Downton Abbey’s Rape Scene Exemplifies Need to Stop Using Rape in Storytelling
Posted on January 13, 2014
Let me start by stating my main request: Stop using rape for shock value, to add dramatic intensity, or to add emotional depths to characters in storytelling. Rape is not a story. It is a fact of life for many, and one that can never be covered well enough to make it worthwhile to use casually or to gain notoriety.
Spoilers: The following post may contain spoilers for Downton Abbey season 4, episode 3
I’m a huge fan of the show Downton Abbey helmed by Julian Fellowes. I’ve encouraged others to watch, discussed seasons over cups of tea, and baked fresh scones for season premieres. But tonight’s episode, which has already aired in the U.K., featured a scene involving lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) being raped downstairs by a visiting servant named Green (Nigel Harman), while above an opera singer sings a love song in juxtaposition.
I am not so naive as to think that rape did not occur in the large households that Downton represents. But my issue is with the storytelling and the use of the act itself in the show. It is following a large trend that crosses over many shows as well as into many fiction books. Within the past few years, there has been an increased use of rape scenes in fiction to the point where I have read in message boards a sincere wish to stop seeing it used unless it serves the story’s purpose in a major way.
And that’s where the danger lies. Was there real purpose in a show like Downton Abbey featuring a rape scene at all? After the show aired in the U.K., the public outcry there led Fellowes to justify his story choice. He states in The Independent, “The whole point of the way we do things on Downton is we don’t do them gratuitously. We are interested in exploring the resultant emotions and the effect these things have on people.”
For Fellowes, the act of rape serves as a way to explore emotions of characters, or develop his characters more deeply. Were Anna the main character of the show or one of only a few main characters, I would say that he might have a chance at doing so with enough depth and breadth that he could support his claim. However, she is one of an ensemble, and anything that does get conveyed through her reactions will be extremely surface or enough to push the story forward.
Froggatt states in The Guardian that she appreciated the show featuring the harsh reality. She says, “I think it’s a really brave thing to do … I believe that Julian has written it in a way that is not gratuitous at all…We all felt a big responsibility to get it right.” She went on to point out the emotional journey her character would go through that echoed women of that time period who couldn’t go to the authorities. Were the show to stop all other storytelling of the other characters and do an entire season on Anna’s storyline, it still would not cover the amount of emotional journey the character would indeed go through.
And therein lies the problem – not that shows or fictional books feature rape, but that what they do feature will never be enough. There’s no discussion afterward about it, no campaign for awareness, no features on current governmental policies, or anything else. And it’s too serious of a subject to just feature.
It’s good that Fellowes intends to follow up the rape of Anna with her emotional crisis. At least he isn’t sweeping it under the rug – yet. But he did put it behind closed doors leaving what actually happens to Anna to the viewers’ imaginations. So the act is there, yet hidden. And what does that say about the show’s treatment of rape overall?
Having not watched the aftermath in other episodes, I cannot comment on whether or not he does that side of the act justice or not. But it’s undoubtedly going to be a small part alongside the storylines of the other characters. Again – it’s not enough.
One of the few books to ever touch on the subject of rape and do it well is the young adult book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The entire book deals with the young girl protagonist who suffers being raped and then deals with the aftermath through the entire book. The reader is brought in through the first-person diary-style narrative to experience what she does and almost suffers through the trauma with her in a very direct manner. The use of rape is not a plot device to get us to sympathize with the character who moves on. It is something that she and the reader has to viscerally deal with.
There are those that believe that Anna’s rape in Downton Abbey is wrong because it doesn’t fit the style of show and that it takes the viewer into too much reality, where the show is really feeding our fetish for period dramas. Slate Magazine states that the rape is just another in a series of sadistic acts towards women in the show. The Guardian featured dual-perspectives from Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Bidisha who both consider the positives and negatives of the inclusion of rape in the show. While Cosslett states that the show features the realities of the times, I agree more with Bidisha who points out the clichés of rape that were used in the filming.
Downton Abbey is just the next popular show to use rape as a way to increase drama for the entire show and for one of its more popular characters. It is hard to watch not just because it is violent or exemplifies violence against women. In a society that still has basic issues in dealing with the subject at all, anything that is done in a small way is just not enough. And if you can’t do enough with the subject, then it is better to not feature it at all and to find other ways to increase conflict or build characters.