Pop Culture

Sneaky Social Justice on TV: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey centres around the upper-class Crawley family and their staff in rural England from 1912 to 1918. This contains some spoilers for Seasons One and Two: I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum.

For anyone who watches Downton Abbey, the class issue is all-pervading: dressed up in the fabulous outfits of the Crawley daughters or hiding behind the skirts of the aproned Mrs. Patmore, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that in early 20th century England, to whom one was born and where was the ultimate deciding factor over one’s life. Class is the central tension of the world of the series, and the writer Julian Fellowes has deliberately made it front and centre.

But also lurking behind the frocks and the furniture are other social justice issues –more subtly treated, perhaps, but there nonetheless, the most obvious of which is sexism.

Mary, Edith and Sybil Crawley
Patriarchy sucks, but at least the clothes are gorgeous.

The Crawley sisters are in a legal situation familiar to anyone who’s read or seen Pride and Prejudice: when their father dies, his estate (and their American mother’s money) must go to the nearest male heir. The eldest daughter Mary was engaged to this heir, their nth cousin Patrick, thus keeping it all in the family, but when Patrick drowns on the Titanic (or does he? Dun dun DUN), a new male heir must be found. This turns out to be (n+1)th cousin, Matthew, and Mary – according to her mother Cora and grandmother Violet – must marry him instead, no matter how much she dislikes him, and he her. The other daughters Edith and Sybil are likewise stuck in the chase for a husband, and Edith’s rivalry with Mary has consequences for both of them.

The requirement in those days to find a husband, simply to survive financially, was just awful, but for the drama it’s great because there is a real sense of jeopardy for the girls.
– Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith.

Mary, to Matthew: Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the season, but really we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry.

When Mary hesitates to throw herself at Matthew for the good of the estate, and (gasp!) sleeps with a foreign (double gasp!) house guest, it proves to be an act that haunts her forever. Mary transgresses the sexual standards of the day and her “mistake” (having sex with a guy she was attracted to and who was attracted to her, heavens, call the cops) is constantly held over her head by her mother, grandmother, sister, her father’s valet’s wife (bear with me here), and her fiancé, the newspaper magnate Carlisle. Cora and Violet’s censure is almost benign and mainly focuses around getting her married:

Violet (to Cora): We’d better get her settled before the bloom has gone quite off the rose.

Cora (to Mary): The point is, when you refused Matthew, you were an earl’s daughter with an unsullied reputation. Now, you are damaged goods.

Mary stares at Carlisle
One night of Turkish Delight = a lifetime of blackmail

Her sister and Mrs. Bates (the valet’s wife), however, use it to endanger both her status and that of the family. With Mrs. Bates threatening blackmail, Mary tells all to Carlisle. Although she is at first grateful for his understanding and practical support (owning a bucket-load of newspapers does have its charms), she soon realises he intends to use this information to keep her attached to him, no matter what.

Carlisle (to Mary): You have given me the power to destroy you, and don’t think I won’t use it.”¦ don’t ever cross me, do you understand? Never. Absolutely never.

Mary’s transgression of the sexual double standard is echoed in that of the housemaid Ethel’s: she develops a casual relationship with an army officer. But the consequences for working-class Ethel are a lot more dire than for upper-class Mary. When she becomes pregnant and the officer denies all responsibility, Ethel loses her job – and with it, her only source of food and lodging. Ethel ends up practically destitute with a baby to take care of, and the reaction of her friends is uniformly unforgiving. Ethel rages against the unfairness of it, but her only ally, the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, advises her to move to the city and invent a husband who died in the war, as it’s the only way she can have a respectable life – or indeed, survive.

Ethel holds her baby, Charlie
What do you mean, no such thing as child support?

The youngest Crawley daughter, Sybil, is under somewhat less pressure to marry, and is fighting against the limits set out for women of her class, despite the incomprehension displayed by her family.

Sybil: No one ever learned anything from a governess except for French, and how to curtsy.
Violet: What more do you need?

Mary: Sybil is entitled to her opinions.
Violet: No. She isn’t until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.

