Sunday, January 5, 2014

Disability On Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey DVD cover
For American fans, Season 4 of Downton Abbey starts tonight.

I thoroughly enjoy the series. I’m a fan. That said, its a very uneven show, with some great story lines, characters, and moments … and some ridiculous plots, inconsistent characters, and botched scenes. Even the show’s greatest strengths, its historical depictions, fall short as often as they succeed.

One thing that surprised me when I started watching "Downton Abbey" was how often disability plays a part in the story. Like everything else on the show, the quality of these disability depictions varies wildly, between original insight, and weak, tired cliches. In honor of tonight’s premiere, here’s a rundown of the disability depictions and themes we’ve seen so far … spoilers ahead:

Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet, who walks with a pronounced limp, from wounds acquired in the Boer War. Some of the other staff’s rejection of the “crippled servant” was arguably the first, and longest-lasting conflict in the whole series. It didn’t actually cause Thomas and O’Brien to hate Mr. Bates. They hated him because he took a job that Thomas wanted. But, they evidently believed that his disability was a more acceptable reason to oppose him than simple envy. Apparently, disability prejudice is a more honorable motive than professional resentment. 

At first, almost nobody … upstairs or downstairs … could conceive of how Bates would do his job with a limp, though the “good guys” on the show were quickly won over by Bates’ decency and character. Also, in one of the earlier episodes of the first season, Bates tried to “fix” his limp with a local craftsman’s horrible design for a limp-correcting brace. The device nearly tore his leg to bloody shreds until the head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, confronted him and got him to chuck the thing into the lake, resolving to be himself from there on out. So far, that’s the last we’ve heard of Bates’ limp as a relevant plot point. In a sense, his disability stopped being important when he decided to stop trying to fix it … something I think lots of disabled people can relate to in real life.

Thomas Barrow, the footman, who literally “got himself shot in the hand” so he would be shipped home from the horror of the trenches in the First World War. His wound hasn’t played much of a role since, but it hasn’t gone away, either. It makes one wonder ... If a limp was such a barrier for Bates as a valet, wouldn't a shattered hand get in the way, too? If so, we never saw a sign of it.

Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s cousin and heir, who was paralyzed from the waist down in the First World War, but who recovered, because his spinal cord was only bruised, not severed. This was both the most consequential, and unfortunately the most cliched disability story in the series so far. Matthew’s paralysis was important in several distinct ways:

- The most obvious issue was that for a time, Matthew faced a future in which he would never walk again. This was equated with needing unspecified, broadly-defined care for life … care that his fiancĂ©e Livinia Swire would have to provide, presumably making her life miserable. This ennobled Livinia in comparison to Matthew’s real love, Lady Mary, so that later on when thinking about which woman he should marry, Matthew at first resolved to stay with Livinia, since she had been willing sacrifice herself to care for him. The possibility that a life with Matthew in a wheelchair might be satisfying for Livinia was never seriously considered. The choice was completely black and white ... abandon Matthew and be happy, or do the "honorable thing", take care of Matthew, and waste her life away.

- On top of the “lifetime burden” theme, there was the sexual sacrifice that’s been a part of so many paralysis stories in movies and TV. Matthew wouldn’t be able to have sex, which, in those late Edwardian times, meant that Livinia would never have sex either, another sacrifice she would make for Matthew.

- Matthew’s miraculous cure functioned as miracles often do in stories, yet it seems like writer Julian Fellows went out of his way a little to underscore that it wasn’t actually miraculous. He had simply been misdiagnosed, and was always going to recover. This made the abrupt end to the paralysis story a bit less annoying, but only a bit less.

- I posted back in November about what I think is the most interesting disability-related line in the series so far. Lady Mary is pushing Matthew around the Downton grounds in his wheelchair:
Matthew: “I’m strong enough to push myself.”Mary: “I’ll be the judge of that.”
I still think this brief exchange is a very realistic and crystal clear example of how ableism often works in real life. One of the defining characteristics of disabled people, especially as depicted in literature and entertainment, is that we don’t understand our disabilities, and need non-disabled people to keep us grounded and safe.

Photo of old style TV set with wheelchair symbol on the screenSir Anthony Strallan, older neighbor and friend to the family, onetime fiancĂ© of Lady Edith, had a rather vague arm injury from his service in the war. This was only brought up to add to the notion that Lady Edith would be making too great a sacrifice in marrying such and old, crippled man. The logic here was so non-specific and weak, that it really didn’t work. Strallan never appeared to be noticeably impaired by his injury … nor did he ever really look like an old geezer, either. When Strallan left Edith at the altar because of his own guilt feelings about the young woman sacrificing herself for a broken down old man, it’s hard to tell if we were supposed to see this argument as valid, or … as it appeared to me … utterly misplaced. The whole storyline seemed weak, based on premises about age and disability that just never seemed applicable in this specific case.

There have been two other short-term characters whose disabilities partly defined their roles in the story:

Lieutenant Edward Courtenay, the blinded British officer befriended by Thomas and Lady Sybil while working in the cottage hospital, who killed himself when told he would have to leave them and go to another hospital. There had been scenes of Thomas and Sybil helping Courtenay learn mobility with a cane, supposedly establishing the idea that only these two could get the Lieutenant to push past his depression and work on his rehabilitation, even though he was to be moved to a fully qualified rehabilitation hospital. His suicide was used as the clinching argument for turning the Downton Abbey house into a recuperation center for non-acute wounded soldiers. Earlier, Thomas and Courtenay had bonded over both feeling like outsiders … Courtenay because his brother was going to take over his place in the family business, and Thomas, more covertly, because he is gay.

and …

Major Patrick Gordon, the Canadian officer with severe facial wounds who wound up at the Downton Abbey recuperation hospital, and claimed to be the estate’s long-lost heir, thought to have drowned on the Titanic in 1912.

Have I missed anyone?

Yes! I forgot Henry Lang, short-term valet to Lord Grantham, who had "shellshock" or PTSD. Sarah O'Brien, one of the show's most authentic villains, was the only person who really befriended him, because her brother had suffered in a similar way from his war service. Plus, Mrs. Patmore, the head cook, almost went blind from cataracts, though this was a very brief plot point resolved when the Granthams paid for eye surgery.

So, is this a lot of disability for one series? Or, do other shows depict disability this much ... maybe more than we notice?

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