Marketing Feminism, or Return to Downton Abbey

The holidays are over, which means that, here in the States, the 4th season of Downton Abbey is upon us. If you haven’t experienced the cultural phenomena that is Downton Abbey, allow me to say that, objectively speaking (of course), it’s the classiest soap opera since

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The Cast of Downton Abbey, Season 4

Upstairs, DownstairsEven more importantly, the delight that is Dame Maggie Smith’s performance as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham can only be rivaled by the series’ costume design, which is, suffice it to say, both inspiring and gush-worthy. But I digress.

Despite my gushy lead-in, this post isn’t actually about Downton Abbey. Rather, it’s about how the 4th season is being marketed in the United States. (I’d actually be curious as to how it matches up with the show’s marketing in Britain and elsewhere, so if anyone has comparative insights, please share).

In preparation for the airing of the 4th season’s first episode on January 5th, PBS has been running a number of trailers and sneak peeks, all of which are pretty much standard for the marketing of any film or TV series. In addition to the standard stuff, however, PBS also ran a special called Return to Downton Abbey, in which American film (and feminist) icon Susan Sarandon takes the viewer through highlights from Downton‘s 3rd season while hinting at the 4th.

This special is what I found curious as far as the marketing goes, because it wasn’t selling Downton Abbey on the basis of the show’s plots, characters or even costumes. Rather, it was selling the show based on a feminist interpretation of the script – that behind every strong man (Mr. Bates, Sir Robert, Carson the butler and even Matthew Crawley), there is an even strong woman (Anna, the Dowager Countess, Mrs. Hughes and Lady Mary), and it is the women who, unbeknownst to those rather adorable, silly men, are actually running the show.

Now, to be fair to the special, Downton Abbey‘s primary demographic is women between the ages of 35 and 50, a fact no doubt influenced by the show’s wealth of interesting, intelligent, strong, complicated female characters, most of whom enjoy interesting and complicated story lines. In light of this, calling attention to the women of the show isn’t especially odd, particularly as they are such a deeply woven part of the show’s overall narrative tapestry.

However, what did strike me as slightly manipulative was how the PBS special teased those threads out and focused on them to near exclusivity at the cost of the show’s various other strengths. It was a less-than-subtle bid to appeal to the show’s dominant demographic through the rhetoric of post-modern feminism. In other words, the special was laid out to emphasize the presence of “women as the backbone of the show,” while presenting the male characters in a decidedly less impressive light.

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Now, as a woman, I like seeing varied and complicated portraits of women in media. But I also like seeing varied and complicated portraits of men, because both sexes are varied and complicated. One of the reasons Downton Abbey appeals so deeply is that it’s characters, both male and female, and varied and complicated people.

What I question isn’t so much that Return to Downton Abbey underscored the female characters, but that it did so at the expense of the male ones. Sir Robert thinks he knows best, but his wife and mother know differently; while Carson is afraid of the telephone, Mrs. Hughes buys a toaster; and so on. It’s a focal imbalance that’s prevalent in post-modern feminism – that in order for women to be strong, men must be useless, weak, myopic or crippled in some way – and I think it does both sexes a great injustice.

It’s a tired appeal that sprung out of an impulse to make room for women in the 20th century because so much room had to be made for women to develop and exert their various strengths. But we have progressed since Eliza Doolittle needed Henry Higgins to tell her what to do. I’d like to think that we’ve progressed to a point where we can accept intelligence and capability in women as a normal, expected, trait. I’d like to think that we no longer require strength in women to be paired with weakness in men.

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Strength, wisdom and capability aren’t feminist virtues – not anymore – and a woman who possesses these virtues isn’t extraordinary. She’s an adult. As far as I can tell, being an adult is a distinctly human condition that members of both sexes should now be able to enjoy without the diminution of the other.  As a woman, I don’t want a cookie, (or special, aren’t-you-amazing-and-powerful-just-because-you’re-a-woman marketing campaign) for acting like a grown-up.

The real strength of the show, and the feminist angle that I’d like to see implicit in its marketing, is that the women of Downton Abbey are fully adult human beings, with all of the strengths and flaws and complications that accompany this fact. The real angle I’d like to see marketed is that the women on the show are just as marvelous and interesting and human as the men.

5 thoughts on “Marketing Feminism, or Return to Downton Abbey

  1. Good point(s).

    The media/ entertainment industry is overwhelmingly left wing, and feminism is basically socialism in panties.

    Men are usually portrayed as imbeciles and basically ‘another child for the woman to look after along with the kids – arf arf!’. There are no lazy, violent, selfish, bad-parent women on TV who beat their kids (as 90% of mothers admit doing), or lounge about the house or shopping mall while hubby earns all the money and does all the work. And if a woman considers taking her husband for all he’s got because she is ‘dissatisfied’ with her marriage, her female sex-in-the-city friends will always say “You go girl!”

    And all because ‘vagina’ and ‘rape’.

    • Thanks for the comment. You brought up a good point. While I don’t know about 90% of mothers admitting to beating their children (that percentage strikes me as quite high), I agree that the manner in which women and men are portrayed in much of American TV, from The Simpsons to Sex in the City, is reductionist and far from accurate. The mythologized “long-suffering” wife / mother with the “no-better-than-a-child” imbecile of a husband is, I think, actually damaging relations between the sexes. The more we see men treated as idiots on screen, the more that becomes the cultural standard by which men are expected to behave. Likewise, the more we see portraits of entitled, smug, needlessly “long-suffering” women, the more gender-exclusive behavior becomes normalized, further the gap between the sexes. What we need are more nuanced portrayals of members of both sexes. Unfortunately, nuance doesn’t sell as well as the formula you described.

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