Friday, February 3, 2012

Lady Twelve, Shall I Ring for Tea?

We've discovered Downton Abbey. Needing a break from Breaking Bad a few days ago, I looked it up on the strength of a faint memory of someone having mentioned it on Facebook and a passing reference in an xkcd comic. So I searched for - wait for it - "Downtown Abbey."

Let's just say that I haven't accomplished much this week except resolve to actually learn something about the first World War.

Speaking of which, no one knows anything about WWI. Seriously. You know that Friends episode where Rachel and Phoebe think we fought Mexico? I lived that out a few years ago when not a single one of my friends knew why WWI started. Then when we looked it up and found out that it started when some Austrian archduke was assassinated, we still had no freaking clue. And I still don't.

Anyway, the clothing on Downton Abbey is pretty darn accurate as far as I can tell, the interiors are gorgeous, and they do address gender and class issues, so it practically counts as research for me. And, since it's a PBS production, I figured it would be okay for Twelve to watch it too. This will be great, I thought: We'll discuss early 20th Century class and gender norms! We'll look up period clothing and furniture in reference books! Enthusiastically I hauled them out and made a pile on the coffee table (which turns out not to be the best place to keep expensive textbooks).

Well, it's a good thing that I didn't bother to get out any Mary Wollestonecraft or John Stuart Mill. She does ask questions, but I can only get about a half a sentence in before she remembers that she's not supposed to care about the answers.

Tonight Twelve asked why they still have the disloyal (footman-turned-soldier) Thomas and (head ladies' maid) O'Brien on the show. Her logic seems to be that since they're so nasty, they should go. I agreed that they are indeed bad apples, and explained that they need to keep them around for dramatic purposes. As we discussed the mercurially loyal O'Brien, what struck me was Lady Grantham's total oblivion to her scheming. Cora seems incredibly perceptive when it comes to interpreting the behavior of her mother-in-law, her husband, her daughters, and so on; why can't she see through O'Brien's bullshit?

It's because one of the markers of social power is taking it for granted that your subordinates are performing their roles correctly. You assume they are loyal on such a fundamental level that you don't even know you're doing it. You don't ask yourself if your maid is manipulating you because that's not part of her role. Your mother-in-law might manipulate you - or try to - but it doesn't occur to you that your maid might. Lady Grantham refers to her maid as a close friend because she's decided that's part of O'Brien's role.

I worry a bit about Twelve's role at school. I don't want her to be a Lady Grantham or an O'Brien. I used to be afraid that she'd be a Mean Girl - she's smart enough to be. Lately, though, my concern is the reverse. She's awfully enamored of her new best friend, L, who is an incredibly privileged young woman. There's a note of reverence in the way Twelve speaks of L that bothers me somewhat: Twelve's interest in Downton Abbey increased dramatically when she discovered that L watches it too, she seems awfully attentive to L's preferences and perspectives, and she's currently reading her way through L's favorite series.

This could all be just fine, of course. L seems like a lovely young lady, and she could be just as eager to learn about, please, and emulate Twelve as Twelve is to her. The teachers I've spoken with haven't mentioned noticing anything, but then again they also haven't seemed to notice the elaborate note-passing methods that Twelve and L employ during study hall.

The bottom line is that I'm just going to have to make my peace with not knowing, and with not being able to do anything about it if I did. Of course I'll continue watching for danger signs (which would be ... what, exactly?), but I may never know if Twelve is playing O'Brien to L's Lady Grantham or if it's the other way around. She'll be who she is, and she'll be fine.

Now ... I'm just a few episodes into the second season, and may lightening strike and fleas infest anyone who tells me what happens!

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