Downton Abbey has been haunted by controversy this autumn. In an episode broadcast on 6th October 2013, one of the show’s most loved characters, lady’s maid Anna Bates, was brutally raped by a visiting valet, Mr Green.
For those unfamiliar with Downton Abbey, let me explain what was dramatised. Downton’s residents—the Grantham’s and the Crawley’s — along with select guests were upstairs in the Abbey enjoying a personal performance by opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (played by guest star Dame Kiri Te-Kanawa), while downstairs, Anna, seeking painkillers for a headache, was found alone by Mr Green, the valet of house guest, Mr Gillingham. Green was shown making crude advances towards Anna which she rejected. He then punched her in the face, dragged her off to another room and carried out an attack. Viewers were not shown the rape itself, only the start of the assault. Nonetheless, the scenes were brutal; the knowledge of violence taking place behind closed doors at the Abbey (as the shots of the empty corridors implied) was supplemented by the harrowing sounds of Anna’s screams.
Although the broadcast was preceded by a warning, Ofcom received more than 200 complaints about the episode and outrage has followed in press commentaries and on social media. The Daily Mail, for instance, reported that the storyline “shattered Downton’s magic”, while reviewers for The Guardian criticised the show’s writer, Julian Fellows, for leaving Anna “exposed, exploited, fetishised” in scenes that were “beautifully shot, like a horror film set in a Past Times catalogue”. Accusations that Fellows decided to “play the rape card” to boost ratings have been paralleled by vitriolic defences of the historic realism of sexual assault and rape suffered by women in domestic service in times past.
Despite being labelled “Horlicks TV”, Downton has not always been cosy Sunday night viewing. Since the earliest episodes of Series One, scenes of an uncomfortable sexual nature have been present such as Lady Mary’s resistant sexual encounter with diplomat, Mr Pamuk. Likewise, recent storylines have included various themes of a sensitive nature: the death of Lady Sybil from untreated pre-eclampsia after childbirth, the violence and suffering of the First World War, and the death of the heir to the Abbey, Matthew Crawley, in a violent car crash at the end of series three.
However, this episode of Downton has really troubled me. My own experience of watching the programme was harrowing not least because I missed all of the pre-broadcast warnings; I had recorded Downton and sat down to enjoy my weekly instalment of my favourite period drama on the Monday after the show and fast forwarded the adverts and credits, thus missing the warning that was available. I was really shocked at the unfolding plot in the last ten minutes of the episode. I was upset, angered and sickened by the scenes of violence. I still am.
But, the story has also renewed my concern about the balance between the coverage of gendered themes with programming and entertainment. Dramas are often valuable vehicles for exploring important and prominent socio-cultural issues. But, on the other hand, is it appropriate that such stories constitute entertainment? There is a ridiculous amount of violence against women on TV, in films and in the ‘entertainment’ industry more broadly. Alongside period dramas like Downton, storylines from the soaps all the way through to ‘torture porn’ films – those films such as ‘Vacancy’, ‘Hostel’ and ‘Saw’ where women are victims by male protagonists and made to suffer horrific pain and torture in the name of entertainment – use scenes of violence and/or sexual horror as a means of normalised entertainment. What does it means when violence against women is so readily deployed in the name of art?
According to figures released by the Ministry of Justice in early 2013, approximately 85,000 women are raped on average each year in the UK, over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted per annum, and 1 in 5 women (aged between 16-59) have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Moreover, in the week following the broadcast came new depressing statistics indicating a dramatic fall in referrals for prosecution in rape cases in the UK.
Rather than asking Julian Fellows to defend his plotline, I would like to understand better how such storylines directly connect to – and help –our endemic rape culture? After all, in the case of Downton Abbey the pre-broadcast warning did not specify ‘sexual violence’ and no details of relevant helplines were provided after the show aired. These seem inappropriate omissions given the severity of the theme. For me, responsible broadcasting (however you might define that) would conjoin plotlines of this nature with proactive information on how the programme is simulating and supporting action on this issue. It shouldn’t be that viewers have to complain to Ofcom about the nature of the storyline, or that rape survivors should be left traumatised by a Sunday night period drama (for which, see this thought provoking blog post by Annie Moran on The F Word); rather, the storyline should compel proactive engagement to end sexual violence and rape culture. In my view, if storylines about rape are justified because they bring sexual violence into the spotlight, then it shouldn’t be an issue for broadcasters to accompany ‘entertainment’ of this nature with programme addresses how we can stop rape happening (and I don’t mean by advising women – a la certain daytime TV shows – to avoid walking in parks and getting into mini cabs by themselves). If this doesn’t happen, then surely this is rape for art’s sake, isn’t it?
Onscreen, in the aftermath of her assault, Anna has been too worried about the consequences of her experience to report it to the authorities and, in the episode’s leading up to the season finale, her husband has been informed of the traumatic incident his wife has endured. Initially, Mr Bates was led to believe that the violation was perpetrated by an unknown person – a stranger who broke into the Abbey and was waiting downstairs for a woman to present themselves. Lisa M. Cuklanz has shown that this kind of storyline in prime-time television programmes was a familiar one in the 1970s when there was a common view that “real” rape is perpetrated by brutal strangers upon passive victims – I repeat, the 70s! The producers of Downton Abbey keep their cards close regarding future plotlines, so for now it is unclear how Anna’s story will unfold. Yet the season ended with the rapist mysteriously dying in a road traffic accident and suggestive speculating that perhaps Bates may have been involved. Come on Downton, really? Don’t leave it this way. Don’t let Anna’s harrowing story become a revenge plot, and don’t let this media furore be for nothing.