Culture

Girls vs Downton Abbey: Feminism's Body Politic

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This week both critics and fans of Girls and Downton Abbey sounded off on the treatment of women on screen, highlighting the horrifying potential of 21st century feminist groupthink.

It all began on January 9 when TV critic Tim Molloy stepped in hot water by posing the following question to Lena Dunham:

I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you, particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.

Dunham deflected the remark with her usual snotty response that boiled down to nudity is realistic and if you don’t like fat bodies, that’s your problem.  Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, the show’s producers, supported Dunham’s remarks with their own politically correct, vitriolic comments about misogyny and female oppression.

Although Molloy’s question never did receive a direct answer, the exchange generated even more critical angst and bizarre philosophizing. For example, Megan Gibson at Time feels the nudity on Girls has nothing to do with “titillation” and everything to do with comedic value and expressions of non-sexual intimacy. It is questionable whether the primary audience for Girls, those “white dudes over 50,” would agree.

One telling thing critics didn’t bother to notice: All the uproar over Molloy’s question, even from Apatow and Konner themselves, wasn’t to defend Dunham’s honor — but to defend awkward bodies, female sexuality, and women’s rights under the umbrella term of “feminism.” In other words, if Hannah Horvath jumped off a bridge naked, she wouldn’t be a pathetic individual who succumbed to her psychoses, she’d be a mere statement about feminism in the 21st century.

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Two days after Molloy’s comment hit the press, viewers of Downton Abbey were confronted with the most shocking scene to date: the rape of loyal wife and lady’s maid Anna Bates. It was an out-of-character move that received huge numbers of critical and viewer complaints on both sides of the Atlantic. The rape was as much an assault on the audience as it was on the character within the show:

But the tragedy has always been tempered by the show’s gentle optimism, and filtered through historical distance. The series’ best twists—a handsome Turk dying mid-coitus—are too outlandish to be properly dark, and there’s never been any real violence. And so Anna’s rape seemed taken from another, grittier show.

It would appear as if sex on a costume drama like Downton is only as relative to the viewer as it is to the plot. In the case of Anna’s rape, it was neither:

The show’s executive producer Gareth Neame told TV Guide, “Like the death of the Matthew Crawley character, audiences are very protective of these characters and view them as an extension of their own families.” Neame went on to defend the touchy storyline, saying that it wasn’t for shock value, but to reflect a realistic time of history.

For the viewers of Downton (contrary to Neame’s notion of period relevance), choosing to include any sexual act, especially a violent one, has nothing to do with historical accuracy and everything to do with style. Downton is, above all, a fictional television show that has developed a serious following of fans who, as Neame notes, have tacked the Crawleys and their servants onto their family trees. Hence the outrage at using a character to drive home a political message: Whatever time period they may be in, the characters of Downton are, above all, individuals with whom the viewers can relate on a personal level.

Herein lays the dichotomy of the critical response. Girls, a fictional drama in its own right, has been defined by critics, viewers, and the show’s creator and producers as the feminist voice of a generation. Whereas Downton Abbey, on the other hand, is simply a fictional drama. Therefore, when Anna is raped at Downton Abbey she is a victimized human being, but when Hannah struts her stuff and has awkward, even abusive sex in Greenpoint she’s a screen goddess doing it on behalf of the female masses.

Which leads me to wonder what kind of feminists are being cultivated by Girls. The ones who are so offended by rape that they’d call out HBO the way Downton viewers complained to the BBC? Or are they the ones who, like Lena Dunham, view violent sexual encounters as mere “miscommunications” in the life of a 21st century feminist? In either case, the chances are that it wouldn’t really matter, because the Girls goddesses would only be taking one for the team.

And that’s the job of a feminist, right?