The Cliffs of Insanity: Women, Television, & Rape

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Downton Abbey Series 3
Downton Abbey Series 3–that’s when the melodrama really kicked into gear. © Carnival Films & Masterpiece

Welcome to this week’s adventures climbing the cliffs of insanity.

This week was a banner week for women in television, and I say that will all due sarcasm.

First, there was The Mary Sue’s post on the Celluloid Ceiling Report, showing nothing had changed for women in Hollywood in the last sixteen years, despite supposed efforts to move women in decision-making positions in Hollywood.

Then I read a brilliant essay by an Oscar-nominated director–“Hello, my name is Lexi Alexander, Difficult Bitch. Nice to meet you!”–who called b.s. on Hollywood’s supposed attempts at diversity.

And, finally, the news that a possible Wonder Woman show was nixed by the CW network before even a pilot was filmed.

Because, you know, Wonder Woman is “tricky.”

And then there was episode 2 of season 4 of Downton Abbey.


First, for those of you saying, “But, wait, you gave away a spoiler with your title,” you’re right, I did.

One, because this event absolutely deserves a trigger warning for the roughly one-third of the female population who have been the victim of sexual assaults, and two because if I told you that a horrible thing happened to a woman on DA and she didn’t die, you’d know exactly what I was talking about anyway.

That’s how prevalent rape is as a plot device. And, make no mistake, this is rape as plot device in a soap opera, not a serious look at how women dealt with rape in the 1920s.

I ranted a while back in a cliffs of insanity column, on Comics, Women, and Rape, and how it’s used as the worse thing that can happen to the men in the life of the woman who’s been assaulted. Of course, misuse of rape as a plot device isn’t limited to comics. Television has issues too. Not just Downton Abbey. This season also saw a female cop nearly raped by an acquaintance on Blue Bloods, which would have been an interesting storyline except for the fact that the episode was about what a great guy her partner was, as he man-splained why she should report the assault.

I theorize that the lack of women writing, producing, and directing our popular entertainment may have something to do with all of this.

DA isn’t part of Hollywood, being a British production, but series creator and writer Julian Fellowes has fallen prey to the same kind of mistake. He has done some interviews explaining why he choose for the brutal rape of Anna to happen in Season 4, mainly resting his position on that rape is traditionally a problem for women and would especially be an issue for women in the 1920s, just as women inheriting an estate is.

Well, I agree. Rape was definitely a problem in the 1920s (it is still a problem now) and especially in the servant class who had no power to punish the rapists. Women who were raped were  absolutely viewed as soiled and wrong.

But all that is beside the point because DA has completely lost the right to pull the realism card to defend the rape.

To start:

1. There’s the miraculous cure of injuries from World War I.

Sure, the poor footman who had cannon fodder stamped on his head died horribly yet in true soap opera fashion, of course, marrying his true love for a last moment of happiness. That is so pure soap opera melodrama, it’s not funny.

Then Matthew is sadly paralyzed–more melodrama–yet still manages to look as gorgeous and healthy as before his injuries. We see him be stoic and self-sacrificing. Do we see him struggling to use the bathroom? Clean himself? No, all we see him is manly declare that he’s no good for Mary because he might not be able to have children. We don’t see him lose any dignity at all. And then, magically, he’s cured. Oops, misdiagnosis. No lasting trauma, no thing. Again, absolutely pure soap opera.

For good measure, I give you poor Thomas’ hand. He took a bullet right through the middle of it. For a while, it bothered him. But then, it didn’t. All better. No problem with fine motor movements that might keep him from doing the job of a valet, no mention of a lingering pain. Yes, that’s realistic. Not.

2. The servant/master relationships on DA are by no means realistic.

When push comes to shove, the lords of DA show their humanity by helping out the poor servants who have so little. Always, it seems.  Even when one of the maids has a baby out of wedlock with one of the lordly hospital patients, they lend their home for a meeting between the maid and the upper-class grandparents. They also step up for the cowardly, incompetent Moslesley.

No one at DA is in fear of Robert swiving the servant girls–he nobly refuses!–and no one is even in fear of Carson hitting the women or otherwise abusing his position. He’s too good. He’s too pure.

