Using Downton Abbey & Anna’s Rape to End the Stigma of Sexual Violence

Image via pbs.org

Image via pbs.org

Though I’m not one of those annoying people who talk in the theater when they watch a movie, in the privacy of my own home I’m a vocal observer, laughing, gasping, and even shouting at the television. In last week’s episode of Downtown Abbey,  when Lady’s Maid Anna Bates was cornered in the kitchen by Mr. Green, a visiting servant and valet to Lord Gillingham, and was backhanded by him when she resisted his advances, I screamed, “Oh my god!” Stereotypical, I realize, but I know I wasn’t the only viewer who reacted so viscerally.

I didn’t see Anna’s rape coming. I imagine few Downton Abbey viewers did. The show we’ve come to regard as an escapist fantasy and safe haven from the ugliness of the modern world thrust us into a reality the series hasn’t touched upon until now: women in service were often victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Young women and girls, the backbone of domestic service, were especially vulnerable because of their age and inexperience.

According to the UK website Bricks and Brass, “Over one million people worked in domestic service at the end of the 19th century. One in three of these were young women or girls under twenty years of age.” And from the 2012 BBC series “Servants – The True Story of Life Below Stairs,” we learn that one of the rules that governed servants was, “Any maid found fraternizing with a member of the opposite sex will be dismissed without a hearing.” Though it takes two to tango, the woman suffers for it, even when the ‘fraternizing’ is non-consensual.

People talk about what they see on television. At the office, on social media, at cocktail parties. My friend Alice, who lives in Manhattan, reports that most of the conversations she engaged in or overheard during the December holiday party season had to do with a handful of TV series. Downton Abbey was one of them. Even in the midsize Upstate New York city I call home, Downton comes up again and again, often from the most unexpected sources.

While having breakfast with Liam, a family friend who’s half my age, I’m surprised when he brings up the show and the controversial rape. As it happens, he’s co-writing a play in which the male protagonist is infected with AIDS after being raped by a man. Because the character is gay, his friends assume that he’s responsible for contracting the disease because he chose to have unprotected sex.

This is the funny thing about rape. Not laughable funny, but uncomfortable, upsetting, and awful. When we hear someone has been raped, there’s a tendency to assign some level of blame to the victim. What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Did she know her rapist?

Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.

It’s clear that a lot of people are deeply angered that the rape storyline has entered the Downton-sphere where posh and privilege are the rule and sordid matters are brushed under the rug. I’m not one of them. And though I would never wish rape upon any man, woman, child or animal, I’m grateful that Downton’s creator and showrunner, Julian Fellowes, has gone out on a limb to introduce this element into his internationally popular series. Here’s why.

Anyone who comes into our homes week after week is bound to feel like family after a while. That’s why episodic TV exists. We’re compelled to tune in again and again because we have to know how it all turns out for the characters we love, hate, or love to hate. What happens to them matters to us, even though we know they’re completely made up. Granted, they’re actors speaking lines from a script. But the best shows create characters so compelling that we regard their joys as ours, their anguish indistinguishable from our own.

For three years, Downton Abbey has given us a glimpse into the well-manored (pun intended) lives of the British aristocracy, and our sympathies have been split equally between the upstairs affairs of Lord Grantham and the Crawley family and the downstairs concerns of the servants and staff who make the great house run like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

Everyone has their favorites, but the most universally loved character is Anna. We’ve seen her advance from the role of head housemaid to lady’s maid, carrying on, stiff upper lip, despite endless rounds of heartache and joy. Pale, blonde, slight yet stoic, Anna has weathered ongoing burdens — from keeping a dark family secret to standing by her husband Bates during his wrongful imprisonment.

So what happened to Anna during last Sunday’s episode was not just stomach-turning. It was profoundly powerful. Someone who felt like family was brutally violated, and it hurt so much that some have said they will not watch anymore and are urging a boycott of the show. Their reasoning? The powers that be behind Downton Abbey used rape merely as a plot device to boost ratings.

I disagree. I think Fellowes realized that the popularity of his show provided a platform for him to get a vital message across about the conditions women endured during the period when domestic service was often distressingly close to domestic slavery. And there’s evidence that this is a topic he’s wrestled with for over a decade.

