During the month of January, Hanna, our friend Minerva, and I gathered every Sunday evening to watch the Masterpiece Classic costume drama Downton Abbey. Set on the eve of World War One, DA chronicles the drama (and there is plenty of drama) unfolding in the lives of the inhabitants of the titular English country estate — both the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants.
There is a lot I could say about this particular costume drama, both positive and negative (in the positive column, the costumes are gorgeous and every line Maggie Smith utters is pure gold). The three of us live-blogged the episodes (one, two, three and four) if anyone cares for that much snarky detail. In this blog post, however, I want to focus on one fairly specific aspect of the show: the way the show depicted the relationships between Mary, Edith, and Sybil, the three daughters of the family.
I want to use DA as an avenue into thinking about sibling relationships as they’re portrayed on television, in movies, in popular culture more broadly. I currently spend most of my time with only children (Hanna and several of our closest friends are only daughers), but growing up I was the eldest of three and surrounded by families that mostly had multiple children in various combinations. Sibling dynamics can be complicated, difficult, glorious. Yet in popular culture they are often portrayed in negative, competitive ways. Particularly sister relationships. And Downton Abbey illustrates some of these cultural tropes quite colorfully.
Note: Plot spoilers for Downton Abbey season one after the jump.
There are three sisters living at Downton Abbey: Mary (the eldest), Edith (the middle child), and Sybil (the youngest). All are adults, with Sybil making her debute into London society over the course of the series. All three are, as yet, unmarried — a fact that becomes increasingly problematic over the course of the season and inevitably shapes their interactions with one another and the world around them. Their struggles are both social and economic: remaining unmarried endangers their social standing and also makes them deeply vulnerable financially, since the estate that supports them is entailed and their father is unwilling (possibly unable) to break the entail in order to settle them comfortably. They are expected to choose husbands who can provide for them. No thought is ever given, by the parents at least, to their daughters supporting themselves.
The series opens with the sinking of the Titanic. On board was the heir to the Crawley estate (a first cousin), nominally engaged to Mary. It becomes clear immediately that the planned marriage was one of convenience; a way to keep the family and its wealth consolidated. Mary is mostly relieved that she won’t have to wear deep mourning and feign sorrow, since the engagement had yet to be made public. Edith, on the other hand, has loved her cousin and is both grief-stricken by his death and bitter toward Mary for taking the man Edith loved and then not having the decency to grieve when he dies. This competitive bitterness characterizes the two sisters relationship for the rest of the season.
The three daughters are typecast as “eldest,” “middle,” and “youngest” daughters. Mary yo-yos wildly between embodying the expectations her parents have that she marry for money and for the family honor, while chafing against those expectations in often unproductive ways. She is both the favored daughter and a troublesome one: after engaging in a flirtation with a houseguest that ends in sexual assault and (his) accidental death, Mary becomes tainted goods and household energy is increasingly wrapped up in getting her married as soon and as securely as possible. Edith’s character is that of a spiteful mean girl from beginning to end. Mary, of course, is a mean girl at times but as someone in the position of eldest only wields her mean girl weapons when she feels trapped. Edith feels trapped continually, and lashes out at everyone — but particularly Mary. She alternates between undermining Mary’s prospects and attempting to one-up her elder sister in the fliration-and-courtship game. By the end of season one, the two women have successfully back-stabbed one another to the extent that neither is any further ahead in life than they were in episode one.
These sisters are not Jane and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice.
Sybil, the youngest, is portrayed as playfully daring and naively political: advocating for women’s right to the vote, arguing for the chance to attend art school in London, sneaking off to political rallies with the Irish chauffeur (don’t get Hanna started on that trope …). Last in line for a husband, Sybil seems poised — at the end of season one — on the edge of making a potentially fruitful break from her family’s cloistered way of life. While I am rooting for her as a character, I am also troubled by the way that — in so many stories — it is the youngest child who is portrayed as having the most spirit, the most distance from family expectations, the most room to grow and explore.
I was struck throughout the series by the fact that all three of these characters seemed trapped, to a greater or lesser extent, in the roles written for them: as daughters, as sisters, as birth-order children. I’m not a particular fan of theories surrounding birth order, but to the extent that we have come to expect certain things from children who occupy the “eldest,” “middle,” and “youngest” spaces in the family we seem to limit our scripts … in real life as well as on screen … to fit those expectations. I find myself wondering why these characters buy into the expectations of their families and the society around them concerning their roles. What would have happened if, instead of competing with one another for male attention and social status, Mary and Edith refused to accept the way they were being pitted against one another? What might happen in series two if Sybil is given a real chance to break free — and takes it — but in a way that encourages her sisters to do the same, rather than leaving them trapped in their unhappiness?
What are your favorite examples (positive or negative) of sibling dynamics in popular culture? Do you feel like these dynamics accurately reflect your experience, or do you find them at odds with the relationships you have with your brothers and sisters, or witness in the lives of children or parters or friends? What do you see as some of the most harmful stereotypes about sibling relationships? What are some of the most truthful and/or helpful stories we tell ourselves about the lives of siblings?