Retrolicious: Downton Abbey And Mad Men Edition

Welcome to Retrolicious, a series of discussions and analyses about period dramas. First–get your pinkies up–editors Andrea Plaid and Tami Winfrey Harris explore the lives of English nobility, as presented on Downton Abbey, contrasted with 50s/60s cool of Mad Men. Oh…and spoilers are all over this post.

So, shall we?

Downton Abbey blew up Twitter timelines this year. We may never hear Laura Linney exclaim (per Scandal’s advertising) that it’s “the #1 show on Twitter” (!!!!), but it gets its fair share of love. Why?

Tami: “Why?” really is the question.

I love a good period drama. Mad Men and Downton Abbey stay on my must-watch list. (Though, after this last season, Downton’s days may be numbered.) But this idea of exploring period dramas came from the team at the R interrogating just that question.

Embedded in a lot of the love of Downton and shows like it, is a romanticizing of “good old days.” And though Downton can be frank about issues like gender inequity, it also (I think more so than, say, Mad Men) minimizes other oppressions, like that of gay people, in order to make characters appealing to modern sensibilities. The result is a lot of modern people sitting about yearning for what really were “bad old days” for all but a privileged few, because of the pretty dresses and dashing gents in white tie.

Andrea: But I think this “why” is more specific than just interrogating period dramas, though we’ll get to that question later on. This particular “why” is “why Downton Abbey over other Masterpiece Classic shows, or even other PBS shows?” I mean, are we going to tweet about the Jeremy Piven-led costume drama Mr. Selfridge? Maybe…and I’m sure PBS is hoping we will.

Tami: Jeremy Piven? Eeechh…no.

Andrea: I know, I know. He plays some pretty gross characters. See, I think Piven was a sexy MF circa Ellen…with his chest full of hair. I hold out hope against hope that he’ll grow it back. But I digress…

So, there’s something about Abbey specifically that gathers people around screens and carrying on on my timeline.

And after slogging through three seasons of this show, I’m still at a loss. I’m still suffering boredom from watching this show. Maybe I’ve lost my taste for period dramas?…No, because I’m totally down for The King’s Speech, Elizabeth, Mansfield Park, and old Masterpiece Theatre (before they re-branded themselves to Masterpiece Classic) joints like The Buccaneers. And, if they’re still on Netflix, I want to check out a couple more Masterpiece Theatre classics: Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs, Downstairs. But Downton Abbey gives me a case of the “mehs,” though it’s a beautifully shot show.

But let me get to a point you make about Abbey and its appealing to modern sensibilities: that seems to be a tactic taken with The Buccaneers. One of the young men who courted TheBuccaneersDVDNan, one of the “buccaneers” (the name given to the quartet of main characters from the US who traveled to Britain in the turn of the 20th century to “conquer” that country for the titles to match their families’ new fortunes) was really uptight and gradually abusive to her. She couldn’t figure out why until the dun-dun-dun moment of her finding him curled up in bed with another man. This mini-series came out in the 90s, so the show handles it by Nan leaving the young man’s dignity intact by not revealing that he’s gay, but that he’s abusive and that she falls in love with another man. She becomes a social pariah–and literally runs off with the guy she’s in love with–but she takes her ex-husband’s “secret” with her. But, for the 90s, that was seen as quite a “progressive” because Nan didn’t call him all sorts of homophobic slurs or otherwise put his business in the streets. So, Masterpiece does fudge like that with some social issues and marginalized people, though they can retain other retrograde messages, like The Buccaneers’ message of women suffering for being gold diggers–and, really, of gay men becoming abusive if they don’t come out of the closet.

Tami: Folks who call Downton Abbey a glorified soap really are correct. It’s a period drama, but unlike other PBS fare or, say, Parade’s End, which recently aired on HBO, it isn’t particularly challenging. And the cheating Julian Fellowes does with social issues plays into that. It isn’t even challenging in the way Mad Men can be challenging. It’s a soap featuring pretty dresses and an English manor. What’s not to love?

Andrea: OK, I’m a sucker for the double hemlines the women are styling on the show–no lie. But, from what we’ve chatted about, Tami, Julian Fellowes also wrote or co-wrote films like Gosford Park and Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair. So, I think his skills rest in creating two-hour universes, not 10- to 12-hour ones. And I know PBS has showcased some pretty soapy two-hour shows and miniseries, like Madame Bovary with Frances O’Connor and The Forsythe Saga with Homeland’s Damien Lewis.

