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When Downton Abbey first appeared in the US, I have to admit that I got hooked along with half the country. That first season was such a great exploration of pre-Great War Britain, and even the credit sequence spoke to the rigidity of the great estates and the class system of the time. The acting was solid, the storylines were interesting (even poor Edith was interesting, despite being so useless that the show-runners couldn’t think of a realistic storyline for her in the second season), Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was marvelous (a few months ago I had an image of her having to go through modern airport security, an utterly priceless idea) and above all, the show had Thomas.

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Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the scheming homosexual second footman was absolutely the best thing about the show. But to understand my thoughts about him, we need to make a brief excursus into the history of homosexuality in film and television.

A Brief History of Homosexuality in Film and TV
Homosexuality has been depicted in film literally from the birth of the medium. But in the early 20th century, gay and lesbian characters were either pathetic objects of ridicule or threatening villains who had to be defeated for the good of society. By the mid-century, it was possible to depict gays and lesbians in a slightly more sympathetic light, although their sexuality could only be referred to obliquely. They had to be miserable and their stories had to end unhappily, but at least they weren’t inevitably villains. A good example of this is the 1961 adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, in which two single schoolteachers are ruined by a malicious accusation that they are lesbians. Martha (Shirley MacLaine), who is actually a lesbian, commits suicide at the end when Karen (Audrey Hepburn) refuses to reciprocate her affections. But the accusation of lesbianism was so shocking to audiences at the time that it was never said on-screen, only referred to obliquely, despite being literally the center of the film’s plot.

By the late 1970s, gays and lesbians were starting to be seen in a more sympathetic light, as comic figures, although storylines often undercut their homosexuality or left them single and lonely at the end of the story. Billy Crystal first rose to national prominence playing Jodie Dallas on the 1977 sitcom Soap. But Dallas, often cited as the first openly homosexual character on network television, winds up having a heterosexual one-night stand and fathering a child. The early 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies featured newcomers Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as heterosexual men living as women in a women’s apartment building because they can’t find affordable housing elsewhere, while Three’s Company showed the heterosexual Jack Tripper (John Ritter) pretending to be gay so he could live in an apartment with two women. So in these shows, homosexuality was openly referenced, but primarily as a source of highly stereotyped humor and in a way that reasserted the superiority of heterosexuality.

By the 1990s films had begun to offer more positive characters such as the Gay Best Friend and the Tough as Nails Lesbian. But they were supporting characters, and rarely allowed to have their own romantic story-lines, unless those stories were about their lack of relationships. At the same time, gay and lesbian film-makers began making films centered on gay and lesbians characters, often giving them the happy endings (so to speak) and romantic successes that they were denied in main-stream cinema and television. And now, by the 2010s, we’ve reach an era where gay and lesbian characters turn up in many shows and films, and their sexual and romantic lives are about as central to their storylines as heterosexual romance is to their straight co-stars’ stories. Modern Family depicts a gay couple’s domestic life together on a roughly equal footing with the other families in the series.

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Rupert Everett, the trope-namer in My Best Friend’s Wedding

 

Back to Downton

So why did I like Thomas Barrow so much? Precisely because he was one of the bad guys on the show. His homosexuality was an important feature of his character, but it wasn’t the whole story. He was a lower-class man scheming to advance in the class-ridden Britain of his day just as much as he was a closeted homosexual seeking a deeper connection with another man. He was a homosexual villain but his homosexuality wasn’t the cause of his villainy. He and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) were the Downstairs Malcontents, and O’Brien didn’t particularly care about his sexual preferences as long as he was a useful ally in her own quest for social advancement.

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James-Collier as Thomas Barrow

So Thomas was a wonderfully well-rounded character, sympathetic and unlikable all the same time. His storyline was an exploration of the emotionally-corrosive nature of the Closet, and as such it was tremendously refreshing. I loved the third season because of the way O’Brien slowly set Thomas up for his total ruination over a petty falling out, precisely because it revealed just how precarious it was to be a lower class homosexual in 1920s Britain. O’Brien used the rampant homophobia of the period to set a trap that she knew the love-starved Thomas couldn’t resist and in the second-to-last episode of the season, Thomas is facing certain ruin after his homosexuality has been revealed, and I was overjoyed.

I wasn’t overjoyed because I wanted to see Thomas punished because he was homosexual. I was overjoyed because I wanted audiences to just how brutal Western society was to homosexuals in this period. I wanted viewers to watch just how viciously destructive the Closet can be to so many gays and lesbians, because it’s one of the best arguments for why society needs to accept gays and lesbians. I wanted people to have to think about what Straight Privilege really looks like.

Instead, the series suddenly took a maddening veer into utter fantasy. Despite Thomas being completely exposed as a criminal (since homosexuality was illegal in Britain in this period), Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) intercedes with the police to cover up Thomas’ crime. That in itself is not implausible, because early 20th century nobles frequently used their social and political clout to cover up scandals. But then he decides, purely out of the goodness of his heart, to allow Thomas to continue working at Downton, and in fact gives him what is essentially a promotion, despite pretty much everyone now knowing what Thomas is.

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Hugh Bonneville as the eternally benevolent Lord Crawley

That is utter nonsense, in my angry opinion. Heterosexual nobles did not decide to overlook homosexuality in their servants, for the very simple reason that they couldn’t afford to do so. Their own reputation was very much at stake.

Here’s what would probably have happened in the real world. Word of Thomas’ homosexuality would have spread among the staff, if only because O’Brien is still angry. Eventually, word that Downton’s staff includes a known pervert would have spread to servants at other estates, because when the Crawleys have guests, the Downton servants would gossip with the visiting servants. The servants of the wealthy and powerful always gossiped with each other. This gossip was a complex phenomenon. Employers hated the fact their servants gossiped about them, but wanted to know what was going on at other estates, so they regarded this gossip as a two-edged sword. For the servants, gossip was a way to express displeasure toward harsh employers, and it represented one of their few forms of social leverage against the powerful men and women who employed and often exploited them. Reputation was a very important consideration in Edwardian England, and loss of reputation was a serious problem for the powerful.

So when Lord Crawley decides to forgive Thomas and continue employing him, even promoting him, inevitably word of this will get out. One of the servants will gossip at the bar or to a visiting servant and that news will start to circulate. People will wonder why Lord Crawley would protect a criminal and a pervert, and the answer is fairly obvious; Lord Crawley must be having sex with Thomas. So fairly quickly people will be whispering and joking about Crawley behind his back and his reputation is going to suffer serious damage.

Instead of exploring the real damage the Closet did to Thomas and thereby offering a demonstration of just how destructive Straight Privilege can be to homosexuals, Julian Fellowes instead resorts to a fantasy in which Lord Crawley gets to save Thomas by exercising both his Class and Straight Privilege and acting as a benevolent master. Crawley gets to be the hero because he’s upper class and heterosexual, so the message here is that the Closet really must not be so bad after all because the people at the top of the ladder won’t really ruin those beneath them. Fellowes has been accused of offering a view of the early 20th century through rose-colored Conservative glasses (a charge he has to some extent admitted to), and this whole incident with Thomas demonstrates just how much the show’s take on the period fails to engage honestly with its subject matter.

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