Five Reasons Love Actually is Actually Horribly Sexist

Love Actually is generally considered a classic British Christmas film. As a nation, it seems to be a widely held belief that Richard Curtis can do no wrong, hence his festive offering to cinema is all over television every Christmas. Personally, it was never one of my favourite holiday films, although I could never pinpoint why. Recently I read a Jezebel article entitled ‘I rewatched Love Actually And Am Here To Ruin It for All of You’, in which Lindy West points out what, in her opinion, are the film’s many flaws. It’s not the best article I’ve ever read, but while I didn’t agree with all of West’s points, it did make me stop and realise that Love Actually is, actually, a horribly sexist film. Beyond the various plot inaccuracies and other minutiae that West focuses on, the women in the film are treated terribly and it is rife with misogynistic attitudes.

1. It’s a man’s world

This film is about straight, white, powerful men chasing and winning attractive women. Nearly every single male character holds an important, distinguished job: prime minister of the United Kingdom, managing director of a design agency, rock star, writer, videographer, the list goes on. While the female characters all assume stereotypically feminine roles: mother, housekeeper, secretary, member of the prime minister’s staff (What does Natalia even do? Her role is so unimportant, it doesn’t even seem to have a name, plus she loses the job for being too sexy and distracting soon anyway.) Immediately, we are shown that men are the powerful ones, assertive and in charge of things, while the women do their less important women things, like look after children and bring the tea and biscuits.

2. None of the women talk

All of the women who are considered conventionally attractive in the film barely speak. This is where West really got it right in her article, stating: ‘The less a woman talks, the more loveable she is.’ Colin Firth’s love interest? Doesn’t even speak the same language as him. He falls ‘in love’ with her only when she strips off (totally unnecessarily – he’s allowed to remain fully clothed when he jumps in after her) to dive into the pond in order to save his important manuscript. Again, this emphasises how important Firth’s character’s role as a writer is – women must disrobe and dive into scummy pondwater to save his serious, influential work. Then there is Thomas Sangster’s character, the sad child whose mum has just died. His love interest is only shown on screen once, at the end, and barely says a word. All she does is smile and sing. There is no communication between these men and the women they claim to love. We don’t learn about any of them as people, the only defining quality we are made aware of is their beauty.

3. Women, especially, do not talk to each other

Not only are these women not speaking to the men chasing after them, they’re not even talking to each other. Few of them even know one other. One of the film’s central devices is the way every character is connected to each other through some kind of elaborate show of the six degrees of separation. However, everyone knows a male character. No one is connected to another character through a female character, apart from Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson but we’ll get to her in a minute. It seems these women have no friends or lives to speak of beyond the men who fancy them. Women are shown speaking to each other maybe a handful of times, and it’s about men when they do. This film is miles away from passing the Bechdel test.

4. When the women do talk/act, they are punished

The only rounded woman character with a lot of lines is Emma Thompson. She is shown as the sad, nagging housewife and punished for her agency when her husband goes about buying jewellery for his young, attractive secretary. Then there’s Laura Linney’s character, who is caught up in a bizarre ‘no one likes someone with mentally ill relatives’ plot-line that is for another blog post entirely. Socially ostracised and busy ensuring her brother is okay, she will never be able to find happiness with Karl, her office love, whom she has never spoken to. When she does finally get the guts to pursue him, she ultimately fails and goes back to being sad. Once again, Richard Curtis shows us that women with agency do not end up happy.

5. Whereas men can do literally anything and still win a woman

Meanwhile, the men in the film are off doing creepy, inappropriate things that overstep socially accepted boundaries, like filming an entire wedding video of only close-ups of Keira Knightley’s face, and still being praised for it. This only furthers the concept of men doing strange things that are not okay and basically constitute stalking, (see also Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything, outside your window with that boombox), and this being misconstrued as ‘romantic’. Whatever men do, however bizarre, they still end up with their love interest in the end. Liam Neeson’s character only has to bump into supermodel Claudia Schiffer in a school corridor before it is implied they are now ‘in love’. A mere five weeks after the death of his darling wife. Real nice.