Downton Abbey is amiable enough, but it’s meandering. I get the feeling that Fellowes has no endgame or end date, but he’ll kick out episodes as long as folks are willing to watch–sort of like Shonda Rimes and Grey’s Anatomy. I’d rather that Fellowes–and Rimes, for that matter–figure out their show’s end and aim for it. I notice that shows with end dates built into their arcs regardless of their popularity, like Babylon 5, tend to be tighter shows.

Since we are Racialicious, let’s get right into the show’s characterizations of race and racism, starting with the Irish. They are definitely stereotyped, but can we also say that they are “raced”?

Tami: The Irish clearly stand as “the other” on Downton (along with everyone else who is not a WASP blue blood). What isn’t as clear is whether Julian Fellowes–who is a Baron on the Conservative bench in the House of Lords, dontcha know–finds the bigotry of the upper classes proper or not. While the most conservative inhabitants of Downton–arguably Carson and Lord Grantham–have gotten the “wrong end of history” edit, he also served up Tom Branson’s brother, Kieran, an angry Irish stereotype who seemed to confirm some truth behind the Crawley biases.

Mad Men, I think, does this better. For instance, the show was frank about characters’ bigotry when Sterling Cooper took on work for Menken’s, a department store owned by a Jewish family. It did not then present Rachel Menken as a stereotyped Jewish woman. Ditto for its treatment of people of color.

I wonder if we can put this down to the fact that Downton’s writer and showrunner (Fellowes) is a member of the privileged class he is portraying, while Matt Weiner, in the 50s and 60s would have been a definite “other,” because of his Jewish heritage.

Andrea: Hmmm…but I also know that folks get deeeeeeep in their feelings about Weiner pushing people of color, specifically Black people, to the margins (while he completely erases other PoCs) in his vision of the 50s and 60s when the history of that time states that the Civil Rights Movement  increasingly moved into the popular consciousness and conversations right about this time. So, the critics figure, there should be, at least, more Black people on Mad Men increasingly, if not regularly–and not just a Black woman who either disappears after a couple of episodes (e.g. Lane’s Black Playboy Bunny mistress) or a couple of seasons (Carla, the Drapers’ maid). So, the accusation could easily be that though Weiner may be cognizant, if not sensitive, to the characterization of some marginalized people, he’s not quite as much with others.

The rub about that is, according to the folks who lived during that time, Mad Men isn’t that far off as far as showing how marginalized people occupied social spaces overall during that period. So, yes, white non-Jewish women moved and grooved in a certain way (Betty, Joan, and Peggy, for example); gay men like Sal moved and grooved a certain way; upper-class Jewish women like Rachel moved and grooved a certain way.

And Black people moved through this particular time and space a certain way in this particular part of US society: so, yes, we may have owned our own advertising agencies in NYC at that time, but more than likely that agency may not have interacted with a place like Sterling Cooper Draper Price (that “old (white) boys’ club” was a far tighter scene than it is now). Yes, though the woman who created the Playboy Club costume is Black, that may not have translated into the club hiring Black women commensurate to the population, which tends to be a goal of the “diversity hiring” that we think of today, even though Hugh Hefner did hire Black women for his club back in the 60s. So, our seeing an African-American Playboy Bunny–that particular woman at that point in time in that particular place–wouldn’t be that unusual. (Someone had to be a “first,” right?) In fact, I’d argue that Lane’s introducing her to his dad would be a rarer situation that her working there.

In the overarching interpersonal relations, when Black people interacted consistently with white people during that time period–even in NYC, even with the pockets of integration in that city and around the US, and when it was not in the subaltern worlds of jazz clubs and dance halls or illegal/illicit situations, like white men driving through Black neighborhoods expressly looking for willing Black women to have sex with or unwilling Black women to sexual violate–it was, according to those Black people who lived during that time, in terms of service and support positions: Black women working as maids like Carla (and even at that, that work situation was fraught with sexual/physical/economic dangers, like male employers sexually harassing them and the “lady of the house” firing them at will and with impunity), servers, and eventually secretaries and Black men as, say, elevator operators.

