MARCH / APRIL 2012: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
There are several kinds of female characters in books and movies, perhaps more reflective of real women than we would like to admit.
Some fall into the damsels in distress category, women ever in need of rescue. There are also “tomboys” who shy away from womanly pursuits such as the “Jo’s” from Little Women, and the women who dress as men to go on adventures. Then there are women who are (sometimes anachronously) against the historical tide. In Downton Abbey, the plucky Lady Sybil Crawley falls into the latter category.
Masterpiece Theatre’s well-beloved British series takes place just after the sinking of the Titanic, at an estate in England. It follows the wealthy Crawley family, as well as their servants, neighbors, and friends. Sybil is the youngest of the three sisters and finds her footing as a spirited activist. Some might say Downton Abbey took a risk in featuring Sybil, as so often the roles of women concerned with women’s rights and activism are riddled with clichés. A forward-thinking woman such as Sybil was also often the exception rather than the rule among others with aristocratic upbringing. Yet, the risk seems to have paid off. Sybil has a cheerful disposition and interdependent, look-out-for-others streak unlike many traditional “civil-minded woman”-archetype characters. As a result, we see not yet another go-getter defined by her causes, but a real woman defined by a moral versus a political center. Her efforts toward the causes close to her heart are a natural outflow of that focus. Sybil is big-hearted and we believe she really tries to do the right thing because she believes it is right, and not out of a desire to “be a rebel” like many female characters that have gone before her in film history. Though at times, her actions may be viewed as rebellious by her family nonetheless.
Although not without her vices, such as impulsivity in keeping with her passionate personality, Sybil is utterly relatable because she is so down-to-earth. Unlike some of her family members, she is less a part of the game of early twentieth century life, which concerns itself with issues such as social status and the power and wealth synonymous with it. Instead, Sybil is at times dismissive of this frivolity, more happy to pass her time being useful. This great sense of purpose drives Sybil to seek an education, practice as a nurse during wartime, and to sneak out to rallies on women’s rights. Although her intentions may not be to be rebellious for the sake of being different, Sybil is not afraid to uphold her beliefs when challenged, if she judges it worthwhile. For example, when her father is angered by her affection toward the family chauffeur, she accepts that he disagrees with her decision but does not back down from her claim that a chauffeur has equal human dignity to love as a man of greater monetary means.
Some might argue that her optimistic temperament is at odds with elitism found in Downton Abbey, but it could also be said that Sybil provides a much-needed contrast to the elegant and often snobbish setting. Her presence reminds viewers that although estates such as the fictional Downton had a real beauty, such as through traditionalism and luxury, the privileged lifestyles they provided were imperfect at best. Sybil’s unconventional viewpoints may not be entirely in keeping with her upbringing but her outspokenness and sensitivity reveal the more human aspects of Downton, and the shifting ideals of the era away from class-based social standing toward values that formed the basis for causes such as women’s suffrage. One gets the sense that Sybil could easily fit in with twentieth century life. She would certainly find sufficient causes in need of her commitment, and perhaps her empathetic soul would lead her somewhere abroad, such as to India advocating against women’s sex trafficking or in the Peace Corps helping children in need.
Regardless, we can easily imagine Sybil making a difference because she allows her actions to be guided by a commitment to her beliefs: a quality that is needed in every generation, including our own. ♥