In Defense Of How “Downton Abbey” Handled Its Controversial Rape Scene

Spoilers ahead.

In the most recent episode of “Downton Abbey” to air in America, the lady’s maid Anna Bates — whose story through four seasons has almost exclusively focused on her romance with her husband — is raped by a visiting valet. It is not the first example of sexual misconduct on the show. But it is the most sexually violent act to occur to any character. Not surprisingly, the incident has been hugely controversial.

When it first aired in the UK, viewers complained about sexual violence on an otherwise fairly frothy PBS program. (I say “fairly frothy” in a nod to the deaths of Sybil and Matthew.) The UK’s media regulatory agency declined to investigate the over 400 complaints made to both the agency and ITV, the channel on which “Downton” airs, saying that it provided a proper warning before the show about the content.  But now that it has aired on PBS here in America, a large share of the criticism is coming from feminist bloggers who take issue with how the rape was handled on the show.

In the episode (season four, episode two), Downton Abbey is hosting many visiting guests and their help. The rapist, a valet named Mr. Green, and Anna’s husband, Mr. Bates, are immediately positioned as adversaries. Bates shared some terse words with Mr. Green down in the servant’s cellar when he stumbles upon Green trying to flirt with his disinterested wife. “What’s the matter?” Anna asks Bates when they are out of earshot. “I don’t know,” Bates replies archly. “Something about him gets my goat.”

Green gets his goat even more throughout his visit: Bates later chastises Anna and the other servants for playing a loud card game organized by Mr. Green. “Why are you being like this?” She hisses at Bates once they’re out of the room. It’s clear that Bates is a little bit jealous and Green is enjoying provoking him. Anna is politely rebuffing Mr. Green; surely she is annoyed, but she is not depicted as being as bothered as her husband is.

The rape occurs while a small concert is taking place at Downton for the Granthams’ fancy guests. Unusually, all of the downstairs help are invited to the performance, but during the show, Anna turns to Bates and complains of a headache. She disappears downstairs to the empty kitchen by herself and roots through a First Aid kit. Mr. Green follows and offers liquor from a flask; she refuses. But as Anna tries to leave the kitchen, Green blocks her exit. “You look to me like you could use some real fun for once,” he tells her. “Is that what you want?

“What I want is to go back upstairs,” Anna replies sharply. It is the first time she has outwardly displayed annoyance with his behavior.

“You’re not telling me that sad old cripple keeps you happy,” Green snarls.

“If you must know, yes. He keeps me very happy. Let me by please.”

Green then grabs Anna, punches her when she struggles, drags her into another room and rapes her.  The rape is not depicted, but we hear Anna’s cries and whimpers as the camera lingers on the darkened downstairs hallway, juxtaposed with the opera singer performing upstairs. Bates and Mrs. Hughes — the head of housekeeping and Anna’s direct manager — remark to each other that Anna has been gone a long time.

Many of the complaints center around the aftermath of Anna’s rape: Mrs. Hughes stumbles upon Anna in her office, sobbing and her hair a mess. Anna’s first concern is getting clean clothes and telling Lady Mary she won’t be able to brush her hair like a pony, or whatever it is that Anna does for her. Mrs. Hughes’ first concern is telling Mr. Bates, or getting a doctor. Anna is immediately worried that Bates will know exactly who raped her and kill him, something that cannot happen because he is a convicted felon. “Nobody else must ever know! You promise me?” Anna begs Mrs. Hughes, who gives her word. Anna later lies to her husband when he sees her with cuts on her face; she recoils from his touch.

When the episode aired in the UK, Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of “Downton Abbey, defended the show’s handling of the rape. He told the UK’s Guardian:

“If we’d wanted a sensational rape, we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out. The point of our handling is not that we’re interested in sensationalising, but we’re interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage. ‘Downton’ deals in subjecting a couple of characters per series to a very difficult situation and you get the emotions that come out of these traumas.”

Not showing the rape itself is a trope that the blog TV Trope describes  as a “rape discretion shot.

Melissa McEwan at the blog Shakesville sharply criticized this explanation by Fellowes in a blog post that ran today  She did not watch the episode, but was critical of how the rape plot was positioned: the rape is not told from Anna’s point of view as a survivor, but rather centers — due to the broader male gaze — on how the rape will impact her marriage to Mr. Bates and her standing with her employer. McEwan wrote:

Wrecking female characters with sexual violence for entertainment, for manufactured emotional journeys, is not something I want to watch. I want to see and hear survivors’ stories, but a survivor’s story is about surviving, not about being deliberately broken by unimaginative men in careless pursuit of emotional satisfaction.

A similar complaint came from’s XX blog.  The episode was blasted for showing “sadism” by writer June Thomas in a post entitled “Why Is ‘Downtown Abbey’ So Horrible To Its Female Characters?” She  argued that Anna was being punished for challenging convention by not listening to her husband’s warnings. Again, it is implied that Anna’s rape is being stretched out for entertainment value. “A woman loses a baby, sister, daughter, or husband, or is humiliated in front of her family and friends, and we get to watch her recover,” Thomas wrote. “Raping a beloved character is just latest of the show’s experiments in sadism.”

