Critiquing Downton Abbey

Monday, 4 March 2013

Downton Abbey

A little while ago somebody sent me a very nice email asking if I would do a critical analysis of Downton Abbey. Since this kind of analysis is something that I’ve already done on so many British dramas in my book, I was reluctant. It would mean summarising many of the main themes in my book into one post, which is a difficult task. However, I like a challenge, so here’s my response.

While there has been considerable hype surrounding Downton Abbey as a brilliant new drama since it began, to me there is nothing particularly new or unique about it. It’s a natural extension and development of a mode of cinema and television drama that has been popular since the 1980s, if not before: heritage. ‘Heritage’ cinema and heritage drama are things I’ve written about a lot, but they can be summarised as historical costume films and period dramas, that have a very specific ‘look’, style, and mise-en-scène, that for some film and television critics, has been developed into a distinct screen genre (like say, horror, romance, or thriller, etc.). The term ‘heritage’ is often used to refer to a sanitised, stylised and nostalgic historical representation of the past in the present.

Another reason why such films and television dramas are referred to as ‘heritage’ is because they are boosted by and aligned with the work undertaken by official heritage bodies such as The National Trust and English Heritage. They are also aided by tourist companies who often exploit these dramas and films to promote a certain idea of what Britain and England represent to wider international audiences. This is not to say that all of these dramas and films are exactly the same, but it does mean that over the decades, a heritage screen ‘template’ has been formed via various films and television dramas that has come to represent a very familiar and very conservative idea of English national identity and British culture.

Downton Abbey sits very comfortably within the style I’ve termed ‘English Postcards’ in my book. That is, it relies heavily on repeated beautiful shots of grand country homes of the aristocracy as part of its visual appeal and heritage style; it relies on the representation of English space and English place as “postcard images of a stereotypically ‘old’ English home” (Cultural Afterlives, p. 106), that resemble those images tourists consume in gift shops. Those images aren’t just sold in gift shops however, they’re sold to us on screen too.

If you sit back and examine how certain scenes are shot in Downton Abbey, you’ll notice that characterisation and plot often play second fiddle to the aesthetic depiction of the house of Downton and its extensive luxurious grounds. This is common among heritage films and dramas, and relies on very specific camerawork I describe as “slow-moving and long-distance shots” which allow for “a contemplative and leisurely view of the scenery, but also frames the images within a picturesque logic of background, middleground and foreground” (Cultural Afterlives, p. 106). This picturesque logic, which developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting and art, was one of the key ways in which the landed aristocracy and the rising middle classes consolidated their social and cultural power through the beatific representation of their land and property. Just think of Gainsborough, and you’ll know what I mean.

I guess the question I always hear when I talk about all this with my friends is: where’s the harm? Where’s the harm in enjoying all this, and indulging in the beauty of these old aristocratic and privileged homes and lifestyles? Well, on an individual level, not much. But we don’t live as islands, we live in societies, cultures and countries. Where’s the harm? The harm comes in the fact that what is being promoted is a very limited and specific representation of English and British identity for modern audiences, who are increasingly living in multicultural communities and societies. On a daily basis, many of our politicians (in Australia too) exploit the uncertainty of modern times by reverting back to some idealised vision of national identity that relies on exclusion, privilege and creating borders between cultures and communities. These heritage dramas and films do the same thing (if, in a very beautiful and seductive way).

The landed aristocracy of the past relied on very distinct exclusionary boundaries of property, of who gets to have basic human rights, of money, of privilege, of land, and yes, of national identity. And by sanitising the inequality of these boundaries into some pretty imagery of luxurious houses paraded like heritage porn, we are also helping perpetuate inequality in the present. This is not to say that Downton Abbey doesn’t explicitly explore certain issues of class and privilege in its plot-lines, but it does so in a very safe manner that allows us to comfortably sympathise with those in power and their exclusionary world-views. As much as I too enjoy watching this drama for its aesthetic beauty, I feel there is also value in stepping back sometimes and recognising that it is also based on problematic premises about history, power and the present. And you know what? It is perfectly okay in my book to enjoy Downton Abbey, while still being critical of it.

Image credit: Image from here.


Amelia said...

I agree with everything you've said.

I gave up watching Downton Abbey halfway through the first season. One of my issues with "heritage" series is they generally bore me.

Also I chuckled at "heritage porn".

Teresa said...

Wonderful critique Hila! Downton Abbey certainly is heritage eye candy and I have to admit I do love watching it for that reason.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said...

I still haven't seen this show ahhhhh! I'm SO behind!!!

Jane Flanagan said...

I haven't watched a full episode of Downton, but I really love this post. I particularly love that you admit room to both enjoy the show while critiquing the larger message and fetishization of history.

Your book articulated that stance clearly too and I think it's very human and honest, while still demanding deeper reflection and context. I admire your ability to do both. And I like that you don't make yourself give one side of yourself up in this way.

rooth said...

Hila, I can hear your voice creeping into things that I read and watch lately and presenting a different viewpoint than I'm usually comfortable with and that's a good thing. Thank you for always exploring what may not always be the popular side of a topic but still an important side to talk about. I've got plenty of fodder for discussion if you'd like to email me to chat about it

Bethany said...

Hila, this is brilliant. This point in particular - "[DA] allows us to comfortably sympathise with those in power and their exclusionary world-views" - hits the nail on the head.

I have loved indulging in the show, but after every episode, when I've had a chance to process, I always question myself and why I sympathize with certain characters over others. On the one hand, I think it's powerful writing, but I also think it's something to be cautious of, especially when we reflect on world events of the eras depicted. It's hard to remove the bias that media consumption like this can incite.