This is not to say you cannot ever watch Love Actually again. Personally, I attempted to rewatch it this Christmas and turned it off after ten minutes in disgust. But that’s just me. So many things are problematic. If we restricted the things we enjoyed to solely non-problematic things, we would all probably end up sitting around twiddling our thumbs a lot because there would be nothing to watch or read or do. You can watch problematic films and still enjoy them, you just have to acknowledge that they’re problematic and not make excuses for them. There’s no excuse for Richard Curtis creating a film where there are no well-rounded women characters with a comparable amount of lines to their male counterparts. Does this suck? Yes. Does it mean you can’t ever watch this film again? Probably not. That part’s totally up to you.

Rachel Knott

‘Hard Out Here’ by Lily Allen and Intersectional Feminism

After this summer’s Blurred Lines debate, the way women are presented in the media, especially the music industry, is certainly a hot topic at the moment, which is no bad thing. The industry for years has been one of the worst for objectifying and sexualising women, to the point where harmful and degrading ideas about women have become commonplace in your average top ten single.

Cue Lily Allen.

Back from her self-imposed retirement, Lily has just released a song named ‘Hard Out Here’, a satirical commentary on her experiences in the media spotlight. Allen has often used her music to make a statement about her political opinions, most notably in her song ‘Fuck You’, a lyrical letter to former President, George W. Bush. It’s unsurprising, then, that for her new release she parodies the likes of Robin Thicke, with lyrics such as ‘have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?’ a play on the delightful lyrics ‘I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two’ from ‘Blurred Lines’.

While the unsubtle middle finger up to the likes of Robin Thicke is fantastic, the song does feature quite a problematic take on feminism. The line ‘don’t need to shake my arse for you, cause I’ve got a brain’ has some serious issues, especially in the context of the video, implying that women who do shake their arses only do so because they’re stupid. Not like Lily, because she’s smart, apparently.

The video itself is a parody of hip-hop and rap music videos, and features several dancers twerking in bikinis next to a fully dressed Lily. Most of the dancers are black, and the two that aren’t both happen to be slightly more clothed than the black women, who are clearly the subject and focus of the video through the objectifying close up shots.

Therefore, in an attempt to parody the way women in the music industry are presented, Allen has used black women to make her point. Groundbreaking stuff.

In my opinion, for satire to properly work, it should be generally understood as satire. As in, you watch it and there’s pretty much no doubt that it is not being serious and that it is simply making fun of conventions or ideas. The problem with this video, while it does get its point across, is that it completely sexualises and objectifies black women’s bodies in the process, and leaves you confused as to whether it’s actually intended to be satire or not.

The slow motion, close up shots of black women’s backsides while twerking is no better (and is arguably worse) than anything I have ever seen in the kinds of music videos this is meant to parody. And while Allen has denied on Twitter any intent towards racism, or even any racial discussion in the video, the portrayal of black women in the video is undeniably negative. Also, the references to rap and hip hop, music genres usually dominated by black artists, are intended to be mocking, with Lily throwing money around and dancing on expensive cars, common signifiers of wealth in the genre. As well as this, not just Lily is more covered up than the black dancers, but the Asian and white dancers are also wearing more clothing, and are sexualised considerably less than them, with fewer close ups on their bodies and fewer shots of them in general. The black women’s bodies are the focus of the dance scenes, and they are completely objectified so that Lily can get her point across.

One of feminism’s problems is that a large portion of feminists are white and unaware of their privilege, meaning that other sections of society can often be pushed aside or deemed as ‘not as important’. It’s for this reason that feminists of colour have coined the term ‘womanism’ in order to separate themselves from the internalised racism that is common in the world of white feminism. This video is a perfect display of why women of colour feel alienated from feminism: Lily uses and objectifies black women’s bodies in order to lift herself up. While she states in her tweet that she feels ‘in no way […] superior to anyone,’ the message the video presents remains clear: Lily is superior to these women and is using them to further her message, rather than being in a position of solidarity with them.