You know Harry's dying to tell Dawn about his Black girlfriend.
You know Harry’s dying to tell Dawn about his Black ex-girlfriend.

Not that we Black folks didn’t live these incredible, active, advocating business, professional, and personal lives (think of the PBS classic I’ll Fly Away, which centers on the life of a Black maid living in the South who eventually becomes a writer), but our lives didn’t become an unavoidable visible force of humanity to be reckoned with in larger contemporary public conversations until about the mid- to late 60s–and, as seen on Mad Men, that reckoning is still mediated a certain way in this “white” world, like the drips and drabs of seeing us and our struggles on that show, like seeing the small march outside of the firm to the hiring “hoax” to Don Draper hiring Dawn as the first Black executive secretary, even as we’re referred to, as with Peter Campbell suggesting that one of clients market their products to the lucrative “Negro market” and Harry Crane leaving with his Black girlfriend for the Freedom Rides in the South. And, even though I think that Don and new wife Megan may not be together after this season, I really can’t imagine him having an affair with–let alone marrying–Dawn.

Tami: You know, I gave Weiner and his positioning of characters of color a pass in the early days of the show. I actually wrote a piece for in support of the show’s treatment of race. I said:

It is true that Matt Weiner’s award-winning AMC show is short on significant characters of color, but that doesn’t mean that the issue of race is absent. It is there when a cocky ad man corners a black elevator operator and pumps him for information on what TV sets “Negroes” like. It is there in an appalling black face performance at a garden party. It is there when a pampered housewife tsk tsks to her black maid, “Maybe it’s just not time for equal rights,” or some such. It is there in the ad agency’s easy acceptance of a client that “refuses to hire Negroes” in the South. It is there when white men use black women as pawns to bolster their bohemian cred or work out their daddy issues. It is there in the unyielding whiteness and casual racism of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office.

 The very absence of people of color in the main narrative of this show speaks volumes. To be clear, Mad Men is not about the mid-20th century. If it was, the show would deserve criticism for not making race a driving issue. But Mad Men is about Don Draper and the people in his orbit — middle- to upper-class white Americans living and working around Manhattan in the late 50s to mid-60s. For these people, race and racism are largely invisible, until and unless the struggle for equality impinges upon their privilege. Read more…

Now, that said, the show’s universe is moving toward 1970, which means Mad Men needs to reflect the changing times (and not just with the creative use of sideburns and Priscilla Presley bouffants). I think Weiner’s treatment of Dawn last season was a missed opportunity. She presents an obvious window–one that fits the narrative–into the lives of black people in this era.

Andrea: Hey, Weiner may still pick up Dawn’s story thread this season. We’ll see…and you know our pinkies will definitely be up if he doesn’t.

Let me get back to Downton Abbey and Fellowes’ representations of Irish people. I’ll be honest: I about died when I watched the parade of stereotypes, from the stay-conniving Mrs. O’Brien to not-too-bright Daisy to the coarse Mrs. Patmore to the belligerent Branson brothers and, to some extent, Anna Bates, who I can hear Fellowes condescendingly call “a clever girl.” Yep, I think Tom’s brother Kieran is more crassly drawn, but Tom is also characterized as a hot-tempered Irishman “tamed” by his marriage to Sybil Crawley and his subsequent and reluctant easing into the Crawleys’ family life and its attendant privileges, like being served by the same people he used to work with (thanks, in part, to Mrs. Hughes’ pep talk of not being shamed out of his new status). I think, Tami, your not seeing Fellowes’ writing about the “properness” of anti-Irish bigotry may stem from his probably feeling ambivalent about its properness–it’s not morally right, but it has its “proper” place in the caste system on which his baronship is built, if that makes any sense. So, I don’t think he’s going to examine that privilege any deeper than what he’s doing, to be honest.

And let’s not forget how non-Irish people are stereotyped on Downton–and by the show’s fave, the Dowager Countess. She casually called Mary’s lover, the son of a Turkish minister, a “mook” and said that that USians “live in wigwams until [we’re] ready to go to school”…

Tami: These are the little moments that make me cringe in period series–not because the racism isn’t real, but because it’s often put in the mouths of witty, beloved characters and, thus, (sadly) softened. (See also: Mad Men’s Roger Sterling.)

Roger Sterling demonstrating
Roger Sterling demonstrating his…um…charms.

