How We Can Learn From Downton Abbey’s Gay Character
It seems, generally speaking, that Christians have a hard time deciding what types of “sin” they are willing to watch and what types they won’t. My decision to watch a show is intentional: I have to get on the computer, pull up Netflix, and let the show load. The one show I’ve watched most recently and enjoy wholeheartedly is Downton Abbey. But many Christians, including some close to me, believe that I’ve made a poor viewing choice due to the portrayal of certain sins in its plot.
My husband and I discovered Downton Abbey and watched the first season online over the course of one week. I found the show to be beautiful, charming, mysterious, and shocking. Not too long after seeing the first season, I recommended it to a few friends from church, praising the show. A friend came back to me and told me she and her husband couldn’t get past the first episode. When I asked her why, she told me it was because one character, Thomas, was gay. For them, watching a homosexual on the show wasn’t something they could do. While it wasn’t always easy for me to watch Thomas’s behavior, I was curious to see how the writers would develop this plot line and what they would communicate about our culture’s attitude toward homosexuality.
My question was answered in the latter part of this season. One evening, Thomas entered Jimmy’s room and kissed him in his sleep. Jimmy pushes Thomas off (and they are found out by another footman, Alfred, who later reports the incident to Carson who is the butler of the grand estate). Their dialogue displays Thomas’s sincere impression that Jimmy felt the same way about him. We see the shame and embarrassment that Thomas experiences in this moment.
As Thomas speaks to Carson about the incident, Carson is insensitive and dumbfounded as to why this criminal offense, as he calls it, has taken place. Thomas tries to explain the difficulties of being a homosexual – the way one must read the signs because one can’t speak openly. Carson replies, “I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world.”
Carson’s response could very well be our own. We’ve convinced ourselves that their struggle is so unlike our own (whatever they may be) that we can’t relate to “them”—and we don’t even try. The easiest reaction is to call it sin and walk away, to not even stop and think about what the struggle and hardship does to the individual. We can’t wrap our minds around the temptation so we merely tell them to “snap out of it.” We don’t know how to respond to them in love and empathy because we haven’t taken the time to know them.
However, if we allow ourselves to be taught, there is something valuable Christians can learn from Thomas’s character. We can learn to empathize with Thomas as we see his attraction to Jimmy fall apart. We watch the consequences of Thomas’s actions affect his future and Downton, and we find empathy because we see reflected back our own tangled mess of actions and consequences.
Downton Abbey has made it a little easier for me to understand the heart of someone like Thomas. My personal interactions with homosexuals are infrequent at best, but I hope and pray that the bend of my heart is to empathize and pray for those I do know, instead of giving in to a fear that calls for their condemnation.
My wife and I finally succumbed to the Downton Abbey mystique and watched the pilot a few nights ago. The scene involving Thomas and the Duke totally took me by surprise, since scenes like that would normally have gotten more negative press in Christian circles. (Yours is the first blog post on the subject that I have seen.)
Anyway, I applaud your approach. I have a number of gay acquaintances, colleagues, and family members, so I get to practice this approach more regularly, but I agree that it behooves all Christians to “walk a mile” in the shoes of those in the LGBT community, rather than succumb to knee-jerk rejection (“call it sin and walk away”) simply because this is behavior that is alien to us.
I was curious about different perceptions of the character of Thomas Barrow, and read what you wrote. What struck me the most was the statement, “My personal interactions with homosexuals are infrequent at best.”
Maybe this is the difference between living in Louisville, KY and Seattle, WA, but “infrequent at best”? No one in your extended family? No nephew or niece, no “confirmed bachelor” among your great uncles?
What about the work place? I’ve supervised openly homosexual people – a quiet black guy, and a vivacious blonde from Kansas; I’ve had a gay man, devoutly Catholic, for a boss. No one at your church? Me, I think of Carol and her wife; Shelly, perpetually single; Nathan who shared his pew with a succession of boyfriends before finding “the one” and moving to California.
“Infrequent at best”? While Seattle’s a gay-friendly town, and people come here from elsewhere, I would imagine that there’s still lots of gay people in Louisville. They’re just buried deep in the closet, like Thomas Barrow. They’re in your family, at work, or in your church, too. The difference is that they can’t openly be who they truly are. They have to live a lie.
No wonder your friend’s husband didn’t want to watch the series. Tom Barrow is a fictional character who is deeply flawed, angry and manipulative. But when you get to know him better, you see why he is angry and manipulative, and it’s harder to hate him for who he is. If you never know someone personally who is different from you, in person or on the screen, it’s easier to cast them out as “one of them”, rather than a human being like us – imperfect, to be sure, but still another human being with hopes, struggles, and fears.
I think this article makes a few good points. But really — there are Christians who can’t watch this show because there’s a gay character on it? I can’t even begin to know where to respond to that.
All in all, this piece is good, and I hope some aloof Christians can learn a thing or two from it.
Brandon, sad but true. See the comments here: http://kirkcameron.com/2013/02/what-to-make-of-marriage-in-downton-abbey/
Richard, just looked at those comments. What the… ?
As an Evangelical, gay, Christian actor, I am SO confused by this controversy. I’d have thought that readers of this blog (not so much Cameron’s!) would at least have enough of a grasp of literature to know that “to play” is not “to condone,” and “to explore” is not at all “to approve.” I might as well stop watching the News because I disagree with gossip; or write a column about how Christians SHOULD watch the News even though it is at times gossipy.
We heard one of the most poignant, awful, and important lines of the series when Thomas said to Carson, “I’m not revolting.” What a beautifully complex character we have in Thomas. Recognizing beauty in “the other” is a holy act; I loved Thomas’s storyline this season. So redemptive.
That Kirk Cameron thread is bananas, Richard. My favorite one is this: “KIRK CAMERON, are you listening? This site is nice, but please use your talents on the screen, that is where it is desperately needed.”
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