Lily also states in terms of the exposure of the dancer’s bodies “If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too.” So in other words, Lily felt uncomfortable with wearing a bikini in the video, but was happy to make her dancers do the exact same thing. She claims that she would have also been the one twerking into the camera, had she been any good. The fact that this was her intention for the video is also worrying, as the main complaint about Miley Cyrus’ latest video for ‘We Can’t Stop,’ is that Miley is appropriating twerking. How, then, is doing it for comedic effect any different?

In summary, If Lily’s only way of getting across a feminist message is by oppressing black women, then maybe she needs to rethink the message she is trying to send, not just to white women, but to all races, ethnicities, genders, and anyone in any way affected by the kyriarchy. You can’t just ignore something that looks problematic, just because it’s supposed to be satire. Even if it is meant humorously, it doesn’t make it ok to do the same things. Many are calling her song a ‘feminist anthem,’ but it is a very dated, very white version of what I call feminism.

To end on a positive note, here is possibly the only shot in the entire music video that isn’t problematic:

Lily Allen has a Baggy Pussy

While I have tried to be as objective as possible in this post, I am white and I do speak from a place of privilege, so here are some links of black women also discussing the topic of ‘Hard Out Here:’

http://newwavefeminism.tumblr.com/post/66886842189/lily-allen-saving-white-women-from-the-dangers-of-hip

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/zeba-blay/hard-out-here-lilly-allen_b_4274209.html

http://www.blackfeminists.org/2013/11/13/lily-allen-hard-out-here-video/

 

Charlotte Earney.

The Handmaid’s Tale and feminism: Examining characterisation in Atwood’s novel

Although a feminist story, The Handmaid’s Tale gives some surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of men while those of women can be critical. Men are the most mysterious characters; they are the ones we know least about and the ones that Offred can provide the least insight into beyond patriarchal society, dominant male figures, and sexual predators. Few male characters have more than functional roles of the patriarchal state. Most have no names, only group identities such as the Angels, the Eyes, and the Doctor, except for those who Offred has immediate relationships with such as Nick and the Commander. Atwood herself states that feminism is a broad term covering anything from ‘pushing men off cliffs to allowing women to read and write in Afghanistan’. Through the characters of Serena Joy and Moira she looks at how women’s own misunderstanding of men and feminism could result in a backlash and repression leading to a women’s way of survival that could be critical.

Nick is a romantic rather than a realistic figure, the mysterious stranger who is Offred’s rescuer through love. He is more relaxed than other members of Gilead society, wearing his hat at an angle and winking at her. She also describes details of his appearance which prevent him from seeming threatening, ‘creases around the mouth where he smiles’ p.28, whereas everyone else is described by the clothes that they wear, symbolising their status. At household prayers he presses his foot against hers causing a sensual warmth that she is unwilling to acknowledge. During the daytime he is a comic figure, at night her lover, which is made more particular as he is acting under orders either by the Commander or Serena Joy. Like Offred, he is subordinate and therefore has to remain passive until ordered to go to bed with Offred by Serena Joy. Of this first encounter Offred gives three different descriptions; his attitude is not directly described and he remains a figure that cannot be fully understood, realised or analysed. However, in defiance of danger she repeatedly returns to him and clearly falls in love with him, yet the lack of emotional response and understanding between them that is described and revealed to the reader makes it difficult to ascertain to what degree it is love or simply sexual desire. Nevertheless her description of their lovemaking is suggestive rather than simply erotic. At no point does the reader witness a direct conversation; therefore it is difficult to establish an analysis of him and his motives. Importantly she tells him her real name, something that is not even revealed to us, underlining the intimacy of their relationship. We want to believe that he is in love with Offred, yet he is the only member of the household not present when she departs. It can be taken from the Historical Notes that he did rescue her and was a member of the Mayday resistance. As a character he is very lightly described and his most significant role is as her lover, yet it is not a romantic story. Instead her relationship with him underlines the conflict she experiences of loyalty and sexual desires which eventually outweigh her loyalty to Luke and desire to escape.

