Rape Culture on ‘Downton Abbey’

[caption id="attachment_9130" align="aligncenter" width="600"]"Downton Abbey" 2014 Downton Abbey 2014[/caption]


Written by Amanda Rodriguez

Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexual Assault

Spoiler Alert

Building off my recent critique Rape Culture, Trigger Warnings, and Bates Motel, I have a bone to pick with Downton Abbey‘s infamous rape of its beloved character, the lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). I’m not alone in my sentiments that Downton Abbey handled the rape scene poorly. However, where most simply question the use of rape as a plot device, I think that showing rape is an important, underrepresented part of the human experience (particularly the female experience), but I question the value of the way in which the show depicted Anna’s rape as well as its aftermath. Not only that, but Anna’s rape was not the first on Downton Abbey (more on that later).

For context, Mr. Green temporarily enters the Downton household as the valet of Lord Gillingham, a guest of the estate. He and Anna immediately have an easy, flirtatious friendship of which Mr. Bates, her husband, is wary because he’s suspicious of the quality of Green’s character. While the household is occupied by an opera performance, Green corners Anna, beats her, and rapes her. Anna keeps it a secret for much of the season due to her fear of what her husband will do in retaliation, and she even lies about the circumstances of the incident once the rape comes to light, claiming it was an anonymous burglar.

[caption id="attachment_9142" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Anna pleads with Mrs. Hughes to keep her rape a secret to protect her husband, Mr. Bates Anna pleads with Mrs. Hughes to keep her rape a secret to protect her husband, Mr. Bates[/caption]


Like my critique of Bates Motel, I feel strongly that Downton Abbey should have included an explicit trigger warning prior to the episode. Though Downton warned that there would be “violent” content, that’s not really illustrative enough to let rape and sexual assault survivors know what they’re in for. Even though friends had warned me that there was a rape in Season 4, I was taken off-guard by the scene. Like with Bates Motel, my PTSD was triggered, and I had to turn off the show. After a couple of weeks, I forced myself to finish the season because I’m a Downton fan, and I really hoped that the writers would develop the aftermath of Anna’s brutalization in an honest way that would add to the conversation about sexual assault and give a voice to the experience of survivors. That said, our culture needs to start showing a bit more sensitivity towards survivors by not casually re-traumatizing us or putting us in danger of being triggered. Even though I’m the most vocal protestor of spoilers, I still say, “Fuck the surprise of drama; give me the choice of whether or not I want to watch triggering media. Give me the choice of peace of mind.”   

[caption id="attachment_9146" align="aligncenter" width="590"]Anna, bruised and beaten, after she was raped Anna, bruised and beaten, after she was raped[/caption]


Anna’s rape is excessively, unrealistically violent. Mr. Green cuts, bruises, and bloodies the face of a highly visible lady’s maid. How does he think she will explain away those bruises? The bruises act as a symbol to the viewer that Anna did not give consent; they are a testament to the truthfulness of her claims, a mark on her body that reflects the horrors that were done to her. Many women don’t have those kinds of marks, but their claims are no less truthful. Anti-rape campaigner Bidisha ShonarKoli Mamata says, “You can’t just insert a scene like this into a cosy drama. You have to treat rape sensitively, rather than use it as a plot device…Instead of focusing on the impact of the violence on Mrs Bates, it repeated basic rape myths, such as the idea rapists are always creepy guys. In fact, they are normal people and are often related to the victim.”

[caption id="attachment_9264" align="aligncenter" width="590"]Mr. Green dragging Anna by the hair Mr. Green dragging Anna by the hair[/caption]


Continually insisting that rapists can only be unfathomably monstrous Others and virtual strangers who physically brutalize their victims serves to hide who the real rapists are: brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, friends, and colleagues. Anna’s bruises serve to delegitimize the experiences of survivors who don’t bear a physical mark of the absence of their consent. We need a wider representation of the range of survivor experiences when it comes to rape and sexual assault so that we can begin to dismantle rape culture and develop a system that is capable of identifying rapists and that values the stories of survivors.

The writers selected Anna to be raped because her character is beyond reproach, and no one would doubt the authenticity of her claims. The Telegraph describes Anna as “a model of respectability, stoicism and goodness.” There still exists the niggling subtext that she was “asking for it” because of her flirtatious relationship with Mr. Green despite Mr. Bates’ spider senses tingling about how Green was a bad dude.

[caption id="attachment_9225" align="aligncenter" width="590"]Anna gives Mr. Green a defiant kiss in front of Mr. Bates Anna gives Mr. Green a defiant kiss in front of Mr. Bates[/caption]


Though Downton Abbey punishes Anna for being flirtatious and for not listening to the wisdom of her husband’s judgement, the show wanted to depict an uncomplicated rape where Green was an outsider and villain while Anna was without a doubt the victim of a heinous crime. Now that, my friends, is lazy storytelling. If Downton Abbey wanted to be true to its time (and our time, for that matter), it would’ve created a scenario in which the the victim was generally not believed and in which the perpetrator was someone she knew and would have to encounter on a regular basis. In the Express article, “Brutal truth behind that shocking Downton rape scene,” Dr. Pamela Cox observes: “A maid who complained of rape displayed knowledge of things she was not supposed to know about and was liable to be thought partly to blame.” It would’ve been better storytelling that reflected more realism if another servant or one of the house’s lords had attacked Anna. Though Green comes back a few times, this is a device solely to torment Anna and ramp up the drama rather than give a realistic depiction of a woman being forced to interact with her rapist on a regular basis, which happened all too often back then and continues to happen all too often now.

