Dina Copelman, professor of Cultural Studies and History and Art History was on Mason News. She provided commentary on the British TV series "Downton Abbey." PhD student Esma H. Celebioglu conducted an interview in which Professor Copelman shares her analysis about the relationship among history, media, and cultural studies.
1) In recent years, history has become a very popular theme in TV series. Why do you think history is such an important and popular aspect of today’s cultural production? Do you think there is a specific relationship between history and cultural production and how do they affect each other?
I’m not sure history is a new theme on TV, and I’m especially not sure Downton Abbey is history. In the 1960s there were many popular TV shows set in the 19th century American West (Bonanza and Gunsmoke come to mind) and they certainly presented a particular view, legitimizing the extension of white settlement. And with the advent of “miniseries” history was a frequent subject: Roots may be the most significant example of this, but there were others. For instance, in 1985 ABC aired North and South, a Civil War themed miniseries that was very popular. It continued in 1986 and returned for a third installment in 1994. And PBS was constantly providing historically inflected fare—Upstairs, Downstairs; Poldark; I Claudiu; Jewel in the Crown. So I don’t think this is a new focus, nor do I think the combination of soap opera with a historical veneer is new.
What is different and has contributed to Downton Abbey’s success is a different historical context. First, the show came out at just the right time—it provided welcome escape from the harsh realities of the 2008 global recession. In the show it often seems like some sort of financial ruin might imperil the estate, but pluck and character always seem to pull them through. If only things worked that way! I would also single out the rise of reality shows and the extension of entertainment tie-in marketing beyond the Disney-Star Wars realm as significant to the show’s success. Downton has a sheen of respectability and cultural high-mindedness and does not make the viewer feel like a voyeur. Shows like the Real Housewives series also portray extremes of wealth and the pursuit of status, but in dysfunctional and crass ways. Viewers might be able to feel superior to the characters in those shows, but they don’t feel edified. Watching Downton does not provide a sense of superiority vis-a-vis the show’s characters, but it’s considered socially valuable cultural consumption—I wouldn’t exactly call it cultural capital, but appropriate for people who like to think of themselves as possessing cultural capital. Voyeurism may not be satisfied in the same ways, but wealth is glamorized in acceptable ways. And, with Downton—which has spawned many show-related product lines, exhibits and TV specials—adults don’t have to envy children’s action figures anymore; adults can also honor a favorite show and extend their show-related pleasure by consuming.
2) As an academic, how do you link the popularity of history in media with Cultural Studies? How does Cultural Studies inform the ways you interpret the show?
What I am doing is certainly expressing the Cultural Studies side of my scholarly identity, but, to be fair, many other historians, whether or not they think of themselves as working within the purview of Cultural Studies, would approach the show with similar concerns.
But I may be different because I’m at least equally interested in using the show as a vehicle to understand the present as in providing a more accurate historical understanding of the period covered by the show. Many historians might be more hesitant to venture in that direction, whereas I relished the opportunity. And that’s where Cultural Studies informs how I approach the show. What are the actual politics of the show (especially those of its writer and producer, Julian Fellowes)? How does the show combine “progressive” perspectives—such as having strong female characters, a mildly progressive stance on sexual politics, and openness to marrying outside the clan—with what is a profoundly conservative agenda: that the aristocracy and traditional elites may have had their faults, but they were not only decent individuals, but appropriate stewards of the nation. The show simultaneously argues that class barriers and economic interests were not entrenched in every aspect of life and that the class perspective of the aristocracy was, in fact, a civilizing, beneficial force. I view this as both magical thinking and a political argument. In my reviews I don’t come out and state the latter explicitly but suggest that to be the case by pointing out the fairy tale elements of the show. In general, whether reviewing Downton or some other show, I would ask: in what ways does the plot, the characters, production and the general ambiance of a show create a particular view of a time period? The answer to that question would then lead me to explore what political and economic issues in the present are being addressed through those representations. Historical as well as contemporary issues would be constantly in play.
3) Are there other challenges you encountered commenting for WETA-PBS?
Yes, I had to think a lot about how to write. There’s a lot of academic—and especially non-academic—discussion about the need for scholars and intellectuals generally to write in accessible ways. In many cases that’s a coded way of dismissing academic work and serious critique and discounting the need for specialized vocabularies—we don’t question that physicists need that, but humanities and social sciences are not accorded the same privileges.
Nonetheless, there are also important questions raised by that critique. My introduction to Cultural Studies was overdetermined—I became a British historian at the same time that Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was emerging as a significant intellectual and political force, at least for academics. But I was also aware that Cultural Studies had many links outside the academy. Many of the early “founders” originally taught in adult education; in the history of British Cultural Studies, a seminal event was the 1960 annual meeting of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), whose theme was “Popular Culture and Personal Responsibility.” The NUT sought to accept and work with the inevitable influence of popular culture on youth, but also to strategize how to develop critical perspectives. We can explore those questions through the lens of various theorists—whether Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, or Leavis and Hoggart, or many others. But, one way I understand the project they were trying to launch, is that we have to be able to communicate across different social environments—to each other and college students; but also to high school students… and Masterpiece Theater viewers. That charge was compounded, in this specific case, by being hired by WETA-PBS, the sponsors of the show, who were overjoyed that the show was such a success. They had no reason to post anything dismissive or overly critical of the show, though they were genuinely interested in getting a historical and social take on the show.
Personally, I wanted to highlight the problems the show posed, but didn’t want to dismiss people’s love of the show or look down on them because of it. So, as an academic writer, I not only had to think about writing in an accessible manner, but also how to validate the pleasure the show provided its fans, while at the same time trying to urge people to be more active and critical viewers. I wanted people to see their viewing preferences as already representing aspects of their social identities and then, in turn, providing them with particular social narratives to interpret the world. Did I accomplish this? At the very least, judging from a few reader reactions (outside my circle of friends), I piqued some people’s curiosity, was asked to comment about the show by other organizations (I was quoted in Entrepreneur magazine and asked to write something for Swiss Public Radio!) and disrupted some people’s understanding of the show. That’s a start…
Click here to learn more about Professor Copelman’s comments on the last season of "Downton Abbey."
February 02, 2016