News & Politics

'Downton Abbey' and 'The Help'--What Their Nostalgic Portrayals of Domestic Service Get Wrong

What is with our obsession with servants? And are these shows letting us off the hook?

Americans can’t get enough of servants these days--or at least in these tough times, American audiences can’t get enough of art that explores the interaction between domestic help and employers. Both The Help--about to be feted at the Oscars--and “Downton Abbey”--about to air a much-anticipated finale--open up that uncomfortable subject with fast-paced storytelling and broad emotional appeal. But both also stop short of really showing the ugliness, the toll these kinds of skewed relationships would likely take on their participants.

It may seem far-fetched to compare The Help to “Downton.” The former is American and about race in the 1960s South; the latter is British and about class in a 1910 manor house. There are additional differences between their public receptions: The Help is popular and acclaimed but has also been extensively criticized for having a white savior character at the center of its narrative and for sanitizing an era of lynchings and marches in a wash of brightly hued nostalgia. “Downton Abbey” is accepted as frothier entertainment, and has avoided being hobbled by that same kind of accuracy debate--even though it has also obscured the disturbing aspects of its era with the use of stunning costumes and rich production values.  

But beyond the differences in subject matter and artistic tone, the creators of The Help and “Downton Abbey” have each made a similar choice in their approach to portraying power dynamics. They have centered their stories around essentially goodhearted protagonists of the privileged castes (Lord and Lady Grantham in "Downton Abbey" and Skeeter in The Help) who genuinely care for their socially mandated inferiors. In this way both stories provide their audiences an out, a chance to say, “I would be like that person, kind and thoughtful,” instead of forcing us to confront the bitter injustice at the heart of these bygone worlds--or the injustices that still exist in our world with its often invisible janitors, food-preparers, housekeepers, nannies and security guards.

These rich and privileged characters often feel too good to be true. Think of beneficent Lord Grantham apologizing heartily to Bates, his valet, for not understanding why his "man" had to leave his employ (he did it to protect the family's reputation from blackmail, of course). Think of Grantham's daughter, Lady Mary, giving her maid Anna a bedroom in which to spend her wedding night. Think, in The Help, of Skeeter standing up for the maids, risking social ostracism to cross racial barriers as she writes their stories, visiting her friend's maid Aibilene at home to work late into the night.

Yes, these privileged characters do make mistakes in their treatment of servants, but these are passed off as misunderstandings, not the kind of socially imbued callousness that would have to be painfully unlearned. Would Lord Grantham really find it easy to apologize to Bates, or would he contend with his own pride? Would Lady Mary be comfortable with two lower-class servants spending their wedding night in her fancy bedroom? Would Skeeter’s primary concern as she crosses to the other side of the tracks really be how she is going to be received by her black hosts, or would she have to push against her own ingrained racism to convince herself it's okay to visit them? If we could see more of these protagonists' struggles to lay down their power and prejudice, we would still like these characters. We might even like them more.

That struggle would occur on the other side, too. It's not hard to imagine that even with their excellent natures, Anna and Bates of “Downton Abbey” and Aibilene of The Help, might not occasionally loathe their oblivious benefactors, or at least resent them for their ease and their acceptance of the status quo. I don't think we would identify with them any less if they did. 

Furthermore, the moments in these stories that demonstrate how vulnerable and scary life could be for the maids or the servants are usually depicted as arising not due to entrenched social structures, but rather as the handiwork of villainous secondary characters. These bad apples are also members of the upper classes but are acting out of their own inclinations, not because of prescribed social rules. The Help's evil character, Hilly, for instance, uses racism to gain social power and treats everyone around her, not just the black maids, with contempt. Many have noted that The Help lacks any in-between characters who are nice but who also hold racist views. Such a character could demonstrate to the audience that racism was a way of life, not just the work of just a few isolated, nasty people like Hilly.

In “Downton,” similar distinctions are made between the "good" and "bad" members of the nobility: a gentleman who has a family claim to the illegitimate child of one of the housemaids shows up and acts like a bully, determined to sunder the baby from its low-born mum. It’s an awful sequence, but his cruelty only lets the central “Downton” family off the hook as more genteel and sympathetic -- even its snobbier members like Lady Mary. The reality is, there would probably have been very little sympathy for that dismissed housemaid among any of the nobility. 

Both The Help and “Downton Abbey” make it clear that there is a capability for exploitation when you employ someone relatively powerless to clean your house, cook your food and mind your children, but they don’t go quite so far as to make it clear that that relationship is inherently exploitative. The power a white employer had over a black maid in 1960s Mississippi; the power a British lord had over a kitchen maid who depended on his whims for a home and job -- both these dynamics are unacceptably lopsided, chasms so great it would have been difficult for healthy relationships to form across them. 

On some level, that chasm may explain the choices made in populating both The Help and “Downton Abbey” with sympathetic upper-class characters. Both are popular art centered around human commonalities, works that might risk failing on an emotional level and reading as screeds if none of their characters could connect with one another. Still, The Help and "Downton Abbey" don't just make the beautiful point that the human spirit can occasionally cross such chasms. Instead The Help and “Downton” make that kind of cross-class love and loyalty seem as though it's natural, rather than an active fight against circumstance.

Finally, both of these works suffer because we so rarely get to experience these kinds of popular, emotionally appealing narratives solely from the perspective of an oppressed social group. I keep imagining what it would be like if instead of The Help as it exists, we’d seen “The Help,” the book within a book that Skeeter compiles from the maids’ stories, without her voice included. Or what if the BBC aired a television show that, instead of chronicling both upstairs and downstairs, was just about downstairs? Those alternate works might run a risk of being less popular, but they would be artistically and politically braver to create.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.