Kemal Pamuk was very much written as the dark and dangerous foreigner–and while I know that this is likely how the inhabitants of Downton might have viewed him–the narrative essentially confirms their biases by drawing him as nefarious, highly sexed and aggressive, intent on sullying a chaste English flower with his dusky charms.

Andrea: But when we first meet Mr. Pamuk, Thomas, Mary, Anna, and a couple of the other women servants look at him like sexual (white-appearing) chocolate. (Personally, I think the actor who plays Pamuk reminds me of a milquetoasty version of actor Billy Zane.)

Tami: Aw, come on: He was the closest this show has gotten to serving up eye candy!

Andrea: Sis, you know you’re my gurl and a bag of pearls. That man just does nothing for me.

Is it problematic that so many modern TV viewers want the Dowager Countess as a “homegirl”?

But back to ol’ dude: I shook my head when I saw Pamuk practically twirling his mustache when he blackmailed Thomas Barrow into helping him gain access to Mary’s bedroom.

I also gave direct side-eye to the seduction itself, with his using the compromising situation of his being in Mary’s room to blackmail her into having sex with him. (Shades of John Malkovich violating Uma Thurman with the pressure of blackmail over giving him the key to her room in Dangerous Liaisons.) Mary does consent, but Pamuk’s sketchy-ass way in getting that consent…it may be the stuff of historical romance novels, but I bitch-lipped this whole scene. That Pamuk presented as the “foreigner” who can’t come correct sexually with Mary just made me grit my teeth.

As for Dowager Countess’ racist comments: I so agree with you, Tami. My eyebrow is still raised by her dismissive comment about USians “living in wigwams until we go to school”–she took it all the way there with her using the stereotype of indigenous people as the vector to land her insult about USians. It’s also interesting (and by “interesting” I mean, “completely fucked up”) that she also says that whenever there’s a fight, it “always involves an American.” So, in her mind, USians are not only always raring for a fight, but our belligerence is “raced” to be like indigenous folks. However, some folks will “apologize” for her racism with the soft haze of, “you know, Incorrigible Grandma and all.” No, I don’t know. Really.

And, hold on…we finally see Black people in Season 3! They were in the jazz band and served to underline what a  wild child white girl Cousin Rose is, and…yeah. o_O

Andrea: I know this was your “oh, HELL, naw” moment with Julian Fellowes, Tami. I almost laughed with disbelief when I saw the jazz band because I thought, “This is how you introduced Black folks into Downton Abbey? To quote David Bowie, oh no, Julian…

But this goes back to my earlier comment about how Black people moved and grooved in the popular mind and in reality in regards to social spaces at certain historical points. I’m not sure quite how racial segregation worked in Britain, but this is the Jazz Age, the Age of the New Negro (a.k.a. The Harlem Renaissance), and the Age of Young Adults which translates into some young white people and liberal older white folks “encountering” Black people in the “disreputable” places of the jazz clubs, like the Cotton Club, and those in Europe (I’m thinking Britain had quite a few). Though frequenting jazz clubs cast a certain “race-mixing” taboo for the white person who did it, it also gave that white person a certain “hepness” factor. That’s why, as much as I hated the triteness of the Black jazz musicians and the jazz club to frame the extent of Rose’s youthful defiance, I get it on a socio-historical tip.

Tami: I get it, too. But the use of dancing and/or music-playing black folks as a shorthand for forbidden hipness is such a worn trope that no self-respecting writer should use it. Ever.

Now Downton is “looking” for a Black actor for next season. According to several outlets (we’re quoting The Grio here):

The role as Ross was described as, “Male, 25-30. A musician (singer) at an exclusive club in the 20s.  He’s black and very handsome. A real man (not a boy) with charm and charisma.”

 In addition, the actor to play Ross; “should be a very attractive man with a certain wow factor.”

Damn, that’s an order, considering that nobody on the show remotely has to be all that, starting off with being easy on the eyes. (/snark) But it’s not like there aren’t many Black actors who don’t fit the bill. Anyway…Tami, you said this isn’t going to end well?

