What if I told you that time travel was possible? That you could transport yourself to a time when men were men, and women were women. When everybody dressed for dinner, and the ladies adjourned to the sitting room after the meal, so the men could smoke cigars, drink brandy, and talk about things unfit for feminine ears. A time when manners prevailed and chivalry reigned supreme. When sex before marriage was a scandal, and a courting couple required a chaperone. The “olden days,” a bygone era.
I’m talking, of course, about Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, a traveling exhibit that promises to immerse visitors “in the fascinating social history, culture, and some of the most memorable moments from the show’s six-season run.” Though all the locations of the exhibit’s tour are not yet available, it’ll be hitting my hometown of New York City this November, and you can bet this Downton Abbey fanatic will be first in line.
If wanting to pay money to visit an exhibit about a TV show sounds ridiculous, it’s entirely possible that it is. But I know I’m not alone. Downton is still PBS’s top drama of all time drawing, during its peak, a weekly average of 13.3 million viewers. In fact, though the show is made in England, it’s actually most popular in the U.S.
For the Brits, Downton Abbey is simply a period soap opera. Depending on whom you ask, the show is anything from a mindlessly entertaining melodrama, to a dangerously romanticized version of the past. According to The New Statesman, Benedict Cumberbatch called the show “atrocious,” Daniel Day-Lewis won’t watch it because it’s “why I left England,” and Jeremy Irons says it’s nothing more than “a good time.”
But, for us here in America, it conjures the kind of nostalgia you can only feel for something you never actually experienced but that you know, deep in your soul, you were meant to have. A longing for a time when things were — to put it bluntly — better. The ever-amorphous good old days of yesteryear.
But this makes no sense. How can this possibly jive with feminism? With progressivism? Why didn’t anyone accuse the show of promoting sexism? Of glorifying class divisions and gender stereotypes? Doesn’t the Crawleys’ entire lifestyle fly in the face of modern societal norms? Sure, Lady Mary and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess were strong women, but they existed well within the confines of their society’s rules. And yet, Americans loved Downton. Why?
The internet is rife with articles trying to solve this puzzle. But none of these speculations really ring true. The Telegraph suggests Americans were drawn to the show because of Lady Cora, the only American-born main character on the show. CNN tried to make the case that it’s the “compassion” of the high-born characters towards the low-born ones that Americans care so much about. And drag queen Dame Edna Everage made headlines last year when he proclaimed that Americans love Downton “because there are no black people in it.”
But all that is ridiculous. If Americans were tuning in to Downton Abbey in droves because of one (not particularly interesting) character, or because of how progressive they perceive Lord Grantham to be, or because everyone in America is a big, fat racist, no one would show up to the exhibition. Because, at the exhibition, we won’t be able to see any of that. In fact, the only thing we’ll be able to see is the representations of the kind of old-fashioned lifestyle the show depicted.
For American viewers, Downton Abbey was a glorious fantasy land in which all the things we miss about the “olden days” (like appropriate attire, sexual modesty, and acceptance of gender differences) were restored to us, but without any of the truly oppressive social policies that we’ve moved beyond. In Downton, everyone married for love, class boundaries were crossed with glee, and women explored their intellectual desires. It was a modernity within a traditional framework.
As much as they might want to deny it, American viewers succumbed to the appeal of an outdated lifestyle — fell in love with it so deeply that they’re willing to shell out $30 a ticket for another fix. In the same way that American women idolize Kate Middleton because of the traditional values she represents, we all secretly (or, in my case, not so secretly) long for the past.
What would it be like if we admitted this? If, instead of channeling our secret desires into binge-watching Downton, and slinking off to overpriced tourist-trap attractions, we just said it out loud. We’ve gone too far. And we want to go back.