[caption id="attachment_9233" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Mr. Bates comforts his wife after learning that she was raped Mr. Bates comforts his wife after learning that she was raped[/caption]


Season 4 of Downton Abbey actually has a couple of character interactions that could have more realistically ended in sexual assault. The relationship between Mrs. Braithwaite and Branson could have been fruitful territory for exploration of themes of rape, victim blaming, and the sheer unlikelihood of false accusations of rape. Branson’s new lord-like status makes it harder for a servant to say “no” to him without facing repercussions. What if Braithwaite changed her mind about her scheming, and a drunken Branson took advantage of her? I thought he behaved disgustingly after the incident, without a sense of his own responsibility in the affair, and he is only “redeemed” because Braithwaite was manipulating him all along. What if she hadn’t been, though? In the end, the fact that she’s a social climber doesn’t make a difference when it comes to consent, but perhaps Downton could have shined a light on its audience’s internalized prejudices and victim-blaming propensities with a nuance-rich storyline.

[caption id="attachment_9229" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Braithwaite and Branson Braithwaite and Branson[/caption]


Another relationship that nearly ends in rape is that of Jimmy and Ivy. He tries to force himself on her at the end of a date, claiming that she owes him for how well he’s treated her and for the things that he’s bought for her. Having Jimmy be a rapist and a relatively well-liked part of the household, whom Ivy would be forced to interact with daily would be a more compelling, realistic scenario than that of Anna’s rape.

[caption id="attachment_9231" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Jimmy & Ivy's romance sours when he tries to rape her Jimmy and Ivy’s romance sours when he tries to rape her[/caption]


The aftermath of Anna’s rape was full of painful truth in the way in which the violation haunts her. In an agonizing, heartbreaking scene, Anna says to Mr. Bates, “I’m spoiled for you, and I can never be unspoiled.” I was, however, disappointed by Bates’ obsession with his own revenge as if Anna is his property and he must exact justice. In fact, the aftermath of the rape is almost entirely about Mr. Bates. Anna seeks to protect him from the knowledge for fear of what he will do. Once he finds out, Bates ignores her wishes and kills Green, ostensibly to avenge his wife’s “honor”, but doesn’t it matter that Anna explicitly asked him to leave it alone? The rape happened to her; she should be the one who decides how she wants to deal with it. Only Season 5 will tell, but it seems like Anna’s distress completely dissipates with Green’s death, which is a ridiculous simplification of the arduous road to recovery from PTSD that Anna must face. If Season 5 does not continue to chart Anna’s struggles with PTSD, Downton will have failed to bring to light an important and timeless point about the psychology of human beings, in particular survivors of traumatic events.

[caption id="attachment_9271" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Anna and Bates trying to forget about her rape for an evening Anna and Bates trying to forget about her rape for an evening[/caption]


Now, earlier I mentioned another rape, and it’s probably been killing you trying to figure out what I’m talking about, which is a problem in and of itselfMary Crawley’s (Michelle Dockery) “illicit affair” with Mr. Pamuk was also a rape, but it slides under the radar because she’s not violently attacked and she takes responsibility, as many victims do, for what has happened to her. Mary actively and repeatedly denies consent to the man who forces a kiss on her and later steals into her bedroom determined to get what he wants regardless of her protestations.


The rape of Lady Mary is actually a type of rape that I think mainstream media should show more often: a rape in which there is no hitting or screaming, the victim says “no,” and because of her initial attraction to him, feels as if she’s led him on or that it is somehow her fault. Points for Downton then? Um, no. Though Mary is the victim of sexual assault, the show itself doesn’t read her as such. Though the audience is led to recognize the inequality women face and the cruelty inherent in a woman’s single indiscretion perhaps ruining her future and good name, Downton Abbey does not focus on the fact that a man broke into her room and didn’t listen to her when she repeatedly said, “no.” Also, what a missed opportunity to show Mary and Anna share survivor stories and comfort, forming their own healing community together.

[caption id="attachment_9276" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Mary is horrified when Mr. Pamuk comes into her room Mary is horrified when Mr. Pamuk comes into her room[/caption]


Downton Abbey and its writers are guilty of a gross negligence that is all too common. If someone says “no” to sex, then it is rape. Period. There is no nuance when it comes to consent. This is what Hollywood has such a hard time with and why they insist on only showing shockingly violent rapes that virtual strangers perpetrate. Why? Because if we acknowledge that rape occurs within many contexts needing only the criteria that the victim say “no”, how many men would then be rapists? How many women and others would then be survivors of sexual assault or rape? How many people would we have to now believe when they claim they were raped? A shocking number. A staggeringly, shocking number. In the US alone, 1 in 5 women will be raped. Three percent of men will be raped. An estimated 1.3 million women will be raped each year, and 97 percent of rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell. Pretending there’s not a problem doesn’t make the problem go away. Instead, it becomes more ubiquitous and insidious until it’s a pandemic. I don’t want to live in a world where rape is the norm and survivors are liars who were asking for it, and I mean, really, do you? We’ve got a long battle ahead of us, but each of us can start by acknowledging that rape culture exists, accepting that survivors are never asking for it, and believing that survivors are telling the truth.


Read also A Gilded Cage: A Feminist Critique of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special


Amanda Rodriguez is an environmental activist living in Asheville, North Carolina. She holds a BA from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She writes all about food and drinking games on her blog Booze and Baking. Fun fact: while living in Kyoto, Japan, her house was attacked by monkeys.