pejorative term, which I don't mean at all. My brain is fuzzy today.) I know people who have read Austen and don't care much for her, but I know a lot more people who don't like Austen and haven't read her.

I agree about Downton; it's fluffy and enjoyable, especially the first season. I do wish they'd go more into the class aspects too; I don't think they'd have to turn it into a hardnosed look at class in order to do that. Also, Mary and Matthew are my favorite part. :)
ashmhashmh on March 7th, 2012 05:57 am (UTC)
I certainly think it's very uncritical of the class system, which is something I'd like to have seen it do a bit more, a bit more like Gosford Park (which I still can't believe is written by the same person).


You have to remember that "GOSFORD PARK" was based upon an idea of Robert Altman and Bob Balaban's. They simply hired Fellowes to write the script. And I am certain that the two Americans made sure that Fellowes stick closely to their views, which was far from elitist.

Remember the snarky comment that Thomas made in Season 1 about how the servants seemed to wrap their worlds around the Crawleys? He made this comment with sneer and was vilified for it.

In "GOSFORD PARK", the maid Elsie (Emily Watson) made the same remark and was just as sarcastic. Yet, Altman's direction allowed the audience to sympathize with Elsie's point of view.