Trigger warning: This post is a discussion of a brutal sexual assault as shown on the PBS series Downton Abbey. It contains some graphic descriptions of violence and rape.
Last week, a gentleman posted an article on the Episcopal Cafe stating that two events depicted on Downton Abbey, one an unexpected death and one a rape, seemed contrived to him. If you watch Downton, you will understand the details of this post. If you do not watch, perhaps even better as you probably will have a more objective perspective of the following dialogue I had with the writer. I have deleted the dialogue about the car accident death because I want to center on the comments about rape, and this is post is already going to be entirely too long. But feel free to go and read the original article in it’s entirety.
If you do not watch Downton Abbey, you may be wondering why your Downton watching friends are either angry or horribly depressed.
You see: there are these characters that we’ve really grown to care about…
We see them in part as friends and family. Yes, we know they are fictional characters, but they and their relationships with other characters reflect some of the things that we either value in our own relationships, or wish that we had in our real lives.
When characters become “really good”, it usually means that they so reflect humanity that we invest fully in their fates. Be it triumphant or tragic, we want to witness what happens to them. We want to know their story, good or bad, with only one real requirement.
It has to ring true.
But the problem with these characters is that they are subject to the real lives of the actors who play them, and the writers and producers who ultimately decide their fate.
Season Three killed two prominent characters in Sybil Branson, and Matthew Crawley.
While there was great grief at Sybil’s death, it was completely believable. She died giving birth to her daughter. Then and now, it is a tragic reality that women die in childbirth. It happened this way mostly because the actress wanted to leave the show, but it was not obtrusive to the plot. It fit the story.
The same thing happened to us in the latest episode shown here in the US, when the character of Anna was viciously raped.
But is this plot concerning Anna believable story?
Strong women certainly do get raped: there is no doubt about that. The choice and circumstances of Anna’s attack, however, rings false for a few reasons.
Anna and Bates have had one thing after another happen to them to “destroy their happiness”. A marriage that can’t be dissolved (an idea now recycled for poor Edith), the marriage finally gets dissolved, they get married…only to have Bates convicted of murdering his ex-wife. And now that Bates is free from prison, the attack on Anna. It seems absurd that all of this would happened to them, especially concerning the circumstances of it all.
The rape was carried out when the entire household was upstairs listening to opera (which follows another often used movie device of contrasting the beautiful passionate music while horrible violence is happening at the same time elsewhere). It is also all but unheard of for truly EVERYBODY to be upstairs, but as Carson says grumpily, "times are changing” (convenient).
Anna goes downstairs, not feeling well. The rapist sees this (himself, a visiting servant), followers her downstairs, tries to seduce her, and when she resists, bloodies Anna up and rapes her. He leaves her in the head servants' office, and goes back upstairs to his seat with others. There’s no way in the world that he could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing…Anna is, after all, the personal lady’s maid for the powerful Lady Mary. And yet, Anna is the one person who would have some reason to hide the fact that she’s been raped because her husband was once imprisoned for murder and would certainly “kill the rapist and then be hung” (something the rapist would not have known she would do).
Additionally, many people have voiced that the warning at the beginning of the episode was nowhere near strong enough: that viewers were not prepared to see something as disturbing as rape. I agree, but ironically, the warning brought on a hollow pit in my stomach. Somehow, I suspected a physical/sexual attack on Anna: not for any logical clues in the plot, but because I could see such a thing used by the writers for future conflict between Anna and Bates.
Many have labeled Downton Abbey a “PBS soap opera”. I’ve rejected that label in the past, but perhaps the writers are trying to prove me wrong. Unlike soap operas, Downton Abbey has multidimensional characters who have good and not so good qualities. Their relationships seem real, and reflect much of real life situations (just with awesome costumes, dialogue, and scenery). It’s fair to expect that some things will feel contrived…but at what point do things stop being believable?
Downton needs drama, but as the viewer, I’m no longer sure I believe the story. If plot continues to be sacrificed for the spectacle of the wreck, I will likely be looking away.
