Problematic Queer Representations in Downton Abbey’s Gay Villain Narrative

Today is Downton Abbey day. I’m a fan of the show—despite what I’m about to write. I remember seeing the buzz about a year ago with the start of the second season. I heard of the show but had never really given thought to watching it. I mean how many shows can a first year Ph.D. student watch in the name of pleasure.

Consequently I chalked it up to “research” or “staying up-to-date in the industry,” and I watched the first season on Hulu. I finished the last episode of the first season, bought the second season on iTunes, and then patiently waited for the season three premiere a few weeks ago.

I had read, before watching, that the show had a gay character, and I have to admit that was one of the most influential reasons for my watching. To my disappointment, however, the gay character, Thomas Barrow, was largely an invisible gay man. The only mention or insinuation of his homosexuality had more to do with his sociopathic nature than his sexuality. We’ve seen one “gay” scene with Thomas, played by Rob James-Collier, since the show first began. Why?

This month’s edition of Out magazine features James-Collier, and he had the same question. He told Out’s Aaron Hicklin that he asked the show’s creator and writer Julian Fellowes if Barrow was now straight because the subject of his sexuality was never discussed. The answer was that the third season will finally address Barrow’s same-sex desires and his identity as a homosexual man in 1920s England. It’s about time! But it still doesn’t answer the question of why.

After reading the Out article, I considered not writing this blog, but I do find Thomas Barrow as a gay character, to this point, problematic. A point was made in the first episode to identify Barrow as a gay (or homosexual or deviant as it would have been more likely identified in the early 1900s), but also, seemingly, as important was to identify Barrow as a villain.

Barrow, a footman unhappy with his station, was depicted as someone who would stop at nothing and walk on anyone to get where and what he wanted. His pathology became his character. We see him leave the house to go off to war, come back to Downton after committing an act of cowardice (shooting himself in the foot), and then weasel his way back into service in the house.

Barrow’s character fits the narrative of the deviant, mentally diseased homosexual so often depicted in the mainstream, at least in the United
States. His character reminds me of the narrative provided to the masses in the 1967 CBS documentary “The Homosexuals.”

He’s evil because he’s maladjusted and sick. He wants more (position, money, esteem, happiness…) in his life because he’s fundamentally unhappy with his ailment, homosexuality. His queerness is the root (the first thing we see) of all of his flaws.

No doubt the early 1900s would not have been easy for a gay man in service to the English aristocracy. The early 1900s probably weren’t all that kind nor open to gay men living in most of western civilization—or at least acknowledging and accepting of queer sexual desire. With that being said, not all gay men in the 1910s and 1920s were conspiring to have people fired or blackmailing people to gain position. In other words, Barrow becomes a stereotype that transcends time period and is understood whether in the context post World War I England or the post Stonewall United States or contemporary Western life.

I know what most people think. “Who cares if he’s gay or straight?” Most folks are just enthralled with the villain, but was he made the villain because it’s easier for the audience to identify gay and villain in the same character? Is this stereotype of gay men so powerful that it no longer seems to be an issue? Maybe the maladjusted and mentally diseased gay man is such a part of dominant thought that the narrative “makes sense.”

Think of the more “likable” characters. Why isn’t Anna (Lady Mary’s lady’s maid) a lesbian? Why was William (the now deceased war hero and footman) not transsexual or bisexual? Those characters don’t fit the dominant narrative of Downton Abbey. That is problematic.

I look forward to seeing the trajectory of Barrow in the third season. Maybe we’ll get more answers and his character will more accurately represent queer experiences of the 1920s. I hope we get to see more depth in the character. But I doubt the narrative will change tremendously.