A few blogs ago, I mentioned that there would probably be a lot more feminist criticism in the future. I’m sure you’re all waiting with bated* breath, so I won’t keep you waiting any longer: It’s time to talk about the ladies in Downton Abbey.
Now I jumped on the Downton Abbey Express kind of late, as in the summer after the final season aired. This was great for me, because I did not have to wait in agony for next week’s or, worse, next season’s episode. Since I have seen all six seasons, I will be writing about all six seasons, and consequently there will be spoilers. Proceed as you will.
Downton Abbey is an exceptional example in the realm of feminist media for several reasons, namely the development of individual female characters, the variety of relationships between these female characters, and the accentuation of the changing role of women (and the upper class, but that’s not really my point today) in society. But that’s not entirely the reason this PBS show is so successful from that standpoint. Its true power comes from the fact that these characters and their development are done so naturally that it took me four seasons to realize just how progressive it was– and I look for that kind of stuff. If you read my piece about Outlander, you know that I believe subtlety is film and television’s greatest strategy at presenting and promoting diversity. When you have a kick ass woman in an action movie, but she’s the only woman, she’s “one of the guys,” she throws around lines like “You fight like a girl,” etc., we don’t get a fair representation. We get a one-dimensional character whose role is based around repeatedly reminding the audience that she’s an anomaly. However, if the same female character is given as much depth as her male counterparts usually are, if she’s allowed to be vulnerable (read: human) and dynamic, then she stops being an anomaly and starts being a character.
This is what Downton Abbey does so well. The women of Downton are anything but flat, and not a single one of them is the same in season six as they were in season one. (Especially Lady Sybil.) I think the best way I can make my point is this: For most of my life, my favorite characters in books, movies, TV shows, etc. have been male characters. In some cases it was because there were so few women to choose from (Lord of the Rings), in others because the women were cliché, boring, or irritating as hell.
But in Downton Abbey, all my favorite characters are women. And not all the women are my favorites. What I’m saying is that there are so many female characters that I can love some, hate some, and be ambivalent toward some. Compare that to something like Pirates of the Caribbean, where you get two female characters, however developed, in the entire trilogy to form an opinion about. In order to give out all the credit that is due, I’ll tackle some of the women of Downton one (or two) by one, since the ways they interact with each other are just as important as how they are as individuals. The original intent was to do both upstairs and downstairs characters, but this got to be extremely lengthy so the focus will be on the women of downstairs Downton.
Daisy. The beautiful thing about watching TV series (assuming they’re well done, which we’ve established Downton Abbey is) that you just can’t get from movies is significant and well-timed character development, and no one proves that point better than this cute lil bean.
Daisy is young when the series begins, and like most young girls, she’s awkward, eager to please, and easily swayed by boys. My mom once described her as “simple,” and for a while she is. Daisy was never a favorite character of mine, but watching her grow up was one of the most endearing arcs in the show. She finds it in herself to forgive, to forget, and to be kind to those who have hurt her. She pushes herself to further her education, even when it only makes her feel stupid. And when she enlists the help of a tutor, she develops a great passion for learning and uses her education to find her voice. Though she had none of the societal advantages that the upstairs characters have, Daisy worked hard to put herself on their level and, on her way, became the considerate and thoughtful friend we all want our kitchenmaids to be– or at least, that Mrs. Patmore wants her kitchenmaid to be. This is my clever segway into the first relationship I would like to address:
Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. Daisy is a child with no family of which to speak. Mrs. Patmore is an unmarried, middle-aged woman. The easy option would be to foster a mother/daughter relationship between the two, which would be pleasantly heartwarming. But Downton Abbey takes it a step further, and not only by introducing the pair as a short-tempered old maid and a ditzy young girl. Honestly, if you didn’t watch past season one, I wouldn’t blame you for hating the two of them. But then comes the aforementioned character development. Daisy grows up, Mrs. Patmore cools down, and they come to a mutual understanding that transforms into yes, a mentor/student or mother/daughter relationship, but also a precious friendship.
Neither woman held on to the grudges they may have (justifiably) had toward each other. Instead, they learn to understand each other. They sense when the other needs encouragement or when they need a figurative smack upside the head, and they see to it that whatever is necessary is administered. On two separate occasions, this relationship brought me to tears: once, when Daisy puts aside her damaged feelings to support a friend and Mrs. Patmore tells her, “I couldn’t be prouder of you if you were my own daughter,” and once when Daisy finds Mrs. Patmore in tears after she announced she wanted to leave service, only to discover the reason for Mrs. Patmore’s misery was that she didn’t want Daisy to go. These two found in each other exactly what they needed: someone to care for and be cared for by.