To which I commented:
I beg to disagree. You correctly concede that “strong women certainly do get raped” however, you add that “the choice and circumstances of Anna’s attack rings false for a few reasons.”
I am a rape survivor and connect with a disturbingly high number of women who have also experienced rape. I assure you Mr. Wiesner, that the “choice and circumstances” of rape happens in the most random and inconvenient circumstances.
You first state that Anna’s rape is unbelievable because so many other bad things have already happened to her and Bates. Do you honestly think that rapists choose their victims based on the victims life circumstances? That a rapist will pass up a victim because oh, dear, she’s already had a hard life? Seriously?
I have no idea how wealthy households were run in this era, but I can assure you that even if some of the other servants were downstairs, that the rape could still occur. Many, many rapes happen while people are in the very next room.
And your statement about the rapist “There’s no way in the world that he could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing” is so wrong that it borders on sheer ignorance. Do you realize that the vast majority of rapists are known to their victim? How do THEY think they will get away with it? Because the vast majority of rapists do.
I am trying not to be rude here but I truly wish that people who know nothing about rape refrain from commenting about it. It only hurts that people who have been victims of this heinous crime.
And if you do choose to look away Mr. Weisner, it should be because of the discomfort that rape is all too common.
Rev. Weisner commented back:
I'm afraid that you are right, and I'm glad you've disagreed with me!
As I said, a sexual harassment/assault is not unexpected in Downton's time.
Because Anna was beaten, it was my thought that the valet couldn't help but be seen by the household as guilty, and because of the wealth and power of the household, that he would likely be caught. We immediately hear from Anna herself that she can't say anything BECAUSE of the fact that Bates would likely to retaliate and get jailed himself. And that seems particularly contrived.
Having said that, it appears (with a little internet reading) that there was a shift in the 20s to complete blame of the victim: and the valet naturally assumed in these times he could get away with it. Would that still hold true if she was beaten as well, in the circumstances of Downton? I don't know...but the argument that the valet would think himself able to get away with this seems much more plausible on second thought.
This episode, however, still feels quite contrived to me: having this happen specifically to Anna in the way that it did. I'm not suggesting the character wouldn't choose Anna because of what happened to her. The WRITERS chose Anna because they want conflict with her and Bates....and only two episodes after overturning a car on Matthew because they NEEDED him dead.
and he added:
I found this story helpful: Julie Bindel's review in The Guardian on Estelle B. Freedman's book "Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation"
I sent a rebuttal comment to the Episcopal Cafe but they did not publish it. I have asked the administrator for a reason but I have not received a response. However, Rev. Weisner was easy to find and I sent my comment to him directly:
I am writing to you directly because the administrators of the Episcopal Cafe apparently deemed my rebuttal comment to you as inappropriate and did not publish it. This was it:
Once again I find myself wanting to vomit.
“We immediately hear from Anna herself that she can't say anything BECAUSE of the fact that Bates would likely to retaliate and get jailed himself. And that seems particularly contrived.”
Do you know how many women do not report their rapes because of what their husbands would do? There are many women who can ill afford to lose the economic and/or social benefits of their husbands, or personally suffer the public shame that is rape - in the 1920s and now and probably evermore. You think that is contrived? No, that is reality.
I agree with Ms. Wilson (another commenter) when she says “So many of the reasons we don't rise up to stop violence against women is that we just can't believe that it happens in the ways that it does.” And I believe that is what Mr. Weisner is suffering from - ignorance of reality. And quite frankly, while I have no doubt that people consider him good priest, I would shudder to think of him attending a woman who has just suffered a sexual assault. I get the impression that he would try to understand the violence in an historical context, or do “a little internet reading” on it, or worse, hint to the woman that her story seemed a little “contrived”.
Perhaps the Downton writers were trying to inform their audience that rape can happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Perhaps they wanted to portray how very difficult it is for a woman to report a sexual assault. And that times have not changed one iota. Would you feel it contrived if the rape had happened to an unlikable character, maybe the town hussy? My guess is that you would have found that more believable, because, well then, she probably deserved it.
