Occupying Wall Street is all well and good, but shouldn’t we be working harder on occupying our television sets? The latest episodes of Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey have thrown me into a tailspin, but during my emotional fallout I began to wonder why I was giving this niche period drama the right to get me so upset.
Though I can be reliably counted on to obsess over anything with English accents, pretty dresses, and unspoken attraction, Downton Abbey has been cruelly manipulative this season, and Internet response to this tumultuous season has been delightfully unhinged. Fans are upset because their favorite relationships are being radically redefined. We can rage all we want, but ultimately, Julian Fellowes is holding all the cards for what happens to these characters next. It’s times like these that the urge to reach through the television set and start rewriting the script gets the strongest. (Seriously, Downton Abbey fanfic is through the roof right now. Um, not that I would know.)
That’s one way to occupy Downton Abbey, an artifact of mass media completely controlled by its creators. But there’s another way to do it, too. Perhaps instead of letting myself be manipulated, I should take cardboard signs and tents to the pristine lawns of Downton and set up camp. And refuse to leave until they abolish themselves. Downton Abbey is one of those shows that is tailored to someone like me: It’s an English period drama about the fictional Earl of Grantham and his estate, which includes the stories of his family, his heirs, and his servants. In other words, it is undeniably about the 1%, and with recent events being what they are, that has made me pause.
It didn’t start with Downton Abbey. Shows like Mad Men, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City and The O.C. glamorize the rich; before that, novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair scrutinized the decadent lives of the very wealthy. There is something seductive about a window into the private lives of the very wealthy, and we are all swept up in a cult of gazing at the rich. Not just fictional rich people either. Three billion people around the world watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Is this because rich people are just more interesting than poor people? Money does often equate to power and beauty, which further equates to more interesting (or at least more dramatic) narrative. In Downton Abbey, for example, Matthew and Mary’s will-they/won’t-they relationship could potentially reroute the path of the estate’s lands and money, which is a far prettier problem than joblessness or hunger.
Or is it because rich people are more likely to buy books and DVDs? Certainly in the past, not only were educated, literate people more likely to read books, they were also more likely to write them — so the social circle literature traveled in was rather small. This could still be true today. And yet, I think of The Wire as having an equally privileged audience as, say, Mad Men. We’re postmodern, after all. We’re living in a different moment.
Successful shows about the 1% these days are programs that understand the role of privilege in a society and examines its class differences. Downton Abbey certainly does that. Its first season was a meditation on the confines of privilege, as well as the freedoms of it. This season, it is more about the power money brings you — like pulling strings in the war office — and the beautiful trappings of wealth, even in wartime.
Getting a view into the intimate private lives of the pampered rich is just as much about judging them as it is about coveting their wealth. After all, hand-in-hand with my disdain for Don Draper’s lifestyle is my fascination with it. This is my own little way of occupying the 1%. It’s not a lot — and as Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out last week in Salon, the film industry has its own 1% issues to deal with. But if the battle against bloated capitalism and unchecked greed starts with changing the culture, then #occupydowntonabbey, all the way.
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