The Commander is the most powerful authority figure in Offred’s life. He is a high-ranking government official and it is to him that she is assigned so as to take his name. This is similar to slavery before the abolition; once slaves were freed from their masters they would often take the same surname. Yet the Commander is an ambiguous figure, substantial and shadowy, whose motivations remain constantly unclear. An elderly man with ‘straight neatly brushed silver hair’ and a moustache and blue eyes, his manner is mild p.97, and Offred likens him to a Mid-Western bank manager. She sees him lurking by her room and trying to peer at her as she walks past, p.59. demonstrating that he presents himself as a typical male power, isolated and benignly indifferent to his domestic affairs. He performs ceremony in dress uniform and she describes his actions as ‘fucking’, with his eyes shut – making him into a comical figure. As Offred begins to know him his typical male power stereotype starts to fall away. He asks her to meet him in his study ‘after hours’ and it is revealed that he is a lonely man who requires friendship and intimacy. He does not ask her for kinky sex but instead to play scrabble, the most domestic and mundane of pastimes which appears an incredulous past normality to her. He offers her books and magazines consisting of a once normal life which are now forbidden to her, asking only for a kiss at the end of the night. This reveals a more complex characteristic to the Commander. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who treats her in a somewhat patronising way, ‘In fact he is positively daddyish’ p.193. Despite his obscure motives they manage to develop an amiable relationship. However it is still a matter of sexual power politics in which the Commander is dominant. He is traditional in his views and patriarchal assumptions, ‘Natures norms’ p.232 with which he describes Jezebels where they have a private sexual encounter. When Offred is taken away from the house of the Commander for the last time she sees him looking ‘old, worried and helpless’, expecting his own downfall shortly and in this way Offred had her revenge upon him for the balance of power between them, ‘Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking’.

As the Commanders wife, Serena Joy is the most powerful female presence in the daily life in Gilead. Offred can observe her in her social role as one of the Wives but also at close quarters in her own home and she appears as more than just a member of a class of hierarchy. Unlike the other Wives she is referred to by her own name, but she is elderly and childless and therefore has to agree to having a handmaid in her own home as she cannot produce children herself. She clearly resents Offred as a reminder of her inability to have children and as a violation of the sanctity of marriage. It is ironic that we learn she was previously an ultra-conservative voice on domestic policies and the place of women within the home. Offred observes this as she is trapped within the ideology which she created, ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her’, p.56. Serena Joy’s only place of power is her living room, where she has nothing to do but knit scarves for the Angels, and her place for expression is her garden. Yet even there she has to be assisted by her husband’s chauffer. Despite her apparently submissive status as a Wife, there is a harsh toughness and masculinity about Serena Joy. She lacks femininity, which juxtaposes her husbands ‘daddyishness’ and perhaps susceptibility to manipulation or pliability by Offred for hand creams, magazines, and pieces of information. Serena Joy, unlike her husband, has no weakness of ‘nature’s norms’ and therefore no susceptibility. It is impossible for anyone to know what she is thinking. In Serena’s cigarette smoking and use of slang we see evidence for this toughness. It is at her suggestion that Offred sleep with Nick to become pregnant, ‘She is actually smiling, coquettishly’ p.216. Serena Joy represents two aspects of Gileadean society, the role of dutiful Wife as a privileged status, as well as a twisted plot in infidelity and the extremes that people are willing to adopt in able to conceive. This is arguably a method of survival for perhaps desperate women, pushed to this extreme by inability to conceive and the social structure, which she ironically contributed to herself. However Serena is still unforgivable for she has her own revenge too, deliberately with-holding from Offred the news of her lost daughter and a photograph of her which Offred has been longing for. Serena is beside the commander when Offred leaves the house, her farewell to Offred holds none of the pieties of Gilead, ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ p.299. Serena Joy demonstrates the very ineffectiveness of falsity of Gilead society and the criticism of her from a feminist perspective is criticism of anti-feminists and also of the perfection, which is a symbol of a decaying and flawed society.

