Gloved Hands, Pressed Uniforms, and Silver Trays
Herman Gray / University of California in Santa Cruz

Downton Abbey

Publicity Still from the Series Downton Abbey

Reality television marks the boundaries between the ordinary and celebrity, brand campaigns align desire and choice with distinct brands, and our civic discourse appeal to our sharpest differences in political ideology. In our perpetual connectivity enabled by digital technology and social media, we live the collapse of time and space. Our image cultures promise greater connection but depend on finer and finer gradations of taste and demographic distinction. In the midst of access to social intimacy, there is greater economic vulnerability and social distance for those without access to resources and life chances. Distinctions of difference and power, difference as power, structure the brand culture to which we have become accustomed. Now the genre of reality television is the conventional locus in our image culture where we amplify social difference of class, body image, cultural competence, tradition, and appearance among others, in order to transcend them. Rather than reality television to contemplate spaces where proximity, intimacy, and distinction operate as a forms of power I want to comment briefly on three rather unlikely texts: PBS’s Downton Abbey, the Academy Award Best Picture nominated, The Help, and CNN’s coverage of The Funeral of Whitney Houston.

Downton Abbey, is the story of The Earl of Granthom, his family, including three daughters, his wife and mother and large domestic staff of service workers—butlers, valets, chamber maids, drivers, footmen, cooks—who serve them and whose labor make their lavish lives possible. The PBS series, which recently completed its second season, is set in a stately English manor house called Downton Abbey during World War I and its immediate aftermath. Based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, is a mid-twentieth century American story of white middle class manners and the black female domestic labor on which white middle class households depend for order, socialization of the young and markers of status. Set in Jackson, Mississippi The Help is a coming of age story for its lead character, Skeeter Phelan and her relationship with two black women, Aibleen Clark and Minny Jackson who work as maids for the women in her social circle. As different at these two stories are in form (Hollywood film and quality television series), setting (American South and English countryside), historical period (early and mid-twentieth century), and critical and popular receptions, in their representations of social difference, the spaces of physical proximity, cultural intimacy, and social distinction, there are some things that they have in common. For example, both films underscore explicit markers and social practices of distinction that structure relations of domination and subordination.

PBS Trailer for Downton Abbey

The relations of subordination and domination in the American south and the English countryside at least as depicted in these films depend on shared information and codes among the participants that affectively charge the spaces of employers and employees, bosses and servants with investments in secrets, complicities, resentments, care, and anger. These texts seem to suggest that the terms of these unequal social relations are certainly not all that meets the eye, that the social relations and people that these structures and codes organize do not observe them with fidelity.

Nonetheless, it is precisely in the attempt to bracket these practices and mark the spaces of distinction and difference that we see the force of such practices and the spaces of intimacy on which inequality depends. In such spaces, we also see, especially from the perspective of those on whose labor the system depends, the practices of inequality at their (most absurd) limit. Black critics of The Help, are skeptical of film’s depiction of black women’s sacrifice: black maids whose physical labor made for clean homes, whose emotional labor made for the socialization of ethical young white children, and whose friendship enabled white female humanity and self worth among the most abject members of the white world (Celia). True enough. I am more interested in the film’s account of what the intimacies of inequality look like and what they show us about how race and class actually work in the intimate spaces and daily practices of inequality. Practices like the gloved hands and silver tray on which a maid in Downton Abbey presents the mail to the Lady of the House and in the way hand maids and boot men undress their lords and ladies in the intimacy of Downtown Abbey’s bedrooms and chambers. Complicities like the whispered reassurance of the black maids who share in secrets and fears of white children and the repeated humiliation witnessed by sympathetic whites when the black maid and confidant is not allowed to use the indoor bathroom. Crisp uniforms, rural accents, separate living quarters, silver trays, gloved hands, and black skin all working to maintain rules of decorum and appearances.

