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Even kitchenmaids get the blues: compulsory heterosexuality on Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is the best show on television at the moment, is it not?  Or at least, it has the best frocks and hats on television at the moment (sorry Mad Men, you’re so whatever year it was that everyone was into you).  There is romance!  Hats!  It has the glorious Professor MacGongall Maggie Smith!  And Harriet Jones, Prime Minister Penelope Wilton!  And Susan Death Michelle Dockery!  And other people of lesser nerdy significance!  And in less explanation pointy things, it’s generally well scripted, acted and a sterling example of how well the English do period upstairs/downstairs drama.  Anyway, now that we’ve established how amazing Downton Abbey is (and it really is), here is the bit where I tear it apart and make pretty shapes out of it.

Much of the appeal, the dramatic tension of Downton Abbey, is in the complications of its romances.  Anna and Mister Bates (always Mister Bates, even in bed), Lady Mary and Matthew, Mary and the geezer with the newspapers, Matthew and Lavinina, Lady Sibyl and the Bolshie chauffeur Branson, Lady Edith and..  well there was that farmer I suppose, and the Canadian imposter cousin (poor Edith).  There are hints of romance between Mrs Hughes and Mister Carson, and even the married patriarch Lord Grantham gets a bit of action with his almost-affair with housemaid Jane.

This coupling is compulsive, and compulsory.  Though a marriage scene with several couples at once ala Shakespearean comedy might be pushing it, it seems to me one of the intertexts–the proliferation of as many romances as the text can sustained.  I fully expect the show to end with practically everyone happily married.

But despite the presence of one queer character on the show, Downton has been decidedly thin on queer romance.  We begin the first episode with footman Thomas engaged in an affair with the Duke of Crowborough, but it ends in minutes in mutual blackmail.  Unlike the majority of the heterosexual characters for whom romance is the only goal, Thomas and his accomplice O’Brien (who heteronormative assumption would see characterised as straight, despite no indication so far as I can tell one way or the other – and her causing Cora’s miscarriage would seem to indicate a certain queerness in the text per Lee Edelman, if not homosexuality) plot for mercenary gains and for straight vengeance.

Thomas’s move from Downton to the Army does not cause any great change in his fortunes with men.  We know from the World War One poetry of the likes of Siegfried Sassoon that there was indeed relationships between men at the front,  but Thomas does not find love there–merely a hand-removing bullet.  Though there’s hints of a tenderer affection for the gasblinded lieutenant Edward Courtenay, who he cares for in the medical hospital, this ends tragically in Courtenay’s suicide.   Thomas is, in other words, largely an Evil Gay archetype, and we all know the gays don’t do romance.

But it’s actually in a heterosexual storyline that I think the compulsory heterosexuality of the show really comes out–in the cringeworthy “romance” between kitchenmaid Daisy and footman William.  The story starts out innocently enough, with flirtation between the two.  But after Daisy impetuously kisses him, the great machine that is compulsory heterosexuality begins grinding her up.  Against her protestations, William decides that she is “his girl.”  He goes away to war, thinking that she’s his fiancee.  Finally, he comes back from the front with an injury that will eventually kill him, but not before he’s married the reluctant Daisy.

At every step of the way, Daisy signals her hesitance and ambivalence about their “relationship,” but in a coercive heteronormative society, her lack of a no is taken as a yes.  William, it seems, has not heard of enthusiastic consent, and neither has anyone else.  Mrs Pattmore, the abbey’s cook and Daisy’s closest confidante, pushes Daisy to go along with William at every moment, because it would be wrong to let a man go off to war heartbroken, and Daisy can always break up with him later.  When Daisy makes a passionate speech about how wrong it would be to marry a dying man she didn’t love, Mrs Pattmore and Mrs Hughes both show their disapproval of Daisy’s unwillingness to submit to a sham marriage.  And even after William’s untimely death hours after their wedding, Daisy struggles to cut her ties from her now father-in-law.

Far more than a romance then, Daisy and William’s “romance” is a rite of heterosexual unamity, in which a young kitchenmaid (the youngest character on the show I think, and certainly the most disempowered) is pushed along a path to heterosexual matrimony and familial obligation by the people surrounding her, against her repeatedly stated wishes.  Not even death and the promise of a small pension from the state can free her completely.