Moira is the only female character within the narrative that is portrayed positively and with admiration by the narrator as she constantly resurfaces in the narrative. She is the embodiment of resistance and rebellion, identified by her own first name because she never became a handmaid. From Offred’s point of view she embodies female heroism, although from the point of view of Gilead she is criminal. Although brought to the Red Centre, she manages to escape on her second attempt, disguised as an Aunt, which was not only comical but is symbolic of her refusal to conform to the Gilead class basis. She therefore becomes what all other Handmaids would like to be but don’t dare and Offred envies her courageous resistance, ‘Moira was our fantasy… We hugged her to us, she was us in secret, a giggle; she was the lava beneath the crust of daily life’ p.143. However when Offred last meets Moira at the Jezebels, she finds that she did not manage to escape to freedom but was instead caught at the border and sent to the brothel where she says she will have three or four good years before being sent out to the colonies. In this final meeting it appears that Moira’s spirit has been broken by Gilead, yet she still declares herself to be a lesbian and her values as a feminist and as a heroine lie in her speaking out and challenging tyranny and oppression.

In conclusion, although written from a feminist perspective The Handmaid’s Tale allows for closer analysis of characters to understand the complexities of an oppressed society. It does not simply deal with the oppression of women; Gilead outlaws choice, emotion and free will. Pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are all outlawed but so is love. It is not merely oppression of women, but oppression of human rights. Atwood is highlighting that we see gender roles too plainly, that this is both true of men and women.

 Sophie Peters

Gender is Just a Lazy Way of Avoiding Talking about what you Really Want

I am currently reading Helen Boyd’s book She’s Not The Man I Married. In this book, Boyd describes what it is like to be married to a transgender woman, and how that relationship has completely rewritten the ways she thinks about her own gender and sexuality, both of which are thrown into question by her husband coming out – if she plays the man’s role from time to time, does that make her less of a woman? If she is now married to a woman, does that make her gay, or at the very least queer? As a feminist, Boyd is keen to dismiss the labels and the gender roles now that they no longer fit her precisely, but is unable to do this if her husband is to transition… gender plays a very concrete role in their relationship, and so she has to explore it, and tackle it head on, rather than ignore it.

 When gender is such a large facet of your relationship, Boyd tells us, you find yourself thinking about it all the time, which means it throws up problems all the time. But the problem with using gender as the framework for issues in a relationship is that the language we use is so inexact. Boyd writes:

“As a writer, I’m often offended by how inaccurate our language is when it comes to gender. ‘Feminine’ is used to stand in for all kinds of other words – like gentle, permissive, empathetic, kind, nurturing. Those are also the traits people imply when they say ‘woman’. ‘Masculine’, likewise, is used to mean strong, athletic, protective, gruff, or authoritative. Sometimes I feel like a writing teacher walking through the world – and the trans community – because I want to stop all the time to explain, ‘Say what you mean, because ‘feminine’ doesn’t mean anything.’”

Even words that don’t describe gender, such as “nurturing”, are so gendered that you soon realise they mean a lot more than they’re saying. To “nurture” something is to provide it with what it needs in order to grow; in this sense, is the typical ‘breadwinner’ masculinity any less nurturing than the femininity that slices the bread and feeds it to the family?

It made me realise how often, when it comes to relationships, I find myself thinking about myself in highly-gendered terms and then don’t bother to unpick what that means. Social conditioning tells me that asking a guy out is no way to start a relationship, that it is ‘emasculating’… but just think about that word for a second. There’s no feminine equivalent. All the other words that I might use to describe a person who would ask another person out – ‘confident’, ‘flirty’, even ‘forward’ – are words I don’t mind being described as. But if you suggest I’m in any way less ‘feminine’ because of it, I back down and go back to sitting in the corner looking pretty and waiting to be asked to dance. I like being feminine, and it’s a huge part of how I construct my identity – in the films I watch, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the way I present myself. However at the same time I don’t like playing games or messing people around; I am a pretty straightforward person and I prize honesty above most other virtues and it turns out that applied to the world of dating, those qualities turn me into a “man”. What’s with that?