Tami: I have not a lick of trust in Julian Fellowes. A jazz musician in Europe is certainly not an anachronism (Big ups to My English Friend™, Sparky, for reminding me of that), but I can’t shake the feeling that he will be in Julian Fellowes’ hands. Like Jack Ross [the Black character’s name] is going to be caught in flagrante delicto with the Dowager Countess. Recall Tom Branson’s stereotypical “fighting Irish” brother in this season’s show? Or Shirley Maclaine’s barking, pushy American? No. No. I’m giving Julian Fellowes permission to erase black folks, because I fear the alternative is triggering or tokenism.

Andrea: LOLOLOLOL! Do we even know who the (un)lucky actor is yet?

At least Fellowes is answering my plea for handsome dudes on the show because this is a rag-tag bunch of average-looking menz on Downton Abbey. And I guess the Black guy won’t be carrying the burden of handsome by himself: Mary is getting a dashing-looking someone, too. I think the jazz musician should start dating Thomas.

Let’s talk about how Julian Fellowes and his creative crew construct Thomas Barrows, the show’s only queer, specifically gay male, character. Are we are a pop-cultural point where such mustache- twirlingly (thanks for that, Tami!) duplicitous behavior–and let’s not forget how the footman pretty much said in Season 3 that Thomas’ affections, which he expressed by touching the footman, creeped the him out–can be embodied in a gay character and not have it be viewed as a stereotype of gay men? And how does Thomas rescuing that same footman from a beating by taking it himself change that characterization, if it does?

Tami: As my dear friends, Renee and Sparky, would say: The character of Thomas strikes me as a ploy for “inclusion cookies,” i.e. credit for including a marginalized character, despite not doing anything to really illustrate that character’s experience as a marginalized person. Over three seasons, Fellowes has written some of the most tired stereotypes of gay men. Thomas has been the amoral villain and framed as a sexual predator–even though the narrative was clear that Thomas thought his affections were desired. (Grrrr, O’Brien!)

At the same time, the revelation of Thomas’ sexuality was handled in a way that minimized conditions for gay people in England in the early 1900s. Lord Grantham nearly burst into a chorus of “Born This Way” upon learning the news.

I think Mad Men’s handling of Sal was more honest. When Sal, a closeted gay man, was harassed by a client, who discovered his secret, and then was fired, I kept waiting for Matt Weiner to twist the story to keep this main character, but he didn’t, because there is no way a Madison Avenue agency would have lost a major client to protect the humanity of one gay man in the 1950s. It was awful. But it was true. Like Roger Sterling wearing blackface was true. Whitewashing the history of marginalized people is dangerous.

Andrea: I’m really starting to think that Robert Crawley is really the idealized version of Fellowes himself. Fellowes puts into Robert’s mouth what he can’t say in real life. So, he may be ambivalent about the Irish, but he’s up with same-gender loving (SGL) people.

But the way Fellowes himself shows how up he is with SGL people had me cocking my head to the side. As you pointed out, Tami, Thomas expresses his sexual identity most directly through sexual harassment, not only with Jimmy this past season, but also with Pamuk in the first season. And Thomas is ri-dic-u-lous-ly treacherous, which was (and still is) another stereotype of gay people, pretty much until the last few episodes of the last season, when Thomas takes a beating for the man who essentially got him fired and, because of it, left him homeless. I’m just wondering if the character of Thomas could have been reconfigured where he could be flawed without falling back on stereotypes…

What I do think is spot-on is Thomas talking about how he courts, that he has to rely on non-verbal cues to figure out if a man is mutually interested. From what I understand about queer history at that time, courting and dating were very coded activities, from certain phrases to placement, color, and kind of flower(s) for boutonnières to the colors of pocket kerchiefs due to the overt homophobia at that time.

Now, is Robert and most of the household accepting Thomas’ sexual identity really that anachronistic? Yes–and no. Though images and conversations about cisLBGQ didn’t start settling into mainstream US popular culture and discourses until at least the 1980s and for trans* people until about the 1990s, there was progressive-for-its-time recognition regarding cisLBG and trans* people back in the early 20th century with sexologist Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversions and less so with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well Of Loneliness. So, as weird as Robert’s speech and the reactions of the rest of the staff may have been because of the more overt homophobia practiced in that time period–remember, about a decade later Adolf Hitler sent 50,000 gay men to concentration camps and executed many of them (and he was aiming for 1 million of them)–maybe on this quite a few of the Downton Abbey occupants aren’t too far off.

