Upstairs, downstairs and the fantasy in between

So I have finished watching the first season of Downton Abbey. And I did enjoy it. It is beautifully cast and filmed and the sets and outdoor locations are beautiful. So are the costumes. The scripts are strong and the performances good and it is not overly melodramatic.  In fact it captures a certain, stereotypically English, emotional stoicism and repression. But I think there are elements of it which are worth considering, because it is such a romanticised, nostalgic, and, ultimately I think, conservative interpretation of an imaginary history.

The central themes of Downton seem to be about loyalty and betrayal, family and the challenge of finding one’s way in the world. It is also about class. When I have written previously about soap opera, in an academic space, I discussed the class based nature of much British soap opera and the fact that class mobility was highly restricted and unusual. It is interesting that two television series of the past which focused closely on class mobility were comedies – Keeping up Appearances where the central joke of the show was that Hyacinth could never quite cut it as a class milieu beyond her working class roots; and To The Manor Born where the class-climbing Richard will never be an aristcrat and Audrey will always be one, no matter how poor.

In Downton we seem the same challenges with Matthew. He is not to be allowed to inherit the title and the money without his absorption in the aristocratic society. He has to become one of them in order to be worthy, and the dynamic of the plot sees us applaud his conversion from middle class lawyer to budding aristocrat-with-no-job. He is scolded when he objects to his butler helping him dress, and made to see that he is in the wrong – the man is a butler and should be allowed to do his work. As Matthew allows Molesley to help him dress, we celebrate that he is assisting this man with his self-worth, inducting himself into the aristocracy and reinforcing the class divide. Matthew is liked and respected for the way he comes to accept and absorb the aristocratic culture and it is then that he becomes an acceptable potential husband to Mary. It is not only Mary and her relatives who have doubts about whether she should marry him when his inheritance comes into doubt, as audience members many of us do too. The wife of a suburban lawyer?!?

The importance of the static nature of class is also reinforced by the lauding of the loyalty of servants who serve and give their lives, essentially, for a family which, as Thomas says, “hardly know their names.” But Downton demonstrates that this is all fine, even good, because they are such great people who will look after them in return. Sack the cook who is going blind? Of course not – we’ll pay for expensive surgery for her because We Are Noble People. Overlook a possible shady past – of course – because we are fair and just and happy to give people a second chance. The depth of the betrayal that O’Brien has enacted upon the family is palpable and we shake our heads at her saying How Could You Have Doubted Them. O’Brien’s doubt and betrayal is indicative of her unpleasant nature – had she been a better person she would not have doubted, nor acted, so. On the other hand, Mrs Hughes is shown to have twice sacrificed the opportunity for love for service, and this sacrifice is viewed as noble, with only the barest nod to the kind o yearning lonely emptiness it may result in – something captured so well in The Remains of the Day. The depiction of aristocracy as noble, as benevolent, and that loyalty to them is similarly noble, is laid on with a trowel, and a prime contributor to this romanticised fantasy of history that we see here.

The benevolent aristocrat trope is also reinforced with Lady Sybil and her quest to help Gwen find a job as a secretary. Sybil is the most thoroughly likeable of the sisters, and it is interesting how the show gives her space to be a bit radical, but the stomps down hard on her for disobeying her father or lying to her family. It is totally fine for her to have a radical choice of “dress” but when she sneaks Gwen off to an interview, her horse ends up throwing a shoe and she and Gwen must tramp home enduring all manner of hardship. And yet this is nothing to what she faces when she dares to step out to a political rally, in direction defiance of her father. Defying her father and following her own very slightly radical intentions end her up knocked unconscious. She has to be saved by Matthew, the heir apparent (that socialist chauffeur isn’t able to protect her). Here we see that radical intent is all very well, as long as it is displayed in only socially acceptable ways, approved by one’s father.  It is telling that is only when Gwen is interviewed under the roof of Downton that she gets offered the job. And of course Sybil isn’t crazy enough to miss the season and being introduced at Court – a season where of course she is a great success. Our radical ladies aren’t that radical.

