It's a long way-in geographical distance and creative quality-from the down and dirty world of MTV's reality show hit Buckwild to the rarefied world of U.S. public television's Downton Abbey, but the two TV series have one thing in common, apart from having their new season premieres within a week in January 2013. Both perpetuate social and class stereotypes.
Buckwild claims to document the lives of young people in Sissonville, a small and economically depressed town in West Virginia, the state where I now live. The criticism of its stereotyping of poor, white Appalachians has been well-meaning, although it has certainly contributed to the show's notoriety and may even have helped boost its ratings. Reality TV is a proven formula. Although they won't admit it, viewers like to see people behaving badly.
The Buckwild characters exist, of course, but they would not be doing what they're doing if MTV was not there to tape it. They are playing exaggerated, cartoonish versions of themselves, with scripted situations and confrontations. It's "reality" in name only.
The social stereotyping in Downton Abbey, first aired on ITV in the U.K. and now on public television's Masterpiece Classic series, is more subtle and, at least on the surface, less offensive. But both series send a similar message about barriers to social mobility. Whether you're living on welfare in a broken-down trailer, are a servant in a great English house, or own the house and employ the servants, you're pretty much stuck where you are. It's tough to change position on the social and economic ladder.
The rigid class structure of early 20th century British society is represented by the limited horizons of the servants of Downton Abbey. Some were literally born into service, the sons and daughters of butlers, footmen and housemaids. Others took one modest step up from tenant farm to domestic service.
Their ambitions are also limited. The footmen want to be butlers and valets, the kitchen maids cooks. They can apply for a similar-level position in a larger house, or a more responsible position in a smaller house. But they remain in domestic service.
It's a system where the aristocracy regulates the labor market. You can't move without a recommendation from your employer. "Oh, I see you have a letter of reference from Lady Posonby Fairfax Trevelyan of Wycliff Manor. I know the family well. You will do."
Apart from one housemaid who learns to type and becomes a secretary and the uppity Irish nationalist chauffeur who runs off with daughter number three and becomes a journalist, few escape from domestic service. They accept their place downstairs in the great house. No one would even think of joining a union, even if there was one to join.
In some ways, there's as little freedom upstairs as downstairs, particularly for the women. At least the men can manage the estate and go off to war. The women are expected to lead almost exclusively social lives, with a dash of charity work. They visit other houses and host visitors, cultivate musical talents, go to London for "the season," spend an excessive amount of time getting dressed for dinner, and then retire as a group after dinner while the men drink port and talk about important stuff.
To the credit of the creators of Downton Abbey, all the women emerge as strong characters, rather than mere adornments to the scene like the furniture and dinner-table settings. Some even rebel by taking a job, running off with the chauffeur or rolling in the haystack with a tenant farmer. But all face consequences for breaking social conventions.
It's also heart-warming to see how kind the folks upstairs are to those downstairs. They pay for medical operations and stand as character witnesses in a murder trial. Unfortunately, the benevolence of the Crawley family was not typical of the landed gentry of the period who, with honorable exceptions, kept their servants and tenant farmers firmly in their place, and could fire them or evict them from their land at will.
Downton Abbey is good TV (if a bit soapy) but it should not make us nostalgic for a world where hereditary social class and privilege were the norms, and most people accepted their place in society. Even for the period it depicts, it's not realistic. Most people in Britain did not live in great houses, either upstairs or downstairs, but in crowded, dirty industrial cities or in rural poverty. And while the aristocracy continued to dominate politics, a growing middle class challenged its economic dominance. The real wealth was not in the great estates but in mining and manufacturing, the dark satanic mills of northern England.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a Downton Abbey fan. I'll be glued to the TV every Sunday night through the third season. But the social order it depicts is as undesirable as that of Buckwild.