I’m hooked on Downton Abbey, that wonderful British soap with sharp production values and the catchy sense and sensibility of Austen mixed in with the storytelling panorama of James Cameron. Perhaps that is too literal since the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 is what starts off the show, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes is debuting his own Titanic miniseries in April 2012. But Downton’s affinity with Cameron’s retelling goes far deeper than the shared reference to a well-known historical tragedy.
Whether or not you like Cameron’s Titanic, he does manage to capture a bit of that zeitgeist told through a modern point of view. For example, Leonardo di Caprio’s Jack is absolutely heroic as he cuts through the priggishness of society and exists romantically as a well-traveled self-taught artist, a far more lucrative and respectable prospect today than a hundred years ago. While the wealthy guard their Monet and Degas paintings, only Jack manages to really appreciate what is special about them. In other words, he is a character from our time trapped among well-heeled moneyed barbarians. Poetic ironic justice is had because we all know that history will eventually catch up and take sides with our hero’s ideals.
Similarly in Downton, we have characters who struggle against the decline of the British aristocracy and others who embrace it. Such mundane aspects of modern life as applying for a non-servile job, answering a phone, driving a car, or even dressing oneself are treated as uncommon occurrences in the context of a rather rigid class system. And while most of the characters struggle against the decline of British aristocracy, a few characters embrace it and share our modern sensibilities. They are for worker’s rights, women’s rights, and also know somehow that applying for socially-mobile jobs, answering phones, driving cars, and dressing oneself will be the norms of a distant future. In a certain sense, the writers of the show mean to tell us that we ought to identify with these modern characters, because they have chosen the correct version of the future.
Shows like Downton Abbey and films like Titanic flatter us with the idea that we, the audience, live in a blessed world that has graciously overcome all the class struggles of the past. We can be who we want to be, and our rights extend equally to all members of society. In recent years, these backward-looking shows have gained steamed, and their poster boy, Mad Men, shows us an anti-Semitic, sexist world of well-dressed white men working in corporate advertising right as the 1960s counterculture will overturn all of their assumptions. Even last year’s breakout blockbuster, The Help, was a backward-looking film showing a racist, segregated world of well-dressed white women around the time when the Civil Rights’ Movement will overturn all of their assumptions. In all of these cases, we are presumed to be on the right side of history, and perhaps are supposed to be relieved that the prejudices of the past were indeed fought and defeated.
But were they?
As the events of recent days and weeks and months reveal, a lot of the same issues we “won” in the past have actually returned in new forms. Sexism is alive and well in the form of a Congressional hearing of all men denouncing women’s rights to health care and in Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” and “prostitute” comments which sent advertisers fleeing in droves. Unlike the servants in Downton Abbey, we live in a less socially-mobile era than our fathers did. Being an African-American teen means you can be falsely stereotyped as a drug-dealing thug, even after you’ve been senselessly murdered and your killer has not faced criminal charges. And while having a black President encourages us to see an historic victory for race relations in America, we also saw the ugly smearing of Obama’s credentials regarding his country of origin and his religion not to mention his policies.
What makes the backward-looking show particularly popular today is that we have become an age obsessed with irony. Even a modern-day show like The Office is populated with characters who only thinly veil their prejudices. On that show, a comment from the boss meant to demonstrate racial sensitivity comes off as racist and ignorant. What gives the show its humor are the reaction shots of horrified people who look into the camera to share their disgust and shock with the camera and, by extension, us. We are told that being a sexist, racist simpleton is funny, because we all know that sexism and racism has been vanquished. This has led to “hipster racism,” the phenomenon where good-intentioned and avowedly non-racist individuals attempt to show off how edgy (read “ironic”) and hip they are by repeating the horrifying epithets and stereotypes of the past.
At this year’s AWP Conference, I attended a panel called “Writing about Race in the Age of Obama.” The panelists consisted of two Asian Americans and two African Americans (notably, one also identified as Native American). While the Q&A session tried courageously to navigate the tricky world of writing about race, the discussion suddenly turned to the subject of an anonymous white woman who had walked out during one of the talks. The African-American speaker noted that she may have left due to being uncomfortable about race, but that it may also have been to go to the bathroom. No one knew. But in the Q&A, another white woman revealed that she forced herself to stay at the panel simply to avoid being viewed as being insensitive to racial matters though she did have to use the bathroom. From then on, it was a back and forth negotiation with tension always on the verge of escalating. Was the speaker attacking the woman who left? Was it an innocent observation? Was it simply an error to even have mentioned it in the first place?
What I came away with was the realization that it wasn’t that race bothered people; it was that anger about race bothered them. People don’t mind a calm discussion where they get to be equally on the “correct” side, but as soon as it gets accusatory and becomes a shouting match, people lose their rational thoughts about race and let loose ideas and comments which are ugly, even though the spark may have been something as innocuous as a white woman leaving a room for an unknown reason.
Recently, I found myself engaged in a debate about Ken Narasaki, a veteran Japanese-American actor and writer, choosing to walk out of a show based upon racist epithets against Asians in the show. Narasaki said that while censorship wasn’t the answer, he felt the carelessness of the epithet used was a cause for concern in driving him and possibly others away from theatre, and he ended by saying he’d most likely never return to that theatre. For some of us, this was a calm and reasoned argument and a source of pride that an Asian American had the courage to stand up for his convictions. For others, his statement was an attack on the theatre itself, a censorship screed, and above all a false accusation of racism. One of the counter-arguments made included reference to the play, Clybourne Park, which won the Pulitzer and deals with the difficulty of true racial sensitivity. The back and forth was flippant, ugly, and finally maddening, an endlessly vicious cycle of hipster racism and outrage.
Perhaps this virulence was best described by Bruce Norris, writer of Clybourne Park, who said in the a TCG-published interview, “We white people (because we are the oppressors) sit around going, ‘Is it time now? Has enough time elapsed? Can we now say ‘nigger’?’ But of course that never happens, so white people feel resentful because we realize the past is going to hang around our necks like millstones forever.”
As much as I like to believe we live in the world where all the evils of the past are now easily blown away like so much dust, instead I now see that these backward-looking shows, though designed to make us feel complacent, should really serve to remind us that we need to remain vigilant about what exactly we fought in the past and how to continue to live up to our ideals today. While we might be tempted to stand in place and to whack-a-mole the straw men, we might benefit more from thinking about how long the road still remains in reconciling our past selves with the ones we hope to become.