This isn’t a realistic depiction of a manor house of the time period. It’s a soap opera with the trappings–excellent trappings–of the time period. I like the melodrama but let’s not pretend it isn’t what it is.

3. Rape is realistic because it was a problem of the time.

Absolutely true in real life.

Except in DA, until Anna’s rape, we never got a hint of how the women have to account for perhaps being raped. Oh, they’re careful not to be alone with men but that seems social convention, not any serious worry.

Mary let a strange man in her room. Cousin Rose has been dressing as a servant to better appeal to a hot gardener, even Sybil often spent time alone with the chauffeur, who somehow restrained himself from even trying to kiss the poor girl and instead waited years for her to say, “Hey, no problem, let’s get married.”

If you’re going to be realistic, you have to be consistently realistic. DA has consistently taken a soap opera treatment of the plot, even of tragedy.

Now we’ll take how realistic Anna’s rape, and its aftermath, is in the episode it takes place.

1. For realism’s sake, Anna would already be wary of strange men who seem overly friendly. Women would have to be of that time period. She’s one of the smartest characters on the show, and she’d know when someone was flirting with her, and that it would be inappropriate.

2. She wouldn’t need her husband to point this out to her and, even if she did, the realism of the times would make her stop and think, “You know, he might be right, I should be more careful.” Because, realism says it’s a very real problem and this is a man she’s just met.

3. Anna is brutally and horrifyingly raped and beaten. (I’ll give the show that: the scene was staged for maximum terror. It’s more realistically depicted than even Sybil’s death because if you’re dying in childbirth, that whole bed is going to be messy, there’s going to be throw-up and, well, childbirth is more than just sweating and screaming. It’s really, really, really messy.)

But having been so beaten, she pulls it together awfully fast.

–She gets Mrs. Hughes to help her change clothes.

–She gives her husband an excuse for the wound on her head.

–She walks home under her own power.

Anna after the rape.
Anna after her rape. Yep, that definitely looks like injuries from a floor/table. © Carnival Films & Masterpiece.

If we want realism, a person who’s been that brutally beaten is going to be in shock. She might even have a concussion. She’s going to be bruised on her legs, her wrists, and the area between her legs. None of these other injuries show, either directly or indirectly. She walks just fine, for example.

She’s going to be in emotional shock. Anna sort of is when Hughes finds her but then she pulls it together enough to say a curt word to her rapist instead of cringing back in horror just minutes after the deed is done?

No. She’s not. She’s going to still be incoherent and terrified.

4. Bates is a war veteran. He’s very smart and clever. He’s also, especially in this episode, very protective of Anna.

When he sees her shaken up with a nasty wound, does he grab her and hold her (or at least try) and find out what’s really wrong? Nope. Does he recognize the difference between hitting the floor/table and injuries made with fists, as he should? No. Does he see the bruises on her wrists? Oops, no, because apparently, they’re NOT THERE.

Does he notice some fear from his wife when they talk to the rapist in the hallway? No, but I’ll give him a pass for this one because Anna is apparently immune to emotional shock–even the minor kind her husband might notice–because, uh, writer reasons.

Instead, he accepts what she’s said without trying to get close to her and lets a woman who supposedly just fainted walk home alone. In the dark.

Yeah, right.

Absolute realism fail.

Absolute story fail.

But, I thought, I’ll read ahead. Maybe the rest of the season deals with it better. Apparently not. Anna moves out without telling Bates why she can’t be touched. (And Bates is smart enough to guess what this might mean.) Then the big reunion seems to be about Bates assuring her he still loves her. Oh, well, how nice of him.

As a comparison: when I watch Spartacus, I expect brutality, even rape. I also expect the show to deal with that brutality maturely, and it did, very, very well.

When I watch Downton Abbey, I expect to get melodrama. I don’t expect a horrible rape thrown in as a plot device  to keep the Anna/Bates relationship interesting. There is a story promise inherent in the way a show is presented. Spartacus never broke it.

Downton Abbey has.

