Downton Abbey and Our New Obsession with Class

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Jan. 19 2012 12:07 PM

Of Noblemen and Investment Bankers

Why we can’t take our eyes off Downton Abbey.

Still of Downton Abbey.
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey

Carnival Film & Television.

Also in Slate, Dan Kois, Seth Stevenson, and June Thomas tirelessly rehash each week’s episode in our TV Club.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

One might wonder why, at the precise moment that we are condemning class divides in this country, so many of us would develop a passion for a show like Downton Abbey; why suddenly lawyers, unemployed artists, stay-at-home moms, and assorted liberals find themselves glued to a drama about an English country estate a hundred a years ago where the entire staff of footmen and ladies’ maids lines up outside to greet a titled guest (aside from the fact that it is a good story, which it is).

One hopes, as in a Jane Austen novel, that the Crawley daughters marry well, that they keep the money in the family and the estate intact, even though that wish runs directly counter to the things, say, one might be arguing at a dinner party about the inequality of wealth in this country. But why? Why don’t we wish that Downton Abbey, with its majestic exploitation and sweeping gardens, be sold to a school or divided into apartments? Where are our revolutionary fantasies? Where is our democratic fervor? Why at this particular moment in time is this particular lost world so glamorous to us?

In a very strange "most emailed” article in the New York Times last weekend, the reporters claim that they had a great deal of trouble getting people in the “wealthiest 1 percent” to agree to be interviewed: “Some envisioned waking up to protestors on the lawn; others feared audits by the I.R.S. or other punitive government action … An investor who had already been the target of protestors feared for his family’s safety.” This seems a bit extreme or paranoid, but it does speak to the mood surrounding enormous wealth. One of the people who reluctantly agrees to be interviewed for the article says, “It’s not very popular to be in the 1 percent these days, is it?” And yet, it is very popular to be riveted by a show about the 1 percent a century ago, in the lush green English countryside.

The character of Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin who finds himself heir to Downton Abbey, is perhaps the best stand-in for the current cultural position: He is both morally disapproving of the flagrant exploitation of the estate and utterly seduced by it.

There is something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity. Take the camera lingering on a footman ironing a newspaper so that his master’s hands won’t get ink on them. There is in the show’s popularity some quality of nostalgia for a class structure we never had. We don’t wholly approve of it, of course, but we are somehow entranced by it, a little more than interested. The characters of Downton Abbey may chafe and aspire, but their roles are inescapable, clear; and it is perhaps the inescapability and clarity that is so seductive.

Our own sense of class is more fluid, shifting; our sense of ourselves within it murkier, unsettled. The truth is that our very sensible condemnation of the 1 percent, or rather the system that produces it, runs counter to an American Dream mythology that is not easily abandoned or cast off. Underneath our correct and rational outrage is the deep-seated American belief that if you are not in the 1 percent, you are simply not trying hard enough. Joan Didion wrote decades ago about the failure of Marxism to truly take root in this country: “The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.” This, of course, is what Mitt Romney is talking about with his “bitter politics of envy,” and he is not as wholly wrong as he seems. Buried somewhere in our moral disapproval, our entirely accurate, clear eyed assessment of the skewed distribution of wealth, is an unholy fascination with the very rich.

Ever since Obama called Wall Street bonuses “shameful” and the recession gave rise to a certain discomfort with the obscene wealth everywhere on display, there has been a genre of newspaper and magazine articles that lingers over the details of the lifestyles of the rich. We read them ostensibly to be horrified, to feel a little healthy outrage, but we are often also reading them out of some other kind of semiprurient interest. There is in all of this attention to the little details of wealth an exquisite ambiguity: Do we hate these people or do we love them?

The strange New York Times article makes a point of anatomizing the 1 percent; it goes into enormous detail about exactly how much you have to earn to be part of the 1 percent in Stamford, Conn., or Clarksville, Tenn., or Manhattan or Macon, Ga. In other words we are currently expending all of this effort in naming, in the delicate delineation of percentages, in defining our classes. Of course we are not used to talking frankly about class in this country, which is why the language of Occupy Wall Street, the talk of the 1 percent, carries a certain frisson: It is new, refreshing, challenging. (And the open, comfortable airing of class differences in Downton Abbey, or rather the exotic acceptance of them, has its own, related frisson.)

What is not addressed in Downton Abbey with its glittering focus on upstairs and downstairs is the vast, worried middle class; and it is precisely that population that considers its way of life in flux and in danger. Somewhere lingering in our awkward and primitive ruminations on class is the question: Who are we? How should we be living? How will we be living? The anxiety of class divides in this country, the fluidity and uncertainty of the way we live now, the aspiration, confusion, debt, all find their way into our fantasy lives. Our feelings about class are muddled and wildly complicated, and I think in order to truly understand the conversation going on in the culture, we might want to look not only at editorials and protests and political debates, but at the people escaping into episodes of Downton Abbey in the midnight glow of their laptops.

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