Every little thing they do is feminist. (/sarcasm)
Every little thing they do is feminist. (/sarcasm)

Shall we talk about the gender dynamics happening on Downton Abbey? This is very much about the major shifts in gender roles for middle- and upper-class white women–e.g. Edith getting a columnist job at the newspaper, Sybil shedding her title for the common married title of “Mrs.”, Sybil asking the women on the kitchen staff to teach her how to cook to improve her nursing skills, Mrs. Crawley’s directing the hospital/household staff during the war–which really doesn’t trickle down to the women in the kitchen staff. Seeing parallels to today’s arguments within feminism, such as with the “Mommy Wars,” but where are your heads at on this question?

Andrea: I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by this, but Fellowes doesn’t frame Gwen leaving her household position to become a secretary, even with the help of very pro-woman Sybil Crawley, as a shift towards women moving into the workplace, but her individual decision to professionally “moving up.” However, just about everything the Crawley ladies do is seen as part of bending the historical arc toward “women’s rights,” as their individual decisions are cast in the larger bend of women gaining the right to vote. Again, we have a case of middle- and upper-class white women doing things that seem revolutionary to their groups, but really aren’t to other groups of women, such as working outside the home. However, their actions/activities are viewed as feminist forwards for all of womankind. We see this occur again and again within feminism–including around the idea of work. It’s their revolutionary truths, no doubt, and I understand the joy of the victories. But Fellowes can miss me with the idea that their revolutions equates to The Revolution. Gwen becoming a secretary, to me, moves feminism forward just as Dawn becoming the first Black secretary at Sterling Copper Draper Price moves feminism and Civil Rights forward.

Tami: Yes, for sure, a certain type of women’s liberation is centered on Downton. I do give props to Fellowes for demonstrating how female sexuality was penalized in the early 1900s (and still today, but that’s another story). We have the controversy caused by Mary and Pamuk, but also Ethel–a woman turned out of “respectable” society for daring to have sex and become pregnant, even as the upper-class father of her child was left blameless.

I also like that the show demonstrates the ways that Isobel’s middle-class activism can be condescending and naive to other women. See the sex workers’ bemusement at her attempts to “save” them or Isobel’s insistence that all Ethel’s Baby Charlie needs is “a mother’s love” in contrast to Ethel and Mrs. Hughes’ understanding–as women of lower classes–that one needs much more than that to survive in a classist society.

Let’s move the conversation to the idea of Masterpiece existing unto itself. One person commented that the music to Downton Abbey sounds an awful lot like the music used in Twilight. What fantasies/communities/interests/histories are we indulging in when we’re watching Masterpiece’s costume dramas?

Tami: It’s the fantasy of a past that was somehow better than today. It’s the fantasy of privilege. I think a lot of Americans, when watching Downton, imagine themselves as part of the Crawley family–not part of the downstairs staff. It’s upstairs that people find so glamorous, after all. It’s Matthew and Mary that keep people watching, not Daisy and Molesley. (Just as most folks aren’t checking for Carla the maid on Mad Men.) The reality is that the life of English nobility was only lived by a few and most of the people that love this show would have been Mrs. Patmore or Ethel or Thomas or Jimmy, if they were lucky.

I could be wrong, but I think these fantasies are not ones that marginalized people can indulge in as easily. I think we have a different relationship with shows like this. There is nothing in my experience as a black woman that allows me to fantasize that I would be Lady So-and-So or even Betty Draper.

It reminds me of a young white co-worker, years and years ago, who was reading Gone with the Wind and asked me “Wouldn’t it be cool to live back then?” Um…hell no! That kind of fantasy is inaccessible to me, given my people’s history. But, quiet as it’s kept, my colleague likely wouldn’t have been living like Scarlett O’Hara. Most white women didn’t. Hell, Scarlett O’Hara didn’t even live like Scarlett O’Hara. The life of a plantation wife wasn’t particularly enviable, but more enviable than being a dirt farmer or enslaved African. But whitewashed period drama make these fantasies easier.

