Essay: Media Engagement With the Television

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[. . .] Aside from some of his physical features and voice, what truly marks Pamuk as another "race" is the fact that his character is almost entirely made up of racist stereotypes relating to the supposed sexual promiscuity and aggression of non-white men. While in the United States these stereotypes are most frequently associated with black men, in Europe and elsewhere, these stereotypes extend to those races and ethnicities with which the white residents of Europe have had more immediate contact; as such, the "exotic" Turkish diplomat is saddled with a kind of characterization that focuses exclusively on his supposedly uncontrollable sexual appetites. Pamuk kisses Lady Mary, the eldest of the aristocratic family's daughters, without her consent, and later he goes to her bedroom unannounced. However, once the two of them begin to have sex, Pamuk dies suddenly, and the episode turns into a kind of dramatic farce wherein Mary, her mother, and her maid have to move Pamuk's body back to his own room without notifying anyone else.

As Sharon Marcus notes, Downton Abbey owes some of its plotting and pacing to the stage melodramas of the Victorian and Edwardian period, and so some elements of the episode concerning Kemal Pamuk can be understood as artifacts of this legacy (Marcus 2012, p. 445). Pamuk's death and the subsequent scramble to return his body are simultaneously funny and horrifying, and the viewer almost cannot help but be drawn into the drama. However, this entertainment ultimately serves to distract the viewer from the fact that it is based on an ultimately racist portrayal of a non-white, non-European character, a portrayal that should resonate even more when one considers, for example, the difficulty that Turkey has had in its attempts to become part of the European Union. Furthermore, it is hard to avoid charges of racism when what is quite literally Downton Abbey's only major non-white, non-European character is portrayed as uncontrollably, even mortally sexual while at the same time Pamuk's character could have been replaced with a white European without anything else needing to be different. It is extremely difficult to accept the implicit proposition that the only non-white person to visit Downton happened to fit into a well-established racist stereotype.

Downton Abbey's treatment of gender and class is somewhat less offensive than its treatment of race, if only because it at least allows characters to discuss and acknowledge gender and class, something that never happens with race. However, even then the discussion is fairly limited and ultimately tends to come down on the side of the privileged. For example, the two most radical characters in the show are Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter, and Tom Branson, who is originally the family's chauffeur but who eventually marries Sybil and is (reluctantly) welcomed into the aristocratic family. The show uses these two characters to center its discussion of gender and class, as Sybil is concerned with upending her family's expectations for her life by wearing pants instead of a dress, fighting for women's suffrage, becoming a nurse, and ultimately marrying Tom.

Tom, meanwhile, is how the show explicitly discusses class, because although the central concept of the program is the fact that it shows what goes on both "upstairs" and "downstairs" in the large house by focusing on both the aristocratic family and their servants, Tom is the only character who actually questions this arrangement out loud. The show locates Tom's radical interests in his nationality, because unlike everyone else, he is Irish, and is a staunch supporter an independent Ireland as well as a more radical distribution of wealth and power. By the end of the most recent Christmas special, however, he has settled into his role as Downton's financial agent, effectively running the farms and estates.

On the one hand one wants to admire the program for including these radical characters, because they offer refreshing criticisms of the staid, uptight ideology of the rest of the establishment characters. Lady Sybil in particular is an attractive character because unlike Tom, whose resistance is sometimes presented as resentment against the rich, Sybil presents a somewhat underrepresented category of agitators and radicals, namely, upper class white women (Weiner 2000, p. 137-138). While of course upper class white women in practically any period enjoyed a number of privileges and conveniences, they also suffered from disproportionate discrimination and repression, because the price of those privileges was a complete disavowal of their own interests. While one cannot go so far as to say that lower class women were more "free," because they still had to contend with poverty and violence, one could argue that the immediate lives of lower class women were likely not so directly circumscribed by the expectations of their family and society. Sybil's eloquent resistance to those expectations, then, serve as a refreshing challenge to the program's otherwise traditional representation of gender.

As mentioned above, the character of Tom is somewhat more problematic, because frequently the show suggests that part of his desire for a more equitable world is rooted not in genuine concern for the underprivileged (like Sybil), but rather a resentment and envy of the rich. This is problematic because the show is essentially suggesting to the viewer that its most radical character, and thus radicals in general, are not being honest in the their intentions, and are more concerned with selfish ends than with any humanitarian justification they might present. While at first Tom is clearly a kind of anarchist or socialist agitator interested in dismantling the obviously unjust power structure embodied by Downton Abbey itself, and is thus representative of the emerging political movements of the time period, over time the show seemingly tries to undercut his radical tendencies (Frost 2009, p. 74). Furthermore, the show's presentation of Tom's character becomes downright offensive by the end of the third series, because his radical tendencies have effectively been neutered when he decides to become part of Downton's management. This change suggests to the viewer that all radicals really want is to become part of the power elite, rather than to do away with power structures in the first place.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that although Lady Sybil represents the most unproblematic radical character, the program still does not allow her to remain a challenge to the ideologies of the other character for very long, because she dies in childbirth. This leaves Tom to raise their child alone, a fact that ultimately contributes to his decision to join the upper class of Downton as the estate's manager. The treatment of these characters is problematic because the show is essentially rewriting history by offering its own very limited interpretation of both early feminist and radical political movements, an interpretation that somewhat conveniently ends with the dominant power structure left intact. Not only that, the interpretation offered by the show actually undercuts these early radical movements to the point that they appear no longer truly radical, but rather selfish reactions.

Thus, the problematic nature of Downton Abbey becomes clear, because the very thing that makes it so entertaining is also what makes it potentially oppressive and even dangerous. By rendering the early twentieth century in such exquisite detail, the show is able to convince viewers (including myself at times) that its representation of history is the way "it really was," when in fact this representation is completely permeated with the gender, class, and racial privileges of the show's creators. While of course it would be difficult to make a show about an aristocratic family that is entirely based on criticizing the privilege and excess of that family, Downton Abbey's presentation of radical movements and ideas, as well as its utter and near-complete lack of non-white characters, ultimately serves to reinforce and justify the otherwise obviously unjustifiable power structures that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century and that linger to this day.

References

Downton Abbey, 2010-, television program, ITV, United Kingdom.

Frost, G. 2009, "Love is always free': anarchism, free unions, and utopianism in Edwardian

England," Anarchist Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 73-94.

Marcus, S. 2012, "Victorian Theatrics: Response," Victorian Studies, vol. 54, no. 3, pp. 438-

450,585.

Weiner, G. 2000,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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