Why Downton Abbey’s rape storyline hurts survivors

// 7 October 2013

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Annie Moran shares her anger at the use of rape as a plot device in the latest episode of ITV’s hit period drama. You can read more from Annie here.

 I want people to talk about rape. I run a site called Using The Words where we publish personal stories of rape and abuse. I am a rape survivor and sometimes I still struggle for the words to tell people what happened. I wish our society was better at talking about rape.

So you would think that I would be happy when one of the most-watched shows in the country ran with a rape storyline. Surely this would open up the issue and allow people to talk about it?

Last night Downton Abbey did just that. One of the main female characters suffered a brutal rape at the hands of a visiting character.

I was not happy. In fact I was left angry, shocked and physically shaking, and I didn’t even watch most of the scene. Having heard the warning of violence at the beginning of the episode, and knowing they would never show actual violence in Downton (because violence against women isn’t like actual violence, is it, so that’s totally acceptable for a family drama), I spent the whole episode with an uneasy feeling of what was about to happen. As it began, I got up and walked out of the room.

Yes, I’m a rape survivor: scenes of rape have a tendency to be hard for me to watch.

The first reason it angered me is that it totally ruined my Sunday evening. Downton Abbey is a show millions of us watch to escape. Downton Abbey is my guilty pleasure I watch to de-stress. Yet this Sunday evening I was left tense, angry and with a series of flashbacks to deal with. Not so relaxing then.

But there was something different going on here, something more than having to be faced with what happened to me that has made me angry. Downton Abbey is a period drama; they talk about tuxedos and inheritance tax. It is not a show about real life. The only drama in it is over who will inherit the estate, and though this storyline has involved emotional subjects such as miscarriage and death, these stories have had essential parts to play in this wider narrative. The fact that last night they included a rape scene, which has nothing to do with the overarching premise of the show, made it seem like rape is a trivial issue on the same level as the rest of the sub plots in Downton Abbey.

Yet again a writer has used rape as a plot device to make a female character more interesting. How many times do we have to say this: a woman can be an interesting character whether or not she has been raped.

And let’s look at the perpetrator: a character who only arrived in this episode, a shifty guy we all knew was bad from the beginning. This is not helpful. The majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts: they are normal men. Yes, the characters did form a relationship – it wasn’t a stranger jumping out of a bush – but the characterization of the bad boy rapist is doing nothing to broaden the discourse around men and rape.

What’s even worse is that we can see where this plot line is going. Already Anna (the character who was raped) is covering up what happened. Now, of course, this isn’t unusual, it’s something I did, in fact still do with some people. And of course this is a period drama, it’s the 1920s way before women’s lib and the rape crisis movement – it would be difficult to write it differently. But from the teaser for next week we see that her life is probably going to fall apart and the man will continue with his business.

This is not useful. Yes, we need to talk about rape in our society, but we don’t need to see more stereotypes, stories that perpetuate the same old narrative. Yes, rape is devastating. Yes, rape led me on a self-destructive path for over two years. But what I needed to see on TV was not the same story being played over and over. What I needed was to see that it might be alright.

Considering the majority of Downton Abbey’s viewers are women, and considering 1 in 4 women will be the victim of gender-based violence in their lifetimes, I wonder how many others were left feeling the same way as me last night.

So writers, listen up: rape is not a plot device to make female characters more interesting. It is not trivial. If your show is about things that are trivial, on the whole, then a plot line about rape is not appropriate. If you do write for a TV show that aims to portray real life and are going to include rape as a plot device, remember there are as many ways that survivors deal with rape as there are people raped.

Yes, let’s start talking about rape, but let’s do that in appropriate places with respect for rape survivors who don’t want to see their trauma played out for others’ entertainment. And let’s begin by smashing the stereotypes, of survivors and of rapists. You can start by reading some of the stories on Using The Words.

Photo of the stately home where Downton Abbey is filmed by Adrian Wallett, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 7 October 2013 at 8:29 pm

Mental Myrtle on twitter commented “can we please start remembering that not everyone who has been raped survives?” I edited the piece and would like to apologise for not taking this into account – I wrote the title in a hurry and chose “survivor” because that is how Annie defines, but “rape victims” would have perhaps been a better choice in this instance.

