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Mary Crawley is a bitch

This post contains spoilers for all aired episodes of season three.

Mary Crawley is a bitch. And I love her for it.

Over the past day or so, I’ve seen some criticism of Mary floating around, based on her behavior in the new season of DowntonAbbey. In particular, the way that she refuses to accept that they may be forced to sell the estate and move into a smaller house.

But I think this “bitchiness” is one of Mary’s greatest strengths. Mary Crawley is, for better or worse, a flawed character. She is proud, and she can be petty and vindictive when it pleases her (although always with a dignified air). Yet she is also a perfect example of a young “strong female character” (as much as I hate the phrase) who fits into her era. She is strong and compelling without being a radical, like Sybil, or simply a modern girl completely out of time. And she is willing to fight for what should be hers.

“The world is changing,” Mary tells her mother, as they discuss her fast-fading chances of keeping her mother’s inheritance in the show’s first season. “Not that much,” Cora replies. “And not fast enough for you.”

Mary is a modern girl, by the standards of Downton’s era. She sees the complete injustice of the fact that not only the estate of Downton, but also her mother’s entire inheritance, must go to a distant relative instead of her, simply because she was born a woman. She sees her entire life laid out in front of her as a duty, where she will never really be happy — she must look out for practical concerns, and she will be passed to whichever man she needs to entice to keep the estate in the immediate family. The future of Downton is set out as the purpose of her entire life, and it’s something that she must fight and make sacrifices for, every step of the way.

And, repeatedly, she finds that her father is not willing to fight for her rights. He quickly favors Matthew once he arrives on the scene in the first season, and now he gambles the money away and then shrugs his shoulders in self-loathing defeat. Mary has to fight every step of the battle herself, and she has to do it in a “lady-like” manner, with smiles and displays and manipulations.

No wonder she’s what some people might call a “bitch.” It’s that or be a sweet, darling pushover.

Although Mary puts on a show of great pride, and is almost always dignified and practical, she is far from cold or arrogant. She repeatedly shows affection and concern for others, including for the servants. Despite the fact that the Turkish ambassador Pamuk essentially rapes Mary (he sneaks into her bedroom at night, ignores her protests and warns her that she can’t scream for help without her reputation being ruined), she, with the sensibilities of her time (and, sadly, ours), feels guilty for not protesting more, for allowing herself to “fall.” And she will take whatever course is necessary to protect her family from the fallout and ensure that she has some kind of future — even if it means marrying a man she despises.

She may be kind to others and rather self-loathing at times, but she is also pragmatic, and she is a fighter. So when she finally gets the happiness she thought she could never have, marries a man she loves and secures Downton for her family, only to find out that Downton is lost and that her new husband will not use his resources to save it… well, she is going to be less than happy. Once again, the men in her life seem unwilling to fight the way that she has fought. So she will make her opinions known. She will refuse to take criticisms for the actions she must take. And she will team up with the other women in her family to fight again for her inheritance and for the tradition she has been tasked with keeping alive.

 

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

16 thoughts on “Mary Crawley is a bitch

  1. I love Mary! Like you, I can´t understand why so many think she is a bitch. She is only a bitch when neccesary! She is a strong, independent (for her time), complex woman, she is also sweet and caring, as you write. Why do women have to be perfect or unselfish doormats to be accepted on screen? No way! :-)

  2. Mary is one of the most one-dimensional, underhanded, selfish, manipulative characters I’ve ever seen on any TV show.

    I fail to see how she’s modern, or even strong. Her entire character arcs on the show have been acting to protect her own tattered reputation, being completely horrible to her first fiance (not that he was a treat either!), treating Matthew like garbage, then manipulating Matthew into using HIS money to save a freaking house.

    But yeah, otherwise she’s very likeable!

    1. Mary is a narcissist, basically. It’s not a coincidence that she spends half her life staring into the mirror. She wants money, status, and privilege, and is willing to emotionally blackmail people in order to get it. She doesn’t care much whom she hurts along the way or what ethical lines she crosses: anything to get what she desires and thinks she deserves. When it comes to her sister Edith, she is a sadist, taking pleasure in humiliating her and laughing at her pain. I think it’s partly just her nature, but her parents enabled it.

      1. Edith is hardly innocent in their disagreements. Yes, Mary can be cruel to her, but Edith is equally cruel back — especially when she purposefully attempts to destroy her sister’s and her family’s reputation.

        1. That was in Season 1 when they were both teenagers, basically. Since then Edith has been perfectly civil to Mary and Mary continued to be a cow to her. Did you watch S4? She insulted her and snapped at her and said she’d rather sleep on the roof than share a bedroom with her. When Edith’s boyfriend was missing and perhaps dead, she made fun of her about it at the breakfast table.

          That letter cannot be used to forever excuse Mary’s cruelty to her sister. Mary got her revenge already and in the process lied to and hurt an innocent third party, Sir Anthony.

          Also, Edith was NOT the one who risked the family’s reputation. Mary was. She had a one-night stand with a stranger under her father’s roof, a stranger who might very well have gone on to tell all of London that Mary Crawley had given him her virginity. She was lucky he died on top of her.

          So let’s not put all the blame on Edith for what was MARY’S indiscretion. Her act risked the whole family’s reputation and was selfish and reckless. At sat Edith had a reason to do what she did: she was sick to death of her sister talking trash about her, to her face and behind her back.

          Edith has grown up and matured, and Mary hasn’t. She still acts like an adolescent Mean Girl. She’s a petty tyrant.

