Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Queer Downton! -The Toast

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Photo credit: Matt Houlbrook

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 2.34.37 PMPrevious installments can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road].

My heart constricts whenever Thomas Barrow comes onscreen. He’s manipulative, scheming, and consistently creepy, but he’s the only recurring gay character. I wouldn’t like him if I knew him in person, but I have to root for him; that’s what limited representation means. And I hate the show a little bit more each time he’s made to enact homophobic tropes even while he ostensibly shores up Downton’s tolerant, liberal reputation.

In the last few episodes, we’ve seen Thomas growing ever sicker, while injecting a mysterious substance in his room on the sly. He answered an advertisement and went to London, under the pretense of an ill father. This week, we learned that he went to receive electrotherapy to make him attracted to women instead of men; the injection and pills, apparently placebos, were supposed to further the “treatment.” His illness is the result of non-sterile equipment causing infection. After breaking down and asking Baxter for help, he’s treated compassionately by Dr. Clarkson, who reveals that he’s been the victim of quackery and urges him to bear his burden bravely rather than seek, hopelessly, to change his nature.

(A brief digression: everyone in this plotline is remarkably calm about infection. But neither penicillin nor sulfa drugs are available yet, though they’re both on the horizon. A feverish servant would be a much greater cause for alarm, since he might be a vector for any number of fatal illnesses. And an abscess was no minor matter, either, in an era when small wounds often led to essentially untreatable systemic infections. We take our ability to quash bacterial infections for granted to an extraordinary degree, and we shouldn’t: for a fascinating article on the topic, see Maryn McKenna’s “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future.”)

In his History of Sexuality, Vol. I, Michel Foucault famously suggested that, in the nineteenth century, the category of homosexual as a person came into being: “The sodomite was a temporary aberration; the homosexual is now a species.” Historians and queer theorists have debated and parsed this assertion from every angle, and the novelty of the modern era should never be overstated. But it’s nonetheless true that Thomas Barrow is living in a transitional moment, when the possibility of a gay identity held new cultural possibilities and homosexuality itself was the subject of new medical and psychoanalytic interest. The Austrian psychiatrist Richard Von Krafft-Ebing’s ground-breaking Psycopathia Sexualis (1886) influentially argued that sexual deviance was not due to a weak will or degeneration, but the very structure of one’s personality. But sex between men was still illegal in Britain and would remain so until 1967, following a string of high-profile convictions. (Not sex between women, though: in a surreal debate in 1928, Parliament would opt not to criminalize sex between women on the grounds that passing such a law would introduce the idea to otherwise innocent Englishwomen.)

electro Hodgkinson’s Electro Neurotone Apparatus. Credit: Science Museum London

Many psychologists, doctors, and sexologists were interested in whether it was possible to ‘cure’ homosexuality, so Thomas would certainly have had an array of quacks (and legitimate practitioners) to choose from. Followers of Freud regarded homosexuality as treatable through psychoanalysis. Other methods involved aversion therapy, often using electro-shock therapy or the drug apomorphine; patients might be sent home with equipment to use on themselves. (Electrotherapy was also used more widely to stimulated damaged tissue, but aversion therapy seems the likely suspect here.) Somewhat later treatment involved the administering of estrogen to reduce libido. Thomas seems to have gotten some mash-up of these options.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) is perhaps the most famous example of efforts to treat homosexuality through medical means in mid-twentieth century Britain. A brilliant mathematician and computer scientist whose efforts helped Britain win World War II, he was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency and opted to receive estrogen treatments rather than go to prison. He died two years later. Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing posthumously in 2013, and his life is the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game.

Alan_Turing_photo Alan Turing, 1951.

The historian Matt Houlbrook has argued that pardoning Turing was good politics, but bad history. It singled out just one victim of repressive laws aimed at a range of sexual interactions and fails to acknowledge the complex terrain of evolving boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. More relevant for Downton, the pardon, Houlbrook writes, “creates a comforting, cosy and progressive narrative that conceals the persistence of entrenched social, economic and political inequalities that continue to face queer men and women.”

Thomas Barrow enters Dr. Clarkson’s office slick with sweat, pale, and shadowed; he emerges looking healthy and restored, even smiling during a relatively tender conversation with Baxter. But Baxter’s gentle forgiveness, like Dr. Clarkson’s homespun reassurances, pinkwash the past. It’s impossible to understand why Thomas would subject himself to such agony when all we see are tolerant, supportive characters around him. Again and again, Downton seeks to acknowledge past bigotry while reassuring us that none of the characters we care about actually thought that way. We are given homophobia’s victims without its perpetrators.

But sugarcoating the past this way blinds us to our own prejudices. In fact, I think it serves to obscure how profoundly Downton traffics in reactionary tropes about gay men. When he’s not receiving homilies in the doctor’s office, Thomas embodies a range of homophobic stereotypes. He smokes constantly, and viewers were led to suspect that he had taken up heroin before learning that the injections had another purpose. His sinister pallor echoes the linking of disease and homosexuality common. He is a liar and a cheat who escaped the trenches through a self-inflicted wound. He is utterly embittered, but even his hatred has a specific target: heterosexual happiness. He’s been haunting Anna and Mr. Bates forever, and now he’s enraged by the mild romance blossoming between Baxter and Molesley. Barrow seems to exist only to spoil the happiness of straight people.

But queer lives aren’t about straight people—not in 2015, and not in 1924. Why not depict Thomas sneaking a visit to the Café Royal in London? There, according to a 1922 travel guide, “there may be seen queer creatures… an hermaphroditic creature with side-whiskers and painted eyelashes … things in women’s clothes that slide cunning eyes upon other women. Male dancers who walk like fugitives from the City of the Plain. Hard-featured ambassadors from Lesbos and Sodom.” The language is offensive, but the depiction is clear: a world where Thomas might be defined in his own terms, rather than in relation to straight fears and desires.

Dr. Clarkson advises that “harsh reality is always better than false hope.” If Downton were to move beyond cheap tokenism with Barrow, it would need to portray the harsh reality of prejudice much more clearly, but also the abundant hope to found in queer subcultures across interwar England. Perhaps Thomas might find a fellow “bachelor” to retire with in a cozy cottage, or perhaps not; but why must we spend so much time exclaiming over Lady Mary’s rather dull hairstyle when there are “queans” and “dilly-boys” to meet in Piccadilly—or possibly gay hairdressers to meet in York?

Photo credit: Matt Houlbrook Photo credit: Matt Houlbrook


Andreas De Block and Pieter R. Adriaens, “Pathologizing Sexual Deviance: A History,” The Journal of Sex Research 50:3-4 (2013), pp. 276-98

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Glenn Smith, Annie Bartlett and Michael King, “Treatments of Homosexuality in Britain since the 1950s—an oral history: the experience of patients,” BMJ, 29 January 2004

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