Controversy or Realism?


(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.

37 Replies to “Controversy or Realism?”

  1. I agree with you on this, and would also add that a lot of writers do not seem to actually understand the subject of rape. I read a lot of Buffy fan fiction, and the (mis)use of rape in most of the stories that it comes up in makes me want to pop a vein in rage. The worst are the ones that don’t seem to understand a rape is occurring at all.

    For example, there is one story on Twisting the Hellmouth called “The Same Night Awaits Us All”. Buffy ends up in Rome, where she is promptly enslaved. She has this slave collar that forces her to obey her masters orders. So she spends her days killing in the arena and performing oral sex when she isn’t fighting. When she is finally free of the collar the only repercussion from these events is crying in her beer with Faith over it, and then promptly getting over it to the point that she makes the woman who enslaved her into her watcher. The woman has absolutely no research skills, magic, or anything else that one would think a watcher would have to have to be able to do their job! The whole thing was an atrocity; made worse because it is obviously an attempt at comedy! Yes, mind controlled rape is just hilarious, isn’t it?

    Excuse me, I need to go puke now.

    Ok, back. But as I was saying, I can count on one hand the number of times I have felt an author, professional or not, took the subject seriously when it was included in a work. Most of the time it just demonstrates the lack of understanding most men (and some women) regarding the subject.

    Well, with one exception. A friend of mine in highschool was repeatedly raped by her ‘nudist’ stepfather. To this day she writes fiction about the abuse trying to get some control over it, and maybe understand it. She has yet to succeed.

    1. A lot of fan fiction is an excuse to get the kink out of the writer’s imagination. Sadly, it doesn’t consider whether or not what it is writing is appropriate, either for the audience or the characters involved. Seems rather horrible, to me, to take a character you (presumably) love and construct a rape fantasy around them. =P

    1. Ok, whats with this “Why Anna?” Its very worrysome! All kinds of people get raped. If a character is less “good” then Anna, he or she also did NOT deserve it!

  2. I *hate* rape as a plot device. I think that it’s probably one of women’s greatest fears, and why be reminded of it in a story that serves as escapism? (Not that I’m a fan of all entertainment being merely escapism AT ALL…just…) When there’s a rape in a story, I honestly spend less time thinking of how it impacts the story and more on how ohmygosh, this could happen to me at any moment of my day…really not what I need to be able to function in my everyday life!

    1. I think it’s an unneeded distraction and in this case, a cheap plot device that just furthers the author’s obvious hatred of a particular romantic relationship. He keeps destroying it at every turn — why can’t he let them be HAPPY for five minutes?!

  3. Fellowes has shown his true colors now it seems. I gave up watching Downton Abbey at the end of the 2nd season, and now I’m really glad that I did. It is worth absolutely none of my time if this is what he has done to characters I like. Rape is inexcusable when it is added merely to titillate the audience. He should know better.

    1. I’m undecided as to where to let my collection of the series wane. I kind of want season three merely for Mary and Matthew’s wedding, even though I’ll probably never watch the Christmas episode again. But the down-trend is making me lose much of my affection for it overall.

      It’s very interesting that since this controversy broke, some of the cast have defended it as courageous writing but there hasn’t been a word either from ITV over accusations of not putting the proper “warnings” for sexual violence at the start of the hour, nor from Julian Fellowes addressing rampant hatred for this plot twist.

      My disgust might be a little less if I thought he would do this kind of deep plot justice… but he can’t. Fellowes has botched every serious topic he has handled from the start. Mary was coerced into sex too, but he used a convenient “out” by having her say she didn’t fight him off, thus it must have been consensual. Cora had a miscarriage, a seriously emotionally damaging experience whose aftermath wasn’t explored at all. We never dealt with the fact that Thomas is a homosexual and in the house – so long as he can play cricket, the ordinarily hard-nosed Lord Grantham is fine and dandy with having him around. Jimmy also seemed to get over his sexual assault pretty fast, and now he’s fine with Thomas.

      Tom Branson got assaulted last night too. Edna served him up an almighty half-glass of whiskey to get him fully soused, then entered his room late at night and from the preview next week, they slept together. Excuse me, but if a guy got a girl drunk and had sex with her, there would be an uproar. But no, Tom is going to be a gentleman and think it was his fault, and I don’t know if they’re going to address it as a “double rape” or not.

      Maybe Fellowes will surprise me. But I doubt it.

      1. So Jimmy’s fine with Thomas? In what world? A heterosexual man in the 1920s would have never been “fine” with Thomas’ behavior. Ever.

        Fellowes is rewriting history and that is why I can’t stand him. People see history through the eyes of entertainment, especially popular entertainment, and when the entertainment gets it wrong, the masses will never know. And I loathe him for that. Not only does he have no follow-through, but he assumes there are no consequences for the actions of his characters. Thomas should have been fired, and he would have been in the real world. A promise to Lord Grantham to keep it in his pants would not have sufficed. Fellowes is brainwashing the modern audience into thinking that society in the 1920s had the exact same value system as we do. Not so, my dear Fellowes, not so.

        As for Branson, I’m shuddering over here. It reminds me of Oscar & Lucinda and the revulsion I felt. Poor, poor Branson. It is in no way his fault. He’s male, and men react no matter the situation, drunk or not. It’s the way they are physically wired; they can’t help it. Not his fault.

        Boy, am I glad that I haven’t met Edna or the jerk who raped Anna. I already sold my 1st season or I would yank it out and sell it all over again.