Gender is important for a lot of people, and I’m not going to go all Judith Butler and say we should stop thinking about it all together. I don’t want to take anything away from people who, unlike me, have a strong sense of their internal gender. I’m just saying that we should start being more precise about what we mean by it. In my last relationship, I often complained to friends that I wished my ex would be “a bit more manly sometimes”… by which I meant, I wished that he would stick up for me more if his friends were teasing me. When I thought I wanted to “feel more like a woman” in bed, I really meant I wanted him to be slightly more sexually aggressive. By using gendered terms when I was talking about our problems, I was ducking the real issues and ignoring the question of what I really wanted. Luckily, I learned this lesson early; though, judging from the way he complained about being ‘whipped’ without ever telling me what exactly I was doing wrong, he didn’t.

Gender roles are imprecise because they encompass so many things. ‘Dependency’ is clearly associated with femininity in relationships, but would we call the role of mother ‘dependent’? Surely it implies the opposite, because ‘mothering’ someone means they are entirely dependent on you. I have heard many times girls with clingy boyfriends voice the wish that they’d just “man up”, but what if the ‘man’ they are being is a son relying on his new maternal figure? Instead of bringing gender into it, call it what it is, and then you won’t be misunderstood.

When it comes to sexuality, gender becomes even more complicated because we define our sexuality by what gender we are attracted to. I’m heterosexual, but what does saying that even mean? I’m certainly not attracted to every man by virtue of them being a man. The problem with the labels of heterosexual and homosexual is that they are creating a gender binary that doesn’t exist in the real world; where do the thousands of gender non-conforming people fit into this narrow idea of sexuality? Again, isn’t it easier to be honest about what we are really attracted to – I like narrow hips and body hair and stubble; it’s rare to find a woman with these qualities but I won’t rule it out in the future – after all, body type and genitals don’t define our gender.

The problem with a binary is that you have to fit into one side of it, or the other; if I take the role of ‘man’ by asking people out, I should expect to be the one who “wears the pants” in the relationship; when in reality, we all have a huge range of personal qualities, some of which are masculine, some of which are feminine; some of which we’ll like in others, and some of which we won’t. Being masculine in some senses doesn’t stop me being feminine in others – gender is not a scale, like hot and cold. If we become more precise in describing these things, not only do we make our relationships stronger, but we stop excusing all kinds of unacceptable or even abusive behaviours because “that’s just what men/women do”. There are almost three quarters of a million words in the English language; let’s start using them.

Hattie Grunewald
UEAFS President

Slut Shaming and Youtube’s Reaction

Trigger warning: discussion of slut shaming and mentions of rape

This week Jenna Marbles, a youtube personality who I had previously liked and found quite funny, posted a rather problematic video called ‘Things I Don’t Understand about Girls: The Slut Edition’. The video (imbedded below, although only watch it if you want to get really angry) contains a lot of slut shaming and perpetuation of stereotypes that occur within rape culture.

The video says things like ‘a slut is someone who has a lot of casual sex’ and ‘I hope you realise some day that it feels so much better when you’re not having so much sex’ which is definitely slut shaming, telling women that they cannot do what they want with their body, and that if they are promiscuous they are inferior to other women. The worst part of the video for me, was when Jenna suggested that if a woman is ‘blackout drunk’ and being taken advantage of by a group of men, you should help her because it will stop her acting like a slut, not because it will stop a case of sexual assault, I could go on…

However, something that is helping to soothe my anger at society is the responses from other youtubers. Laci Green postponed her planned video to post a response to Jenna Marbles. She discusses slut shaming by breaking down the idea that ‘sluts don’t respect themselves’ and showing the double standards of promiscuity within society.

