So Downton Abbey is done. After six-seasons, the Downton team have finally faded from the small screen, and they may be setting out on the road to Hollywood. There is no question that British television companies make great period dramas, and Downton Abbey was a case in point. It seems odd that U.S. audiences took Downton Abbey to their hearts. After all, Downton Abbey is steeped in the world of unearned privilege, exploitation of the working class, sexism and racism. You can toss in a bit of homophobia for good measure.
Downton Abbey not only shined a light on the Victorian British aristocracy, it glorified and romanticized just about everything that many abhor in modern society. Of course the quality of the acting in Downton Abbey has much to do with its popularity, but many have questioned the way the show was written. So what is so wrong with Downton Abbey, and why should we celebrate its demise?
If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, think for a moment, how many black characters did you see over the shows six-seasons? There was only one with a major role, and that role fitted neatly with Downton Abbey’s tendency to play with stereotypes. When Gary Carr joined Downton Abbey, he joined to play jazz singer Jack Ross. As reported at the time by the Guardian, so unusual was the sight of a black face on Downton Abbey that the team behind the show even made a press release, replete with words like “vibrant” to describe this new addition. The fact that the first black character on Downton Abbey was a jazz singer is in itself a dreadful piece of stereotyping.
According to The Independent, comedian Barry Humphries controversially claimed that Downton Abbey’s popularity in the U.S. is largely because of its overt racism. When asked why he thought Downton Abbey was so popular in the U.S. Humphries claimed it was because “there are no black people in it.”
As Entertainment Weekly reflected, Downton Abbey was always “a progressive fairytale,” and it is perhaps this illusion of a genteel way of life that proved attractive to U.S. audiences. Just look at the premise the show was built on: a wealthy aristocratic family who maintained a staff of hundreds. For the most part, the staff in Downton Abbey were blissfully happy to pander to every whim of their overlords with a happy smile.
Oh, Downton Abbey…you are perfect. Just perfect. *sigh* #imissitalready— Jeri Ryan (@JeriLRyan) March 8, 2016
Does anyone truly believe that those in service to the aristocracy were so blissfully content with their lives. Frankly the writers of Downton Abbey live in la-la land if they believe they reflected the lives of servants accurately. For most of those who experienced working in service, life was a tale of endless drudgery.
As reported by The Telegraph, perhaps one of Downton Abbey‘s most “shocking” moments was Lady Sybil marrying her chauffeur. Not only was the chauffeur a commoner, he was also a firebrand Irish Republican at a time of conflict in Ireland. Not only would Tom Branson never have been accepted into service by the British aristocracy, he would have been on Special Branch watch lists and had the police all over him.
As Downton Abbey disappears from our screens, the Huffington Post writes that it waved a “sentimental, homophobic farewell” as gay “under-butler” Tom Barrow was left as the only character without a love interest as the show wrapped up. As Downton Abbey finishes, the Huff Post asks if writer Julian Fellowes “imagination is so limited that he couldn’t write a happy ending for a gay man but had to keep tormenting him even in the finale?”
Of course, most people will see Downton Abbey as reflecting a more gentle way of life and as a harmless piece of undemanding entertainment. Others will argue that Downton Abbey legitimizes and romanticizes racism, sexism, and servitude and would say that we are much better off without it.
[Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images]