Fellowes was the screenwriter behind the Robert Altman film Gosford Park, a period piece set in a country house in England in 1932. Like Downton, Gosford Park revolves around both the upstairs family and guests and the downstairs staff. Although Fellowes wrote the screenplay based on an idea by Altman and Bob Balaban (who plays a Hollywood producer in the film), the twist at the end that reveals a dark secret embroiling individuals on both sides of the social divide is — like the brutal assault of Anna — the proverbial punch in the gut. Both Gosford and Downton illustrate how female servants were often the victims of unwanted attention, and the film shows the repercussions decades later.

Writing for the website Feminist Sonar, Elsa S. Henry is outraged that the series has gone in this direction:

“The rape itself was graphic, and violent, and was clearly meant to be a punishment for Anna being flirtatious, or for that matter, even friendly. And the aftermath, of Anna sobbing…covered in blood. Of her hair mussed and her dress ripped. Of her choice not to tell her husband.

“I cannot watch. I as a survivor cannot watch a series devolve into a story about how a rape survivor refuses to tell her husband. I can’t watch a series where this is a minor plot point designed to shock….

“Downton Abbey was a place where I didn’t have to worry about this shit. Yes, rape happened frequently in that era. Women’s bodies weren’t respected, but…I wasn’t expecting Julian Fellowes to become SO concerned with historical accuracy that he chooses to have a rape occur….

“I didn’t sleep well last night. I had to cuddle my dinosaur so tight when I slept…I was Not Okay after watching it….[U]ntil the screams, and the thuds of punches landing, and the feeling on my skin of not feeling safe go away, I’ll be over here with my dinosaur watching My Little Pony, Friendship & Magic.

“Because at least there, I know I won’t be assaulted during my Fluffy Television Time with completely vile and revolting plots designed to shock.”

Twice in the above tirade Henry stresses that the rape was “designed to shock.” I don’t disagree. But what she sees as “yet another example of how women’s stories can only be told if they are told about rape,” I see as an opportunity to tell those stories women have been forced to bury, to hide, to be ashamed of. When Henry writes, “This is yet another example of how I can never be positive that there WON’T be a rape in the media I consume,” I have to wonder why she’s so insistent on pretending it doesn’t exist. I am sympathetic and sensitive to the fact that she’s a rape survivor, but so am I. And I have never seen the value of announcing, “Ewww, I’m a rape survivor, so please don’t show me films or programs or stories of women or girls being raped because I’ll be traumatized all over again,” because this is the flip side of “don’t show rape because it’s not polite/tasteful/appropriate.”

For centuries, the messages communicated to women about rape and sexual assault were shut up, be quiet, it’s your problem, it’s your fault, you’ll only bring shame upon yourself, don’t tell, don’t speak up, don’t you dare. Now that women (and men) are talking about rape — from rape at the hands of priests to rape in the military — anyone who insists that we not depict rape during Fluffy Television Time is setting us back decades.

We are now talking about rape openly. Perhaps not comfortably, but openly. So if you’re uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but progress isn’t necessarily a comfortable process. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s not go back to not talking about rape. Just because you hide your head in the sand doesn’t mean rape isn’t going on around you.

At their website, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reminds us that every two minutes, another American is being sexually assaulted. The next time you watch Downton Abbey, 30 individuals will be victimized as Anna was victimized. We’ll never see their agony or know their faces. Is it too much to ask of any of us to bear witness to just one survivor’s pain and efforts to return to a life of wholeness? In the U.S., a woman is more likely to get raped than to get breast cancer. So does that mean we should stop telling the stories of breast cancer survivors or stop wearing pink ribbons because that’s too upsetting?

To any viewer who was shocked by Anna’s rape — who takes umbrage at what happened on Masterpiece a week ago today — I say: Be upset. Be very upset. We need to be more upset about rape. We need to be so upset that we won’t stand for it anymore. This is the message that needs to get out to the general public, the genteel viewers of PBS and the broader audience. Perpetrators of rape are not being polite/tasteful/appropriate. Rape is not about sex, it’s about power, and the more we challenge that twisted demonstration of power by showing it, being horrified by it, talking about it and removing the stigma, the further we will go in ending the culture of rape.

Don’t discount the power of Fluffy Television Time. There are many who believe that the cultural shift toward widespread acceptance of homosexuality and LGBT rights had a lot to do with Will & Grace and Ellen DeGeneres coming into our homes. It’s harder to deny basic rights to someone when you care about their lives and you feel they’re like family.

