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Tom Finneran: The Cultural Decline Since Downton Abbey

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


I’ve become a big fan of the Masterpiece Theater show “Downton Abbey.” The historical setting is epic—pre- and post-war England (the war in question being World War I)—and the acting is first rate. Multiple story lines of love, tragedy, scandal, and social change rivet your attention. It is spectacularly grand entertainment.

One of the enduring plot lines is courtship, with the not quite constant presence of hovering chaperones and the presentation of young society ladies as delicate lambs of innocence whose relationships were often “arranged” in order to secure or maintain social position. All this of course with a backdrop of Victorian hypocrisy which knowingly winked at the occasional reality of pre-marital and extramarital affairs.

In Downton, the maintenance of appearances seems to be placed above all other things, lest “scandal” strike the family name. Thus, in those days of old it would be highly unusual for a young couple to be left alone, sharing evening sandwiches and conversation.... Quite tame in our times, but quite racy and improper back then.

And while much of what has been “lost” over the years in terms of Victorian society is not missed in any way—think of the rigid stratification of the classes, the -isms of the age regarding race, religion, and gender—some of what has been lost is both dangerous and irreplaceable. Here I speak of the virtues of modesty in dress, propriety in language, and innocence and chastity in young women.

Have you ridden the Red Line lately? Or any other form of public transportation? Been downtown at all? It is appalling. The language, the clothes, the behavior would make a sailor blush. By the way, this is not a uniquely urban development. No, in fact, suburban kids seem inclined to outdo their urban peers in self-degradation.

What ever happened to clothes which were designed with public presentability in mind? Is there even such a thing anymore as being “presentable”? Young men with their pants hanging off their butts, young women showing more skin and cleavage than Victoria’s Secret models (along with tattoos!), all shaken and stirred by language that is foul by any standard. Where are their parents? How is this allowed to occur? And can’t we have a little more Victorian hypocrisy please? At least there was a social and cultural concern about taste and manners. And a more pronounced concern about sexual activity unhinged from the restraints of marriage.

Here’s a word from the past for you—flirting. Do you remember flirting? Those of us of a certain age have, depending on circumstances, flirted throughout our lives. Of course flirting acknowledges the reality of sexual tension and desire, but those realities are trumped by modesty, by decency, and by restraint. In today’s society of “friends with benefits” and “hooking up,” the notion of conversation and banter, the very essence of flirting, seems laughably quaint.

Or how about the word courtship? The word carries heavy weight, does it not? Of course it implies attraction, desire, restraint, patience, and respect. In modern society, it is only desire which rules the day with the other leavening behaviors thrown out with the rubbish.

Lest I be misunderstood here, I’ll be clear. I am not yearning for a return to Victorian England’s moral standards, such as they were. I am yearning however for modern America to see the horrific damage which is being done to families and to society. Why do we sexualize young girls in so many ways—clothes, movies, music, etc.? Why are young men encouraged, even applauded, to pursue sexual conquests? Having and yielding to one and only one naked animal impulse, they are sexually reckless and hopelessly irresponsible. And their partners? Young women, whose idea of “cool” or “cute” usually ends with the first week of diapers and midnight feedings, are left in utterly hopeless circumstances, sadly and stupidly bouncing from one cool dude to another.

Victorian England may have been guilty of hypocrisy, but it was precisely that occasional hypocrisy which gave weight to the culture’s standards and expectations of behavior. There was shame—there’s another lost word and quaint concept for you—real shame in taking advantage of a young woman. A woman was always concerned about her reputation, and few men wanted to provide shaming, damning proof of their wanton primal spirits. Is there any doubt that we are in a moral free-fall from bygone days? Our society and culture are sick and getting sicker. And our slide, from Downton Abbey to the sewer, accelerates daily. Sad. Sick. 


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