One could, if one was kind, read William’s inability to take a hint as simple ignorance.  But I think it’s ignorance of a particular kind–one borne of privilege, and presumption.  As Eve Sedgwick said in Epistemology of the Closet, “knowledge, after all, is not itself power, though it is the magnetic field of power.  Ignorance and opacity collude and compete with knowledge in mobilising the flows of energy, desire, goods, meanings, persons.”  William’s ignorance is the very foundation upon which Daisy’s coercion is maintained, and it must be maintained until the end.

Though she may or may not be queer, Daisy’s situation is decidedly queer–she is compelled to feel (or at least simulate the “proper” feelings).  In her wonderful book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, feminist theorist Sara Ahmed points out that compulsory heterosexuality functions through a soliciting and policing of emotion: “the everydayness of compulsory heterosexuality is also its affectiveness, wrapped up as it is with moments of ceremony (birth, marriage, death) which bind families together.”  In contrast, “queerness feels the tiredness of making corrections and departures.”  It takes energy to make your unwillingness known, and to make it stick against what Sedgwick calls the “deadly elasticity of heterosexual presumption.”

It remains to be seen whether the show will give Daisy (or indeed Thomas) a proper love interest in its eagerly anticipated third series.  But far more than the suffragette Lady Sibyl, the working-class Daisy is in dire need of emancipation–an evacuation from the politics of class, gender and sexuality that compel her towards the idealised heterosexual marriage whether she likes it or not.

24 Comments

  1. Jadey wrote:

    EXACTLY.

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Scott wrote:

    I agree with parts about Daisy’s coercion to be with William, but I think Daisy expressed a sexual preference that (at least) includes men when she was falling for Thomas. Which allowed him to manipulate her when they tried to get Mister Bates fired for stealing wine.

    The whole show paints the aristocracy as shepherds and caregivers far too blithely, really. But it’s basically just a soap opera when all is said and done. The times it touches on any issues of real substance are fleeting and poorly handled.

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  3. christian wrote:

    at the end of the 2nd season, when william’s father tries to have a fatherly relationship with daisy, it seemed to me that she ‘gave in’. as the result of him trying to console her, it seems she finally gets comfortable with the idea of being a widower, and that the feeling of pity was actually love toward william. i hold little hope for daisy’s empowerment in the 3rd season.

    but wouldn’t it be nice?

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  4. bfr wrote:

    I don’t watch Downton Abbey, but this post helps me identify some of the reasons why I am often not as enamored of That Show Everyone’s Watching as my less-radically feminist, less-queer friends are. “It takes energy to make your unwillingness known,” and it also takes energy to repeatedly watch uncritical portrayals of compulsory heterosexuality — situations in which I, through identifying with the characters, feel that pressing “unwillingness” acutely.

    Ahmed’s idea that “compulsory heterosexuality functions through a soliciting and policing of emotion” really strikes a chord. My own history of both desire and unwillingness becomes much clearer through that lens.

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  5. caffeineadddict wrote:

    I agree that Thomas being the only (obviously) gay character in the series is screwed up, not just because of the lack of representation of queer characters, but also, as you said, because of the utilisation of the Evil Gay archetype.

    However, I do think there are radical potentialities in Thomas being decpited as the unhappy queer. One reason for this is the way his characterisation (for me) draws attention to happiness being a compulsory societal construct-one that you reject at your peril.

    I also feel he has this kind of radical anarchic force in the show, paricularly because of how he attempts to break up what are supposed to be ‘happy’ heterosexual relationships with apparent impunity (e.g William/Daisy, Mr.Bates/Anna).

    I do think (and this was a point you touched on) that the unease I felt watching Daisy and William’s coerced relationship unfold was telling; particularly because of the way it made me understand the portrayal as a radical critique of compuslory heterosexuality (and an extrapolation of its damaging consequences).

    So I don’t agree with BFR that the portrayals of compuslory heterosexuality are uncritical (at least not in the case of the Daisy/William storyline).

    ‘But far more than the suffragette Lady Sibyl, the working-class Daisy is in dire need of emancipation–an evacuation from the politics of class, gender and sexuality that compel her towards the idealised heterosexual marriage whether she likes it or not.’

    Not really comfortable with the use of the terms ‘evacuation’ and ‘emancipation’, I guess because at present I don’t think it is possible to work outside the mentioned oppressive structures.

    Also, I’m not really sure if it is productive to say x female character needs to be ‘emancipated’ MORE THAN y female character. Different forms of oppression inform the situations of Daisy and Sybil, and really I think it is a race to the bottom to play the ‘I am more oppressed than you’ game.

