What ‘Downton Abbey’ means for us

The Masterpiece Classic production “Downton Abbey” began its third season two weeks ago on PBS amid much fanfare.

The premiere garnered nearly 8 million viewers, almost beating major TV networks like CBS.

Why are people drawn to this show like the aristocracy to gossip? A few themes in the show, such as class society, gender roles and revolution, fascinate today’s television audience.

The separation of the classes in the early 20th century society — the “upper house” with the aristocrats and the “lower house” with servants — are expertly played against each other.

As in our day, people depicted during this time period obsessed over the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

The servants have so little and their masters have so much, yet the lives and travails differ very little.

The show demonstrates that people are people, regardless of their material standing. In fact, the show goes on to insinuate that the people in power always act benevolently.

This quickly leads the viewer to realize that anyone can wield power with good intentions.

The lords and ladies as portrayed in “Downton” comfort the servants and vice versa. This empathy across the divides of power provides a powerful message for today’s class relations.

Today, few people find empathy with the rich, perhaps because the rich do not show their compassion to the working and middle classes. They take bailout money and run, and sometimes sue after they receive the benefit of our tax dollars and support for their reckless decisions.

Lord Grantham of Downton never took advantage of those who were “lesser,” though he certainly could have.

Gender roles in Downton give present-day women reason to cheer their state in our society. In the show, the female heirs cannot inherit power, and it creates a real weakness in their society and social fabric. The male-dominated society creates a place where women can only secure second-rate power and then only through marriage.

People today care about and deal with gender oppression, especially in places that are rapidly urbanizing and industrializing. We saw the terrible consequences of patriarchy and misogyny rear its head in India, and women in that country mobilized like never before.

People watch “Downton Abbey” because they see their own world reflected back at them through the lens of nearly 100 years.

Revolutionary politics of the day draw in the modern viewer. In the show, times are a-changing. The people of England go off to war, but death and injury do not discriminate against the rich or poor. The class boundaries are blurred, and we get to see the early rumblings of a society without rigid social classes.

I saw the same types of revolutionary thoughts erupt then as now. The fact that things have not changed much over four generations is more than a little discouraging.

Today, people watch “Downton Abbey” to be taken along for the change of a lifetime — more rights for women and the poor and less power to those who were born into the powerful class. However, people do not actually want this change to happen in their daily lives. We watch raptly and then turn our televisions off and decline the ballot box year after year.

Even if our political system is dysfunctional and there are alternatives, people want the status quo.

We use this well-made and artful show to fulfill a sad place in our hearts that was broken after we saw we could not change the world into what we want it to be.

After so much change in the past few years, people want to remain constant, and they find an outlet in “Downton Abbey” to suppress their yearning for a new world made in the image of their dreams.

Reach the columnist at peter.northfelt@asu.edu or follow him at @peternorthfelt

 

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