Anna’s rape was a terrible thing to watch, but there’s so much potential for good to come of it. The on-screen brutality may have resulted in a watershed moment for many viewers who saw a woman being violently raped and did not once jump to the assumption that she might have brought it upon herself somehow. Despite Elsa Henry’s assertion that the rape was “punishment for Anna being flirtatious,” I think few if any viewers would see it that way. Anna wasn’t “asking for it,” which is how victims are characterized far too often. She was entirely blameless.

It wasn’t her fault.

But it will be our fault if we insist that television sanitize everything, that the shows we love stay fluffy and pretty and safe, that it’s our right to not be made uncomfortable by what we watch. Downton Abbey has been both critically acclaimed and labeled as nothing more than a soap opera. Wherever it may lie on the spectrum, at least it isn’t resting on its laurels. At least it’s tackling a problem that continues to plague us nearly a century later. If we stop being so afraid to talk about rape, we have a better shot at ending rape. If having bad things happen to good characters we love can move us one step closer, I’m all for it.

Linda Lowen is the producer and co-host of TakeCare, on WRVO Radio, an NPR station.  She is also an instructor of creative non-fiction writing at the Downtown Writing Center in Syracuse, NY.

Image via pbs.org.

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10 Responses to Using Downton Abbey & Anna’s Rape to End the Stigma of Sexual Violence

  1. Sheila Luecht January 19, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I was shocked. Your piece here captures the essence of the shock and the ramifications of that experience, both terrifying and positive. We are in an advanced war on women, in a current culture where we are being brain washed that women ask for rape, that it is something they are doing, something that they must accept as a being lesser than man. This significant segment highlighted the innocence, the unpredictability of who is victim and who is not. Anna was violated and we were in turn violated. We were innocent too. I am certain that while most viewers may not have needed a trigger warning, some certainly did. I think that it might have been appropriate. Violence against women, is just that, violence. It is not solicited and we are not fodder for it, although some, in both the civilized world and the uncivilized world seem to think so. I am disturbed by current trends, by religious leaders giving permission to rape to soldiers. I am forever burned in my mind by a post WWII photo of Russians raping German women and children which I happened to see not too long ago, their dead bodies the after math. Rape does exist, it is a violent weapon, it is hate, not asked for, not desired, not somehow worked with by the woman. It is therefore imperative that people must be shocked, they must be exposed to things like Anna’s experience to understand once and for all the real messages behind those who want to make rape less than what it is and always has been, a violation. I am certain that if enough people rose up against this current trend, we would be living in a safer world for women. Kudos to this man for writing this scene, taking advantage of his audience to create a teachable moment about rape.

  2. LInda Lowen January 19, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Sheila, I appreciate your words more than I can say. For five years I wrote about women’s issues for a website that had a very wide reach, and I was lucky enough to earn a paycheck for my work. As much as I appreciated having that platform, it wore me down to write about the horrors women experience because of their gender. Two stories finally made me throw in the towel: the rape of the young Indian woman on the bus, and her subsequent death, and the Steubenville, Ohio case involving the football players who dragged an unconscious teenage girl around from party to party like a live sex doll and violated her repeatedly, with dozens of witnesses tweeting and taking photos. I was made physically sick by these stories; I could no longer do the work; I was burned out. I do feel some level of guilt that I didn’t have the strength to continue, but I’m heartened to see others with platforms advocate for women. The best way to change hearts and minds is through storytelling, and Downton Abbey is ideally positioned to break through with this message. And thank you for using that phrase, “teachable moment.” Anna’s rape is exactly that, but I didn’t want to say it outright for fear of being regarded as too cliched. Thank you for summing it up for all of us.

    • Sheila Luecht January 20, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

      Thank you again for writing this piece.

  3. Shannon Drury January 19, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly magazine. When I saw this episode refer to “The Thing That Happens To Anna,” I knew she would be raped. She couldn’t fall down and break her nose, she couldn’t be pregnant with her & Bates’ child, she couldn’t suddenly become a lady of the manor–she would be raped. I wonder how I would have reacted to the episode if I hadn’t read that one sentence?

  4. phyllis January 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    I don’t watch Downton, so I can’t comment on that, but I do not like the way the writer dismisses the angst of Elsa S. Henry, and dismisses her having her trauma revisited on her with no warning that it was coming. It probably felt like she was raped again. The way she describes her reaction is classic PTSD, which I also have.

