Downton Abbey and the Insensitive Portrayal of Rape on TV
by Sadie Gennis
I tried to give Downton Abbey the benefit of the doubt. I tried to stave off my judgments until I had given the show time to prove me wrong, to prove that this wasn’t just another case of rape as cheap and consumable entertainment. But here we are at the end of the season, and my frustration has only grown.
Downton‘s fourth season notoriously featured the show’s most beloved character, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), being violently assaulted by a visiting valet. But contrary to creator Julian Fellowes‘ defense that he wanted to “[explore] the mental damage and the emotional damage” that follows sexual assault, I still have very little idea how Anna has been intimately affected by this tragic incident. Instead of parsing Anna’s psychological state, the show continued its violation of her character by immediately shifting the dramatic tension to questions about how Bates (Brendan Coyle) would respond.
Anna’s rape and her attempt to hide it for the sake of her husband is reminiscent of Mellie’s recent sexual assault on Scandal, in which Fitz’s father rapes — and possibly impregnates — the first lady, but Mellie doesn’t speak up in order to protect her husband’s political career. Both shows frame Anna’s and Mellie’s decisions to stay quiet as noble, portraying them as martyrs for their husbands’ livelihoods. Because in the end, their assaults aren’t about providing commentary on rape culture or empowering these female characters as they find ways to overcome and heal. Their rapes are about their husbands and the honorable selflessness of women who do anything to protect the men in their lives.
As a victim of sexual assault, I can tell you first-hand there’s nothing noble about staying silent. Rape is the most under-reported crime in America, with only 40 percent of assaults being reported to police. There are lots of reasons women don’t report their sexual assaults — lack of proof, fear of retaliation by the assailant — but one of them is due to fear of humiliation and hostility from those who are supposed to help. Law enforcement and your peers are not guaranteed to believe you (though the percentages of rape reports that are false are a meager 2 to 8 percent). But staying silent isn’t noble. It’s an act of fear — one that helps perpetuate a culture in which rape is trivialized and victims are shamed.
Yes, it would have been unrealistic for Anna to run down to the police station and receive any kind of legal justice in 1922. (Even now, only 3 percent of rapists spend even a day in jail.) But Fellowes’ decision to turn Bates into the emotional focal point of Anna’s rape is representative of the way our society continues to deny women any justice or control after the psychical attack has ended. Despite the fact Anna has publicly declared she is not a victim, Downton has remained focused on the way Bates is victimized by his wife’s assault, as though it was his own. To then add the mystery of whether Bates murdered Mr. Green cheapens the entire plot, proving it was never about Anna at all, but simply finding yet another way to turn Bates into the tragic hero.
But Bates’ desire to protect Anna, his anger at failing to do so, and his irrational need to seek justice — to possibly even murder — on her behalf is not romantic. If Bates had the insight to think outside himself and put Anna’s well-being ahead of his own, not only would he become a more well-rounded character, but it also would be a remarkable way to show gender alliance against female victimization. Instead, Bates allows his own feelings of powerlessness to become more important than Anna’s at a time when she needs his support more than ever.
This type of narcissistic repurposing of sexual assault by outsiders is sadly common in real life. (Look at how the discourse surrounding Dylan Farrow’s alleged abuse is often shifted by Woody Allen fans to make it about their experience as film viewers.) This treatment of rape survivors disempowers them while also discouraging them to speak out. It’s a serious epidemic, yet Downton plays it up as honorable and a fun, harmless plot twist.
Unfortunately, Downton‘s careless treatment of rape is not a one-time fluke, as evidenced by the show’s portrayal of this season’s second sexual assault. While Twitter erupted in shock and horror at Anna’s rape, barely anyone mentioned the fact that in that very same episode, Branson (Tom Cullen) also was sexually assaulted. (And yes, men can be victims of rape.) The newly-reinstated maid Edna plied the former chauffeur with liquor in order to sneak into his room, take advantage of him and use that as leverage to force a marriage. Had the genders been reversed, Edna wouldn’t have been seen simply as a manipulative social climber, but a lecherous villain of the highest degree. But her gender and the way Branson’s non-violent assault was contrasted with Anna’s downplayed this incident until it became barely a footnote in this season’s plot.
Although Branson’s encounter was not violent like Anna’s, it is reflective of what some like to call “gray rape,” a term which applies to non-stereotypical, non-violent assaults, often involving alcohol. It’s easy to write off “gray rape” as a miscommunication or a drunken mistake. I have no doubt that my assailant thinks what happened between us was consensual, but I know differently. As does the teenage girl who was raped by two Steubenville High School football players, Daisy Coleman and countless others whose traumatic experiences have been trivialized by the distinction of “gray rape,” as though what we experienced was simply a misunderstanding, didn’t happen or — worse yet — our own fault.
By categorizing and treating “gray rape” differently, it implies that one type of sexual assault isn’t as bad or as traumatizing as another — which is exactly what Fellowes did. By downplaying what happened to Branson, Fellowes contributes to the false notions that “gray rape” is something less than “rape rape,” and that men cannot be victims of sexual assault.
In England at the time, the notion of men being raped by women was pure fantasy. (Even now U.K. legislation is worded to only imply male assailants). Fellowes could have used Branson’s assault as a means to comment on the stigma of male rape and create a parallel of how male and female survivors react differently to sexual assault. But instead, Branson asserts his power in the next episode — he is an upper-class white male, after all — and Edna is gone. That’s it. Branson’s shame is alleviated, justice is achieved and he moves on as though nothing ever happened. Because that’s realistic.
Unlike when an actor decides to leave a show and their character is killed off, rape is a deliberate choice by the writers and they make decisions about how the issue should be handled. The way Downton handled Anna and Branson’s assaults is incredibly insensitive, but unfortunately not out of character for television. In the past year, many shows have used sexual assault to create drama, most notably Scandal, American Horror Story: Coven and The Mindy Project. Some, such as Scandal and Downton, have sparked serious debate over how rape is portrayed on television and hopefully writers will start to listen.
It’s time these shows are held to a higher standard and learn to treat sexual assault with the sensitivity and gravitas it warrants. Or at the very least, include a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode. Because one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 American men have experienced a sexual assault and chances are that more than a few of them are watching these shows.