She channels her independence into helping the housemaid Gwen obtain a more independent and prestigious job as a secretary, and with the help of rebellious Irish chauffeur, Branson, Sybil also dabbles in the women’s suffrage movement, and eventually finds some purpose as a nurse during WWI. But as the war ends, she is expected to go back to life as before – and though I want her to run away, meet up with Emmeline Pankhurst, and fight for the vote, this series sees her contemplating running away with Branson instead. Sigh. At least when he urges her to “bet on me,” he displays some awareness that her whole life would depend on him and his fledging political ambitions:

Sybil:  I hope you do go in to politics – it’s a fine ambition.
Branson:  Ambition or dream? If I do, it’s not all about women and the vote for me. Nor even freedom for Ireland. It’s the gap between the aristocracy and the poor and…
Sybil:  And what?
Branson:  Sorry. I don’t mean to speak against his lordship.
Sybil:  Why not? You obviously don’t approve of him.
Branson:  Not as a representative of an oppressive class. He’s a good man and a decent employer.
Sybil:  Spoken like a true politician.

Branson and Sybil
The chauffeur/future politician and the lady/future... who knows?

Interestingly, it’s not just the women who are portrayed as suffering from the patriarchal laws and social expectations around marriage. The valet, Mr. Bates, is desperate to obtain a divorce from his wife so that he can marry the housemaid Anna – but despite the fact that Mrs. Bates left him and they have lived apart for years, he cannot obtain a divorce, as his adultery is not reason enough for a divorce. He must prove her adultery or persuade her to divorce him some other way.

Mr Bates and Anna sit apart in a church
That pesky sexual double standard works against men, too

Also intruding on the kyriarchical paradise are gay characters, characters with disabilities, and those who don’t believe the Empire is a utopia. I’m not an all-out Downton fangirl –I’ll save my rants about pacing, suspense, and the token Irishman for another time – but it is nice to see some stories with feminist (and other) themes played out on the most popular series on UK television for a decade.

What do you think of the feminist themes in Downton Abbey – nice to see or just not good enough? Are there any more TV shows with sneaky social justice themes?

Images from

2 replies on “Sneaky Social Justice on TV: Downton Abbey”

Considering that this article is immediately preceded by one titled, ‘How About We Occupy Rape Culture?’, I find it pretty ironic that you’ve chosen to characterise Mary’s ‘mistake’ as two young ‘uns giving in to their desires, instead of what it was: Pamuk inveigling himself into her bedroom and, at the very least, coercing her into sex with the threat of ruining her reputation.

If Downton Abbey were actually the feminist show I wish it were, it’d take the time to engage with this, rather than brush it under the rug. It would examine the way Mary has internalised and accepted the blame for the incident, despite the fact that she had very little choice in the matter, and it would interrogate the ways in which society revictimises Mary at every turn, up to and including the way the fact of her abuse winds up putting her in the power of another abuser. Instead, the internal logic of the show seems to have decided that what happened to Mary lies somewhere between ‘it’s not rape if you enjoyed it’, and ‘it’s not rape if you didn’t scream’, and rather than use the opportunity to shine a light on the extent of women’s powerlessness at the time, it’s given us a comparatively shallow reading of the same old Austenian must-find-a-husband narrative that we already expect as par for the course in any period drama.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Downton Abbey, and it’s one of few enough shows on TV that take the time to present its female characters as real people with full and complex inner lives, rather than simply as props other people’s (read: men’s) stories. But even as it depicts Sybil’s political aspirations, or Isobel Crawley’s professional humanitarianism, it’ll cut away to a scene of its male leads making their love interests’ life decisions on their behalf (Matthew and Bates), or raising a hand to their wives (Bates again), or sexually assaulting an employee (Robert Crawley), or etc. etc. etc., all presented entirely uncritically.

Basically, I suppose I’m saying that pointing out what we all already know about how women didn’t have it fair Back In The Day, and presenting characters with superficially feminist ambitions, does not necessarily a feminist show make.

I’ll have to rewatch the Mary-Pamuk scene – I have to say I didn’t interpret like that at the time I saw it.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a feminist show either – I certainly don’t think  Julian Fellowes would describe himself as feminist, at least not from the interviews I’ve read with him. But I do appreciate the positive aspects of it, and I think it’s doing a reasonable job of negotiating between historical accuracy (what people would have done or been able to do) and as you pointed out, portraying the characters as three-dimensional.

Leave a Reply