    If we are going to use a rape scene as an object lesson, we HAVE to be sensitive to EVERYONE that has lived through it. I’m guessing that it would have been nice to have a disclaimer at the beginning of the show. It would have lost some of the shock value, but it would have saved some people from having to relive their own ordeals.

    And as someone who was raped, I’m glad I missed it.

  5. Christine January 19, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    We were both really bummed out about the scene, it was clear something was up and I knew there was going to be a twist of unexpected violence. I was just expecting it to be Bates going after him. It’s the ugly part of history we all like to forget, which is that women and girls were always vulnerable to assault- not just their superiors. It hasn’t changed, it just looks different now and we are allowed to speak up.

    It’s always hard to watch rape, whether we see the whole assault or just know what is coming. They are violent, and it is realistic that he would have punched her, and dragged her kicking and screaming. The visceral reaction of sadness was important, there were no gray areas, no fuzzy boundaries. I would have been disappointed if Fellowe’s hadn’t made Anna look like she had been attacked, that would have been making it a less serious concern.

    What no one seems to have mentioned is the other rape that went on, because it wasn’t clear that it was violent. Branson is being stalked by Edna Braithwaite, who gave him a lot of alcohol, and then slipped into his bedroom knowing he was very drunk. Naturally, it is hard to compare the two, though they both serve as reminders of how the vulnerable are hunted by their predators. While he is a man, it was made clear in the previous episode that no matter how unwelcome her attention was, he will always be suspect that he encouraged her and therefore could not speak up and risk losing his safety with the family. He is a victim of his own previous lack of social status, he can’t speak out and he is too kind to tell her to go away. Keeping tight borders on everyone’s behavior and keeping one’s mouth shut was the norm of the day.

    • LInda Lowen January 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

      Christine, you’re right — if Tom Branson is indeed raped by Edna. (He’s definitely being stalked, and all the points you made are rock solid. Predators target their victims very carefully, and he’s absolutely vulnerable.) I’m glad you brought that up. However (SPOILER ALERT) although I haven’t seen the episode in advance, I noticed how the editing clearly clipped the scene so that you only hear Edna’s voice as she enters the bedroom; I feel as if this week we’ll see that same scene but with Tom crying out so that Edna’s manipulations are revealed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there’s another actress playing Cora’s lady’s maid this season, so this may be the way Edna exits the show. One can only hope…

  6. Julie Ricks January 20, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    I’m upset for a different reason: It seems that aside from Matthew, men on the show get a pass every time–Barrow’s near-miss / magical rescue by Lord Grantham when he was nearly arrested for being a homosexual. That is a topical, 21st century issue, yes he did not suffer.

    Lord Grantham nearly lost Downton Abbey: He was rescued and got a pass.

    Tom eloped with Sybil, at a time when this would have ruined both he and Sybil: Welcomed back into the arms of the family.

    Mr. Bates: Wrongly accused, convicted, and imprisoned, gets exonerated, released AND returns to his job. He gets a pass.

    But the women? They suffer the consequences every time.

    That made me angry.

    If I want to watch a hard-hitting drama that films explicit scenes of violence and cruelty, I will. But I don’t watch Downtown Abbey for that. I watch to be entertained, to relax, and to schmooze with my girlfriends the next day.

    That makes me angry.

    Life is unfair–it is–I’m a cancer survivor, I know first-hand that life is random and unfair. But in my entertainment? I choose less difficult stuff to watch. And I don’t like being surprised by it.

    That makes me angry.

  7. Coloradogran January 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    As one who has suffered a rape by one of trust I can totally understand why Downton Abby decided to approach the subject. To often the subject is swept under the rug or the victim doesn’t tell anyone and the rapist gets away only to do it again .Annas feelings of not wanting to be touched, feeling unclean,unworthy and that she did something to entice are all all are parts of the victims feelings. I would hope that Downton producers are very sensitive to both Anna and Bates and show that there is life after a rape, even if, in my case, it has taken years to overcome.

  8. Krista N. Dalton (@KristaNDalton) January 21, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    I reacted in the exact same manner as you. I found it was a powerful portrayal of the intense emotions, guilt, pain, and distorted societal expectations placed on female servants. I don’t want a period-piece show, as entertaining and lively as it is, to mask in a glamorized fashion the reality of the lived experience for so many females.

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