    I get that Sybil isn’t obviously being forced to marry Branson, but compulsory heterosexuality can (obviously) be pretty tenuous and coercive in and of itself. How can we ever really know about the ways it has informed Sybil’s decision to marry Branson?

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Rachel wrote:

    yeah, I was pretty unhappy about Thomas being the ‘evil queer’. That made me unhappy. But there is definitely a lot to love there as well. Great post breaking it down.

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Jadey wrote:

    “I do think (and this was a point you touched on) that the unease I felt watching Daisy and William’s coerced relationship unfold was telling; particularly because of the way it made me understand the portrayal as a radical critique of compuslory heterosexuality (and an extrapolation of its damaging consequences).

    So I don’t agree with BFR that the portrayals of compuslory heterosexuality are uncritical (at least not in the case of the Daisy/William storyline).”

    I’ve been thinking about this since I posted a similar criticism of Downton Abbey last week and received similar mixed responses from other viewers, but I think there’s a difference between a show employing a critical lens on itself and a viewer *bringing* a critical lens to a piece. Obviously it’s not always easy to tell the difference, but I’m not convinced that any subversive or radical elements within Downton Abbey are terribly deliberate (or strong – maybe one writer had that in mind when they wrote it, but the melange of creative influences from other writers, producers, directors, actors, etc. watered it down), although I do think it, as any text, can be viewed subversively by motivated audience members. Which doesn’t make that reading less awesome! But I hesitate to give credit to the showrunners for it.

    Friday, February 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Baeraad wrote:

    Mmm. I love Downton Abbey, but it is very much part of the current… I don’t know, meta-genre? Fictional wave/movement? Wherein the plot is driven very much by the characters being selfish, or stupid, or weak, or just ruled by the prejudices of their upbringing.

    The last ones are especially important, I think. Much like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey is a series that is not just set in a past time, but which is at least partly presents the morals and values of that time as the correct ones. This, by all means, makes it easier to sympathise with characters acting according with their time, but it also ignores what is *actually* right and good and true in favour of making the oh-so-interesting intellectual experiment of making modern-day viewers identify with past-day characters.

    I think that this trent is not as dominant as it used to be – I feel like I see more actual morals in fiction than I used to. But still, while I do love Downton Abbey, I could do with less shows that reveled in cultural and personal stupidity and which gloried *good values* instead.

    Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink
  9. I highly suggest Lark Rise to Candleford as a counterpoint to Downton Abbey, insofar as the former has this extremely “family friendly” and unscandalous appearance but actually has CONSIDERABLY more radical politics. (It has such radical politics it routinely makes my jaw drop. It would NEVER fly as a family drama in the US.)

    While there is a good deal of romance (largely heterosexual) it is never the driving force of the show. The characters themselves appear to view romance as a disruptive (rather than uniting or ritual) force, as a thing that one must want badly enough to suffer all manner of hardship and compromise to carry through. (And therefore, characters over and over again end romances on the grounds that other aspects of their lives are more important.)

    I can’t point to many other shows, PARTICULARLY not period pieces, that show characters choosing NOT to have romances.

    Also, you still get to enjoy Brendan Coyle being a BAMF, because he was ALSO in Lark Rise to Candleford. Everyone wins.

    Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  10. Jenny wrote:

    So excited to see a feminist/queer reading of Downton Abbey!

    I wanted to chime in and agree with those who point out that the show is critical of Daisy’s coercion into marriage with William. I think it dwells so much in Daisy’s ambivalence in order to draw our attention to the forces that are pushing her to subordinate her own inchoate inexpressible desires to the clear immediate demands of family and nation. I am always reminded that this show depicts the war that inspired Virginia Woolf to write Three Guineas, where she shows exactly how war and patriarchy work hand in hand. Daisy has to marry William not just to be a good girl, but to be a good British girl during wartime.

    Also, I am uncomfortable with presentist assumptions that “good values” are always necessarily our own values of this moment. Earlier periods in history were full of fucked-up-edness, to be sure, but so is ours! And this show is set only 100 years ago, not in some medieval fantasy like Game of Thrones. It’s not as distant as people think.

    Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Baeraad wrote:

    I did not mean to suggest that the current zeitgeist is always superior to all the ones preceding it. Certainly my entire lifetime has been one long backslide in almost all areas. :(

    However, I do maintain that Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones both have bad messages because they don’t care about giving good messages, they care about being true to the time period they are portraying (leaving it unsaid how well they succeed at that…). And I do wish that more shows could stop being so obsessed with a “realism” that they never actually achieve anyway, and care a little more about making a stand for what is right here and now.

