(This post discusses an event from the current season of Downton Abbey that I feel future viewers should be forewarned about; however, to avoid any major spoilers for fans who won’t see it until it airs on PBS, I do not reveal any other information. BUT THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS.)
I despise rape in fiction. I really do. And unfortunately, it’s being used more and more as a plot device in television shows, books, and movies. I can think of two occasions when it carried serious weight in the plot and I could “accept” it as being necessary to the narrative. The rest of the time, I find it inexcusable.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles centers around a rape and its aftermath – an unwanted pregnancy, a shunning by everyone in the community, and the abandonment of Tess by society for something that was never her fault to begin with. It’s a twisted, tragic story that forces its audience to take a serious look at Victorian morality. Tess’ rape isn’t a plot point, it is the basis for the entire plot.
Most of the time, when rapes appear in fiction, that is not the case. Writers use it to dominate female characters and provoke our sympathy for them, and to make us hate male characters. The Other Boleyn Girl is controversial enough without adding rape. Audiences empathize with Soames Forsyte until he forces his wife. And we didn’t need the Duke of Devonshire to rape Georgiana to know he was a scoundrel in The Duchess.
Rape is an unpleasant topic to read or write about, but if it’s there, first and foremost it needs to be dealt with tactfully and it always needs to serve a purpose beyond shock value. Often writers forget the implication of violence can be just as disturbing as seeing it. We do not need to see an event to experience its emotional aftermath. Do you remember Daniel Deronda? I don’t need to see what Grandcourt does to his wife to know what’s happening in their marriage and experience the horror of it.
Which brings me, at last, to the reason for writing this in the first place: in the most recent episode of Downton Abbey, a female character we’ve known and loved from the start was raped. It happened off-screen (mercifully), but it’s still abundantly clear from her echoing screams down a barren hall, and her bruised and battered appearance in the aftermath, what happened. For showing us no more than her being manhandled, I’m grateful… but I also want to ask, “Was this necessary?”
The stories that deal with rape as a major plot point do so from rather early on. Thomas Hardy doesn’t hide that fact from us, and we get an immediate sense from Grandcourt what he is like before Gwendolyn marries him. It’s when rape is introduced into a preexisting narrative that formerly has stayed away from handling such things that it becomes jarring and earns disapproval from audiences.
While the rape of any character is reprehensible, the choice of who it is in this instance makes it obvious that this was not done for any other reason than to add further drama into a relationship that has been rocky from the start. This isn’t Tess, and it isn’t Daniel Deronda, and the audience doesn’t want it to be. From the beginning, we’ve taken joy in an Edwardian soap opera with a small amount of angst on the side.
But judging from the battered face, torn dress, and bleeding lip of a beloved character, Downton Abbey is either asking us to address something we may not want to talk about (and that it may be unqualified to address) … or it’s made a very serious misstep.