The politics of Downton Abbey: Down with the patriarchy!


(PBS) Downton Abbey’s Robert Grantham, job creator and paterfamilias, is one of the bigger twits in all the empire.

“Fox & Friends” might want to rethink their delighted belief that the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” the PBS hit about dressing for dinner, shows our high esteem for job creators and our aspirational awe of the rich.

In a refreshing departure from recent stereotyping of the wealthy as evil fat cats, Fox’s Stuart Varney argued, Downton’s aristocrats are “very nice people.” “The entire town loves the rich guy who lives in the abbey,” agreed Steve Doocy. Because according to Varney, his lordship and his family “create jobs, for heaven’s sake. They’re classy; they’ve got style. And we love them. That show is wildly popular; it poses a threat to the left, doesn’t it?”

Well, no, and not only because by that logic, I guess we also revere the Baltimore drug dealers, New Jersey mobsters and Albuquerque meth cooks who have been big hits, too, with American TV audiences. Some conservatives determinedly ignored the recent inaugural festivities in favor of “Downton” marathons. But aren’t they increasingly suspicious that the show’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, is not exactly arguing against the “death tax”?

This last week’s episode certainly erased any doubt that the show’s paterfamilias, Lord Grantham, has even a lick of sense: Already, we knew he’d mismanaged the place, sunk his wealthy wife’s entire fortune into a railroad to nowhere and proven himself a terrible judge of character, trusting even the most transparently venal of his servants.

Overconfident and xenophobic, his anti-Catholicism is at least historically accurate: “I don’t want the thumbscrews or the rack,” he told a visiting Anglican bishop, “but there always seems to be something of Johnny foreigner about the Catholics.” He also imagined himself in love with a maid he barely knew, and that, too, has been known to happen.

But this week’s episode was so hard on Robert it could have been subtitled, “Down with the patriarchy,” or “All the wrong people have money.” And politically, the show’s become no less a liberal sledgehammer than HBO’s “The Newsroom,” more plainly feminist in theme than any mainstream hit since “Designing Women” went off the air.

It was surely this last week that his lordship officially surpassed the tipping point of twitdom by ignoring the local doctor’s warnings that his pregnant daughter seemed to be suffering from preeclampsia – being, yes, “very nice” to the doctor-to-the-stars he’d brought in to deliver his grandchild, but at the expense of his daughter’s life. Not only did he contribute to her death by refusing to allow her to be taken to the hospital, but he didn’t even seem aware of his role until his wife,Cora, snapped out of her dream state for once and spelled it out for him. “There’s some truth in that,” he agreed mildly.

Even the dowager countess, sworn enemy of change, was less brittle than her fragile son, remarking that at her age, she’s less squeamish than most men, and observing that Sybil died “like too many women before her,” in childbirth.

Other recent musings on gender in the show have shown a poor woman forced into prostitution to support her son and rich women who can’t inherit, work, vote — or take a lover without being seen as “ruined” in the hypocritical eyes of society.

The emotional anchors of the show are downstairs — the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, whose abundance of self-awareness makes her reject a suitor from the youth she knows he won’t help her recapture, and the butler, Mr. Carson, whose only folly is his irrational attachment to the Crawley family he so faithfully serves.

So what does the popularity of Downton say about us? That ‘class warfare’ is inevitable, maybe? Or that as much as we may like the look of gas lamps, dropped waists and bouillon spoons, we’re not pining for the restoration of a world in which class was defining and aristocrats piddled away their overwhelming advantages?

A series that began with the the sinking of the Titanic does show us a world in which those in charge are the last to know their ship is going down.

But I also disagree with Varney that “the politics of ‘Downton’ are very important, and it’s important that they are popular in America today,” and don’t see the show’s lefty arguments as high on the list of threats to conservatism. To me, our embrace of the show says far less about our political leanings than about our non-partisan love of a juicy tale, told in a way that’s beautiful to look at and enlivened by one of our greatest living actors, Maggie Smith.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer who anchors She the People and is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC. 

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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