The Women of Downton Abbey vs. Women of the Super Bowl

Once again, we're outclassed by the British.

This Sunday night looks to be another classic match-up between a heavy favorite and a hapless underdog. No, not the 49ers and the Ravens—the Super Bowl itself vs. Downton Abbey, Britain’s upper-crust costume drama on PBS. On display will be two radically different views of the culture. One, mired in the past, fetishizes assets inherited at birth and glorifies the over-privileged few. The other, as modern as can be, rewards personal achievement and stresses fair play.

The hands-down winner, clearly, is Downton Abbey. At least where the portrayal of women on TV is concerned. The Super Bowl, by contrast, will once again put on its annual ritual of using lithe and beautiful women to cheer on the achievements of male athletes, interspersed with commercials in which lithe and beautiful women are used as advertising mules. What better way to sell products to men than to make products of women?

Last year, Fiat did exactly that.

And they ain’t looking too enlightened this year either. The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but advertisers seem convinced that the way to his wallet is through his crotch.

This strategy makes me a little more queasy each year, because the only defenses of it are, “That’s the way it’s always been,” and the even more dismissive, “Lighten up, dude.” Sorry, I won’t. It insults my intelligence and makes me embarrassed for my gender. Do none of the men involved in these voyeuristic commercials have daughters watching the game? I wouldn’t mind as much if men got objectified too, but I guess Schmitts Gay can’t afford a Super Bowl commercial.

The sex-sells Super Bowl mania has gotten a little out of hand this year, with companies releasing teasers—pardon the double entendre—for their commercials. All it takes is a little T&A to get guys to watch a commercial for a commercial. Way to go, team. (Yeah, OK, I watched that Kate Upton clip, too, and not just for research purposes.) Ready to call advertisers on their shit this Sunday are the watchdogs at Miss Representation, whose Twitter campaign #NotBuyingIt will tag offensive portrayals of women in the commercials and encourage a boycott.

Downton Abbey, meanwhile, is Suffragette City. Plot lines this season have involved women’s voting rights, the dignity of sex workers, and the awful consequences of patriarchy. In fact, it’s fair to say that the entire show is a slow-motion critique of patriarchy. Downton’s premiere episode established the narrative arc of the series: Robert Crawley, the fusty old Earl of Grantham, is in danger of losing his estate because he has no male heirs, just three useless daughters. If women had had equal rights in 1912, when the story began, there’d have been no show.

Instead, the gender gap consistently informs both story and character development on Downton. When two doctors disagree on a life-and-death decision about the youngest daughter, Sybil—the rebel who married the family’s driver—it’s either her father or her husband who gets to decide, naturally. Bowing to convention while simultaneously mocking it, family matriarch Violet Crawley says, icily, “The decision lies with the chauffeur.” Despite her old-guard ways, Violet is a feisty feminist. “A woman of my age can face reality far better than most men,” she sniffs at her milquetoast son.

Flipping channels back to the Super Bowl, it’s considered progress when a company like GoDaddy, one of the worst offenders, plans to merely present women as harpies married to idiots this year, rather than outright sex objects as in years past. That’s how low the bar is. But hold your applause: GoDaddy’s second 2013 Superbowl commercial looks like a return to form. I think I know what the Dowager Countess would say about that. She’s #NotBuyingIt.

After Violet’s tart advice to lovelorn Edith, the comparatively plain middle daughter jilted at the altar, Edith lands a gig as newspaper columnist, writing about “the problems faced by a modern woman.” In the same episode, Isobel, another women’s libber, gave a former prostitute a second chance by hiring her—and fired the uptight maid who, favoring propriety over compassion, protested the move. Even the bizarre love quadrangle in the servants’ quarters is fueled by the women’s burgeoning realization that, for them, conformity to the gender roles of the era really blows. Why can’t Daisy openly pursue Alfred, the way he comes on to Ivy? Because that’s the way it’s always been, dear.

After three seasons gawking at upper-class excesses on Downton Abbey, the novelty has worn off and, yes, it’s in danger of being remembered as just another soap opera. But if they put Edith’s crusade for women’s rights front and center, the show could become an audacious Quentin Tarantino empowerment fantasy—call it Edith Unchained. Personally, I hope they go for it and really let Edith shine. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for Jan Brady cases.) When an unashamedly misogynistic show like Two and a Half Men consistently gets high ratings, and no blowback from viewers or Hollywood’s so-called liberal elite, a little counter-programming is overdue.

Jokes at women’s expense and gratuitous T&A in commercials can’t be shrugged off as just good clean raunchy fun when legitimate gender disparities still exist in terms of rights and power. Thoughtless portrayals breed more of the same among young viewers who watch TV uncritically, especially the men and boys who live and die by football. Sorry, I know I’ve somehow turned into Helen Lovejoy. But sometimes it helps for us to be reminded that being a straight, white male in America is like playing a video game on the easiest setting, as a great commentary last summer put it. Yes, for years I’d been accused of enjoying white male privilege, but it took a white dude using white-dude language for me to “get it.” When women are willing to take a bullet for our country, and we give them shit for it, I’d like us to up our game.

So, on Sunday night, like everyone else in America I’ll be rooting for the 49ers. But at 9 p.m., I’m rooting for Edith. San Fran will have the game put away by then. Switch over to PBS and let’s see if Edith goes deep for the end zone.

Follow Jack Persico on Twitter at @jackanape.