I would suggest that if Mr. Weisner wants to understand rape that rather than reading book reviews, he volunteer some of this time in a rape crisis center.
And perhaps it was inappropriate and written in anger. And I apologize for that.
However, what I would really like to try to convey to you is that EVERY time someone writes that a rape seems contrived, or that is not believable that a woman wouldn't report a rape BECAUSE of fear of what her partner might do, or reads that a rape is not believable because of whom it happened to or where or how it happened, or everything else you you seem to find unbelievable in this story line (which as a rape survivor was all too believable to me) - YOU make it that much harder for the next woman to report a sexual assault. YOU contribute to the rape culture that somehow the woman is to blame, the woman is not to be believed, and YOU re-enforce to every woman that if she is a victim of sexual assault, that she will most likely not be believed. And even scarier in your case, that even a priest will most likely find her story contrived.
And as a matter of comparison - approximately 350,000 thousand women in the US are raped each year. Approximately 45,000 people die in car accidents. So in terms of statistics, for every Matthew killed in a car accident, there will be 7 to 8 Annas raped. In that respect, the writers of Downton Abbey have fallen far short of depicting the reality of life for women.
So again, I apologize if my unpublished comments were harsh (or that is it inappropriate to write to you directly) but it is a very real and emotional subject matter to me, and hundreds of thousands of other women. It is my hope that the writers of Downton Abbey will now do this subject justice and give an accurate portrayal of the emotional and physical impacts that Anna will suffer, now and for the rest of her life. And perhaps shine a light on just how prevalent and damaging rape culture is. That she will publicly sweep it under the rug is no surprise given the rape culture then, and now. But she will endure the effects forever. And if the writers are not true to that, than I too will be turning away from the show.
And he replied:
Thank you for seeking me out with your email. What I appreciate most about you doing so is your desire to educate me about the realities of rape.
What you say about rape in reality...in real life...is ABSOLUTELY true. I have known this for many years, thanks to many people trusting me with accounts of been assaulted in their lives. I believe all of their stories to be true. I am actually well aware that almost no one is ever falsely accused of rape, and that our system often still treats victims as suspect. Even already knowing the statistics, I regularly read #Everydaysexism on Twitter, where I hear in women's own words what they go through on a daily basis: (from crass looks and demeaning words, to physical assault), just to make sure that I don't ever forget. I am nowhere near perfect. I know I, like most straight white men, struggle with sexism, as well as racism. I participate in such a culture that still tends to deny this: but I am always trying to learn more, trying to help people speak for themselves, and when I speak, do so thoughtful ways.
Which leads to my article...
What I was trying to say that I think the writers of Downton Abbey are more concerned with contriving plot to create buzz and reaction, rather then telling a story of a particular group of people and their relationships through a particular period of history.
I feel that Anna's rape is contrived not because she could not be raped, but for these reasons (some of which I did not include in the original article for length):
1) The first night’s episodes brings Anna’s trustworthiness into doubt in the minds of Lord and Lady Grantham (thanks to the manipulations of Barrow and the new lady’s maid). Additionally, Anna’s helping Lady Rose get out of the house and helping her deal with the results is observed by another servant: again, to potentially discount her honesty. I think that they are setting her character up to be doubted.
2) Before the attack, the story shows the valet’s interest in Anna, and Bates says “there’s something about him”, and Anna brushing him off. They are setting up guilt.
3) The use of opera happening upstairs, while the violence was happening downstairs. This is a heavily used movie/tv theme: Godfather, The Untouchables, James Bond, to name a few.
4) You mention many women do not report their rapes because of what their husbands would do
That's true. But the dialogue between Anna and Mrs. Hughes is very specific: Anna says, “He’s a convicted felon: do you think they’d spare him a second time?” I think the writers are saying that it’s because of the particulars of Bates' status as a convicted felon (taking the blame for his ex-wife's stealing, wrongly convicted of murder) that the viewer is to believe that this secret will be hid and fester between them...not because, in real life, women do not report their rapes because of what their husbands would do.