Character of Aibleen in The Help

The liberal conceit of both Downton Abbey and The Help is their movement between the worlds of the aristocracy and the servants, the white middle class and the black help to give us a sense of the link between the spaces of domination and subordination. While members of the Downton Abbey household are occasionally present in the “lower-spaces” of the servants and we come to know something about the lives of the characters that live there (including affairs of the heart, sexual transgressions, and crimes). With the lone exception of the white protagonist in The Help, by the codes and practices of Jim Crow segregation, black lives are strictly off-limits to whites. In that particularly mid-century American way, Aibleen and Minney know more than a thing or two about their white employees and their families, while whites know nothing about their black employees and their family. But what to make of what The Help and Downton Abbey says or rather shows about the play of proximity and intimacy and what it means for our time of uncertainty, economic crisis, racial suspicion, xenophobia, and nationalism? For one, the codes of decorum and practices of separation and distinction depicted in these films seem so out of place, confined to the distant past which means that perhaps we are free to take the measure of them in our own time as brand expressions of quality culture— Academy award wining performances by Octavia Spencer and quality television from PBS. The political and historical terms through which we remember these social worlds and the social relations that defined them are of a very specific kind—they represent a crucial moment of modern aspirations for equality and personhood that eliminated once and for all the collusion of intimacy and proximity so necessary (and central) to inequality in the first place. In the case of Downton Abbey, we see (and with our modern sensibilities and romantic codes root for) the servants and the aristocracy to defy the codes of social class—keep intimacies, love across class lines, reject inheritances.

The Help, gingerly anticipates black challenges to Jim Crow. In Aibileen’s moment of contemplation in response to the assignation of Medgar Evers, the film acknowledges the social impact of black maids who through their example of grace and courage touched the lives of liberal white women (including viewers of the Motion Picture Academy) who were to play a role in the then emergent second wave feminist movement. In black women characters like Aibleen and Minney, we see new social subjects of the black civil rights movement, subjects who, by the depth of their sacrifice and the enormity of their courage challenged white supremacy up close and personal.

Example of Intimacy and Resistance from Aibleen in The Help

Both films recognize and celebrate modern conceptions of new subjects and a changing order—in the case of The Help of the subject of the civil rights movement and the slow demise of a Jim Crow order of racial terror (especially in the close spaces of domestic proximity) and in Downton Abbey, the transformation of the British class system. Of course, today we recognize these subjects and the social transformations they helped usher in as topics of cinema, history, and culture. Where are the spaces that shape and define the practices of equality in our own time and what are the terms of mediation do we negotiate to access such spaces. I found such a space in a most unlikely place, the televised coverage of Whitney Houston’s funeral (but not the wall to wall news coverage and media spectacle of the tragic death of Whitney Houston). The distinction is important. Against the backdrop of celebrity spectacle, media events of such magnitude have become routine (e.g. the coverage of 9-11, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the funeral of Princess Diana, the OJ Simpson trial, the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings, the marriage of Prince William, and the death and funeral of Michael Jackson).

What about those uniforms, you ask. What might the black space of the funeral and television’s coverage of it tell us differently about spaces of intimacy, difference, and community as practices of equality? First of all the funeral was held in the black Baptist church of Whitney Houston’s youth, a space whose intimate yet communal rituals of baptism, witness, community, and loss frames lives, defines communities, and animates the rhythms of ordinary life. The logic of the black Baptist church effectively mediated the conventional televisual grammar and looking practices that we associate with coverage of major media events—the close up, the cut away, expert commentary, spectacle, and celebrity. I watched the CNN’s two plus hours of nonstop coverage and I could not help but notice the (mostly futile) attempt by CNN hosts Don Lemon, Piers Morgan and Soledad O’Brien to give a play-by-play account of the event. Perhaps out of respect or futility O’Brien gave up (or in) to the rhythm of the black church, a rhythm that momentarily, at least, returned to broadcast television’s founding claim to liveness and simultaneity. Because the temporality of grief and mourning resisted the rhythm of television’s standard conventions (lighting, camera shots, cut-away, commercial interruption, and commentary) these conventions did not define the terms of the event. Instead the church service–length, pacing, improvisation, spontaneity, digressions, break downs (in the program, among the audiences, among the participants), mistakes, confusion subordinated television’s standard conventions to the rituals and rhythm of black space. Here are a few examples: Stevie Wonder’s encore performance; Rev. Marvin Winans calling members of his immediate and extended family to the pulpit to share in stories and song; the Rev. Marvin Winans’ sermon in in which his meta commentary on black preaching was itself a performance of black signifying; and heart wrenching expressions of grief, love and loss. These expressions black grief, praise, and celebration were conveyed in the broadcast through a very limited number of camera shots—medium close-ups and long shots dominated the visual coverage.

