Downton Abbey: Feminism Understated part one

I don’t know why I didn’t find this show sooner. Why I didn’t start watching it when I was back in Britain and had access to ITV 4. My obsession reaction would have been the same, but I would be eagerly anticipating season 5, had mum stayed for another year or so.

But, the fact that we moved to Oklahoma can’t be helped. God knows I have my own opinions on this state, but, that’s not the point of this blog post, is it?


The point of this blog post is about how frakking awesome Downton is, and why feminism w0rks better when it’s understated.

This show right here.
This show right here.

Downton tells the story of Lord Grantham, his family, and servants. It’s a period drama spanning the early parts of the 20th century (that’s 1900-some such for those of you who never paid attention in history class). The first three seasons see us through WWI and season four picks up in 1922.

Season four which I am DYING to finish. I will not turn to torrent. I will not turn to torrent. I have the season pass on iTunes.  I will not torrent.


If there is a show that perfectly states the power of the female, it’s this one. Writers, take heart, you CAN have a strong female lead without allowing her to be defined by the men around her. In fact, quite the opposite. In this world, men are defined by their women.

By the way, a great post on this is Shiri’s. Go have a look see. She’s the one that inspired this little thing I’ve got going on here. Show her some love and give her a follow if you haven’t already.

We’re told the story in a seamless mesh of upstairs and downstairs by an ensemble cast. No one is the main character, everyone owns their own story.

Spoilers, sweetie.

The male bits of the family and servants (in no particular order):

Lord Grantham: He’s the caretaker of Downton Abbey (a castle in the real world. Yes, castles really do look like that. Yes, Disney has been lying to you all of these years.) He doesn’t truly have a profession in life, rather his very existence is to maintain the abbey and her splendour. He is in the army as a token placement (officers were of the aristocratic class). He is married, but has no fortune of his own. His wife has all of the money, honey, and he squanders the lions share in a bad railroad investment. The fact that Ponzi and his wildly successful scheme was mentioned made me giggle with historically accurate glee.

Thomas, the-almost-not-quite-would-be-under-butler-valet: Thomas is a straight up asshole. He is manipulative, a cheat, and in it only for himself. He gives nothing to anyone unless he likes them. His darkest secret is his homosexuality which he believes goes unnoticed, but I mean, really. Everyone knows and accepts it. A brilliant piece of writing that made me laugh hysterically. It was so tongue-in-cheek British it deserved its own round of applause. He manipulates his way into everything; he goes to war and shoots himself in the hand to get back when Matthew wouldn’t put in a word to have him transferred to somewhere that wasn’t, you know, getting bombed. From there, he got back into the Abbey and manipulated his way to the almost top.

Cranston: The head butler. The dependable man that could very well snap if any more pressure was added. He is a kettle waiting to boil over whilst steaming.

Bates: The man who is, and always be, Lord Grantham’s valet. They are friends since that stint back in Afghanistan (or was it Africa?) and Grantham extends a helping hand to the man. Bates has a moral fibre so strong it could probably beat out spider silk in a contest. This is a man who does not scruple with whether or not something is wrong or right. If it is wrong, or if it damages the family, he will fix the situation even if it means leaving the house to do it. He is also a man who doesn’t hold out much hope for himself. He has lived a life that hasn’t been all unicorns and sunshine and he knows it. When it lands him in jail, he doesn’t hold getting out as too great of an option. He is steady, loyal to a fault, dependable and I really want one.

Tom: Irish revolutionary, idealist, stubbourn, and a giant prat. You can’t help but like Tom, even if he does make his political point way too often. He is a man that knows what he wants, and who he wants, and when she is ripped from him, he is a lost, broken soul in the middle of a social class which he knows nothing about.

Matthew: He wouldn’t change, wouldn’t accept the Downton life of other people doing things for you no matter what. Except that he did. That’s really all he did. Oh no, wait, he fell in love with a girl, was very nearly paralysed, she died, and he married Mary. Whom he was in love with the entire time but didn’t want to admit it to himself.

So, there’s that. The funny thing about the male portion of the family is how place-holder they really are. Lord Grantham is exactly a figurehead, Matthew is pretty, Cranston blusters, Bates adds a dark touch, Thomas is a twat, and Tom offers political insight that I honestly never thought the British would touch with a ten metre pole. Throughout the show, the men do not change. There is no real growth to them. In fact, in Lord Grantham’s case, there is a period of regression where he does not want to accept the social changes coming his way and seeks comfort in a housemaid.

Who, by the way, represents the old way of life and has a son that his wife never bore him. That aside, the men are there more for plot device than actual character development. Many of the major conflicts come from the males doing something stupid. Or, giving money to the estate and then his wife, as Matthew did. Or political inclinations, as Tom so vehemently preaches, standing on his soapbox.

There are interesting contradictions within the show, you see parallels and intersections of the male characters. Lord Grantham is offset by Matthew and Tom who both represent the coming change and by his wife who exercises her will over her husband in subtle, but very effective ways. Cranston is paralleled by Bates. Thomas is a force unto his own, he is very much the black sheep trying to fit into a society that will not completely accept him or his methods.

An interesting shift happens when Matthew sets aside his ideas for the future for the sake of family and station.  When it comes to men, status is everything. Tom was forgiven, but any man that Edith (whom we’ll get to later) sets eyes on, or has eyes set on her, will be checked and re-checked and probably still found wanting for reasons wholly unknown.
Throughout the show, we see social conventions going through a change, with Lord Grantham trying his damndest to steer his family, who really want to do something entirely different, thanks very much.

Instead of immediate character development, we see a show very much directed by the male roles. Their development is subtle, I think. It is definitely not of their own doing.

Stay tuned for part two! We’ll talk about the women in Downton and why I believe women have had all the power, always.


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