5) My initial impression is that their is no way in the world that the valet could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing…Anna is, after all, the personal lady’s maid for the powerful Lady Mary. Because Anna was beaten, it was my thought that the valet couldn't help but be seen by the household as guilty, and because of the wealth and power of the household, that he would likely be caught. As I said in the comments, because of what you and others wrote, I realize this isn't really true. I now see that the valet, even under these circumstances, would have assumed that he could get away with whatever he did, simply because society seldom believes victims, and most remain silent because of fear and shame.
My belief is that the writers chose to have this happen to specifically Anna in order to create conflict between Anna and Bates, two of their most popular characters, "star-crossed lovers" that people desperately want to be happy (remember all the "Free Bates" signs and t-shirts), in order to create buzz...NOT to teach about the realities of rape. I REALLY hope I am wrong: I have not watched ahead.
What I HOPE happens now, actually, is what you suggest: that the writers do this subject justice and give an accurate portrayal of the emotional and physical impacts that Anna will suffer, now and for the rest of her life. And perhaps shine a light on just how prevalent and damaging rape culture is. I really hope you are right: Downton Abbey could do that with this storyline...and I will applaud them if they do.
Finally...and I hope you are still reading, I was clearly not careful enough in using the words "rape" and "believable" in my article. I was trying to question the "believability" of the particular plot use within the Downton Abbey series, not in any way question whether or not to believe someone's actual rape. I should have known the way this might be heard, because in real life, far too often victims, are not believed. The misogynist view that a rape victim is somehow, in anyway, responsible for their attack is completely wrong, and there is the false perception that “good people” don’t get senselessly raped.
I plan on posting a revised version of my thoughts on my own website. I invite you to comment when I do.
Whether or not you agree with me, I thank you again for taking the time to contact me directly.
I appreciate your response but I think you just don't understand the impact of your words. When you say things like " What you say about rape in reality...in real life...is ABSOLUTELY true. . . . BUT . . . and then go on to explain your very male reasons for thinking Anna's rape was contrived, I realize that I will never be able to talk you out of your opinion, but please allow me to comment on your observations.
1. The little hints of things you allude to that will call Anna's trustworthiness into question are exactly the things that are used against all women if they attempt to bring their rapists to justice. For example, the college student who was raped was not trustworthy because she was once caught cheating on an exam so her case was thrown out. These are the things that ARE used against women. all. the. time. You think they are contrived. I think they reflect reality.
2. Before the attack, the story shows the valet’s interest in Anna, and Bates says “there’s something about him”, and Anna brushing him off. They are setting up guilt. The majority of rapists are known to the women they rape. And most of those women will say that there was "something" about these men that made them feel uncomfortable.
3. The use of opera happening upstairs, while the violence was happening downstairs. This is a heavily used movie/tv theme: Godfather, The Untouchables, James Bond, to name a few. Talk to any college woman who has been raped during a frat party. Ask her if what her reality was.
4. I think the writers are saying that it’s because of the particulars of Bates' status as a convicted felon (taking the blame for his ex-wife's stealing, wrongly convicted of murder) that the viewer is to believe that this secret will be hid and fester between them...not because, in real life, women do not report their rapes because of what their husbands would do. My daughter works with convicted felons. And often, when they are released, they go out and physically abuse their wives and/or girlfriends. And 9 times out of 10, those women will not report the violence because of their fear that their men will be returned to prison. Do you not think that would be a valid fear for Anna? I think the writers are absolutely correct - Anna will not report the rape because of her fear that her husband will go back to prison.
