By Michael Burns
We don’t usually associate post-Edwardian aristocracy with contemporary South Korean capitalism. But two 2019 films, Downton Abbey and Parasite, similarly consider the issue of class stratification from within these distinct settings. Both films (and in the case of Downton Abbey, it’s six-season television series) explore the same fundamental question: Is it possible to transcend your social class? And while Parasite and Downton Abbey each attempt to answer this question, they don’t do so in quite the ways you might expect.
The two films interrogate this issue via the “upstairs-downstairs” problem, a term named after the 1971 British television series. Upstairs, Downstairs explored the dynamic between a wealthy family (who lived upstairs) and their servants (who lived downstairs). Since then, this title has served as a helpful way to describe media that explores this type of class stratification.
Downton Abbey is a spiritual descendant of Upstairs, Downstairs. It too is set amongst the English aristocracy, where a generationally wealthy family has an entire staff of servants that live and work beneath them. The show revolves around the Crawley family, royalty-adjacent members of the aristocracy who have a relationship to wealth that predates industrial capitalism.
Parasite revolves around two families that represent contemporary class stratification: the Parks, a wealthy family that lives in a glass-walled mansion on a hill, and the Kims, a poor family that lives in a cramped semi-basement apartment in the city’s slums. In an attempt to ascend from the piss-soaked alley they call home, the Kims scam their way into the lives of the Parks as the hired help: two tutors, a maid, and a driver. But their plan backfires when they realize someone else has already beat them to their grift. Namely, the previous maid and her husband, who have been using a secret basement to live off the Park’s excess. Chaos ensues, and death, brain trauma, and life underground await the Kims.
In both cases, these upstairs-downstairs dynamics are exemplary of social stratification, as they involve a clear demarcation between the upper class and the lower class, the haves and the have-nots. Even though the servants and the aristocrats in Downton Abbey are physically proximate, living on the same estate, they remain socially stratified to the extreme. Despite sharing a home, they are more or less members of different worlds, each with its own set of rules and possibilities.
Take Daisy, one of the kitchen servants. Her life consists of around-the-clock work, with perhaps one day off each month to do anything other than labor for the aristocrats upstairs. Living right above her is Mary Crawley, who comes from world-historical wealth and privilege. Mary’s days consist of various flavors of leisure and relaxation, and she has as much in common with the average servant as Bobby Flay does with a suburban dad grilling hot dogs. In terms of class structure, Daisy and Mary might as well live on different planets.
But let’s get back to Parasite, which explores what happens when a downstairs family attempts to slowly sneak their way into the upstairs world. The director of Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho, has said that Parasite is a movie about the world that most of us live in, the world of capitalism. And while he initially wrote the movie about the specific type of social stratification he witnessed in his native South Korea, the film’s massive success speaks to the universality of this kind of class tension.
On the surface, it might seem that Parasite, a film set in contemporary South Korea, where capitalism has made it possible for some people to blur traditional class distinctions, would be more favorable to the possibility of class transcendence than Downton Abbey, which takes place in a world of rigid and hereditary class distinction. But the opposite ends up being the case, as there is apparently more hope in a society where genetics determine class than in one where economic prosperity is allegedly available to all.
The Downton Abbey television series includes multiple storylines about members of the upper crust building class-defying emotional and personal connections with the servants and vice versa — including an Irish-socialist driver who abandons both country and party to become a part of the Crawley family. Even in such a rigid, tradition-bound world, class transcendence remains possible, though unlikely.
Parasite paints a much grimmer picture of social structure, where there is no magical bridge between the downstairs and upstairs of capitalism. If you’re born downstairs, you’re probably dying there, and if you’re born upstairs, you will live a charmed life of private tutors and totally non-offensive Native American themed birthday parties. Though a genius-level of collective scheming by the Kim family gets them a few hours of shared upper-class cosplay, it all falls apart in a matter of hours, and they are left spending the night in a shelter for flood victims. And of course, the same rainstorm that ruins the Kim’s community only slightly inconveniences the Parks and their wealthy comrades in the hills, and ends up being seen as an unexpected blessing because it brought beautiful weather the following day.
There is a haunting moment at the end of the film: We see the Kims’ son, Ki-woo, overcome his social conditions and acquire enough money to purchase the beautiful home he was previously only able to enter as a tutor, the home where his father is trapped. But what looks like a genuine moment of class transcendence is revealed to be just a fantasy, as Kevin is still sitting below ground in his family’s apartment. We are forced to acknowledge that he is likely stuck here until he dies. Unlike Downton Abbey, there is no stately lady of means who will leave the family estate on horseback and invite him up for a dinner with the Duke of Bubblesberry, just the conditions he was born into.
If one of the consistent themes across the extended cinematic universe of Downton Abbey is that, underneath the edifice of class structure we’re all really the same, and all that it takes to get upstairs is a pure heart and the right set of stairs; Parasite shows the opposite. The film argues that it doesn’t matter how smart you are — if you come from the basement, you’re probably going to stay there, and any trip up the stairs is going to be a fleeting taste of another world at best. It’s easier for an Irish socialist to enter the gates of the aristocracy than it is for a hard-working and clever Korean teenager to join the middle class.
And while this all might sound a bit grim, Parasite succeeds because it avoids the temptation of ignoring social conditions for the sake of inspirational or romantic stories, and instead focuses on the ways in which no one is immune from social stratification. Even if this leaves its audience feeling like we live in a world without hope, it unfortunately represents the world we are actually living in.