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7 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: Women, Television, & Rape

  1. One of the things that got to me about Anna’s rape, aside from what you already mentioned, is that she’s not even the only one to get raped in in this episode. Branson is raped by that maid who gets him drunk. But Fellowes’s rape-literacy is so weak he doesn’t even realize he wrote two rapes in the same episode. It would be interesting if he was setting up some kind of dialogue of the heavily gendered narratives of what rape is and how rape is no less of a violation when it’s chemically coerced as when it’s by violent force. Spoiler alert from someone who watched it while it aired in Britain: That doesn’t happen.

    Totally agree with you about rape in Spartacus– it was a weirdly pleasant surprise after accepting Spartacus as the quasi-sexploitation it is to have it treat rape seriously and realistically. Even Mad Men dealt with rape better, and Matthew Weiner at least says he tries to use the past to comment on the present. Fellowes is just writing a soap opera in pretty clothes.

  2. You know, I was so shocked by Anna it took someone pointing out Bramson for it to even register. Which is also bad storytelling in that viewers should be watching the entire episode.

    On the male rape, someone asked if it disturbed me as much and, well, from the episode shown in the states, it’s very unclear whether she spiked his drink, or if she just knew he’d be drunk and open to her suggestion. The second would imply that he had some control over what he wanted. Is that ever cleared up? The spoilers I read of the season seemed to think it was more of a drunken Bramson doing something stupid. But I could be wrong.

  3. I agree, her ability to walk home afterwards is tough to imagine but I don’t think it’s over and done with. I bet we’re going to be dealing with the after-effects of the rape for the rest of the season. Because the Saints Anna and Bates Must Suffer. It’s a main rule of the show.

    I don’t understand your argument–are you saying that if Anna got raped, those other women in those more iffy situations (which does border on the “they were asking for it” argument) should have been raped? That doesn’t follow. This guy was a rapist and those other guys weren’t.

    1. I’m saying rape wasn’t a true concern of any of the women until the writers decided it should be. And yet most of these societal rules of keeping women separate, even in the servants quarters, were partially to prevent rape or any kind of sexual activity. All we tend to get from the show is that’s just the way things were back then.

  4. It’s not really addressed clearly. But what skeeved me about it was that she gave him the whiskey to drink. So whether she spiked it or not, she still intended to get him pliable and vulnerable to sexual contact he would never have initiated or welcomed while sober.

  5. Julian Fellowes is apparently one of those writers who thinks that rape must always be violent, with the victim screaming “NO!” and thrashing and fighting while being physically overpowered by the attacker. Because even though it could be argued that in the first season, Mary was raped by Pemuk, Fellowes has never truly come out to say “yes, she was”, though when I watched that scene, and when I have spoken with other fans about that scene, all of us were in agreement that she was raped–blackmailed and manipulated into believing that “she better just lie there and accept it, or else!” and so Mary does…but isn’t that rape? Mary tells Pemuk multiple times to leave at once, but he refuses, and he is aware that she is confused by the sexual desire she was feeling earlier in the day, and so takes advantage of that confusion and purposefully manipulates her to “have his way”, and then gets her to hush and accept her fate, by threatening her with scandal, something that many abusers do in trying to get their victims to keep quiet.

    Yet Fellowes has never fully addressed this as what it looks like–a rape. Instead, he twisted the event to be a moment where Mary was afraid that Matthew would reject her because “oops! She’s no longer a virgin.” So it also seems to be with Tom (Branson). I wouldn’t be surprised if Fellowes is one of those people who doesn’t believe men can be raped by women. There are certainly a great number of people out there who think this, which in conclusion leads to more shamed and silent victims. But we the audience know that Branson has never welcomed Edna’s advances. He has always been seen to be uncomfortable around her, and therefore can conclude that in the sober light of day, he would never allow/permit her to share his bed. We also know based on that episode, that Tom was feeling depressed, and Edna recognizing this, kept “feeding him drinks” and encouraging him to get drunk, all the while appearing sober herself. In their last scene together on screen, we see Edna handing an already drunk Tom another glass of alcohol, and telling him to go upstairs and “sleep it off”. Tom does, but then we see her sneak up the servant’s staircase in such a way that we can’t help but come to the conclusion that “she’s evil” and therefore has an evil plot up her sleeve. Edna sneaks into Tom’s room, and while we hear her ask if he’s awake, that doesn’t mean she was hoping for a response. As horrible as it sounds, Edna may have thought that if Tom were drunk enough, she could fool him into thinking that she’s Sybil, who he clearly still misses, and therefore use both his drunken state and depression as a means to take advantage of him. To me, this is without a doubt, RAPE, because Edna knows what she’s doing, but she also knows that Tom is not sober and has done what she can to manipulate the situation so he’s in that state, because clearly she knows that if he weren’t, he would refuse her. This is like so many date-rape stories, where the victim was completely “out of it” only to wake up the next day, confused, and then slowly realizing to their horror, what’s happened.