All that said, I guess I don't understand your feelings about contrived plots. Would you have felt differently if Anna had just been raped with no back story or hints of guilt or the other things that have you disbelieving? Your main concern seems to be that the writers used plots to create buzz and reaction, or create conflict between well-loved characters. From that perspective EVERYTHING on the show is contrived. I am not sure what any TV show or movie would look like if it didn't create conflict or hardship for the characters. Isn't that the point? Otherwise, we would be watching these characters get up, dress, eat, have polite conversation, and go to bed. I don't think many people would watch that for long.
In fact, I find it very interesting that the objection that many rape survivors have had to this episode is that is was TOO real. That "Downton Abbey is a period drama; they talk about tuxedos and inheritance tax. It is not a show about real life." And, "that they made it seem like rape is a trivial issue on the same level as the rest of the sub plots in Downton Abbey."
Still, I don't think I will get you to see my point of view. You say you were trying to question the "believability" of the particular plot use within the Downton Abbey series. I, and the majority of survivors I have spoken to, think that the plot is all too painfully believable . And I tend to think that you too are trivializing the rape in favor of expounding your opinion on contrived plots. But, as you say, you are a privileged, straight, white male and we will never see things from the same vantage point.
The real problem, for me, however remains - your words (no matter what your intent) perpetuate the same old male narrative and reinforces rape culture. So yes, I will read your article when you post on your website and probably comment. I will be also be writing about this issue on my blog and welcome you there. However, I do try to keep my blog as a safe place for survivors and would discourage comments that try to rationalize Anna's rape as unbelievable. It is very painful for some of us to read.
I'm not sure we will ever be satisfied with each other's responses: we seem to always hear different things.
" What you say about rape in reality...in real life...is ABSOLUTELY true. . . .
. . . BUT . . .
No: I did not say "but"...there is no "but" to that. I have an opinion on what the writers of Downton Abbey did. My thoughts on the television plot of Downton Abbey does not change what I said about rape.
I am suggesting that it seems as if the writers of Downton Abbey have contrived a plot to create a major conflict between Anna and Bates. So they created the perfect storm of circumstances: Lord & Lady Grantham (by Thomas & Edna's manipulation) suddenly have reason to doubt Anna, Bates (not Anna) being uncomfortable with the valet, opera (music known for intense passion and violence) during the attack, and Bates being a convicted (but innocent) felon who "would not receive a second chance", so Anna must remain silent.
Perhaps I'm making to fine a distinction between "contrived" and what the writers must do to "lead the audience to understand" and create plausibility. It just seemed to me they did too much to make all of these elements come together. Yes, story needs conflict...any writing is created...so technically it's all contrived...so maybe I have no real reason to complain. If, as you say, they do this subject justice and give an accurate portrayal of the emotional and physical impacts that Anna will suffer, now and for the rest of her life. And perhaps shine a light on just how prevalent and damaging rape culture is.
...then I will withdraw all of my complaints over any "contriving". That message would be well worth contriving.
I will read what you write on your blog, if you direct me there, and I will refrain from commenting and "just listen".
Peace to you as well,
Before I respond to your email I want to begin by saying that I know it is difficult to convey tone or intent when writing. So I want to assure you that I mean no malice or sarcasm in my responses. In fact, I found myself smiling through much of your email and hope that my opinions back to you will only be informative and not sound snarky.
" What you say about rape in reality...in real life...is ABSOLUTELY true. . . .
. . . BUT . . .
No: I did not say "but"...there is no "but" to that.
I believe that your BUT came a little later in your email.
I feel that Anna's rape is contrived not because she could not be raped, BUT for these reasons . . .
and then you listed your reasons why you thought the rape was contrived. I thought I had made a case as to why all your reasons were all very real events for many rape survivors. But I think I understand better why you think you are talking more about the writer’s craft than the story reflecting real life. However, my point to you is this:
Every time you state that a rape is contrived, or not plausible - for whatever reason you think you are making that statement - you do further damage to rape survivors and all those future women who will be raped. Every time it makes it that much harder for a women to come forward. If you think that your opinions on the writers motives trumps the damage that you do with your words, well then, I guess there is nothing more I can do.
