femininity in film

Femininity in Film: Downton Abbey – Lady Sybil

**Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the latest season of Downton Abbey, you probably don’t want to read this.

One of my favorite non-Maggie Smith lines from Downton Abbey (because let’s face it – Maggie Smith gets all the best ones and makes them even better with her delivery) comes from Lady Mary after the heartbreaking death of Lady Sybil. It’s the beginning of an exchange between Mary and Edith about their younger sister, and I think it beautifully captures what makes Sybil such a lovely character:

“She was the only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.”

Now, we all remember the first season, how Edith reveals Mary’s scandalous improprieties to the Turkish Ambassador and how Mary retaliates by ruining Edith’s chances with Sir Anthony. They’re pretty awful to each other. And that’s what makes Mary’s statement about Sybil so poignant. No matter how rotten Mary and Edith act, Sybil always believes the best about them.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that Sybil is actually flawed in this way – that she is either willfully ignorant of her sisters’ faults or too naive to recognize them. But I think that’s a terribly sad and cynical way to read her character. I don’t believe Sybil is naive at all, willfully or no. At least not when it comes to her sisters.

Sybil recognizes an underlying goodness in each of her sisters. She doesn’t boil Mary and Edith down to this bad choice or that mean remark. It’s not that Sybil doesn’t see their faults, but that she sees beyond them. She loves her sisters, and indeed everyone she meets, unconditionally.

Oddly enough, it’s this kind of radical love that makes Sybil such a progressive.

She falls in love with the family chauffeur and doesn’t let class prejudice and convention stop her from marrying him. Perhaps even more amazingly, she manages to make peace with her snobbish family over the entire matter – they may not have been thrilled by the idea, but in the end, they don’t disown Sybil and even accept Tom into the family.

She helps Gwen, a housemaid, get a job as a secretary – not just with a good reference, but by loaning her clothes, submitting applications on her behalf, and personally driving her to an interview.

Thomas, the servant we love to hate, says about her:

“In my life I can tell you not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”

Again, we might be tempted to think that Sybil’s kindness toward the servants is borne of a naivete, as if she doesn’t know the rules of her class system or isn’t aware of the implications of her behavior. But we see when she argues with her father about marrying Tom that she’s painfully aware of those things. She sees the flaws in the system and deliberately defies them – and her weapon of choice is love. Not the fluffy feel-good kind of love, but the active, shirt-off-my-back kind.

I think that’s what makes Sybil a female character worth imitating.

Femininity in Film: Downton Abbey – Lady Edith

Yes, I am one of those crazies that obsesses over Downton Abbey. And yes, I am very, very upset about the events of the third season. But I don’t want to talk about that. What I do want to talk about are the women of Downton. Downton Abbey has a huge cast, so there are a lot of female characters to take a look at – too many for a post this size. So I’m going to focus on Lady Edith for today.

Lady Edith is very different from her sisters. Being the Downton nerd that I am, I bought Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Season One and read all of them despite having watched the first season twice already. The real treasure here was the commentary by writer/creator Julian Fellowes. Pretty early in the pilot script, Fellowes talks about his intentionality behind making each sister different from the other two. He wanted each represent, in some way, the range of attitudes of aristocratic women during that time.

Lady Edith is on one end of the scale trying to fit the mold of aristocracy at every turn (at least she begins on that end – by the finale of season three, she’s seriously considering a very unconventional and, for the period, improper affair with her editor). Meanwhile, Lady Sybil represents the other end fighting for women’s rights and defying authority. Lady Mary falls somewhere in between holding tight to her aristocratic prejudices but willing to do things differently if she thinks it right. But I’ll talk about Mary and Sybil in later posts.

Lady Edith… poor, poor Edith. I think we can assume from the way her parents treat her and talk about her on the show – though they never mean any harm, surely – that even growing up, Edith lacked their affirmation. This is the irony of her character: even though she’s the only one of the three daughters doing her parents’ perfect bidding in the beginning, she’s also the only one who never gets credit, who’s always doubted and made fun of, who always gets the shaft.

Her unfulfilled craving for familial affection plays out in her romantic choices – whether it’s the married farmer tenant, old crippled Sir Anthony, or her married editor. She deserves better than any of them (although Sir Anthony was a nice chap, and despite his age, I think she truly cared for him and he for her), but she’s willing to settle because they give her what her family never has.

Whether we admit it or not, I think a lot of us can see a piece of ourselves in Lady Edith. It’s the piece that wants so badly to please people, to make people like us, to fit into a mold that we think others want us to fit. It’s the piece that sometimes accepts a counterfeit version of love because, at least for the moment, it feels better than the neglect we feel elsewhere.

Listen, ladies. Be better than Lady Edith. Don’t twist yourself into someone else’s vision of perfect. Do what’s right, not what’s pleasing. Don’t settle. You deserve better.

3 Things You Need To Know About Homeland’s Carrie

In the Showtime television series Homeland, lead character Carrie Matheson (played by Claire Danes) is a CIA agent who is a talented and persuasive investigator, but is also self-destructive and sometimes lets her emotions get the best of her (who doesn’t?).

This dual-sided character is complex—she’s highly intelligent, yet overly emotional; passionate about her work, but over-invested in her investigative subject (especially in season one); candid and honest yet agonizingly unstable.

Her complexities are part of what make Carrie such a fascinating character. There are so many actions she’s taken throughout the series that have caused me to shake my head and give her a side-eye look; however, she does have some truly impressive characteristics many of us can learn from:

1. Carrie has an amazing mentor in Saul, a more senior member of the team. His mentorship is evoked in many ways. It’s evident that he truly cares about her well being. Saul advises her professionally (and personally, when necessary), and listens to her career frustrations. Lesson Learned: Find someone who is a great mentor. This should be someone to whom you can turn for professional guidance and who inspires you in some way.

2. Carrie is passionate, pouring her heart and soul into all her tasks, with no regrets. Lesson Learned: Give everything your all. If you’re passionate about something, the odds are in your favor that you’ll become good at it. You’ll enjoy what you’re doing and you’ll want to practice it more. Believe in your actions and fully commit to your tasks.

3. Carrie knows and trusts her gut. She fights with her boss—even all the way up the ranks to David Estes—when she feels her gut is telling her what’s right. This instinct has helped her in many ways (spoiler alert)—even to the point of finding Abu Nazir, himself. Lesson Learned: Get to know yourself well and trust your gut—it is a powerful part of you.

Carrie may be one of the most complex characters on television today—she is truly gifted and hard-working, and she so desperately wants to serve her country; at the same time, she makes some immoral decisions that cause many to question her judgment. No matter your opinion of her, I think we can all agree that there are many aspects to her character that we can all learn from.