I am hooked on Downton Abbey. It’s a British television series that follows noble family, and their servants, who struggle to navigate the changing norms of society during the early 1900’s. Not only is this series remarkably entertaining because of its plot twists and seemingly endless drama, it is also an unexpected feminist pleasure. Downton Abbey explores gendered expectations, role reversal, and female empowerment during an era where men were given all the cards to hold, but women determined how they were played.
The desire to rise above one’s station is a commonly examined theme in Downtown Abbey and depicts the role reversals present in the show. While the men downstairs seem content to be in service, the female servants constantly question their agency and look for other opportunities in pursuit of independence and greater self-worth. Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, contemplates becoming a farmer’s wife; Gwen, a maid in Season 1, leaves Downton to become a secretary; Anna, a lady’s maid, marries Lord Grantham’s valet and talks about possibly opening a small inn; Ethel, a maid in Season 2, dreams of being something more and hopes that an affair with an officer will take her to new heights. In matters of the heart, the downstairs women are not afraid of calling the shots. Daisy, a kitchen maid, resists being forced into marrying a footman; Mrs. Hughes turns down an old boyfriend who tries to wife her up; Anna insists on marrying Bates despite the recent suicide of his wife. You can almost feel these women’s ambition emanating off the TV screen.
Upstairs, the women are just as willful in both life and love. The three Crawley sisters are especially determined in their respective battles the test of fate. Youngest daughter, Sybil, trains to be a nurse because she wants to do something meaningful during the war. She also becomes a huge supporter of the suffrage movement in Great Britain, and tops her feminist-flavored ice-cream sundae with a huge cherry when she marries the Grantham’s chauffeur, Tom Branson. Unconcerned with class distinctions, Sybil risks everything to leave her life, of irresponsible privilege, behind and moves to Ireland with Tom. Middle daughter, Edith, takes it upon herself to learn how to drive and almost has an affair with a lowly local farmer (yet another example of a Crawley sister testing the limits of a strict class hierarchy.) Later in the series, Edith gets left at the altar but doesn’t allow herself to sulk in bed for too long before she picks herself up and becomes a published columnist. She writes in support about ideals of the suffragist movement. Mary, the eldest Crawley sister, is the champion of Downton Abbey. She is a fighter and rebels against societal norms at every turn. Mary overthrows all aspects of tradition, duty, and gendered expectations when she gives her virginity to a Turkish diplomat in Season 1.
While Edith and Sybil express interest in women’s rights in a more political nature, every major female character is a feminist in her own way. None are content to remain within the restraints established by society during that time period, and all of them try to loosen the bounds around their wrists at every chance they get.
Although these examples of female empowerment seem trivial to feminists today, we can’t overlook the extreme level of rebellious behavior that these women displayed when we consider the culture they were living in. The actions of the Downton women are comparable to a woman that goes bra-less, refuses to shave her armpits or legs, fully commits to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and unequivocally supports contraception. I love Downton Abbey because it is amazing to watch opportunities for women unfold all around them. It is awesome to watch as the characters of this show, within their small soap opera scenarios, tear down barriers of class, gender, and sexual orientation. I also love watching Maggie Smith (actress that plays Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter) own everyone with her sarcastic zingers…her one-liners make me feel bubbly inside. Above all, I love Downton Abbey because it reminds us that change—especially for women—is good.