How Feminist And LGBT Themes Shaped ‘Downton Abbey’

With Downton Abbey in the middle of filming its final run of episodes, the creators and some of the stars traveled to Los Angeles over the weekend to attend a panel discussion that gave fans a short glimpse of the upcoming sixth season, and a chance to discuss the show’s recent season. Held at the Writer’s Guid Theater in Beverly Hills, Series creator, executive producer and writer Julian Fellowes, Executive Producer Gareth Neame, and stars Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, and Laura Carmichael were in attendence.

The panel touched on a number of topics, from the way Dan Stevens’ departure at the end of season three impacted the writing, to working with Maggie Smith, and the way the show itself came together after the production of Gosford Park. But the discussion touched in interesting ways on how Downtown Abbey explores social themes. The show is known for its soap opera tribulations, its broad strokes look at old style British aristocracy, and somewhat Tory-tinted view of class divisions during the 1910s and 20s – this makes much sense, given that Fellowes is a conservative member of the House of Lords. But despite what one might expect, at least from an American perspective, given Fellowes’ political affiliation, and whether or not he’d characterize it as such, as Fellowes explained during the panel, the show’s outlook could be described as decidedly feminist.

First explaining his interest in depicting the emotional lives of characters across all ages – “I like that… pretty well every human being has an emotional life going on on some level or another”  – he talked frankly about how Hollywood tends to treat people who age, particularly women. “In movieland, everyone stops being a sexual being at about 32, at least for women,” Fellowes said. “[And yet] the men are allowed to go on until they’re 78, I’ve never worked that out. In my world, on the whole older people have emotions like anyone else, and I think the show demonstrates that.”

He went further into this theme later in the conversation when talking about the 5 seasons-long journey of the character Edith, who as viewers know has in recent seasons endured an unwanted pregnancy and the arduous task of keeping her child a secret. Fellowes used it as a symbol of the status of women until very recent history. “[O]ne of the points of that is that women, until really the 60s in a way, were having to live in this endless expectation world of their behavior. They have to do this, they have to do that, how to not cross their legs, how to not do this, and the further you go back, the more that is true. Now obviously women were just as clever and ambitious as they are today, but they had to re-route it all the time. Unless they were prepared to be break-aways and go off into some artistic community in Wales, they had to somehow find a way of negotiating their way through the customs of their own time, in order to achieve a life they wanted to live.”

He continued:

The difficulty in modern drama is if a young woman is living with her family and she’d rather go to New York, [then] go to New York, there’s no problem… Because the customs of our day would allow that, there’s no price to pay, there’d be no social price. It’s totally different in the time of Downton where, for instance, when an illegitimate child would be a secret that would completely ruin Edith… The men were reasonably constrained as well, but nothing like the constraints put around women, and it puts a kind of tension right through the center of it that I think we benefit from.

Similarly, the arc of Thomas Barrow, the scheming underbutler who also happens to be a perilously closeted gay man, is intended to elicit sympathy from the audience. “I am very sympathetic to Thomas,” Fellowes explained. “And what I wanted to do was to remind, particularly our younger viewers, that within not just living memory, but it was only half a century ago that in England, homosexuality ceased to be illegal. Before that time, if you were homosexual you were living under a permanent constraint to possible arrest and, having been arrested and having been charged, the end of your career. Total ruin. If you’re heterosexual and you go to a pub, you have one too many, you make a pass at a girl, you might get slapped. But that would be the end of it. Whereas if you make a pass at a man, your whole life could be in shreds by the following morning.”

“And so we start with a character who’s very touchy, and defensive, and self protective, and rather acid, and quite nasty. But gradually, I hope, we understand why he is all of those things, because he is his only friend, and he is living under permanent threat, even though the others don’t know it. And so we have traced that through, and now he is still defensive, still angry, but he’s less horrible, because more people know about him, and they don’t mind… I think it’s an interesting strand that this was going on so recently, and so many people didn’t question it.”

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