David Cook: The feminism of Downton Abbey

David Cook: The feminism of Downton Abbey

January 8th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Since Halloween, this online-only Tuesday column has studied the intersection of pop culture, the zombie fiction of "The Walking Dead'' and our search for existential meaning.

It's time for a change. Goodbye zombies.

Hello Lady Mary.

Coinciding with the start of season three (surely Mr. Bates will find freedom), this Tuesday online column will examine the message of the wildly popular PBS show "Downton Abbey'' with the events of 21st century America.

"Downton'' follows the dynamics of the royal and servant class in a 1920 aristocratic estate. It's magnificently just: as viewers, our allegiances run on both sides of Downton. We love the royals and also the servants. We're nauseated by some too.

The show also exposes the inequities and foolishness of the class system in a royal society. Yet it also manages to defend the undying commitment of a servant's heart, and raises questions about the important good of tradition.

Sunday's premiere seemed like five episodes rolled into one. After much drama, the patriarch's proud eldest daughter (Lady Mary) marries her cousin (Matthew). The family fortune runs dry. The stove breaks, and dinner becomes an impromptu picnic.

(Sounds oddly like some Eudora Welty novel.)

"Downton Abbey'' is clearly feminist, populated by powerful and outspoken women who gracefully and casually overshadow the men around them.

Lady Mary's sisters both iconoclastically pursue love with forbidden men. Anna works to free her husband, the imprisoned Mr. Bates. For all his authority, Carson (the head servant) sees how much he depends on Mrs. Hughes, sick with what may be breast cancer.

And after blowing all his wife's inheritance, Lord Grantham apparently has no solution to his impending bankruptcy. Yet the women around him do, a plot sequence suggesting 1920s women have more control over money than their men.

The two matriarchs - Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith - are the show's most powerful characters. And Cousin Matthew's mother - the prototypical 20th century social reformer - opens up a halfway house of sorts for prostitutes.

All of this, set in royal ole England in 1920.

It is the most intelligently gendered show on television today, populated by female characters that are complex, intelligent, wise and strong. The show accomplishes its feminism through strong male characters, an effect that counters the male-as-dud-trend that's been increasing in American TV since around the time Bill Cosby went off the air.

Most versions of the TV male fit into one of three categories, none of them laudable.

Either the clueless, clumsy husband (Ray Romano, Homer Simpson, Tim Allen) or the over-sexed, juvenile bachelor (Charlie Sheen) or the one-dimensional homicide detective (any CSI episode will do).

I'm not saying some of those shows aren't funny or entertaining. But by avoiding the work of feminism - which is to state that women and men exist on equal terms - such shows serve to contribute to the stereotypes, biases and projections of an unequal and sexist society.

"Downton Abbey'' mirrors England nearly 100 years ago. Curiously, it also provides a gendered vision that is out of time.