    (not that Downton Abbey doesn’t have some useful things to say exactly because it revels in the 1910s worldview. I like how it shows that things like women’s suffrage, that we wouldn’t dream of questioning today, were hugely controversial and hotly debated back then. One can only hope that that might get people thinking about which ones of the topics that seem oh so complicated today that will be recognised as entirely one-sided tomorrow. But still…)

    Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  12. (not that Downton Abbey doesn’t have some useful things to say exactly because it revels in the 1910s worldview. I like how it shows that things like women’s suffrage, that we wouldn’t dream of questioning today, were hugely controversial and hotly debated back then. One can only hope that that might get people thinking about which ones of the topics that seem oh so complicated today that will be recognised as entirely one-sided tomorrow. But still…)

    Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink
  13. Kate wrote:

    That the narrative of Downton Abbey, set between 1912-1920 displays the compulsory heterosexuality of English society between 1912-1920 is rather the point, no?

    Citing the experiences of Sassoon – a public school boy of independent means – to critique the the show’s treatment of Thomas the Footman is rather tone-deaf to the privileges and protections provided or denied to the characters by their class, which is DA’s true preoccupation. Daisy’s story differs from Lady Mary’s only in the rougher speech used to strong-arm her to the altar and the quality of her trousseau. By focusing on “heterosexuality” you overlook the weight the stories place on “compulsory”. And it is the increasing friction between individual beliefs and aspirations, and the strictures of class and society that Downton Abbey details, in between and by way of romantic interludes and skullduggery.

    Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink
  14. Ooh, I did not like Downton Abbey (I only saw the first season), even though I wanted to. It was precisely the way the show dealt with class and “social issues” that made me want to scream. The show has an overarching message that patriarchal, classist, capitalist society is A-OK. Sure, they *show* socialists and suffragettes… in order to place those things within the show’s larger patriarchal framework (while appearing to “question” the society of the times).

    The depiction of Sibyl the suffragette probably irritated me the most. Why are the two most famous (and *only* mainstream) depictions of suffragettes–this and the mom in Mary Poppins– showing silly, exceptionally naive pretty women playing a cute game of “hey I’m standing up for myself!” before being home in time for dinner. The makers of the show CHOSE to do that.

    They CHOSE to depict socialists as unable to conduct a meeting without devolving into chaos and then follow it up with a glowing speech by Lord Whatshisname about “taking care of” the servants, “allowing” them to take pride in what they do and providing for them, while the music swells and birds chirp.

    When the socialist themes are carried out in the rest of the plot– NEVER linked back to the Bolshie social unrest– they are neatly tied up in a pro-rich POV. For instance, the cook goes blind, there’s no social safety net (i.e. welfare), and she’s terrified. That’s reality: laborers were used up, spat out and left to die. But the makers of the show took a “the nobility will take care of you! You silly goose,” approach. Then when Evil Puffy-Bangs thought she was about to be fired, to see everything she’d worked for taken from her at the whim of the nobility, a plotline was chosen where she came out looking evil and paranoid.

    Aside from the plot, the dignity with which the producers of the show depict the characters decreases with their class. Lord & Lady: dignified. Daughters: dignified, they have problems of gravity and importance. Heads of staff: wise, dignified. Sometimes beleaguered but otherwise strong and even spiritual. Servants: confused, gossipy, their problems are the sidekicks of the plot. Lowest of the low (Daisy): silly, ditzy, flighty, fun to laugh at.

    So I don’t think the show has any *intentions* of portraying complicated notions of compulsory heterosexuality. I think they just threw Thomas’s gay affair out there to dazzle the easily dazzled and left it at that. I don’t even think anyone making the show knew or cared that he portrays the “evil gay” stereotype.

    Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  15. caffeineadddict wrote:

    I think attempting to differentiate between what was intended by the makers of the show, and more subversive readings, can be quite problematic.

    *Should* the intentions of the makers of the show get to determine for a queer/feminist etc. audience whether aspects of the show are subversive or not? Why should the makers have this power of supreme or ‘original’ meaning-making in the first place?

    It’s not like you have the ‘objective’ ( for want of a better word) meaning of the text, determined by the intentions of those creating the show, * and then* you layer feminist/queer readings of the show *on top of* the original meaning. Some problems with this kind of thinking include: 1) it posits feminist/queer etc. readings as ‘secondary’, and therefore often as carrying less weight than the original/intended meaning (one of the reasons some people dislike the show is because the subversiveness wasn’t ‘intended’), and 2) it incorrectly assumes that the meaning of the text can preexist the viewer’s perception/understanding/reading of the text.

