I’ve been watching a lot of Downton Abbey over the holidays, although, as the series progressed, my reasons to keep watching gradually reduced to just Twenties Fashion + Maggie Smith. I could complain about the weird discrepancy between narrated time and narration time in Season 2, but David Mitchell has already done that in a much more deliciously ranty way than I ever could. I could remark on the various plotlines in Season 3 that made me feel I was watching an RPG playthrough instead of a credible story about actual human beings – you find the right object or talk to the right person, and it’s Mission Complete, a quest to be ticked off a list and never to be referred to again. But actually, what bothered me most about the series was something I could not really put my finger on until very recently, when I read an interview with American writer Tom Wolfe in last Saturday’s edition of the Volkskrant.
Here’s a quote (translated from Dutch):
Sex is a joke from God! Sex can ruin men completely, together with all their ambitions. They’re being sawed off at the ankles – it happens every day.
The man being ‘sawed off at the ankles’ here is Dominique Strauss-Kahn – the IMF boss who sexually assaulted a maid in his hotel room. But never mind the maid – Wolfe doesn’t even mention her. What we should lament is those poor men, ruined at the hands of the media just because they followed their instincts.
I do not disagree with Wolfe that this whole scandal has probably had some very sad consequences for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Still, something seems distinctly off about Wolfe’s priorities – there is only one real victim here, and she’s being swept under the rug. You simply cannot compare the suffering of someone who actually got abused and exploited to the suffering of the abuser who finds that people don’t like what he did – in the light of the former, the latter loses al significance. The problem is not that Wolfe is wrong about sex scandals hurting powerful men. The problem is that he is leaving out the much more important story of powerful men hurting powerless women, and by doing so, implying that this whole affair is really about the hardships of poor DSK more than anything else.
And that is the whole idea of privilege: that no matter how many stories those Others have to tell, everything is, ultimately, About You. In the end it is the stories of the privileged that are deemed the most important, that are told and retold, that end up a part of history. They might well be true stories; calling out privilege does not mean telling others that their story is false. But it does mean not giving these stories any more weight than they deserve.
Back to Downton Abbey. The reason I couldn’t, at first, put my finger on the thing that bothered me about the show, is that it simply seemed to be speaking the truth. Sure, it had all these people saying terrible things about women and sex and the working class and whatnot, but that was what people really thought a hundred years ago, and I can hardly be angry at a show for being historically accurate.
In one plotline, housemaid Ethel has an affair with an army major that leaves her pregnant. Everyone is terribly shocked at Ethel’s depravity, while no one even considers to blame the major (not even when he refuses to acknowledge the child) – boys will be boys and all that. No one considers the fact that it must’ve been hard, or even impossible, for a servant to say no to a powerful high officer. No one even questions the double standard that reduces a woman to scandal and poverty while letting the man off the hook completely. And even though this makes me sad, if this is how things used to go Back Then, how can I complain?
Here’s why I complain. The entire story of Ethel, that continues far into Season 3, is framed in terms of how the well-off people at Downton Abbey cope with it. Will they help Ethel out of the kindness of their hearts? Will the Ethel Affair taint them by association? How shocked will they be when they find out that Ethel can only sustain herself and her child by working as a prostitute? How can they avoid scandal (gasp!) while still showing this Fallen Woman some mercy?
The story of Ethel herself remains untold. We don’t see how the major ended up in her bed. We aren’t with her when she makes the desperate decision to sell her own body to survive. We aren’t asked to share her anger at the injustice that has been done to her. We only see her curtsy and be grateful to other, more privileged characters. The story is not about Ethel – the story is about how the privileged, poor souls, cope when they are confronted with something they find shocking.
It is not a false story, but it is not the most important, nor the one that’s most worthy of our attention. And by suggesting it is, the makers of Downton Abbey are displaying the same utterly confused priorities that Tom Wolfe betrays when he is lamenting those poor men who fall for God’s joke.
Sometimes, quite often in fact, the story is Not About You. It is 2013. Let’s get our priorities straight.
ETA: this article says it much better than I ever could.