    All three stories deal with rape, but the only one that is labeled “legitimate rape” by Fellowes is Anna’s, because hers was physically brutal in its portrayal, and that is the only one that anyone dares to call “rape” on the show, be it the creator or the characters. Tom’s rape is quickly shelved to being nothing more than “a drunken mistake”, which further adds to the victim-blaming, that “well he should have known better than to get so drunk”–even though he and other victims of similar situations never asked for their attackers to enter their rooms and take advantage of the situation. And Mary’s rape was always used as a plot device for her romance with Matthew, to have him and her family tell her, “you’re not a bad person for letting that Turk into your bedroom” rather than, “Mary, you are NOT to blame for what happened, you were attacked and forced against your will in the end”. Even though Fellowes argues that he is, as you quite rightly pointed, being “realistic” to the era in which the show is set, he picks and chooses his moments.

    During an era when a man could go to prison for being a homosexual (let alone lose his job), the character of Thomas is not only “forgiven” for his sexuality, but promoted, even though Carson and Robert know that Thomas is a proven thief from previous seasons. Yet Fellowes decided to forgo realism then. Why? To appear “progressive” amongst the artistic masses that watch his show? To not get into “hot water” with LGBT groups? Who knows, though in all honesty, he would have had more reasons to argue “realism” then, if he had Thomas’ character fired or arrested.

    But in a moment when someone could approach either Mary or Branson’s characters, and told them “you are not to blame, this isn’t your fault,” thus teaching the audience a valuable lesson about what is sexual assault and the many forms in which it can take, while still being “true” to the historical period (just have another character speak on behalf of the audience, even if society at the time would say Mary lured the Turk or Tom shouldn’t have drunk so much, etc.) still, have someone, be it Mrs. Hughes or Cora or ANYONE tell these characters “what happened to you WAS WRONG”, would be ten times better than what really happens on the show–which is nothing. Silence wins out, and even in Anna’s case, her rape is reduced to nothing more than a chance to showcase her husband’s inner torture.

    1. Originally, I interpreted Mary’s encounter with the Turkish diplomat as her fighting her own sexuality, then giving in, then feeling as if she’d been punished for her independence. Which made sense given the mindset of the time. I agree, though, that scene could easily be read as a coercion, given Mary’s reputation is ruined the minute Mr. Pahmuk steps inside her room.
      However, given what happened with Anna, I’m looking at Mary’s previous situation in a new light. Whatever happened, Mary’s whole arc was basically to become a person worthy of Matthew, not growth for her own sake. And that’s disappointing because some women of that time period did take control of their lives. I thought that’s where we were going with Edith but, no, reading ahead, it doesn’t seem that’s her journey either. And Rose, who wants to be independent, is just seen as a featherhead. And I agree, Thomas would have been absolutely fired and shuffled off—yet they find something for him, yet Molesly is just leg to?
      Somehow, Austen’s women seem to have their own backbones and dreams, even in that time period, yet all the women in DA do not–it all revolves around the men. I was hoping we’d see Daisy taking up her FIL on his offer, and that the trouble this season between Bates and Anna could be her desire to move out and buy an inn to run, as they’d talked about once, while Bates, having been through an ordeal and feeling great loyalty, refuses to leave service. This would have caused great tension, also, while giving Anna some desires of her own, instead of being a victim others have to forgive.

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