The Duties of Downton Abbey

If you are currently a film studies scholar, writing a paper arguing for the artistic merits of a film is probably a non-starter. It is completely obvious (to most in the field) that aesthetic preferences are merely expressions of political power. So any kind of critique of a film is always ultimately a cultural critique. Films are discussed as cultural objects, not as aesthetic objects. A film’s value is discussed only in terms of whether it criticizes the dominant ideology (good!) or reinforces the dominant ideology (bad!).

Let’s set aside the question of whether aesthetic value only ever amounts to the preferences of those in charge. A topic for another post! The question I want to ask is this: are films and television only valuable insofar as they criticize culture?

This kind of view often trickles its way into the popular press. I just finished watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey and (full disclosure) I was quite fond of it. (Season 1 more than season 2, but still really good.) To some, however, the show is problematic. The aristocratic class is portrayed sympathetically. Many of the lower classes are depicted as being pretty much okay with their lot, and approving of the class structure. So it needs to be explained why a liberal could love it. Going one step further, Simon Schama considers the show “cultural necrophilia.” He relates his biases:

But this unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place. I’d barely crossed the threshold of one such establishment before its Carson had delicately knocked at the door of my room wondering when he could collect my trousers. He had not asked of course but assumed I’d want them Properly Pressed. I still remember the look on his face as he carried them off between thumb and forefinger as if removing a mysterious object in an advanced form of contaminated decay. Before “retiring,” I was asked by another servant whether I would prefer to be woken with tea or coffee. “Ah,” I said, “how nice. Tea if that’s all right.” “Milk or lemon?” he pressed on. “Oh, gosh, thanks, milk.” “The Jersey or the Guernsey herd, sir?”

I am indeed terribly sorry he had to go through that.

Then he goes on to argue the show is a disservice to the public.

In the current series, historical reality is supposed to bite at Downton in the form of the Great War. The abbey’s conversion into convalescent quarters did indeed happen in some of the statelies. But if Fellowes were really interested in the true drama attending the port and partridge classes—more accurately and brilliantly related in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Isabel Colegate’s wonderful The Shooting Party—the story on our TV would be quite different. Instead of being an occasional suffragette, Sibyl would have turned into a full-on militant, carving, while incarcerated in prison, a “V” for “votes” on her breast with a piece of broken glass. Lord Robert, whose income from land and rents would have collapsed with the long agricultural depression, would be unable to service his mortgage and, subject to the estate duties imposed to pay for old-age pensions, would have to sell the place to a wheat baron from Alberta. And Matthew would be one of the 750,000 dead.

Too much of a downer for Downton? Probably. Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance. But then that wouldn’t get the high ratings, would it?

This is the story of a specific family. Do you, or your family, exemplify your times in every way? Are you never an exception to your era, your class, your ethnic group? How dreary the fiction that always deals only with the generals, and not the particulars – always only with broad social movements, and never with the microsocial happenings in workplaces and families.

If you reject a film or show because it does not adequately critique its culture, you are basically saying that art should reflect your own social views. But why? You already have those views. You don’t need to be convinced. So art is…not for you? Really?

Art is then a lesson for those who don’t already agree with you. This strikes me as not only fundamentally condescending, but an proscribed understanding of art. Like so many wonders of life, like sex and love and marriage and children and friendship, it seems ridiculously limiting to claim that art serves only one function. And it seems especially to suck the joy out of art to insist it be only for educating others until they have as dark a view as can be mustered of rigid class structures and history.

I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with a system of landed gentry. Or that World War I was a walk in the park, or that women who wanted the vote did not go suffer to earn that right. I do question whether it is the sole job of every single work of fiction set in that time and place to educate people as to those facts. In addition to an education about broad social issues, art can also educate about interpersonal issues, about moral issues. And, dare I say it, some of the functions of art may not be educational at all.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. When I think about the life that Maribou and I share, and I think about editing it, I think that we could easily make a sitcom out of it. (“He’s a libertarian who works in a computer lab! She’s a socialist who works in a library! It’s The Big Bag Theory meets Frasier meets Mad About You!”)

    If we edited it differently, we could make a drama out of it (“Thirtysomething meets Due South meets Picket Fences”) and if we edited it differently, we could make an Animal Planet show like Meerkat Manor (call it “Kat Manor”).

    It’s all in the editing.