Mrs. Patmore. In the interest of linear thinking, I will move on to the already introduced Mrs. Patmore, who just so happens to be one of my favorite characters in the entire series.
Mrs. Patmore is Downton’s kitchen, sense of humor, most honest soul, and most steadfast friend. I could sing her praises til the end of time. She is, simply put, a gift. She may be a bit rough around the edges, but she’s the person you go to to hear it straight. If you want to be coddled, go talk to Anna, but if you want the plain hard truth administered with a twinkle of humor, Mrs. Patmore has your back. She has your back anyway. She’s the kind of friend who will put aside all sense of propriety and mortification in order to find out what kind of expectations your fiancé has of your wedding night. She’s the kind of woman who will cook you comfort, because she knows what she’s good at and that a hot cup of tea is sometimes the best cure there is. She’s the kind of friend who won’t let you make a fool of yourself, or others make a fool of you. And while we see a variation of this kind of support with Daisy, I think it is expressed in its truest form with Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes.
Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes. Mrs. Hughes, my other favorite character. Every time I see these women in a scene together, I take a snapchat and caption it “friendship goals.”
I mean, look at them. Laughing like a pair of schoolgirls over a tray of tea. This particular screen cap is from one of my favorite Patmore/Hughes moment, in which they make fun of the absurd man who tried courting Mrs. Patmore. She was delighted by the attention, but Mrs. Hughes felt obligated– as a true friend should– to disclose her observations that he was a most determined flirt and not at all what he presented to Mrs. Patmore. She was ready to be a shoulder to cry on, but instead Mrs. Patmore was relieved that she had an excuse not to settle down with him, and they dissolve into a giggling fit about how ridiculous this man is. These ladies are there for each other from start to finish, in whatever capacity necessary. There is no competition, no pettiness, no feelings hurt for the sake of hurting feelings. Instead, there is only support, laughter, kindness, and, as with any proper British ladies, tea.
Mrs. Hughes. Though she’d be loathe to be described this way, Mrs. Hughes is a boss ass bitch.
Even though Mr. Carson is the butler, Mrs. Hughes is in charge of Downton, and everyone knows it. She is compassionate nearly to a fault; despite all social conventions, Mrs. Hughes goes out of her way to provide help to a disgraced single mother and a penniless vagabond who was once a friend of Mr. Carson’s, and she takes care of her own. What makes Mrs. Hughes a particularly wonderful character, however, is that her kindness is not equated with weakness. She will defend her loved ones with the fierceness of a momma bear. When her moral views are opposed, she stands her ground and makes no apology. Yet this doesn’t prevent her from having a sense of humor– Mrs. Hughes is rather a mischievous soul, and I maintain it’s precisely because she keeps Mr. Carson on his toes that he proposed to her. Though Mrs. Hughes doesn’t grow quite as much as many of the other characters, she is extremely dimensional. Every trait she has is supposed to negate other attributes, but she combines all of them– kindness, fierceness, authoritativeness, wittiness– into a developed, believable, and lovable woman. Just ask Mr. Carson.
And a bonus upstairs character:
Lady Edith Crawley. Oh, Edith. My beloved middle child. The unassuming one who just cannot catch a break. While her sisters found the loves of their lives on the first try, she was jilted at the altar and pseudo-widowed. While Sybbie and George frolicked in the home and family that was theirs by birth, her own illegitimate daughter enjoyed two adoptive homes before coming to Downton as Edith’s “ward.” When Mary celebrates her second marriage, Edith faces the presumed demise of her own engagement.
And she bears it all with the utmost grace. When her heart is broken, when the cards are stacked against her, when there is no implication of a bright future ahead for her, Edith does what is perhaps the bravest thing a person can do: She goes on.
Lady Edith is, as far as I’m concerned, the single most inspiring character on the show. She has literally no advantage in life beyond the circumstances of her birth, especially compared to her sisters. But she never gives up. When Downton becomes a hospital during the war, she learns the value and joy of helping people, even in the smallest of ways. When she is left at the altar, she patches up her broken heart in a matter of days and goes back to live the life she has been given. When the death of her beloved leaves her in possession of a magazine and a fatherless child, she takes charge of both competently and unapologetically. Instead of pining or searching for the happy ending she was so close to on multiple occasions, she finds purpose within herself. She pushes for women’s rights, she does what she feels she must, and when she finally, finally faces the happy ending she so thoroughly deserves, she puts everything at risk in the interest of being honest with her future family. Now that’s what I call integrity.
No one in the entire series deserved a happy ending more than Edith, and I think that’s why hers was the last one to be achieved. But the best part about Lady Edith Crawley? She would have made her ending happy no matter what.