media engagement with the television program Downton Abbey, with a particular focus on the way the program’s high production values and contemporary hindsight sometimes clash with the outdated standards of the historical period portrayed. In particular, while one might expect a program set in an aristocratic estate in the early 19th century England to critically evaluate the social, political, and cultural structures of the day, the program often only does so in a superficial, perfunctory way. This fact problematizes my own engagement with the program, because although I am attracted by its high production values and the nostalgic romance of a period story, these elements can sometimes serve to cover over the fact that the program is reinforcing some of the outdated social standards that held sway in Edwardian England.
In particular, the program has a noticeable problem when it comes to its portrayal of race, class, and gender issues. While race is nearly non-existent in the world of Downton Abbey, its absence is conspicuous precisely because the main characters never seem affected by it. In terms of class the program has a number of opportunities to explore the ramifications of a system where there is a permanent upper and lower class, but it largely focuses its discussion of class in the character of Tom, an Irish radical. Finally, while gender issues arguably get the most play due to the prominence of the character Sybil, even she is unable to substantially affect the program’s otherwise traditional ideology, as she dies relatively quickly and unceremoniously, such that the program’s most vocal radical voice is silenced. As a result, the viewer is forced to consider whether or not the program’s potentially oppressive or regressive ideology is counterbalanced by the entertainment and educational value of seeing and learning about early 19th century England in such an immediate way.
For this study of personal media engagement I’ve chosen a television program that has, since its debut in 2010, turned into a genuine international phenomenon as well as something of a personal obsession; a television program that, if examined closely, can help demonstrate in vivid detail the problematic ideological issues that arise from practically any engagement with popular media. I am referring to the widely popular and critically-adored ITV production Downton Abbey, which follows the ups and downs of an aristocratic family and their servants in the early decades of the 20th century. The program moves at a dizzying pace as it covers the years from 1912 to 1921 over the course of three series and two Christmas specials, touching on the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, violent political and religious upheaval in Ireland, and the emergence of early feminist movements, among other things. However, even as Downton Abbey examines the socio-political context of Edwardian England from the comfortable perspective of the twenty-first century, it cannot help but reproduce some of the very outdated assumptions and ideas it purports to examine, putting viewers like me in the uncomfortable position of enjoying a well-made, expertly-produced program that nevertheless leaves one wondering about the dangerous ease with which potentially oppressive media insinuates itself into daily life.
I chose Downton Abbey as the primary text of this study because its widespread popularity and my own personal interest has made it one of the most culturally resonant texts of the last few years. My own engagement with this media is almost daily, and it ends up representing a large portion of my engagement with media in general, both because I view it so regularly and because its plot and production values make it stand out from other television programs. Each series is only eight episodes, although the first series only has seven. In addition, there have been two Christmas specials.
My attraction to Downton Abbey stems from a number of sources. Firstly, as mentioned above, the production values of the program are excellent, so it is able to bring the material quality of the period and its characters to life in a way that has previously been impossible. In a very basic sense, then, one major appeal of the show is simply the period in which it is set, because the locations, costumes, and even the food the characters prepare and eat are rendered with exquisite detail. The program transports the viewer to an entirely different time and place, because the world it creates is so visually rich, to the point that every detail of the program’s presentation is as precise, measured, and consistent as the distance between serving plates on a fancy table.
In addition, the plot of any given episode is given extra importance and intrigue due to the specific period in which it is set, because Downton Abbey is not merely about the residents and servants of an aristocratic house, but rather how those residents and servants adapt to the changes brought about by the twentieth century. For example, the very first episode begins with the sinking of the Titanic, and subsequent episodes deal with the role, or lack thereof, for a rural, aristocratic family in the new Britain that is rapidly emerging. The program manages to simultaneously create a kind of fairy-tale romance due to the costumes and customs of the upper class while showing all of the work that goes into maintaining this appearance, all the while exploring what happens when this system is forced to adapt to external, historical forces. However, as will be seen, the show is very selective in its choice of which historical forces to represent and how to represent them.
My underlying motivations for watching Downton Abbey are two-fold. On the one hand, the program offers a kind of pleasant escape, because as discussed above, it is very effective at creating a coherent, consistent world rendered in extreme visual and narrative detail. On the other hand, even though the show is fiction, it provides a very real look into some of the details of life in Edwardian England that I would likely never learn about otherwise, such as the different hierarchies of power and prestige within the serving class. As will be seen, these two motivations sometimes come into conflict, because at times it seems as if the program’s desire to entertain and delight overwhelms any need it might feel to explore the different power hierarchies it is representing, or at least explore them in ways that might challenge the underlying assumptions that inform those power hierarchies.
When considering Downton Abbey from the perspective of a critical theorist, three central themes or problems become apparent. Two are actually discussed fairly frequently on the program itself, albeit in sometimes disheartening ways, and one is conspicuous because of its absence. Specifically, while the program frequently highlights the emerging notions of feminism and class solidarity that were emerging near the beginning of the twentieth century, concepts of race are almost entirely absent, largely because the show is populated entirely by white people. Race, gender, and class are of course extremely broad categories, and almost any media deals with these concepts either implicitly or explicitly, but as will become clear over the course of this analysis, I have identified a consistent, problematic approach to these concepts offered by Downton Abbey, an approach that vacillates between shallow acknowledgment and outright offensiveness.
That a program focusing on an aristocratic family in early twentieth-century England is populated entirely by white actors should not come as too much of a surprise, and one might be inclined to write off this lack of non-white actors as a result of Downton Abbey’s devotion to historical accuracy. However, there are a couple of problems with this justification, and exploring these problems will offer an introduction into the larger ideological problems that emerge from the program’s treatment of its historical period and characters. For one, the claim of historical accuracy is only sufficient to justify the program’s lack of non-white characters if one is willing to go so far as to say that there were definitively no non-white people with whom any of Downton Abbey’s residents might have interacted with. While one could suggest that non-white residents of a rural England town would likely have been rare in Edwardian England, it seems altogether absurd to suggest that this could have been impossible, which then makes the lack of non-white characters the result of a decision on the part of the show’s creators; even if this omission of non-white characters was not intentional, that only goes to demonstrate the comfortable complacency that can arise from white privilege.
Above and beyond the lack of regular non-white characters, when Downton Abbey has featured a non-white character in a prominent role, it has relied on such pervasive, outdated tropes that one cannot help but react with some disgust at what appears to be an almost intentionally racist portrayal of a minority. I’m referring to the character of Kemal Pamuk, a visiting Turkish diplomat who stays at Downton Abbey in one episode. Although the actor who plays Pamuk is British and would…