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November 9, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Stop me watching Downton Abbey, but I may need a chicken or two

Don’t look now, a handsome man is trying to seduce you!

No, not really, sorry. But it’s caught your attention, hasn’t it? Witness the magical power of the period drama. Watching or reading the goings on of rich people in the nineteenth century (or thereabouts) is a dangerous temptation that woman have, for hundreds of years, found extremely difficult to resist. It’s often made all the more impossible to disregard once you’re wearing pyjamas, eating ice cream and nursing a half-litre glass of wine while engaging in this sordid act. As any exasperated man will know, the mix of wine, ice cream and restrained love is a dangerous, predominantly female equation that always ends in unrequited screen kisses with the television, or more specifically, an imaginary man on the telly who reminds you that real men should be looking and wearing exactly what Mr. Darcy wears. I understand this portrayal of women is a cringeworthy stereotype, but I’m the first to admit that I fall squarely within those brackets. Damn ice cream.

For this poor soul, Downton Abbey is the latest danger zone of period drama obsession. If I don’t read or watch Austen, Bronte, Downton Abbey or the like within a year, I start breaking out in a cold sweat. Or to save myself the hassle of sweating on this stormy of all stormy days, I could just stand outside. This type of suggestion leads neatly into my close runner-up obsession with the BOM weather radar, which right now looks the way a sharehouse wall once did after someone at a party (not me) ended up rejecting a cocktail mix with far too much blue caracao.

But–to return to my point–what is it about period dramas that get women hot under the collar? Sixteen years on from Colin Firth’s legendary and smouldering Mr. Darcy, there are still fan bases dedicated solely to the re-viewing of his wet shirt scene. I’m sure when VHS was still popular, that was the part of the show where the tape mysteriously started going fuzzy. Dan Stevens is sending plenty of ladies’ hearts aflutter with his slightly-emo portrayal of Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey (oh come on, he’s always sulking at the moment). But who cares, really, with those fancy blue eyes?

Humanity’s ability to sense any kind of connection with an unresponsive character onscreen has always fascinated me. It might be what makes us human, the ability to empathise rather than kill and devour anyone weaker than us, but these characters are not, after all, looking or speaking to you. I’m sure my dog, were he to understand anything more than his fear of clapping, would laugh at me for such a weakness.  But thanks to the subversive charm of the human imagination, women have for hundreds of year convinced themselves that were they in the same position as Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy would find them just as fascinating and archly beautiful. Hell, go for ‘fine eyes’ and all, I say. Just as long as it’s not allergy season.

I daresay the hugely sexual undertones of period dramas such as Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice tap into various things that appeal to the human psyche. The first, of course, is safety, both in the historical sense and the personal sense. Restrained sexual tension is certainly reminiscent for many people of their sexually inexperienced youth, when being attracted to a handsome somebody meant nothing more than restraint. It’s what drives the tweeny ‘Belieber’ fans of Justin Bieber, who fawn after their scrawny idol until a real man becomes less scary. Period drama obsession is also a kind of revolt against the overtly sexual social paradigms we live in now; an upside-down, topsy-turvy sex hellhole where the worst kind of ‘being sexy’ gets vomited out in the form of Snooki. If you haven’t heard of her, she’s a feral from Jersey Shore ‘reality’ TV. She has spent so long under the tanning bed that Woolworths could really just chuck her on the warming tray and sell her for $9.88, just like all the other overdone chickens that are 12 cents cheaper than the ones in the supermarket across the road. Cluck cluck.

So you could really do me a favour and put me out of my Downton Abbey-inspired period drama lustfulness, but you may just be killing off a nostalgic yearning for the era before the social normalisation of pornography and overt sexual display. Or something like that. Just be quiet while Mr. Crawley’s talking.


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