With Lady Mary there is also a tilt toward changing roles for women, as she bemoans the fact that really there isn’t much for her to do in her life, that her role is to wait for a husband. She doesn’t seem particularly motivated to change this though and her lack of much to do can be see contrasted with Matthew’s surprise when he learns that the Earl has never had any job “except Downton.” The lack of anything as mundane as a job is a class issue, and one that is not depicted as such a terribly bad thing. The family’s job is to keep Downton and tradition and life going, to ride the horses and ensure the flower show goes off fairly. The fact that the show rarely depicts anything of the world outside the estate and the village works to ensure that this comfortable depiction is not challenged or disrupted, and it will be very interesting to see how the advent of World War I might impact, as it seems likely to draw characters out into a wider world.

I also find the depiction of Lady Edith highly problematic. She is characterised as petty and jealous, a sneak who reads her sister’s mail and goes behind her back. By the end of the season her mother and grandmother and even the sainted Earl are all essentially referring to how plain she is and how unlikely to find a husband – “beggars can’t be chosers” and she then calls her sister a slut. I think we are not meant to sympathise with her, but to understand the shaken heads and looks of resignation the elder members of her family adopt when speaking of her. What Mary does to her in the final episode is cruel, but the logic of the script seems to be that she, at least in part, deserves it, and we are given almost no chance to sympathise with her. Her plain-ness makes her mean, and we should like her less for it.

Finally we come to Thomas. There is nothing subtle about the way in which Thomas is portrayed. Thomas is gay, a blackmailer, scheming, disloyal, grasping, gay, a thief, a backstabber, heartless, manipulative, gay, disrespectful and coldly calculating. There is absolutely no reason why Thomas has to be gay, even if an early plot point utilises it. His character is utterly one-dimensional and the lack of a wider social milieu means that the difficulties and challenges of being gay in the period are barely even touched on. And it isn’t like it is a secret – even blind Mrs Patmore can see it. Such an unnuanced villain whose speech in the kitchen in the last episode is so openly reviled by his fellow staff members seems like an odd dramatic mis-step, almost vaudevillian (which Mr Carson could relate to).

It is interesting how Downton Abbey has captured such a giant audience for a show which is relatively slow-moving and, like the lives of most of its characters, fairly uneventful. It does clearly tap straight into the vein of beautiful nostalgia though, and a yearning for a time which was better, and simpler, and when the frocks were fabulous. I wonder how many of us see ourself as Anna though, if that nostalgic dream came true. Then again, the servants always seem to be hanging out in the kitchen or heading off to fun fairs, so maybe a servant’s life was not that bad after all.

Class, superiority, spectatorship and Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver has taken his crusade of improving the way people eat to the United States and, as he did in England, is beginning his challenge focussed on the eating habits of children. Quite a sensible strategy really. I recognise that he is doing this as part of a television program, but I think that the screening of it plays a two-fold role; first it provides funding and a rationale for undertaking this work, and secondly it may assist in spreading the message. It also, no doubt, provides access to schools and people’s homes and so forth in a way that might otherwise be challenging.

But what I am interested to think about today is what we, as the viewers see when we watch these programs. There have been a number that Jamie Oliver has done – from the original work with the fifteen working class kids to the school dinners, the Ministry of Food series and now Jamie’s American Revolution. I haven’t seen all of any of these series, but I have seen some of all of them., And let me say, I like Jamie Oliver and I do think he has genuine motivations in what he does.

But what do we see when we watch these shows? Why do we watch them? I think I have to acknowledge that my thoughts here are probably quite culturally specific, and that the views of Americans and British viewers might be different, for a number of reasons.

In Australia, where we don’t have a system of school lunches in the way that either Britain or the US does, where many schools in fact are already the policemen when it comes to food (no chocolate! No lollies! No chips!), our attitude is immediately different. It is this fascination with the grotesque, this superiority of the better educated, that I think underpins aspects of spectatorship of these programs. There is an enjoyment in the horrified fascination that the program exerts, and our ability to consider ourselves better than those we are viewing which helps to draw us in. “How could they” we think. “We don’t do this,” we think, and lean back, contented in our smug superiority.

The producers of these programs are not unaware of the pull of this kind of spectatorship. Watching the episode of American Revolution which screened last night, in one set of scenes there was a lot of camera lingering on the fat, uncomprehending face of the mother. As viewers we were being drawn to look at her, not with identification, but in as an object of sympathy, contempt or possibly scorn. We are drawn to Jamie’s point of view, to share his disbelief and concern when the lunch lady wonders aloud why you would give children a knife to eat their lunch.