I would also ask you this:
How many people do you know that have had a friend or family member killed in a car accident?
How many people do you know that have had a friend or family member impacted by a sexual assault?
My guess is that you know at least some in both categories.
But how many people do you know that have run into very serious financial trouble, but then had a house guest pay their entire debt by winning a game of poker the same week?
You feel a car accident and a rape is contrived, but had no issue with the huge inheritance tax being paid by a stranger playing cards????
I was discussing our conversation with a friend of mine and she thought that you are very much like the aristocrats upstairs listening to opera - totally unaware, or refusing to be aware, of any evil happening elsewhere.
You think the whole opera scenario contrived. But many of us who do not live with your privilege very much see it as reality. It is very symbolic of the privileged who are closed off from the violence and poverty and other evils that many others face daily. I thought the way that was portrayed was very analogous to those class differences.
My blog address is www.8thdayplanner.blogspot.com. Mostly it is a personal journal blog and it might be a while before I get a chance to write about this. But you may want to avoid it. I think my small, but very impacted readership might be rather vicious to your opinions. I would like to include some of our correspondence, unless you object?
Will you point me to your blog when you write your post?
And lastly, I am recording Downton Abbey as we are watching the football game. I will hopefully catch up tomorrow. So while you will probably have the benefit of a new episode before responding, I will not.
Ironically, I have not watched the new Downton either: my wife had to work first thing this morning and didn't want to stay up, so hopefully we will watch it this evening.
I am satisfied in that you understand my intent to focus on the writers...that is the case. I feel that I am not saying "rape is contrived", but that the writers contrived a rape story for shock and ratings. I think that's fair, but you see that as damaging to rape survivors and those future women who will be raped. I'm not sure I agree with you there...but in many ways it doesn't matter what I think: I don't want to do anything that will damage people...so I need to consider how people will hear my words.
I did, ahead of last night, post an revised article on my blog http://osc-religionandpopculture.blogspot.com
I thought it necessary to publicly revise the post and make it more clear that my issue is with the writers, and the overall challenge a work of fiction has in telling stories that reflect real life, while wording about actors leaving and ratings. I believe you will still have objections to it, but I hope it also reflects my considerations of your comments, and others.
The Edith storyline is pretty absurd to be sure... buying off her father's debt in a poker game, while at the same time going to .... GERMANY .... in the 20s ... to escape his old marriage. Yeah, this is based in reality for sure.... I
I hope we are both pleased with the continuation of Downton Abbey: since we both agree the only real way forward is for Anna to be forever changed by this event. If all is well in a few episodes (or even by season end) I think neither of us will be happy.
I looked up your blog after your last response (realizing it was connected to you Episcopal Cafe post). I'm willing to bet that we are on the same side of a number of issues (Marriage Equality, clearly). Sure, you can use our correspondence if you wish. I was not planning on commenting on your posts (from your earlier statement), but I may choose to if you are using my words and I don't agree with the way you use them... But I'm really not looking for a fight (and I don't sense you are either.)
Your words made it into my final blog post:
"It is possible that the writers have taken this storyline in a truly needed direction, as this commentator who disagreed with my assessment has wisely said:
“It is my hope that the writers of Downton Abbey will now do this subject justice and give an accurate portrayal of the emotional and physical impacts that Anna will suffer, now and for the rest of her life. And perhaps shine a light on just how prevalent and damaging rape culture is.”
I hope she is right. And if they have, I will fully praise the series. (Perhaps we’ll have more insight after tonight’s episode…)"
8thday, in all sincerity, I hope that you will be well and continue to be a voice for those who need your bravery.
I am now very interested to hear from you. I fully recognize that this is a very sensitive subject for me. Am I being overly sensitive? Did I go overboard?
Do you have an opinion on this story line, or how rape is otherwise depicted in TV or movies?
Some of my readers and I have already discussed some of this in emails. I would love if you would put your feelings in the comments (you can do it anonymously) so we might have a full range of voices.