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The Help at Downton Abbey

America is going nuts for Downton Abbey (DA) and its soap opera portrayal of life upstairs and downstairs. Thanks to Amazon UK, and a multi region DVD player, I am ahead of the curve and have seen all of season two. And it is insufferable.

If DA is to be believed, the domestic class of servants in pre and post WW1 England was thrilled to be in servitude. Whether it was worrying about the love life of the spoiled, narcissistic oldest daughter, or voluntarily staying up all night to tend to the sick mistress of the house, the servants at DA are depicted as obsessed with the well being of the rich and preserving appearances and status.   The rich, of course, couldn’t give a shit for the poor, but then there were many more where they came from.

The writer of DA is Julian Fellowes, AKA Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, AKA Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, AKA a Conservative Peer.  Steeped in right wing ideology, DA minimizes the seething class tensions and rage that existed just below the surface in early twentieth century England, and instead depicts a cast of servants that have a bad dose of false class consciousness.

If DA was real, then we would never have had unions or strikes, or any organizing because the workers wouldn’t have wanted to upset their beloved and benign bosses.

One particularly annoying example is when the poor Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), suffering from low self esteem because he has been rejected by the army, seeks solace in the arms of Jane (Clare Calbraith), a war widow who is reduced to working as a maid in his house. Jane is only too happy to oblige, not because she is poor and needs the job to survive, but because she really feels bad for the Earl, and wants to make him happy.

When it is clear that her presence might cause some problems for the Earl, she is only too happy to give in her notice. The Earl, being a benevolent sexual harasser, gives Jane some money as a parting gift, but Jane, who could really use some Marxist feminist analysis, protests that he doesn’t have to be so kind because he doesn’t owe her anything!

DA is a lot like the hit movie The Help. Both buy into the conceit of the privileged that the people paid to take care of them really do care for them, and the pay is just an added bonus for doing something they love.  In The Help, the black maids were more concerned with the well being of white babies than with civil rights for their own babies.

In the book and the movie, the black women are angry, but they have no political consciousness since their anger is at individuals who are caricatured racists, rather than the system of racism that was embedded in all the major institutions. Anyone familiar with the history of the civil rights movement knows that this is a gross misrepresentation of the time since blacks had an extremely sophisticated understanding of the way power worked on the macro level.

The author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, was sued by Ablene Cooper, a woman who worked as a maid for her brother, for using her name (the main black character in The Help is Aibileen), and likeness without permission. Stockett’s book is a best seller, and the movie was a hit so we can safely assume that this woman is not short of a dollar or two. The lawsuit asked for a puny $75,000 in damages, and what did multi-millionaire Stockett do? She paid for a team of lawyers and got the suit thrown out.

I have just returned from my own little Downton Abbey since I spent the first week of the New Year on a cruise ship. Having to meet some family obligation, my partner and I were thrown into a situation where people working in sweat shop conditions are not safely tucked away in some developing country. On the ship the cabin stewards, waiters and kitchen staff worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week for nine and a half months. They get two and a half months off (unpaid) to visit family back in the Philippines and Indonesia. They make between $7-9,000 a year, and sleep in a cabin half the size of mine with three others. They are on call 24 hours a day in case, god forbid, a passenger has a need that can’t be met in the 13 hours they are actually paid to work.

The New York Times ran a story after the season premier of DA saying that it is so successful in the US, that there is a rush to develop similar shows. I am thinking of making a pitch to a Hollywood studio for a show called Occupy DA. Here the servants are raging lefties who spit in the food, join unions and overthrow the tyranny of capitalism. I wonder if they will show this on Masterpiece Theater.

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press)


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