    Yes, I think that it is better if the creators of a show demonstrate and awareness of damaging archetypes, and actively and publicly try to create subversive storylines/characterisations etc. However, I also think it’s important to break down the hierarchy that ‘original’/intended meaning of a text has over queer/feminist etc. readings.

    If we understand feminist etc. readings as ‘secondary’ and therefore lesser, I feel that diminishes the capacity feminists to *change* or challenge dominant understandings of texts.

    The use of the term ‘lens’ to describe a feminist understanding of a text is something I have quibbles with. To me a ‘lens’ is something that one can put on and take off a text.There is a priori the text, *and then* you put a feminist lens over it. So it has similar problems to the idea that the original meaning (or just the text ‘objectively’ standing) comes *before* ‘alternative’ readings of it.

    As a feminist queer-identifying woman, I don’t agree that my thoughts and feelings, informed by my experiences, can be segregated into this notion of a ‘lens’. To me ‘lens’ implies this idea of separability from the text, and really I don’t think it is possible to separate my experiences of oppression (or privilege) from my understanding of texts. It’s not really a lens, it’s something that informs my understanding of a text at the very level of perception itself.

    Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  16. @caffeineaddict

    That was a really interesting comment. I don’t know if it was aimed at mine above, but I’ll respond:

    I agree that the intended meaning– if that can even be determined– shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. I agree that a feminist or queer POV isn’t secondary, something one can put aside until it’s appropriate. It’s always appropriate to hear, for instance, what it’s like to see Downton Abbey from a queer and/or feminist POV. It’s important to make a feminist reading of how a piece of art is received by the public, how it’s made and why, those sorts of critical analyses of art and pop culture whether something is intended to be feminist/queer or not.

    However I see a difference between feminist/queer readings of a work of art, versus trying to invent positive pro-feminist/queer messages where none probably exist. It seems like grasping at straws as a way to accept the paltry level of pro-feminist or -queer POV’s in society which barely approach 101 level. I’m not trying to “call out” Emily Manuel for doing these things, by the way– I enjoyed the post.

    But while I appreciate that someone who is oppressed can identify for themselves what is subversive–that’s a good point– and that their experience with that material matters, I lean towards believing that searching for pro-feminist/queer messages where they quite obviously (to me) don’t exist necessitates skipping over righteous outrage and accepting the crap that is served to us in order make lemons from lemonade.

    Monday, February 20, 2012 at 12:00 am | Permalink
  17. I meant, “make lemonade from lemons.”

    Monday, February 20, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  18. Jadey wrote:

    @ caffeineaddict

    Thanks for replying to my earlier comment to you.

    “It’s not really a lens, it’s something that informs my understanding of a text at the very level of perception itself.”

    :D As a queer feminist who wears glasses, I have to say that this is what a lens *is* to me – something which informs my understanding of the world at the point of perception – how I see something, but not what something “is” in the sense of superceding other possible “is’s” (if it can truly be said to have a singular being at all, which is dubious). You are right that in using it as a physical metaphor it implies an objective reality, but we can agree that it’s a limitation of this fairly well-established term and that we can use a more constructivist definition of “reality” in which the way one perceives something helps create the nature of that thing as well.

    I actually agree with you much more than you may realize. I don’t think that a showrunner’s lens is any more or less objective than the audience’s, for one. It may have a slight temporal advantage, but in the scheme of things I think that’s fairly irrelevant. Each person has their own particular set of eyes (literal and metaphorical) that they bring to the material they consume and interpret.

    So I also didn’t mean to say that there’s only one authoritative reading of a text or that queer/feminist readings are secondary because I absolutely DO NOT believe that. As a sometime fan-creator and textual reinterpreter, I revel in the power of the audience to reshape and reclaim meaning. My concern however is in reflecting our own interpretations back on to the show creators as if what we have seen must have been what they were trying to say and potentially losing one of the critical layers of context.

    As an example, just because fans may read queerness into Frank Miller’s 300 (and even have a historical leg to stand on) doesn’t mean that Miller himself meant for it to be anything other than hyper-masculine and homophobic, as another valid reading of that text would suggest. That doesn’t stop us from gleefully subverting him either or make those readings secondary or less important. But he doesn’t get credit for them either.