Sady Doyle also critiqued the episode at In These Times, where she is (hilariously) recapping “Downton Abbey.” Doyle is another writer who argued that Anna was punished with rape for not heeding her husband’s warnings and that the rape is seen as a blight on their marriage, not on her psychological and physical help. She writes:

In effect, by punishing Anna with rape, the show is rewarding Bates for being emotionally abusive toward her: In real life, men who shout at you or shame you for making friends or having fun are bad news. In “Downton Abbey,” when Bates shouts at Anna for being friendly with Lord Gillingham’s valet, he is only doing what’s best for her. The second she exercises agency, steps away from the locus of Bates’ control and finds herself alone with her new friend, something horrible happens. The not-so-secret message of this plot twist isn’t rape is a horrible crime, it’s Anna should have obeyed her husband. … The narrative frames it as an attack on Bates’ marriage, not on the woman he’s married to.

I don’t disagree with these writers’ points about the narrative framing that it is problematic to tell survivors’ stories from the point of view of  how it affects their marriage. Judging by comments on the Shakesville post by commenters who claim to have seen more episodes in the season, Bates’ reaction to Anna’s rape continues to be addressed problematically. Yet still, I’m quite surprised by the intensity of the pushback. Watching the episode, I actually felt that it was fairly realistic as far as depictions of rape on film go.

See, here’s what I saw happen on “Downton Abbey:”

  • It is a depiction of acquaintance rape onscreen, not a bad guy jumping out of the bushes: Anna and Mr. Green at first have a friendly rapport with each other. It then turns into a creepy rapport. It then turns into assault. He is not complete stranger in a random attack, which is how rape is often depicted on screen. Given that Mr. Green had been behaving flirtatiously with Anna (though he was rebuffed), it’s not difficult to imagine that in a future episode, if he’s caught, he will try to claim that she “asked for it.” I suspect that because Anna smiled politely — as women so often do — while being bothered by Mr. Green, right up until he raped her, he could claim that she was leading him on.
  • He tries to introduce substances. Anna rebuffed his offer of some liquor from his flask. But we know that many real-life sexual assaults involve alcohol. To me, this is a realistic depiction of how rapists attempt to use substances to incapacitate their victims.
  • The rape is clearly about power, not sex. Mr. Green does insult Mr. Bates’ ability to please her sexually. But given the violent nature of the beating and the rape itself, the scene showed that Green was really asserting power and dominance.
  • The rape is violent and traumatic; Anna is clearly distraught. A televised drama can be expected to show a dramatic event, well, dramatically. Why should that make it “lurid”?  I saw it as a woman’s realistic reaction to suffering a trauma like violent sexual assault, not candy-coated for gentle PBS viewers..
  • Like many survivors of sexual assault, Anna feels great shame and the need for secrecy. Any emotional reaction after a rape is OK. People feel all kinds of emotions over a long period of time. I don’t like criticizing Fellowes because Anna didn’t have the “right” reaction, especially when she has a realistic one. For Anna, that reaction was to hide the assault from her husband and ask Mrs. Hughes to keep it a secret. It would also be highly realistic if it takes Anna a good deal of time to name what happened to her.

Should “Downton Abbey” be used as a syllabus for how a survivor of sexual assault should be cared for immediately after her rape? Should her boss and her husband be Anna’s biggest worries right then? Of course not.  But is a maid’s terror and fear accurate for the time period during which “Downton Abbey” occurs? I suspect it is. No, Bates should not behave paternalistically towards his wife. But as the character of Lord Grantham so clearly displays towards his daughters and his wife in every single episode, an attitude of paternalism is very much of the time period. Last episode, there was an argument at the dinner table over Lady Mary and whether a woman’s place is in the home. Remember a few episodes when it was a big deal that Lady Sybil was wearing pants? At this point in history, women younger than 30 still are not even allowed to vote. There is truly a different script for gender relations. .

“Downton Abbey” executive producer Gareth Neame defended the episode to TV Guide. He said the “sexual vulnerability” of servants (especially, I would guess, the female servants) was “definitely something that was an issue at the time and women did not have any of the recourse that they would have now.” I agree with him and my hope is that the lack of recourse for a survivor like Anna is further explored in upcoming episodes.

I think a lot of TV criticism, while well-intentioned, comes from a place of wishing shows depicted social problems we’re still tackling today ideally, rather than realistically. We want to see characters handle their problems with progressive 21st century solutions. Like, it would be nice if Anna knew self defense, but this is the 1920s English countryside. Just as Thomas the under-butler will always be suspect for his “perversion” of homosexuality, women of the working class are victims of sexually predatory men.  Shitty circumstances are the harsh truth of life for anyone who was not a white, straight male living at the time “Downton Abbey” occurred.

Sexual violence on television will always be controversial and fraught with issues.  This is a TV climate in which viewers are subjected to numerous jokes about prison rape on “Saturday Night Live” or grisly sexual violence on, oh, every episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” So, even if it is imperfect, I’m actually happy at how “Downton Abbey” handled Anna’s rape.

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[In These Times]



[TV Guide]

[Guardian UK]

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[Image via PBS]