Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Attack of the Humorless Feminists on Downton Abbey

Ok. Confession time.

I took this quiz to find out which Downton Abbey character I was most like, and, not that surprisingly I turned out to be Lady Sybil Crawley, youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham. And since then I've been obsessing about her.

For those of you who are afficionados of the show, now in its second season here in the States (if you're not, check out this hilarious and naughty review), you know that Sybil is the earnest, socially conscious character, the most likely young aristocrat to get punched out at an election rally, as well as the most likely noble to marry the Irish socialist chauffeur, a character who (unlike her intermittently evil sisters) we all love to love. (On the first show of season 2, she's become a Florence Nightingale-like nurse, and learned to make her bed and bake a cake for her mum, for goodness sake!) And yet, she's also character with the least edges, the least three dimensionality, the least (gasp) humor.

Which makes me think - why do we always imagine feminists to be so darned humorless?

Along with the other socially conscious character on the show, cousin Isobel Crawley, Sybil is a sort of public moral compass - the person we're supposed to trust in regard to matters of truth, justice, and the American way (and by that, I mean, the toppling of the British class system). I know, I know, it's a British show, created by Britishers, set in England; but there's such a streak of earnest class critique (with an equal part of class romanticization) in Downton that it feels positively, well, Yankee. (for some interesting analysis of class on the show see this great article)

Isobel and Sybil are also the characters most likely to have subscribed to Ms. Magazine, or hung out with Gloria Steinem, had they lived in the right part of century. They're pro-women's vote (although not quite so radical as to actually go and do something about that), pro-getting your hands dirty, pro-flaring your nostrils and setting all manner of things to good and pure and right.

But do they really have to be so, well, un-funny? Some of my favorite feminists and social radicals are also really funny people. The humorless feminist is in fact such a common trope that modern feminists are often debating why it's used so often against us, and how to comment on sexist humor without getting slammed with it.

I love Downton Abbey, and while I know that it's a show that's already made, and Julian Fellows isn't reading my blog post and making script changes on the spot, I really wish Isobel and Sybil could chill out a little, take some risks that go beyond wearing ugly pants to dinner (or calling out butlers and footmen who have pretend lung conditions and can't go be cannon fodder in the war). Like maybe kissing the chauffeur guy when he declares his love to you, Sybil, while simultaneously stealing Matthew from under your witchy sister Mary's nose (hah! who's the radical feminist countess now?).  

Sybil's so earnest, sincere and sweet, she's starting to make my teeth ache. I still love her, mind you, but would just like to laugh with her a little too.


  1. "Pro-flaring your nostrils" made me laugh out loud! I love this. You are a funny feminist - you break the mold (mould, in Brit-speak?).

  2. Laura (aka. Unknown) - I have always been pro flaring of the nostrils. Also pro righteous quivers of the lips and pro single tears falling down cheeks for grave injustices. Such signs colour (note the u) my... wait, what am I saying? haha! Thanks for "mould-breaking" comment! :)

  3. I'm new to the series and trying to catch up on season 1 so I'll keep this in mind. Love your pov! Thx!

  4. Thanks for the visit and support, Jimin! You'll love Season 1!

  5. What have I been missing? Sheesh. I just got clued in about Downton Abbey, and I have watched one show--thanks to my Premier subscription on my new Kindle Fire. But I'll be watching with your thoughts in mind. A well written essay, btw.

  6. Prime. Prime. Not Premier, silly me.

  7. Haven't seen the show, but am fed up to here [imagine me holding my hand over my head - work with me here] with various attacks on feminism.

    Feminism is, according to the dictionary (and not those with a dog in this fight) the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

    If you're one of those dainty ladies who wrinkles her nose and says, "Oh my heavens, I wouldn't call myself a feminist, horrors!" I'm curious as to exactly which right you're eager to to hand back. Political representation (because the estrogen level is governments worldwide is SO out of control)? Child custody, property ownership, the (theoretical) right to enjoy the same pay and employment opportunities as men? Educational opportunities?

    While I get it - dangly bits = funny, granted; the smartest, funniest women I know are proud to be feminists. It's the anti-feminists, male and female, who tend to be the grim, humourless types.

  8. Thanks for the visit Kim, and enjoy, you'll love the show! (Season 1 is on PBS.org and Netflix streaming right now)
    Beverly - I agree "It's the anti-feminists, male and female, who tend to be the grim, humourless types." I like to think of myself as a pretty funny feminist, and many of the funniest people I know are real social justice activists also. Perhaps because humor and socially just thinking both involve a real sense of introspection, self examination, and a willingness to risk for the other - a willingness to examine one's own assumptions? Not sure, but I'm sure there's good stuff out there on social justice and humor - must look some of it up...

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  10. I love DA and will have to take that test to see which character I am. (That's actually scary; I'll probably turn out to be the chauffeur!) Thanks for bringing this up. From the beginning, feminists have been equated with our predecessors of the early years when women tied equal rights with prohibition. But it's also just another way to subvert feminism. I think we're pretty funny feminists, Sayantani. Anyone want to debate that and I'll whip them into submission with my English sense of humor. (and that's another topic for a different day!)

  11. Ah, good historical point about the prohibition and sufferage, Valerie. Undoubtedly that's part of the root of this --- And honestly, the English has some of the best senses of humor. Just the word "gobsmacked" sends me into peals of laughter!
    Thanks for the visit!

  12. Clearly I meant "The English have..." May be a Yank, but my grammar isn't THAT bad...