Monday, February 18, 2013

History as we want it to be

***Downton Abbey season 3 spoilers ahead!  Don't read if you are sensitive to spoilers***

Like many Americans, I've been watching Downton Abbey.  It's a good program, although at times it can be rather soapy.  And a part of me is surprised by its popularity, since I've enjoyed most Masterpiece/BBC programs for quite some time.  I'm not sure what's so unique about this.

However, in one of the episodes of Season 3, there was more than a small anachronism.  Thomas (the valet) is a closeted gay servant.  He's also caused quite a bit of trouble and drama from day one in the household.  (Remember all the trouble Mary got into during the first season with Mr. Pamuk?  That was Thomas' doing).  In this season (after the war) he's back in a life of service. 

He mistakes another servant's friendliness for a love interest (with the help of another scheming servant, O'Brien).  Barrow hits on him (the character Jimmy) and is discovered by another footman. 

The point of all of this is, while some of the servants are shocked and dismayed, in the end, everyone accepts that Barrow is gay.  Even Lord Grantham doesn't have an issue with a gay servant.  This is the same Lord Grantham who, for the record, was shocked that his daughter married a chauffeur and that his granddaughter was going to be baptized Catholic (the horrors).  Also shocking for the Earl, his daughter wearing pants and another daughter writing for a magazine.

It would have been wonderful if in the 1920s, it was not a big deal for someone to be gay.  If gay men and women weren't repeatedly arrested and socially ostracized.  But the truth is, being openly gay was still listed as a disease in the DSM until 1986.  The American Experience program about Stonewall was amazing to me. Clubs were raided and upstanding citizens were arrested, simply for being gay.  Looking at Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, set around the same time, had an upper class gay character - who ends up full of despair (because at the time, gay characters couldn't be successful and happy - they were doomed to ruin).

The mormon church is far from 1920s Edwardian England, but I can quote many mormon church leaders who agreed with this disease model.  In church leader Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness, it says that it is better for someone to come home dead than dishonored.  This book and its message has been repeatedly discussed in the bloggernacle, but has never been formally repudiated by the LDS church.  Even in 2010, an LDS church leader (Boyd K. Packer) implied that god would never make anyone gay.

But in fiction, we don't have to be fully honest or historically accurate.  Even if it is unlikely that an openly gay servant could remain in a conservative household, the creator could stretch reality.  And there are many uncomfortable parts of human history, some of which we would rather ignore.  I would like to pretend that the United States wasn't founded with slavery.  I would like to pretend that women weren't treated as property for most of human history. 

But that's not the truth. 

This slate article explains that each character defended Thomas for their own reasons.  So perhaps it does work.  I am simply wary of revisionist history that ignores the very real sometimes violent struggle that many people had to face, for human rights.  If we don't accurately depict the way things were - it diminishes how much we have had to overcome.

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