Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Masculinity and Disability on Downton Abbey

Have you been watching Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater? Well, if you're a fan of Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park, or even other period dramas like my beloved Pride and Prejudice (*sigh*), you should.

Like other similar shows and films, Downton Abbey tells the story of an aristocratic household (both 'below stairs' and 'above'), while incorporating a glimpse into social mores and contexts of the time (1912 England). From changing fashion (pantaloons at formal dinner!) to changing technology (typewriters and electric lights and automobiles, oh, my!), from socialist movements to women's sufferage, Downton Abbey is inevitably an examination of an imagined past through the lens of our present values.

As a professor/scholar of illness and disability narratives (when I'm not writing YA fiction, that is), what interests me the most about Downton is the way it tackles the dual and very much interrelated issues of masculinity and disability, and what that particular narrative tells about current day social anxieties about the bodies of disabled men.

You see, Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham's valet, has a limp, and must walk with a cane. This causes a great deal of consternation and prejudice among his fellow staff who doubt his ability to climb stairs, carry luggage, and otherwise perform his duties. Chief among his doubters is the footman Thomas, who is jealous at being passed over for the position of valet, and colludes with the dour ladies' maid Miss O'Brien to get Mr. Bates fired.

Although the honorable Lord Grantham ultimately rehires Mr. Bates (as a testament to both Lord Grantham's character and to the two men's bond during the South African war), the animosity between the conniving Thomas and the upstanding, stoic Mr. Bates continues. And I think it's in this animosity that the show's own unexamined prejudices emerge.

Mr. Bates is the classic example of what John Hockenberry would call the 'supercrip.' He sustained his injury in the war, where he was Lord Grantham's batsman, and an honored and decorated soldier. I think it's important to note that Mr. Bates injury is war related - which of course accurately reflects the England of the time, where many men undoubtedly came home with war-related injuries - but yet, it also helps the show skirt around the more complex portrayal of an individual with a disability from birth. Mr. Bates is the uncomplaining, morally unblemished disabled character, he sustained his injury serving his country, he doesn't rage, or ask for help, but can and does do everything. He is older, wiser, kind, and a champion of the downtrodden in the staff. In the (paraphrased) words of the poet Mark O'Brien (as spoken in Jessica Yu's beautiful documentary about his life in his iron lung, Breathing Lessons), there are two prevailing myths about the disabled: 1. that they can do everything, 2. that they can do nothing. In this binary, Mr. Bates is clearly the example of the former.

So why is it important that Mr. Bates be shown as so, well, masculine? Stern jawed and able to throw the misbehaving (slimmer) Thomas against a wall when necessary? Significantly, Mr. Bates is also portrayed as, at least in some regard, sexually potent. He and the housemaid Annie have a deeply flirtatious relationship, one that he cannot readily express for yet unknown reasons. Even his decision to attempt to 'correct' his limp with some awful skin-puncturing brace is taken with great stoicism and stiff-upper-lip-ery. Although he ultimately throws the horrid contraption into the lake, Mr. Bates is a disabled body committed to performing as a masculine, sexual, and 'able-enough' body.

In Western culture, where bodily control and ability are not only prized but coded as masculine, illness and disability are often considered feminizing conditions. Masculinity itself is defined as able bodied and active, and the disabled man is coded as somehow 'less than' - sexually, socially, etc. Indeed, Born on the Fourth of July and other Vietnam war movies circulate around the issue of the disabled war veteran coming to terms with his sexual impotence and (often stereotyped) physical dependency. While paraolympic based documentaries and films often portray the disabled man forcibly reclaiming social potency through excellence in sport.

This semester, I'll be teaching an example of the latter, the film Murderball, in my class on narrative, health and social justice. This is a classic film in which sport and physical potency become a way for men to create a new, hypermasculinized image built on physical impairment. As part of that class session, I'll be teaching L. Manderson and Susan Peake's article "Men in Motion: Disability and the Performance of Masculinity" from the volume Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, where they argue that hypermasculine gender performance by disabled men (in sport, what have you) help claim a heroic, noble, masculine cultural space.

So where does Downton Abbey take Mr. Bates' in this regard? Unfortunately, I think, part of his hypermasculine-despite-disability characterization occurs vis a vis his antagonistic relationship with Thomas, who is the one 'out' (ish) gay character on the show. Thomas sleeps with a visiting Duke, makes a pass at a Turkish diplomat, and makes a false show of pursuing the 'innocent', naive kitchen maid simply out of spite against her and her (heterosexual) admirer, another footman. He is, in the words of the cook, a 'troubled soul' - angry, conniving, and altogether without redeeming quality. Indeed, his primary purpose in the show seems to be as trouble maker, an able-bodied, gay foil to Mr. Bates' disabled, heterosexual body.