          1. Zoe – I agree with you completely. Mary is a petty, nasty, bully and it has nothing to do with feminism. The comments she makes about and to her sister Edith are cruel and Mary gets pleasure out of her sister’s misery. Immediately after Sybil died, Edith tried to get close to Mary, who again shot her down. I have no problem with a character in a story being a “bitch”, it can add interest to the narrative, but don’t expect me to root for her to be happy, which obviously is what the writers expect. Last night, Mary ruined Edith’s chance for happiness, while Mary blissfully gets married! I want to see her brought down to her knees ! I hope Edith marries someone socially superior and gets back at her evil sister.

        2. Mary was cruel to Edith before that, and wouldn’t stop for anything. She played Sir Anthony’s feelings, almost losing Mathew in the process. She mocked and belittled Edith’s suffering for Michael’s disapearance and death, even though she couldn’t overcome Mathew’s death for a long time, with all the time and happiness that they already had.

          Mary wasn’t raped. She knew very well that the ambassador staying there was worse for her, and she cried his death because she was in love with him, not because she was traumatized by rape.
          She put herself at risk of being tarnished, and dragged her mother and Anna into her mess.

  3. Why is it that people can’t seem to distinguish the concept of “bitch” and “strong women”? They aren’t actually the same thing.

    Lady Grantham is a spoiled, narcissistic snob. In the first season she decides she doesn’t want a man, then pursues him merely because she can’t stand the fact her sister might want him. She immediately goes after her “true love” as soon as he recovers from his paralysis…despite the fact both she and he were engaged. She is all about her status in the aristocracy.

    Downtom Abbey is chock full of strong female characters. The Dowager is feared by all. Cora is actually much stronger then she appears, if you pay attention.

    1. Sybil is a strong woman. She chooses to work and challenge herself, she fights for others, she makes her choices and doesn’t care what people think. Being a bitch doesn’t make you strong, it just makes you a bitch. And Mary is actually a needy person. She demands constant attention from men and her family, is so desperate not to lose her place in society that she is willing to marry a man she doesn’t like, can’t pry herself away from her childhood home like mature adults can. She couldn’t survive a day in the real world, unlike Sybil who could and IMO Edith too. Mary falls apart when everything doesn’t go her way. She can’t handle it.

      1. “Needy” would be the last word I’d use to describe Mary. She’s a pragmatist, and I think your criticism of her actions ignores a lot of the restrictions of the society she lives in. Sibyl chooses to give up everything she has ever had or known, but the fact that Mary doesn’t do the same doesn’t make her weak.

        1. She’s not weak for choosing to keep her privileges. She’s weak because she couldn’t live without them, and is terrified of the prospect of losing them. So terrified she’d rather marry a man she basically hates than live without a husband and big house and position.

          Tons of women of her generation managed to live without husbands after the war. It’s not like she would have been destitute. She just wouldn’t have been mega-rich and titled. But she couldn’t handle that. She couldn’t handle disappointment or change or uncertainty.

          She would have been stuck with Richard if Lavinia hadn’t died and everyone wouldn’t have talked Matthew into getting over it and marrying her. She stayed with him for years, hoping and pining that somehow she could get Matthew back. She wasn’t strong enough to move forward and get over it. All she did was wring her hands like a damsel in distress for years.

      2. I agree with everything you said… Exactly how I would describe Mary. In fact, I found her mother Cora a much stronger woman than Mary is. At least Cory was strong enough to move to a smaller place. Mary in the other hand just stretched her out expecting or demanding other people’s money and when she didnt get her way, she behaved like a little kid who didnt get her candy.

  4. Her attitude toward Matthew is far from strength. Throughout the first season, she already likes him but rejects him anyway just to cause innecessary problems to the family. Like when an infant learns to say “no”, and opposes just for the sake of opposing. She only notices him again to rival with Edith. About the second season, I am all for being aware of our feelings, and if we love each other, let’s be together instead of leading others on.

  5. Mary is a good character. She is strong, she fights for what she wants but she is also selfish, manipulative, arrogant, cold and needy. I love to hate her in the tv show, I would loathe her if she was an acquaintance of mine.

  6. Mary is a complex character but I wouldn’t praise her for her determination and strength since people can be both of those things without taking other people down along the way. That’s where nuance is important. Writers love to stir up controversy to keep us hooked but the relationship between Mary and Edith is classic. A narcissistic sibling that picks on another sibling all the while the parents sit by and don’t say a word.

    It would be one thing if Edith had all the attention or looks (I find Edith far more attractive than Mary’s ghostly severity plus she’s got the better outfits) but she doesn’t. And that’s what makes the dynamic even more interesting. There’s nothing that we can see for Mary to be jealous of Edith on the surface. In fact, if the writers are actually as perceptive as they seem to me, I’d guess that Mary knows she’s kind of a heartless bitch and that Edith isn’t and Mary secretly hates her for it. We tend to put other people down who have traits we fear or loathe in ourselves. Edith isn’t good at standing up for herself (and she’s got no one who has her back) and Mary can’t stand that weakness, most likely because it mirrors her own, so she has to erase it

    1. Jody – you make some very good points about Mary’s character. She is a cruel and jealous bully. Such personalities can make a story interesting, but what bothers me is that the other characters in the story never call her out on her cruelty. She gets away with it and she is admired. The writers want me to root for her happiness – are we supposed to root for the cruel step-sisters in Cinderalla as well ? I want to see Mary miserable and hope Edith finds happiness.

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