Downton Gabby’s Bawdy Feminist Commentary

Fans of Downton Abbey will know the forlorn feeling I’m talking about: It’s when a cliff-hanging final scene ends and you are left with the sad realization (and a mysterious craving for PBS advertisers’ Viking River Cruises and Ralph Lauren floor-length yellow skirts) that you have to wait an entire week to bask in the glorious melodrama of titled Anglo Saxons and their vassals.

But, for me, thankfully, the sorrow lasts only a moment until I remember the comfort of the “Downton Gabby” podcast coming my way in a few days. In their three years of broadcasting (from  iTunes or Tumblr), the three co-hosts have lived up to their motto of being “fun, feminist and foul-mouthed,” as well as hilarious. The podcast’s profile perhaps reached its peak in late January, when the PBS website linked to one of the tweets of co-host Therese Shechter, with its corresponding link to that week’s podcast—titled “Lady Boners.” “We’re not sure PBS knew what they were doing showing the link in that tweet. :)” says co-host Brandi Sperry, “but the screencap shows the evidence forever.”

The podcast owes its existence to Twitter: The three co-hosts (along with the fourth original co-host, Rachael Horowitz) started it after they met tweeting “bawdy jokes” as they “illegally” viewed the second season from British TV (before it aired in the U.S.). They also continue to live-tweet each episode, “which has created a nice community of hilarious feminist Downton Abbey addicts on Twitter,” says the third co-host, Shannon Bowen. Based across the country from each other, the co-hosts met in person for the first time only last year.

Besides being mavens of pop culture, the podcast hosts all have professional ties to the film world, which informs their criticism about how stories get told on the screen. “We’re all feminists and media makers so we care about the way women are presented in popular culture, says Brooklyn-based Shechter. Among the documentaries she has made are “I Was a Teenage Feminist” and her latest, “How to Lose Your Virginity.” Bowen, a screenwriter and director in Los Angeles, counts as her most recent project the comedic web series Cost of Living, which is about “two women who are failing adulthood, and the friends that buy you whiskey when you do.” And Sperry, a blogger, wrote a column on movies directed by women for the Seattle website, The MacGuffin. She now “focuses on writing genre scripts (action, horror) that put complex female characters in the lead roles.”

With its unabashedly feminist focus, “Downton Gabby” goes beyond the scope of most podcasts about the show, which focus more on the Anglophilia, costumes and romances. Sperry explains why Downton is a worthy subject of study:

There is a perception, even among some prominent media writers, that more soapy, melodramatic TV shows, movies or books, particularly ones that deal with a domestic space, are not as worthy of serious cultural consideration as, say, more ‘deep, masculine’ fare like Breaking Bad or True Detective. We may get snarky about some of the more ludicrous or sloppy story lines, but we feel strongly about taking this kind of show seriously as far as its messages and influence.

The podcast is not without its critics, some of whom have objected to its profanity—its most controversial aspect—and others to its harsh condemnation of self-sabotaging valet Bates. One of the most controversial story lines the co-hosts discussed was last season’s rape of the maid Anna, Bates’ second wife. Says Sperry,

Anna is frustrating because she is this good, kind character with so much potential, but her actions are so often dictated by her desire to have a certain outcome for her husband’s good rather than her own. The rape storyline was the most egregious example of that—though [actor] Joanne Froggatt did a great job with what she was given. And there is still argument amongst us over whether Bates killed his first wife!

This season, the co-hosts are especially rooting for Downton‘s kitchen laborer Daisy, “our pinnacle of feminist joy,” who is being educated and forming new ideas about the world. And one of their “ most beloved” hashtags is #TeamEdith, reflecting their soft spot for the middle Crawley daughter. This character also reflects their common criticism of the series’ “strong female characters who unfortunately have to endure very tired, sexist plot lines,” says Bowen. “Edith is all of us on our worst day, when you try so hard and still fail while someone else makes it all look so easy. To root against Edith is to kick a friend while she’s down, which we would never do. We might give her a ‘snap out of it’ talk, but it’s always with love.”

“The most frustrating thing is she’s is the most modern of the sisters—[writing] a weekly column on women’s issues for a magazine!!—and yet they never talk about that, only her awful love life,” adds Schechter. “[Series creator] Julian Fellowes will never give her a break.”

Photo of Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, which “plays” the fictional Downton Abbey, from Flickr user Baj Sijpkes  under license from Creative Commons 2.0





Paula Kamen is the author of four books and the play Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been performed at many college campuses. Her first book, Feminist Fatale, was about the importance of consciousness raising for the post boomer generation. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Women’s Review of Books and McSweeney’s, among others. She tweets @paulakamen.