This is a tl;dr post (for non-internet savvy people, that means “too long; didn’t read”).

Main points are about fiction and it’s role in helping us look at our ideologies and values through a defamiliarization lens.

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Colin and I have been watching Downton Abbey (preventative googling: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downton_Abbey), and I have some thoughts and confusions about it that kind of relate to this class.

Background in case you don’t want to skim the wikipedia article: Downton Abbey is a historical fiction TV series with the basic plot stolen almost directly from Pride and Prejudice, except with a rich family instead of a middle class family. Dad has only daughters and the estate is entailed to some distant relative that none of them really know. One of the daughters is a bitch, one is really plain, and one is all feministy and stuff. The feminist daughter attends some women’s rights rallies, and the whole family gets all upset about it. Also one of the servants is gay, so that’s interesting.

My point: watching this particular series while also being in this head-space about ideologies and values from our class really underlined the value that fiction has in helping us defamiliarize.

Example: The Downton Abbey estate has about a dozen or so servants for this family of five who actually “live” in the estate (I put live in quotes because the servants live there too, but they live in the attic in the servants dorms instead of their own rooms like the family). I used to think about servants in these kinds of settings as more like the maids that you can see while watching Arrested Development or Will and Grace. They clean up and take care of things, but they leave at the end of the day to get back to their lives. The servants in Downton Abbey are a lot more like slaves, but they don’t mind it. Many of them think of it as a noble profession. At one point the distant relative comes into town for the first time and isn’t really used to having a servant. The rich family assigns one of their servants to him but he prefers to do everything himself. He puts his own jacket on, puts in his own cuff links etc. At first I think we (the audience) are supposed to be sympathetic towards the relative because he’s giving the servant less work to do, and making his life better. But then throughout the episode you see that the servant actually gets really upset about not being able to help. He starts to feel useless because he is unable to do the job that he’s really proud of doing. It was a very strange moment for me. I went from feeling sorry for all of the servants for being treated like slaves and being angry at the rich family for having servants in the first place, to forcing myself to try to understand the situation from their perspective.

Counter example: However, there are also parts of the series that don’t try to get you to be sympathetic toward their values, like the women’s rights rallies, the gay servant having to pretend to be straight or get arrested, the way the family treat each other, the arranged marriages and their discussions about the role of love in a relationship, and lots of other things that are hard to point out.

I guess my main point is that fiction can simultaneously get you to distance yourself from your own values enough to be empathetic toward other values AND help you justify the values you already have. Or something like that. Mostly I just wanted to talk about Downton Abbey. The soundtrack is amazing. It’s good homework music.

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