Downton is a fantastic show - entertaining, visually beautiful, smart in its examination of class and gender. However, to me, it falls short in its examination of disability and masculinity - falling into problematic, limiting, and - in the case of the 'evil gay footman' - oppressive tropes.


  1. I'm happy to have come across your blog! I am a huge fan of Downton Abbey and Masterpiece Theatre in general, but I have to agree that Mr. Bates is not a perfect character (or rather, he is too perfect depending on how you look at it). I'm not sure if I agree that Thomas is as equally terrible. I guess I'm getting used to gay characters *having* to be good to show that script writers are open-minded (much like they've done with Mr. Bates), and I like that Thomas is allowed to be conniving and manipulative, though not completely un-relatable. Yes, he is a backstabber, but he is also very lonely and his quest for promotion is rather sad. He's actually one of the more interesting characters in my view.

    The character that actually irritates me the most is that of the youngest daughter. Her gung-ho feminism is a bit heavy-handed to me and feels like they are trying too hard to show the history of women's issues rather than allowing it to flow naturally from the story.

  2. Thanks for your comment Amitha! I don't think I'd have a problem with Thomas being evil (although I wish he was a bit more 3 dimensional) because, as you say, gay characters, like Mr. Bates' disabled character, are too often limited to being noble and good -- if he wasn't so obviously an 'emasculated' foil to the 'hypermasculine' Mr. Bates. I feel like it's a hierarchy of oppressions - you can either be good and disabled or evil and gay...So I guess to me they both feel like charicatures of issues rather than complex people...
    OH, and I hadn't thought of the youngest daughter as 2-dimensional (I'm waiting to see if she has an upstairs-downstairs romance with the socialist chauuffeur!) but I definitely think you have a point here!
    My fave character? The Dowager Countess/Mother - who, BTW, also walks on a cane, but the show doesn't seem to take notice of that -- because she's a woman? older? and therefore it doesn't cause us anxiety to see her as disabled? hm.. regardless, she rocks...

  3. Interesting piece. Thanks for bringing attention to the show. I will definitely check it out. If you're interested in companion scholarly pieces about quad rugby ("murderball"), my co-author James L. Cherney and I have written several communication articles and book chapters about it:

    Lindemann, K. (2010). Masculinity, Disability, and Access-Ability: Ethnography as Alternative Practice in the Study of Disabled Sexualities. Southern Journal of Communication, 75, 433-451.

    Lindemann, K. (2010). Cleaning up my (Father’s) mess: Narrative containments of “leaky” masculinities. Qualitative Inquiry, 16, 29-38

    Lindemann, K. & Cherney, J.L. (2008). Communicating in and through “Murderball”: Masculinity and disability in wheelchair rugby. Western Journal of Communication, 72, 107-125.

    Lindemann, K. (2008). “I can’t be standing up out there”: Communicative performances of (dis)ability in wheelchair rugby. Text and Performance Quarterly, 28, 98-115. [Reprinted in Henderson, B. & N. Ostrander (2010). (Eds.) Understanding disability and performance studies. London: Routledge]

    Cherney, J.L. & Lindemann, K. (2009). Sporting Images of Disability: Murderball and the Rehabilitation of Identity. In Billings, A.C. & Hundley, H. (Eds.) Examining identity in sport media (pp. 195-216). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Kurt Lindemann

  4. Thanks Kurt lovely list! I'll absolutely be incorporating them in my work!

  5. I'm really glad to read this - I too love Downton Abbey, and I too was troubled at the portrayal of Thomas as a character of pure wickedness. The one other gay character, the Duke, is also shown to be something of a cad, a lying fortune-hunter who uses and discards people.

    In a show that makes such an effort to be nuanced and fully rounded (even O'Brien shows evidence of a conscienve at the end of the show) I do think that this is evidence of unexamined predjudice on the part of an otherwise outstandingly talented writing and production team.

  6. Thanks so much for your comments Zoe - so glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree that even Miss O'Brien is somewhat 3-dimensional -- but neither Thomas nor the Duke are allowed to be anything but purely bad. It's troubling in many ways in an otherwise outstanding show.