    The raw footage where we sit around in the basement in our PJs blowing burps at the cats wouldn’t make for compelling television (though, I suppose, there’s an audience for that too). The people who would watch “The Wacky Adventures Of Jaybird and Maribou” could easily complain that they’d watch the show if it were more like Picket Fences… but when they start saying that the show shouldn’t be on the air unless it covered more of the gritty, seedy parts of middle-class marriage (“Where are the key parties? Where is the domestic violence?”) then they’re doing a better job of projecting than critiquing.

    • > “The Big Bag Theory meets Frasier meets Mad About You!”

      Is there some subtle bit of insight into Jaybird that can be gleaned by the selection of these three shows?

      • Not really. The Big Bang Theory for the geek jokes related to my job, the Frasier references to literature jokes for her job, and the Mad about You stuff for the childless couple relationship humor (well, they were childless until the writers wanted to tell pregnancy jokes).

        I’m just talking about editing.

        The subtle bit of insight comes from the fact that I have a million cats.

    • Funny! I think our life described sounds like the world’s moodiest and most boring show ever (two philosophers in a nondescript suburban townhouse development raise three young children, one of whom is cognitively disabled and wheelchair-bound). Like if Ingmar Bergman did TV. But (of course) it doesn’t feel like that. At least, not most of the time.

      • Now take that show and put it in 2060.

        “Here’s a nostalgia show about 2012.”

        What complaints would people have, do you think?

        “They don’t spend enough time talking about the terrorist attacks.”

        “They eat a lot of meat.”

        “Ha! Look at how big the computer is! They still listen to the radio in the car! A microwave! Classic!!!”

    • “It’s The Big Bag Theory meets Frasier”

      That’s a terrible thing to say about Maribou!

  2. Would it kill them to have a relatively unexplained and unreferenced incident of a woman using some explosives to protest her lack of vote?

  3. I <3 Downton myself. I definitely think it is a valid observation/critique of the show that it to some extent endorses the class structure it protrays (zomg, it's "conservative art"!!!), but that doesn't render it valueless (per Schama's dyspepsia) nor even necessarily less valuable, than it initially comes across. (On the other hand, its stylish production doesn't necessarily render its essential soapishness more valuable than it really is…).

    But in any case, hear, hear to the general argument of this post re: art as political or other evangelism. Some great art, of course, is just that, but we should confuse that fact for evidence that that is basic purpose of art in general.

    This post would do well do get some notice on the front page, because it is indeed an entry into the Great League Art Wars of February '12, whether it seeks to be or not, and deserves to be recognized by the community as such (and I'm not sure everyone even knows it exists).

  4. Is this your way of participating in the frontpage discussion without participating in it? 🙂

    Haven’t seen the show. On an individual basis, I give shows a lot of latitude (even if I do get uptight when I start seeing the same things over and over again). I could get upset at the backward-rube portrayal of rural life in My Name Is Earl, but it was funny.

    My marriage would definitely be a sitcom.

  5. I’m largely in agreement, but I think there are a couple of things that could be said in Schama’s defense.

    First, there’s potentially a “no single raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood” phenomenon, where the amalgamation of the reasonable choices of each individual producer leads to an overall whitewashing of the ills of that social arrangement, because every show decides to downplay the negatives for its own purposes.

    I also think that we’re less receptive to his argument because we have more distance from the actual history of it. Imagine if the Brits were airing a TV show presenting a soapy drama set in the antediluvian South, and the masters were very respectful of the slaves and treated them pretty well, and the slaves were not overly unhappy with their station. Would we not object to even one show that presented things this way? Granted that the level of oppression is quite different between English servants and American slaves, but I don’t think that destroys the analogy.

    • Agreed. The more unethical the position and more clear the support for the unethical position, the more it becomes a defect of the work of art. (So Leni Reifenstahl’s work is, I think, artistically defective.) Not the case with Downton Abbey.

      My main objection is using a work’s cutlural criticism as its sole source of value, and wondering whether a work has an *obligation* to make cultural critiques.

  6. I do not believe that Rose currently has front page posting privileges. I get the sense that people think this post merits a bit more attention, and I concur, so I’ll be posting it on the main page on her behalf.

  7. It does seem that once art criticism moves to the second order, it stops being about the art and starts being about the critic.

    On the other hand, someone who says “dude, racism is your explanation for everything” is seen as a Racism Denier. So I dunno.

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