Disability in Media and Politics

Bearing Disability | Downton Abbey (Spoilers)

Downton Abbey

The only time I write about a film or TV Show on this blog is when it has a character that has some form of disability. My first and only post until now was Chuck from Breaking Bad’s spin-off/ prequel series Better Call Saul. This time, I want to talk about disability Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey Summary

Downton Abbey is a historical period based Drama set between 1912 to after the first world war. It follows the lives of Lord Grantham and his family and the lives of his servants. Their love life, affairs, issues and worries.

It aired between 2011-2015 on ITV and is now available on Amazon Prime.

I am currently at the end of the second series and so far I love it. It’s great, the characters are all interesting and their lives seem complex.

I have just found two issues. One of which is minor and involves the character of Lord Grantham, the other is his heir, Matthew.

There will be spoilers for the first two seasons. So, stop reading now if you do not want it to be spoiled. 

Disability in Downton Abbey

At the minute, I have mixed views about how they handled disability in Downton Abbey. There have been a few characters who have had a disability of some kind on the show.

  • The Cook – Mrs Patmore
  • The valet – John Bates
  • The other valet – Henry Lang
  • And Cousin Matthew

And I’m certain Joseph Mosely has something that is currently undiagnosed.

Each of these disabilities are handled in a different way. Some are cured, others not. And to each, I feel completely different towards.

I’m going to talk about the easier characters first, the two valets.

Valet – John Bates – Physically Disabled

John Bates has a limp on one side and must use a cane to walk. He attempted to cure himself using a metal splint brace. Not too dissimilar from those in Forrest Gump.  and nearly lost his leg, maybe even his life, in the process. Head Housemaid, Mrs Hughes forces him to take the contraption off and throw it in the river. Telling him there is nothing wrong with him and he should not attempt to cure himself in the future. In fact, she forced him to promise! And I couldn’t have been more proud of her for stopping Bates from being so foolish.

On top of this, in the last episode of the second season, they had the choice to kill him off or keep him alive but imprisoned. They chose the latter.

Valet – Henry Lang – Mental health

The other valet, Henry Lang. He looked after Lord Grantham during the first world war but he was suffering from shell shock. A type of Post-traumatic stress disorder commonly found in solders. Unfortunately, this was not shown in great detail. It was clear he struggled to cope around people in uniform and he had frequent nightmares. But he was only the valet for around two episodes.

O’Brien, the Lady’s Maid, who is usually stubborn, rude and snappy to her colleagues, prevented anyone from giving him a hard time for his condition. Which I thought was great. Someone excepting someone with a mental illness on TV. I just wish they represented it a bit more before bringing Bates back.

The Cook, Mrs Patmore – Visual Impairment

Mrs Patmore is more complex. I had a discussion with a friend of mine who has a visual impairment to get her opinion on the matter.  Mrs Patmore has cataracts, unmarried, despite her title suggesting otherwise and lives at Downton with the other servants. She starts to lose her sight. She becomes clumsy in the kitchen and uses salt in the pudding before the Lord and Lady realise there is a problem.

Lord Grantham offers to pay for treatment if there is anything that can be done. At the time I thought it was touching and hoped the surgery worked, despite the fact that I hate disabled characters being cured in fiction. I suppose I feel this is different because she would have lost her only means to live if she could not see. So it was more the fact that I didn’t want her to get fired and lose her home. Now I am not sure.

Is it ok to ‘cure’ a disability if it is possible?

There is hardly any character in TV or Film with a Visual Impairment, so I am debating whether she should have been cured. I mean it wasn’t a miracle, they did have the technology. It’s just the issue with the lack of Visual Impairment representation on TV.

However, according to Susan Nussbaum, there is one stereotype they challenge in their representation of Visual Impairment.

Blind characters… are generally portrayed by attractive female actors who are victimized by predatory men (Nussbaum, 2013).

She’s an ordinary woman. However, when she was cured, the credit went to Lord Grantham for giving her the money to have the surgery. It built on his character to show him as a reasonable, friendly man who cares about his staff, letting the audience know he is not the stereotypical aristocrat.

This death or cure will often seem to “redeem” the protagonist—the death will be sacrificial, or the cure will be credited to the hero (Barnes, 1992, p. 72).

While I am not sure about the cure, this I think is wrong. It should have been because of her character and the audience love for her. So if she was cured only to build on Lord Grantham’s character, then I guess it is wrong but if it was to add to her character and to play with the audience’s emotions, I’m not sure.

While this does not counteract the cure, she does now have to wear specs for reading. But people wearing glasses no longer have the stigma it used to and is not classed as a disability so… What do you think? Let me know your opinions in the comments. 

Cousin Matthew – Paralysis

Another issue is with Cousin Matthew.  A friend of mine ( @lizzierobinsons – correct me if I am wrong)), once said something along the lines of protagonists has a superior immune system that prevents them from having lasting damage. At the time, we were talking about Harry Potter, but I think it applies here too.

Matthew’s spine was injured during the war which left him paralysed. The doctor on the show claimed that it would be permanent and that he would be unable to have children. He sends his fiancé away, she refuses, leaves and comes back. But after a few episodes in the chair, he gets a tingly feeling!

And what’d you know, it’s What Katy Did and Heidi all over again. Now, this is a miracle! Someone needs to find me one of these rare faries that seem to just poof away the problems of the main characters.

He wakes up one day and is miraculously able to stand at the most convenient time!

Just as a loaded gun shown in the opening scenes of a movie will eventually be fired, a disabled character will either have to be “killed or cured” (Barnes, 1992, p. 72)

The thing is, I wouldn’t have minded sooo much if it was handled better. I can think of another show that does the same, Breaking Bad, but there’s a difference. In Breaking Bad, the character concerned is told that with an extensive and expensive care, he may be able to walk again. Until then, you see his struggles and how he treats his loved ones out of frustration and anger.

Matthew is not seen having any therapy, he is not thought to be able to walk again, he just… stands then walks with support, then with a cane and then without.

Can characters be cured of a disability?

So it is possible to have a character be “cured” of a disability without it being too much of an issue. It just depends on how the show handles it but Downton Abbey seems to have some magical fairie that cures the heirs of disability.

I suppose they thought it didn’t matter much because they didn’t cure Bates, but Bates isn’t the protagonist – not in the same way Matthew is. It just doesn’t sit well with me and it isn’t something I expected from a TV show written in the 21st century. Maybe the first few years of the naughties, but from a show that is 7 years old, the episode itself is 6 years old.

I still love the series, I’m going to watch the remaining four series but my views on the representation of disabled characters are mixed. Maybe they will improve over time. However, I wish Matthew had some permanent disability or he should not have been paralysed in the first place. Especially as his emotions and frustrations with his disability were controlled more because of his position in the house.

Who knows, maybe I’ll find out he does have something permanent. I feel there has to be something that isn’t cured in the protagonist.

Hope you enjoyed this post

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3 responses to “Bearing Disability | Downton Abbey (Spoilers)”

  1. Awesome post! I guess with this show thought has to be given to the historical context, which can be used well. For example how Game of Thrones has strong female characters despite being set in a sexist society.

    I was referring to Plot Armour, which is the phenomenon in which it seems like a protagonist can suffer no lasting damage due to them being essential to the plot. They also have a strange immunity, in Harry Potter’s case, to being held to the rules of their society to the same standard as other characters, even if they almost are.

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