Class At A Distance: The Rise of Period Dramas

This year, not one but two period dramas rich in class issues have floated their way across the Atlantic for viewers in the United States, Downton Abbey from ITV and the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs from the Beeb. Viewers are going electric for both; people are really, really into these shows. Which delights me on a deep level as a fan of both. Few things make me more excited than fannish commentary on things I adore, let me tell you!

There’s a lot to love about both shows. I have a soft spot for this particular genre so I am, of course, biased, but I really love the richness of the cinematography and the sets and the costumes and the way all these things work together to deepen the text and make it more delicious. I love the acting. I love the storylines. I love the very distinct Britishness, and am so very relieved that no one attempted to adapt these shows in the US, because these are the kind of programmes we just cannot make, no matter how hard we try or pretend to ourselves that we can do it.

The positive viewer response delights me because I love it when people like things I like. But it also disproves the claim that US audiences are not capable or sophisticated enough to handle pop culture from other nations. Yes, some things go over our heads. Some things do not translate well. But we are not inherently incapable of grasping anything not made in the US of A. I like reminding people, now and then, that we are not completely lacking in sophistication.

But it also intrigues me. Both of these shows deal heavily with class stratifications and also directly challenge class divides and attitudes about class. The ideas of hereditary wealth and power are heavily questioned in both, as are topics like limited social mobility, the histories of families in service, and reduced opportunities for women and people with limited education. These issues are not presented neutrally and the shows contain embedded commentary on modern society. They aren’t just about the stratifications of the 1910s and the 1930s, they are very much about the class issues that persist to this day, as well.

Viewers in the US like class analysis, apparently, but at a distance. You can enjoy these shows for the fun plots and the gorgeous costumes and the spectacular acting, and you may even enjoy some of the class stuff too, but you don’t have to think about the modern correlations unless you want to. You can avoid the implications. The show sidesteps modern class problems because it’s not explicitly about them, and this means that you don’t have to think about them unless you try.

Entertainment right now seems to be in a mode of keeping people complacent when it comes to class mobility. People are not supposed to be angry about class issues, we are not supposed to be upset about the economy, we are not supposed to challenge social attitudes or ask why the status quo is the way it is. Instead, we are supposed to cheerfully consume television that keeps us passive, that tells us everything is just fine, really. We watch the lives of the rich and famous and never ask ourselves why they, in particular, should be rich or famous. We never ask ourselves if it’s fair, the stratification that they represent. We never ask how these people pay for fancy houses and nice cars, because, well, they’re so rich, and so pretty, surely the rest doesn’t matter.

As people rise in the streets to protest social inequality across the Middle East, we content ourselves with watching the antics of the British upper classes in the early 20th century. This is as close as we want to get to class stratification. We can even feel nostalgic about it, looking at the costumes and the sets and things. It’s all so pretty and nice and lovely and we don’t need to feel guilty about because it’s The Past and the problems those shows highlight and talk about it are fixed, now, we live in a better world, a post-class world, dare I say.

We don’t have a hereditary servant class anymore, surely! Except that we do, and, much as this class was cultivated by society 100 years ago, it’s still cultivated today. Conscious effort is exerted to keep people in the service class, to limit chances for advancement, to make sure that people understand that they should be grateful for the chance to serve the wealthy and privileged members of society. Look at the way Gwen is shamed for wanting to leave service and become a secretary, like it’s the end of the world. How dare she attempt to break the service cycle and build a life for herself? Where have we heard that before?

The gilded age is still very much alive, in many ways. People may not recognise it because they are living it, but the same problems that dominate these series; social unrest, political problems, unequal treatment of women, class stratifications, these are problems today, right now, in our own communities. They are not a relic of the past or something we can talk about clinically and then be glad we don’t have to deal with anymore. We are dealing with them, right now. Or, rather, we are not dealing with them, because that is why they persist. People stay wealthy and people stay in poverty because no one talks about it.