Andrea: I agree that marginalized people–in this case, people of color–may not be able to engage costume dramas in the same way due to our histories. Even with the Jazz Age also being the Age of the New Negro, for example, Black people still were not allowed to go through the front doors of the Cotton Club. Hugh Hefner integrating the Playboy Club was still an unusual move back in 1960. Even as much as I love watching Elizabeth and found solace in her struggles as a woman ruler when I was president of my student organization while I was in grad school, I had the sad realization that the British slave trade started under her rule. Watching Mira Nair’s Vanity Fairand I love me some Nair–and its casual conversations about traveling to India reminds me of not only of Britain ruling that nation, but also the Orientalist vision its upper-class English inhabitants (and those striving to get there, like the story’s main character, Becky Sharp) had of that nation and Egypt, another country Britain colonized.

But there’s something else going on here with this identification that I want to parse out: it’s not just the identification with the upper classes that I think draws some people costume dramas, particularly the British ones that have been Masterpiece’s backbone programming. It’s the the cachet (even if it’s a self-bestowed cachet) of USians understanding and even loving something “not American,” of understanding this “exotic” form of pop culture, of getting past the “funny” accents and “odd” costumes or–gasp!–reading subtitles to not only understand but actually enjoy these shows and films. But I see this patina of “countercultural cool” given to visual and musical forms from  Western Europe (Downton Abbey, Pedro Almodovar films) and Asia (Bollywood, J-horror, anime, K-pop) but not, say, telenovas or Nollywood flicks. I find that schema of USian “cultural embrace” quite curious…

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  • Neville Ross

    From my viewpoint, the appeal of the show is that, in a universe full of police procedurals and reality TV, it’s a scripted show with characters doing something other than solving crimes and backstabbing one another in an attempt to get off the island/be the last person standing/whatever people do on these reality TV shows. It’s the kind of show you used to see on network TV a lot, too (in the USA), and people aren’t getting it here, so they watch Downton Abbey for something out of the ordinary.

  • Chardine Taylor-Stone

    Hey, as a Black Brit I have to say our entire empire was built on the slave trade just the British made sure we stayed far away in the Caribbean. This is the only reason the black population is small in Britain. There was no need for Jim Crow and such here because there were not enough of us here. However in West Indies places were segregated by stealth ( this continued in Britain way into the 1950s) With street signs that would say ‘no Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs,’ . This entire country was built on the slave trade. Even today there are many people in the U.K who have never met a black person before! xx

    • Londoner

      (From another Black Brit) There has actually been an African presence in the UK since the Romans 2,000 years ago, in small numbers on and off. (This was how the Black Guinevere in the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ explained her ancestry – her people came over with the Roman legions). By the time of the Elizabethan era there were enough black people in our major cities for Queen Elizabeth I to complain that there were too many Africans in England (presumably, not including her African god-daughter Sara Bonetta.) Certainly from the Victorian and Edwardian eras we see the emergence of a consistent black community in the major port cities (London, Bristol, Liverpool..) The Black English characters in Dancing on the Edge are a part of this (they were from Jamaican immigrant parents in the East End of London). The final episode (‘Interviewing Louis’) went into their backgrounds in much more detail. I know the Black Cultural Archives have heirlooms and documentation of Black British families who have been in the UK continuously since the Edwardian era.

      So, yes, up until WW2, our population was smaller, but has grown significantly since post war immigration. It is entirely likely that the Granthams of Downton Abbey would not encounter any Black people in their village, but a trip to certain parts of London – or indeed the bustling nightlife of the city – would certainly introduce them to people from all over the empire, particularly those of African decent. So I wouldn’t call it tokenism, myself, if this is the route they go down.

      (Also – the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were generally placed by landlords in the windows of their properties and in certain pubs, not on street signs.. Britain never had legal segregation, but racist individuals could impose segregation through this unofficial ‘colour bar.’ Incidentally, there was a notorious Victorian-era Black pub in Seven Dials in Coven Garden, London which imposed a reverse colour bar, banning white people from the establishment…)

    • Brownbelle

      Thanks for that addition. I definitely agree with you! When I said the British slave trade wasn’t as entrenched, I was thinking of the number of slaves who were physically in the country. Economically, they were probably more invested than the U.S. was, and could afford to abolish slavery when they did because they still taxed their Caribbean colonies.