Hayley G Hoover, a youtuber whose channel isn’t centred around sex positivity and feminism, made a response to Jenna Marbles’s video talking about how slut shaming leads to rape culture. Her audience isn’t predominantly feminists, so when she says ‘if a man has sex with a woman who is incapacitated, too drunk to know what she’s doing, unconscious, asleep or otherwise incapable of making a sober decision, that’s rape every single time’ she’s educating some of her youtube viewers on what is and isn’t consenting sex.

Finally, a feminist society member Megan Fozzard posted this video by John Green to the facebook discussion group:

Admittedly, when talking about slut shaming, John Green compares women to cereal, in a way that commodifies women; however, the point he makes to a large youtube audience is still sex positive and arguing against slut shaming.

While there will always be youtubers who will make problematic and misogynistic videos, due to the state of the society we live in, youtube does have a good sex positive and feminist community and the response to Jenna Marbles’s video illustrates this.

Jenny Grimes

Why Every Feminist should be mourning Sybil Branson

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone  etc etc. On Sunday night, the unthinkable happened. Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey, the most gloriously silly period drama ever to grace our screens) mercilessly took the life of its most feminist character, Sybil Branson, nee Crawley.

The cry as Sybil took her final breath and left her husband and newborn child to go on without her was heard across the country. Twitter exploded. Three days later, many are still in mourning. “I’m still in a right state over #Sybil” Victoria Finan, UEAFS member, tweeted – “had another little cry earlier.”

For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about, I suggest you watch Downton Abbey. It seems unlikely that a Period Drama, which must by its very nature hark back to the glory days of a ruling class of white men, could possibly be in any way feminist. And yet the female characters of this show kick the arse of every male in it. While the men are chasing their own coat-tails, tying themselves up in knots of “honour” and “duty”, the women are pursuing their own lovers, securing their own dowries and fighting for their own suffrage. The women deliver all the wittiest lines and pull the mens’ socks up before the whole estate crumbles into the ground.

And Sybil was at the forefront of these battles. Sybil, who got her dressmaker to stitch her a pair of trousers without her family’s permission, who was knocked unconscious at a socialist rally, who trained to be a nurse during World War One and who gave up her fortune to marry the chauffeur… Sybil was an unmissable critique of the patriarchal period, the one constantly reminding viewers that there was more for young ladies to be concerned with at the turn of the century than just who they should marry. Her marriage to the Irish socialist revolutionary Branson was a clear sign that women’s liberation was tied with that of the working class – Branson wants to burn Downton Abbey to the ground, while all his in laws are battling to save it.

The plots of the show were becoming increasingly ridiculous, but Downton Abbey never lost its humanity, an aspect of the show that always overtook without eclipsing its politics. Branson wants to see an end of the nobility, but at the same time he knows his in-laws are people too and wouldn’t want to see them hurt. For Fellowes, the personal is the political, and every character-driven storyline could make you laugh and weep.

And yet for all its insanity, I never thought it would come to this. Perhaps I should withhold my judgement and wait to see how the series plays out, but I have to say it – Julian Fellowes has shown his true Tory colours and fridged my Sybil. For those of you who don’t know about the “Women in Refridgerators” trope, it is where a main, well-developed female character is killed off for the sake of the character development of her male counterparts. (Here is a great Feminist Frequency vid to explain further) Death by childbirth is a crafty way of doing this – leaving her husband with a newborn baby and her father with a shedfull of guilt at not trusting the doctor is a great way to develop their characters. And though many women do die in Childbirth, particularly in 1920, it doesn’t stop this death being no more than a random and brutal plot device.

We can only hope that Lady Edith, a developing political writer and probable spinster, will be able to fill her younger sister’s feminist shoes. Until this happens, I will be mourning Sybil Branson, our fallen sister. Dying at the age of twenty-four when only women over twenty-five were awarded suffrage, she never even got a chance to vote.

Hattie Grunewald
UEAFS President