    I do think there’s some value to trying to guess based on the evidence available at where various people involved in the creation of a show (be they directors, writers, actors, producers, costume designers, etc.) were thinking when they made their various creative choices. Not because it overwrites the audience interpretation, but it can add to the overal context of trying to interpret the interpretations. Was there a miscommunication? An unintentional message? A conflict of intentions between director and actor that was fought out in the editing room? I read an analysis of an interview with Black actors in the film, The Help, that spoke to the importance of considering these levels of complexity.

    Monday, February 20, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  19. Jessie wrote:

    I think the Daisy/William plotline portrayed WWI era attitudes about marriage in a pretty progressive way, actually. Daisy (who is something of a silly character) is the one who keeps insisting marriage necessarily has to come along with deep theological and romantic obligations and meanings (that she isnt’ prepared to fulfill), but Mrs. Patmore & Co. seem to have the more persuasive argument that marriage is nothing but a civil ceremony, and if you can use a civil ceremony to make your dying friend happier, then you should go ahead and do it without feeling compelled to act out “marriage” any further than you want or need to. The married housemaid even encourages Daisy to take advantage of her widow benefits as a perk, or as a gift from her friend William, without the obligation from the State of grieving the same way a widow would.

    As another queer person reading this situation, I can see these two readings as being similar to the differences here, between the assimilationist part of the American queer community that wants marriage because it will legitimize them into a straight hegemony (that same straight hegemony that uses marriage’s mystical theological significance to keep queers out of the institution) that will give them privilege, and the radical segment of the queer community that isn’t as marriage-minded because marriage has never been a priority in a successful relationship beyond whatever legal benefits you can reap.

    That being said, I LOVE Downton Abbey, but I don’t necessarily think it has totally progressive messages overall, especially related to class issues.

    Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  20. Ella wrote:

    I am a bit confused. I’m not necessarily defending the show – I have only seen clips of it – but heterosexuality basically *was* compulsory at the time depicted. The programme opens only about 10 years after Wilde was imprisoned for having a homosexual affair – and he was a man with a healthy dose of power and privilege, not a largely disenfranchised member of the lower classes. Am I misunderstanding the criticism?

    Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink
  21. Lena wrote:

    I never really read Thomas as the archetypical “Evil Gay.” He seems more embittered (and rightfully so, given his position as a queer, servant-class man) and actually subversive of the dominant structures of the time. To me he seems like a Trickster figure; he won’t play along, won’t kowtow to his supposed (hetero- and classwise) superiors, finds a way to subvert the military machine and protect himself (his life if not his hand) while at the same time leveraging it to increase his power for a time, won’t accept that he can’t ascend socially through officership in the hospital or entrepreneurship on the black market. And, as was mentioned above, he makes playful and/or rueful trouble in the earnest heteronormative relationships (Daisy’s crush on him, Anna and Bates), but mostly for self-preservation purposes. He’s doing what he can to survive and (he hopes) thrive a little better in a society structured to keep him hidden and down.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  22. Hannah wrote:

    @Ella – The programme deals with different kinds of romance, some of which weren’t at all “proper” at the time (romance between servants, i.e. Anna and Bates, and Sybil’s marriage to Carson was obviously going against the grain), so there’s nothing preventing them from showing a gay romance, as they did with Thomas to a small degree. There were gay people around then (as ever), and while in a grand country estate it wouldn’t have been flaunted, there’s no reason that we as the viewers couldn’t have a peek into the life of a gay character(s).

    I started watching Upstairs, Downstairs for the new series last week mainly because Alex Kingston apparently portrays a blue-stockinged lesbian which sounds just darling. Especially as she seems to be a main character so far, with a bit of development. And a gay woman, which is much rarer than a fictional gay man in mainstream television. I think if I were scripting a period TV drama, I would definitely have some homosexuality in there somewhere if purely for ratings, grim as it sounds. Everyone loves a side-plot of gay drama: in period dramas, there’s a guaranteed sense of danger.

    Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  23. Loyal wrote:

    Just in rgreads to the title of the month, even living in Chicago I’ve been shocked by how many times I’ll use GLBT, only to be asked what the letters stand for.Anyways, I want to print this post out and show it to my grandparents back home it gets to everything that I’ve wanted to say them.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  24. Tess wrote:

    A major problem I have with the show is something people have already mentioned; the depiction of the nobility as benevolent shepherds- something which becomes more uncomfortable after hearing that Julian Fellows (the show’s creator) is a huge supporter of the Tory’s in Britain http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1331250/Downton-Abbey-creator-Julian-Fellowes-new-Tory-peers-list.html

    Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink