Spoilers for Season 3 Episode 5. Once again, I’m assuming that readers have knowledge of the series, but my apology to those who don’t. Last week, I wrote about Lady Sybil’s death in childbirth, and the hubris born out of assuming one’s position in life determines one’s authority to make decisions about everything. This week I want to talk about gaslighting and privileged distress. Gaslighting is when one person intentionally aims to undermine another person’s perception of reality by manipulating her/his emotions and/or environment. The term comes from the play/film Gas Light, in which a man decides to drive his wife to mental illness by manipulating the gas lamps in their house. He tells her she’s imagining things, and she comes to distrust her own perception of reality and mental health.
I’m pretty sure “privileged distress” is a more recent term. An article by blogger Doug Muder at The Weekly Sift explains:
As the culture evolves, people who benefited from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe.
In this episode, Robert, Lord Grantham is experiencing privileged distress. His daughter Mary essentially tells him as much–the problem, she says, is that he’s not getting his way like he’s used to. His darling youngest daughter Sybil just died in childbirth, and losing her must have felt like the ultimate loss of control. “This can’t be,” he says, as he stands over her body. Everything has gone out of order for Lord Grantham.
He requests to come back into the bedroom after being banished, and Cora turns him away. “You believed Tapsell because he’s knighted and fashionable,” she tells him. “You let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter’s life, which is what I find so very hard to forgive.”
And for the rest of the episode, Robert tries to reassert control. He pushes back against Tom’s decision to name the baby Sybil and to christen her into the Catholic Church. He refuses to hear Matthew’s suggestions for running the estate more efficiently. And he’ll be damned if Edith writes a newspaper column on women’s rights.
“Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore,” Cora explains at an all-female luncheon organized by Mrs. Crawley.
Then Robert bursts in and demands that they all leave, because he’s just discovered that Mrs. Crawley’s cook used to be a prostitute. “I don’t think you understand the difficulties she’s had to face,” Mrs. Crawley objects. Difficulties brought on largely by double standards regarding purity and sexuality and limited career options for women, of course. But think of the scandal, says Lord Grantham.
“Is that a Charlotte Russe?” says Cora.
Meanwhile, the Dowager Countess has prevailed upon Dr. Clarkson to speak to Robert and Cora about the likelihood that a Caesarian would have saved Sybil’s life. She says that he has created a division between the two–which I think is completely unfair–and that she wants them to be able to grieve together. Dr. Clarkson incredulously asks if she expects him to lie, and the Dowager replies, “Lie is so unmusical a word.”
She wrangles them all together, and Clarkson says that he perhaps gave them false hope, and that Sybil’s chances were still very low even with the Caesarian. “But there was a chance,” says Cora.
“So you think Tapsell was right,” says Robert.
“Oh, I cannot go that far,” replies Dr. Clarkson. “Sir Philip Tapsell ignored all the evidence in a most unhelpful, and I may say, arrogant manner.”
Robert presses on. “But Sybil was going to die?”
Dr. Clarkson gives in. “When everything is weighed in the balance, I believe that Lady Sybil was going to die.”
And Robert and Cora hug.
This exchange bothers me a great deal. The Dowager and Dr. Clarkson are functionally gaslighting Cora, albeit with the goal of marital harmony rather than mental illness. But they’re still telling her that her perception of events was off. She’s right–there was still a chance with the Caesarian. She’s right that Robert thought he knew better, and she has every right to be angry.
But what bothers me even more is that Robert’s goal in this scene is to affirm that he was right. He starts off the scene by attempting to apologize to Dr. Clarkson, because he knows he should have listened to him. When the doctor tells him that Sybil still probably wouldn’t have lived, Robert seizes it as an opportunity to establish that he was right. Lord Grantham didn’t make a bad call, after all. Order is restored.
And that makes me feel a little queasy.
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