Houston's Funeral

Image from the Coverage of Houston’s Funeral

With CNN’s coverage of Houston’s funeral, I could not help but draw comparisons between the staging and coverage of Houston’s funeral and Michael Jackson’s a few years earlier. In many respects, the television coverage of each stressed their roles in transgressing the boundaries of race and celebrity that defined their times. Jackson’s was a black space too but one designed and staged for a global fan base, for a media spectacle that could only take place in the vastness of the LA’s Staples Center, whose grammar and representation was spectacular in every sense. Billed as a celebration, it is fair to say that producers and family produced the event for a global television audience. Black space. Whitney Houston’s funeral was also black space; but the space of the Black Baptist church and community of her childhood where black woman ushers dressed in uniforms of distinction (white nurse uniforms) signifying aid and comfort, took charge of the emotional health of members and visitors alike. People came to worship, praise, and mourn in the space of community and fellowship.

Transactions and crossing boundaries in spaces such as those represented in The Help, Downton Abbey and the Black Baptist Church of Houston’s youth make visible practices of inequality. They also show us spaces of community and the common. In such spaces the same uniforms that distinguish and mark differences in social station, resources and access to life changes can in other spaces signal welcome, participation, justice and equality. Those uniforms indeed!

Image Credits:
1. Downton Abbey
2. Houston Funeral

Please feel free to comment.


  • Downton Abbey is currently acknowledged as one of the best shows on television; it is has received such critical acclaim for good reason. The period drama artfully reinvents the upstairs/downstairs narrative that The Help also employs, but both stories evoke a very conscious rooting for the downstairs characters. Perhaps the audience so dearly desires a happy outcome for the maids, butlers, and “help” because the underdog is a long-favored character, or perhaps it is because they are easier to empathize with. The average viewer does not live in a home as beautiful or luxurious as Downton, nor do they align themselves with the upper class Southern gentry. Instead, viewers find themselves more engaged in the storyline between Anna and Mr. Bates rather than the Crawley daughters and their various suitors. The daughters are beautiful, wealthy, and entitled, and their happy endings seem promised, but the servants are not automatically guaranteed a beau as attractive as Matthew. Similarly, in The Help the readers/ viewers are far more invested in Aibileen and Minny’s stories, even though Skeeter narrates a considerable portion of the novel and film. It is more entertaining and emotionally engaging to root for the underdogs because they are easier to identify with; their happy ending represents a much greater resolution, one that was achieved despite the considerable bumps along the way.

  • Sorry for not reading this earlier, Herman…but brilliant and thought-provoking analysis!

  • After the lastest season of Downton, I decided to ditch this show. I was expecting to see an original British show featured with conception of class, history and aristocracy, however, Downton let most people disappointed after the third season since it has fell into the cliche love story stereotype. After experiencing so many turns and twists, Mary and Matthew finally got married. When audiences all looked forward to their saving for Downton, Matthew weirdly died in car accident. (Rumor says it is because Dan Stevens who played Matthew didn’t sign the contract for next season) The same story happened on Lady Sybil who married to an Irish chauffeur. Except for the beautiful clothes, civilized manner and charming English accent, Downton hardly set itself in a particularly historic time period.
    However, Help had more significant meaning to the exploration of class and race. I still remember the first time when Aibileen received the interview with Skeeter, how humble and scared she was. Help covered such social issue with a more natural method while Downton seems more superficial and cheesy.

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