“Downton Abbey Continues Its Sadistic Streak Against Women” is the title of an article in Slate Magazine by June Thomas, and I’m afraid it annoyed me. Perhaps I’m not qualified to comment, as I haven’t seen the latest episodes of that TV series. In fact, I stopped watching about halfway through the second season.
But I wonder if the reason for the trauma of Downton Abbey women is perhaps this:
Almost every culture throughout history has been stacked against women. One could argue that the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, is just telling it as it was (taking into consideration that any drama is going to up the trauma beyond the norms of most normal lives, for both men and women).
Life was often particularly nasty to those women who didn’t conform, and to women who were the first to step away from cultural restrictions. If they were backed
by money, or possessed power in their own right, or were protected by
the power of the men in their life, they could get away with it.
Otherwise? There were unpleasant consequences.
Portraying women in fiction as perpetual victims is annoying, especially if they are always being saved by a man–but we can also go too far if we are critical because fictional women have a tough time. I don’t want to see writers making women too powerful and confident to fit their culture and upbringing and influences. I don’t want to see writers making the repercussions of rebellion too mild for their historical or cultural setting. I don’t want to see writers glossing over how tough it was to be female, how careful you had to be, and how painful if you were unlucky.
June Thomas ends with these words:
A woman loses a baby, sister, daughter, or husband, or is humiliated in
front of her family and friends, and we get to watch them recover.
Raping a beloved character is just latest of the show’s experiments in
Er, what? When a woman loses a loved one, isn’t someone else usually just as traumatised by the death, like…a husband or a father by the death of a child? And when a husband dies…um, isn’t he a man? He just lost his life …and nothing bad happened to that character? And if a woman is raped–well, you know what? It still happens!
It seems to me that when we underplay the traumatic events in the lives of women, we are ignoring historical (or present day) truths. Where we as writers can excel is in showing how strong women can be when confronted with trauma. We can portray our fictional women characters as survivors and heroes. But if we downplay the kind of horrors that happen to fictional women simply because they are women, then we are pretending something that’s not true in the real world.
Historically women do have it harder. In many, many parts of the world, even in our own societies, they still do. Let’s not gloss over it.