Class based humour or scorn, in the broadest sense, is something which has always existed, but has perhaps been more emphasised with the increased unacceptability of race and gender humour. Humour, or superiority, is found in difference, in the creation of Others against who we can form our own identity. Shows such as Kath and Kim and the writings of people like Catherine Deveny which are riddled for contempt for those of the suburbs are demonstrations of the way this class/education based differentiation occurs. For a reasonably educated middle class Australian who buys Jamie Oliver’s cook books, obese Americans who never eat vegetables are a perfect point of opposition. As seeing these people as lesser, as contemptible, we reinforce the security of our own identity. The people in these shows are thus held up to us as objects, as others – whether we view them with humour, scorn or even compassion.  The objects of these program (for surely Jamie is the subject) are offered to us in a floating contextlessness, and their achievements, when the great middle class representative leads them to better eating, are seen in the same light as all Great White Man mythology. The Great White Man brings wisdom, enlightenment – he is a saviour – in the case of Jamie’s shows, cast as actually saving, or at least extending, their lives through better eating.

This does not negate the good that may (or may not) be being done by the approach that Jamie Oliver takes. He may genuinely want to bring about a revolution. However, sustainable revolutions really require the leadership of the oppressed, not the guidance of a superior other. It does not make the food habits of some of the people shown less frightening, nor the social implications of it. But I think we need to critically examine our own position as we sit back on our couches, sip our shiraz and nibble on our organic snacks or brie while consuming the food habits of others, paraded for our entertainment.

Final (I promise) thoughts on the Triple J Hottest 100

Having read lots of the debate online and the listened to the comments on Hack on Monday, I thought I might go back to a couple of original thoughts.

I don’t think that the result (ie only 2 female vocal tracks and only 9 tracks by black artists) makes Triple J or its listeners sexist, misogynist or racist. nor are those who didn’t include a woman in their own Top 10 misogynist – hey, I, all without realising, am guilty of that charge. What I think the result actually reveals is systemic sexism – within the music industry itself and more broadly within society. As noted by blogger Orlando:

Whenever words like “greatest”, “most important”, “best”, “most influential” and so on, are used in any context we are taught to think of men (I think this is exactly what happened when JJJ put their history pages together). We just aren’t given models in our formative years of women having places beside men in “history”, just occasionally in that disreputable annex “women in history” or “women in rock”.

It is easy to throw around terms like “misogynist” without undertaking much analysis. It is much harder to tackle this notion of systemic discrimination. The Hottest 100 did what all democratic processes do (and thus reveals the limits of democracy) – it reproduced the prevailing ideas/ideology of those who participated in the voting. Democracy is not progressive as a system; it requires progressive activism to prompt change and usually follows social movements rather than leads them (the Green movement and Green political party is a case in point).

The other interesting little side-alley that this debate has gone down appeared in The Punch yesterday when Chris deal brought a whole new dimension to the debate by introducing class. He argued:

Triple J have confirmed the rumour that the only thing that stands between them and mainstream rock stations like Triple M is the absence of an ad break. Their previous tenants have moved out, and the lease has been signed by the nouveau-bogan elite. They’re got a bit of coin. They’ve discovered ecstasy. They’ve infiltrated the Big Day Out. They adorn their torsos with Australian flags and sing along to the Kings Of Leon like their founding bogan fathers did with Cold Chisel. And Triple J is now the shining star in the night sky with which these un-wise men follow towards their Rock Jesus.

Now this is quite interesting. The article appears to imply a link between misogyny and class – well, class in the sense of bogans. Now I understand that bogan is not necessarily a class based term in the strictly Marxist sense of the word, but it does tend to generally apply to the lesser educated, more traditional working (or non-working) classes. And I do recognise that there has been an infiltration of the alternative music scene and particularly the festivals by those who Sartre-debating types would turn their noses at. And yes, traditionally working class culture is less progressive in respect to its position on women. But, and this is a big but, I think it is a major cop out to try and imply that sexism and misogyny are the province of bogans alone. It is present across all class spectrums as is obvious in any cultural analysis. So we need to be careful about reducing the debate to simple stereotyping.

Also, I must admit that there is some beautiful irony in the idea that Triple J’s progressiveness is being brought down by bogans whose culture was so ruthlessly appropriated by the university elites of the early nineties as grunge took to the stripped back guitar based tradition which had been oft the province of the bogan during the synthesised 1980s, and students everywhere emulated their Westie fellows in flannies, tattered jeans and battered boots. Ah, how the circle turns.