  • happyappa

    “I love historical films and I’m so sick
    of all these kinds of Jane Austen movies where they have these fucking
    period movies. How many times do we have to remake fucking Pride and
    Prejudice? How many times do white people need their history told to
    them over and over and over again? It’s so fucking boring. It’s always
    the same. There are enough movies like that. There are enough
    examinations of white people history. There’s enough of all these
    novels, all the Bronte sisters, all the fucking Jane Austen bullshit — I
    don’t care anymore. I’m sick of it. Why can’t we go into other people’s
    history? Why can’t we go into more Asian history? Why can’t we go into
    more Asian-American history? Why can’t we go into more Latin-American
    history? Why can’t we do any of these things? But they don’t. We have to
    keep regurgitating Old England. It’s so racist, and nobody actually
    comes out and says this is fucking stupid.” — Margaret Cho

    • Michelle Kirkwood


      Thank you for the Cho quote,because that’s EXACTLY how I feel about Downton Abbey in and particular–hell, all it is is just a an updated reboot of UPSTAIRS,DOWNSTAIRS to begin. I’ve wondered why they can’t have a mini-series about,say, black folks in 19th century Britain dealing with predjudice (there was actually 2 or 3-part miniseries called SMALL ISLAND in 2010, which was about the lives of black Caribbean immigrants to Britain during and after World War II–starring David Oyelewo (of RED TAILS fame) and Naomie Harris (of SKYFALL fame) as a couple trying to make their way in what they find is a more difficult and racist Britain that they were never really prepared for in the first place–wonder how come something like that wasn’t considered worth expanding to a full season,instead of another boring damn season of Monsieur Pierrot, or whatever the hell that detective show is called, because SMALL ISLAND was not only good, but it covered a part of not-so-nice British history that is rarely shown on U.S. TV to begin with.

      I basically got sick of all the DA hype, and I’m glad it’s off for right now—I’ve been watching Mr. Selfridge (only because Jeremy Piven, whom I’ve always liked with his crazy off-the-wall self, stars in it) and Call the Midwife, another series about midwives in late ’50’s London (incidently,the show’s about to introduce its first black character in next week’s episode) and The Bletchley Circle, an intrieging whodunit about former-spies-turned-housewives using their code-breaking skills to track down a serial killer in ’50’s Britain.

      But,yeah, I’m sick of shows like DA, as if the lives & loves of British upper middle class white people is the only “foreign” history worth making a damn miniseries about. I’ve seen that so many damn times before, that I’m past sick & tired of that s***, because it’s been played the hell out, and it’s basically just white supremacy being served up as an easy-to-swallow-down pill for the masses again ,that’s all–it’s just disgusting,especially since the show itself obviously dosen’t invite any kind of critique of the class/race issues around it–but then,it’s co-written by a 1-percenter,anyway,so that’s to be expected.

  • Natalie Daniels

    Great post. I’m very curious to see how Downton handles this new character. Can’t say I’m particularly hopeful. I could be wrong but I don’t think Harry ever had a black girlfriend. The dearly missed Paul Kinsey, however, did. I think Harry has been married (and not cheating?) the entire show.

    • AndreaPlaid

      Egad! You’re right about Harry not having a Black girlfriend–I totally forgot about Paul. But Harry did cheat on his wife with the woman from the Krisha group that he was trying to extract his friend from.

  • littleeva

    I love this and I’d love it if you all talked about “Ripper Street” that was recently on BBC America.

    However I have to say that this comment, “There is nothing in my experience as a black woman that allows me to fantasize that I would be Lady So-and-So or even Betty Draper” isn’t 100% true. I am in my early 50’s and my mom and her friends (all black women) stayed home while their husbands worked, so Betty Draper was a reality for me until the late 70’s when my sociology professor told all of us women that most of us probably would have to work outside the home, we were all shocked and upset.

    • whattamisaid

      Oh, most certainly there were black stay-at-home wives in the 50s and 60s. My grandmother was one. I was not speaking particularly of her not working outside the home, but of her class and racial privilege. She is the child of wealth; married to a top executive; she is a visual representation of American beauty. She has always been, as her father put it, “a house cat,” pampered and cared for. There were not many black women who were SAHMs in the WAY that Betty Draper is.

  • Zahra

    Great piece!

    I’d love to see Racialicious take on some British period drama that actually includes people of color in prominent roles, like Dancing on the Edge. I thought that show did some interesting and understated things with lighter-skinned black characters (Louis & Jessie) who knew they were being received differently from their darker-skinned friends (Wesley & Carla), but were working hard to maintain solidarity nonetheless. And of course it takes a more overt look at racism (including fetishism) among whites.