Dame Maggie Smith & The Purse-Lipped Scolds Of Olde England

“You on the computer there, are you going to wear that in public?”
Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in ‘Downton Abbey’

America, can I ask you a question? It’s a little delicate.

Far be it from me, a British writer on a blog devoted to British culture, to pull at a thread on the glove of the hand that feeds me, but there’s a strange aspect to the relationship between British and American culture that I’ve often wondered about, and Dame Maggie Smith’s win at the Golden Globes the other night has given me the chance to wonder anew.

So, what is this thing you have about being told off by the British?

We’ve written about it before, in list form, the cultural thrill of the grumpy Brit coming over to America and making his or her fortune by claiming that nothing is up to their mighty standards: Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan (we don’t want him back, by the way, so please stop signing that petition), Jo Frost, Gordon Ramsay… alpha males all, and every one of them acting out the same basic emotional paradigm for your televisual delight — they claim they are being cruel to be kind, but all anyone really wants to see is the cruel part.

And that’s just in reality TV. In drama the same thing applies: Alan Rickman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Maggie in Downton AbbeyHugh Laurie, Ralph Fiennes, Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart, and any Brit who has had to play a supercilious, morally suspect character in any movie ever. There’s a suggestion that American actors are less willing to play rotters, in case it confuses the viewing public as to who they really are, which, if true, says a lot about the ego involved in being an actor. Then there’s also the idea that the sarcastic, overbearing villainous Brit is a hangup from the Revolutionary War, a relic of the special relationship between our two nations.

Although, if there is a historical attitude being handed down, it’s more that Americans tend to think Brits value intelligence over emotion, which has two consequences: the Brits are perceived as being lofty and arrogant, and Americans, possibly for no other reason than politeness, therefore cast themselves as the scrappy underdog.

There is another potential reason for allowing yourselves to be treated roughly by the sharp British tongue, however, and this is the delicate bit. Do you, on some level that perhaps you’re not even willing to acknowledge, LIKE it? Is that it?

You DO, don’t you! You like being put in your place by a stern, authoritative madam. It doesn’t matter if it’s a male madam or a female madam, you like being in the presence of someone you can’t impress, someone whose words lacerate like the edge of a whip, or the tip of a riding crop. It matches your internal monologue, doesn’t it? Somewhere deep inside, you worry that you’ll never amount to anything, and here’s this sneering toff from that island with all the history, standing over you as the personification and proof that this fear is true. And to your eternal, private shame, you realize their flinty eyes and stern expression make you feel a little scared, a little angry and entirely powerless, just as you did when you were a child.

It just feels right, somehow, despite being very wrong, and this internal conflict, if left unchecked, can create extreme reactions. Alex Jones, here, taking that scrappiness and underdoggery to a whole new level:

So, the next time you settle down to watch a movie and one of the characters starts metaphorically checking the mantel for dust, speaking with diamond-hard consonants and sighing a lot, be careful. If you allow us to be your dominatrices, just so you can get over your status as the last superpower standing, we’ll do it.

I did it just then. I made up an outrageous stereotype about the attitudes of an entire nation of people, and then basically implied that you bring it upon yourselves, on purpose. And I’d have got away with it too if I’d ended that point with an imperious sniff and an aside to the effect that America will never amount to anything if it can’t learn to control its animal urges, while stubbing out a cigarette with the toe of my boot.

And let’s face it, that’s what you like, isn’t it? I SAID ISN’T IT?

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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