Jess // Posted 8 October 2013 at 5:32 pm

Thank you. This episode of Downton Abbey upset me so much for the same reasons. DA was my escape from the reality of my own memories of rape. Now all that’s left is Doc Martin!

I won’t be watching Downton Abbey again, something I’m very sorry about, because I loved the show up until now. But I can’t watch yet ANOTHER show that uses a quick rape scene to “spice things up.” It’s cheap, disgraceful, and alienating.

Kate // Posted 12 October 2013 at 4:22 pm

“The majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts: they are normal men.”

I agree with the first part, but not the second, they are not “normal men”, nor should they be seen as normal, nothing about rape should be normalised or minimised. Perhaps my view is not true of everyone elses, but then experience of rape and abuse can be very subjective on the part of the victim. As a victim I have had 4 relationships with different men and the first was the worst, the one where I became a victim (though I’m trying to keep the details short because it’s hard to talk about). He was a possesive person, and could never take no for an answer, maybe it was my inexperience in relationships that also let me down to an extent because had I known what he would end up doing I would have probably got out before that could happen, but looking back on it it would seem the first love is the blindest and I never saw it coming at the time. My relationships afterwards however have taught me that the man I was in my first relationship with was very much not normal. Infact by comparison I can see exactly what a sick minded individual he was. I would say that looking back on my experience and trying to analyse the relationship and his behaviour prior to the rape and abuse I have come to the conclusion men who rape are far from “normal” and are mentally imbalanced, they don’t have empathy, they don’t think about consequences, they don’t care if they hurt you. Ofcourse this will never excuse their behaviour or minimise their actions in my mind. But rapists and rape are not normal, and I would appreciate if we could recognise this, because to say it is normal is to imply that it is in some way acceptable.

Robbie Knight // Posted 13 October 2013 at 8:17 pm

Downton Abbey is a fairy tale show full of miraculous recoveries, comebacks, character revelations and other wonderful, unrealistic happenings. Characters convicted of murder are reprieved from execution at the last minute. Star-crossed lovers marry. Paralyzed characters walk again. Everyone has some beauty in them, some soul, some moments of gentleness. It’s a fairy tale upstairs and downstairs.

But was there enough drama? Apparently not, which is why we’re told that the season 4 move to brutally rape a favorite character was a “bold” choice.

In real life people who’ve been sexually assaulted lose safety, dignity, sovereignty and autonomy. It’s a lot like surviving an accident in one way; you can live after your legs have been cut off. You can thrive, have children, run races. But you will never get your legs back.

In real life victims of sexual assault spend a lifetime after the attack reclaiming things that most have never lost. The healing process is never over. Some victims do not survive the emotional impact. The ignorance displayed by bloggers, journalists and fans of the show on this point is astonishing.

In real life, a rape is never over. But on Downton Abbey, it will have to be.

Writer/creator Julian Fellowes is creating a horrible lie: a fairy tale rape. We’re supposed to become invested in Anna’s journey back. But in real life, there is no “back”. You are never the same. You can never be who you were. In a fairy tale miraculous things happen so Downton viewers will expect Anna, the lovely and lion-hearted, the best character on the show, to make a miraculous comeback. Viewers will root for Anna, and moreover expect full reassurance that she will be OK.

And Uncle Julian will make her be OK. He’s made everything else OK, so why not a rape?

How bold.

Essie // Posted 13 January 2014 at 7:19 pm

I also found the introduction of this awful sickening scene greatly upsetting and disappointing. I am not interested in viewing Downtown again and will miss what the program previously displayed. I also thought Downtown was magical and a wonderful treat but following this further will not be entertaining to me. Even today, Monday I am in a bit of shock that they took a beloved character and put her in this to real situation that is never what I could sit by and say that I can’t wait for next week. I do not have to wait the wait is over I am walking away.

Reenathome // Posted 19 January 2014 at 11:19 pm

I, too, was disappointed and frustrated with the violent rape in last week’s episode. I loved Downton Abbey as a different type of program that took me away to a pleasant place for an hour on Sunday evening. It’s too bad the writer couldn’t see what he really had in this show. Why do they always go to “shock value?” It’s worth less than nothing.

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