Miss Bibliophile said...

I agree with you that Downton Abbey doesn't feel particularly new, but rather just the next in a long line of films in this tradition. If anything, what's new might be the widespread popularity it's found that goes beyond the die hard fans of heritage dramas. And great point about finding room for both enjoyment and critique. I think that's important to keep in mind, especially for fans of the show like myself.

Sally said...

I read an article that speculated that Downton's popularity had to do with people's secret longing for structure in a world made chaotic by financial woes and job loss - versus a world where you always knew your place, for life...but ugh, I'm sure people are NOT longing for even more classism and sexism than already happen today! Fetishization of the past (and especially its inequalities, which yes people do glorify!) annoy me so, as I think we've talked about in the past with regards to Mad Men...

When I got into Downton I thought it was the characters that drew me in, but now I have to agree with Bethany and wonder *why* I cared about them so much. Anyway, now its over-dramatic-ness bothers me too much and I can't watch it (and this is TV we're talking about, it has to go pretty far to make me say that!) :)

vegetablej said...

Hmmm. While I agree with what you said, I find myself sympathizing with the characters who are the less wealthy and privileged. Like the woman who is forced to become a prostitute when she is deserted by the wealthy father and grandparents of the child. And the servant who is shamed and in despair when he comes out as gay.

And I like the strong woman who first opens a hospital and then a place for prostitutes in the face of opposition of her more conventional family.

The thing I like about Downton Abbey is that the air-brushed quality is balanced by a bit of a look at the grittier side of things, like the man who goes to prison and the family's loss of the daughter in childbirth. And the portrayal of women as having either to work (hard)or marry. I think the daughter trying to become a journalist is starting to explore this theme.

Yes, it's true that these themes are treated with a bit of nostalgia, or perhaps an attempt to represent the attitudes that people had then so they seem a bit quaint to us now, and even lightweight but I think the development of the characters with their flaws and contradictions is sufficient to endear them to viewers and introduce themes that are not often seen that much in current TV except in a way that is far more superficial and finger-pointing than in this drama.

I like that it allows us room to think without telling us WHAT to think, at least compared to most current heavy-handed American TV.

Hila said...

Amelia: Yeah, I have a lot of friends who find it boring too :)

Teresa: I suspect many people do!

Andi: Don't worry, it took me a while to catch on too.

Jane: I'm not always successful in doing both! But I think not allowing room for enjoyment when it comes to analysing this kind of stuff is dishonest and alienating. I'm not speaking as some completely objective critic, but as a person too.

Rooth: Ha, sorry about that! I find that little critical voice following me around everywhere too.

Bethany: I do agree, and think that this show, like many others, has a definite bias, which although isn't always obvious, does have tangible consequences in the way that we fetishise history (and its inequalities) in the present. Thanks Bethany.

Miss Biliophile: I completely understand fans of this show, and always try to allow room for enjoyment - it's only human, after all.

Sally: Oh I've read that argument so many times too - not just about DA, but many other previous films/TV dramas. It's a good point, but I also think there's more to it than that. The past wasn't so simple or structured as we make it out to be and in fact what these shows are doing are idealising its realities into something more comforting and stable than it was. It's like selective historical consciousness - or invented historical consciousness. Anyway, I find all this so interesting!

vegetablej: I have to disagree. I think this show air-brushes the harsh inequalities between the classes into something quite sweet and 'oh, look at these lovely old-fashioned folk'. When it does explore issues of inequality, like women's position, like the maid who had to enter prostitution, and the Irish socialist, etc., it does so in such a tame way, and we do find ourselves more often than not sympathising with the aristocratic perspective. Most landed aristocrats were not benevolent to their servants, most ladies of the house did not give a crap about their maids the way the women in this show do. And also, the idea of a benevolent overlord is just so wrong on so many levels. This show to me sentimentalises the idea of a 'kind lord' and seems to legitimise his claim to power through this appeal to our emotions and his kindness. It tamely passes over the real inequalities such a 'kind lord' represents historically. I find it really ethically questionable to sentimentalise the idea of a family and a man holding power over other human beings based on social status, and that we're supposed to sympathise with him and his family's desire to hold onto to power because he's 'nice' to his servants. I could go on, but I'm afraid this comment response will become very very long if I do. I understand though that people may disagree with my viewpoint here, but this is ultimately how I approach this show.

vegetablej said...


Thanks for your response. I do see what you are saying and really, the only point I differ with you on is the intention of the writers/directors. I don't believe it is just an accident that the piece is set in a household with the two classes juxtaposed and in a time just as the great estates begin to fail and servant classes are about to be swept away. Whether historically accurate or not, I think one theme of Downton is how people (can) change.

From my standpoint I see more than a little bigotry and entitlement displayed by the Lord and family -- which is not especially flattering. I think the sweetness comes more in the writers' apparent affection for all the characters, high and low, and its tolerance of human fallibility. There is also an understated approach that might make it seem a bit less obvious that irony is implied.

I certainly don't support shiny versions of oppression. I'm just not sure this is one.

Anyway, that's all I'll say. As you remarked, we all can't agree about everything. but that makes life, and your blog, more interesting.

Hila said...

Fair enough, we can't agree on everything, as you said!

sherryyo said...

Loved this post! I totally agree - loving a show and critiquing can absolutely go hand-in-hand. The way I like to think about your astute critique on Downton Abbey is that, after reading it, it recalibrates the way I regard the show, the historical period it represents, and my enjoyment for them. Thanks for writing this!

Hila said...

sherryyo: I also don't feel like understanding something critically, or being critical of it, takes away my enjoyment of it - like you, it often increases my enjoyment.