        1. Um… in the world of “this is fiction, and we bring up plots only to drop them because we gave no real thought to them in the first place and see no need to resolve anything on this show.”

          Carson told Thomas he was “revolting,” but that was the loudest objection anyone had to it. Robert talked Jimmy out of filing a formal complaint by persuading him it wasn’t worth “ruining a man’s life over.”

          I’m very much afraid that Fellowes is at his finest when given time to revise his scripts; the first season was brilliant because he had to polish it to a shine to sell it. Now, he’s expected to write scripts left and right with no time to think or plan or do much of anything, which results in half-baked plots that no one really wants and an endless circle of repetition that becomes tiresome (how much more Anna/Bates drama must we endure? How many times can Mary be a bitch? How many times must Edith be thwarted in love?).

          That is an excellent point… it is very O&L, and if Branson winds up blaming himself for it, I’m going to track down Fellowes and stomp on his foot with a nine inch heel. =P

          1. First off, I’d love to see you tottering about in 9 inch heels. Secondly, I’ll bring the tire iron to this “let’s beat up Fellowes” party.

            Well, huzzah for Carson. Revolting wins the day. I’m not sure why I thought fiction was supposed to imitate life because you know, it really doesn’t. All these Christian romances I read are a load of tripe. I enjoy them immensely, but a woman nowadays is lucky to find one man crazy about her, let alone two. Why should Fellowes’ writing be any different from any other romance novelist out there? I must be expecting too much from him.

            At least now someone has given me a logical reason for why his plots have taken a dive in the tank. I never considered how his 1st season was his gem because it had to be perfect to sell it. That explains so very much.

          2. Well, my last pair of shoes I bought I think have four inch heels — so that’s not quite nine, but it’s impressive all the same. It makes me about as tall as JD is, which he doesn’t like. 😉

            Hence, why I avoid Christian romances. Or romances in general. I’d rather have the romance be a sideline to a… well, main plot.

            See, I excused the shoddy second season of Downton because he was writing his Titanic miniseries at the same time. I thought he was just too busy for his own good — but both of them were crap, which means he’s just not a great first-time-through writer. I get it. I’m not either. I need to revise. So does he.

  4. This “twist” makes me sad. I don’t like how Fellowes likes to crush the hearts of these characters – particularly the people who you are referencing in this post. I do admire it when writer’s take a risk but… a rape!? That is not acceptable.

    As for Branson… UGH! I want him to “move on,” in a healthy way even if it’s just him learning to better run Downton and feel more comfortable in the household – he doesn’t have to fall in love again (though I think, even if only for practicality sake, he would marry again), just learn to “live” again and be a good father.

    1. Raping any of the women at Downton would be unacceptable, but as a writer =– WHY ANNA? This woman has been through HELL — hasn’t she dealt with enough as a character without willfully throwing this on top of it? Did they really do this just to keep the Anna-Bates angst going?

      I swear, sometimes it seems as if Fellowes enjoys tormenting the same characters over and over again — namely, Bates, Anna, and Edith. It’s getting really old.

      Branson is sad without Sybil, but he’s changing into a better man. He doesn’t need some trumped-up hussy of a maid trying to coerce him into marrying her because she got him drunk and slipped into his room in the middle of the night.

      1. Whoa, wait a minute? “Why Anna?”

        Why ANY woman for that matter? Good women get raped. Bad women get raped. Bottom line is NO woman (good or bad) deserves rape. Just because Anna is a “good” character and someone like former Mrs. Bates is not, doesng make her less susceptible to sexual assault & battery.

        1. For the record, I’d be just as mad about it if Edna or O’Brien, two women I happen to HATE, had suffered that fate.

          But you must admit, sometimes it seems like Fellowes really has it in for Anna. =P

  5. Gosh, this episode sounds frightening. Anna is one of my favorite characters and I hate the thought of that happening to her (even if she is fictional). Why can’t the Bates’ get through one season without being put through hell? I heard the first few years of marriage are difficult, but this is ridiculous! And as for Branson… I’ve just gotten around to liking him.

    1. I’m starting to think Fellowes is a sadist, with all the horrors he puts Anna and Bates through. Can’t he give them ONE SEASON of happiness without something traumatic happening in their lives?

      Ditto on Branson. I like him better now than I ever did.

  6. You might also wanna add Tom Branson’s “date-rape” situation. He was in a vulnerable state, suffering major identity crisis, Edna godknows what put in that drink, deliberately gets him drunk and sneaks into his chamber. She wasn’t invited nor did Branson initiate it. She took an advantage of an inebriated man in a vulnerable state – she preyed on him. I dont even want to discuss Anna’s situation. It was so upsetting and shocking, the image of her getting smacked and the sounds while opera lady sang Puccini will NEVER exit my mind.

    1. I didn’t want to go into that, because it would reveal even more spoilers than just lightly touching on THE rape scene would — but you’re right, I think the choice to include that in addition to what else happens in this episode is a bit… *ahem* much. I’m also wondering if they will even bother to address that as rape also, because if the situation were reversed and it was a man who plied a woman with alcohol and seduced her, everyone would scream that it was rape. Here, will they?

  7. I’ve always thought of what Mary experienced in season 1 as rape, or something very close to it. What’s-his-name (I can’t remember how to spell it) did coerce her.

      1. I 100% agree with your post and I see in your response to another commenter you feel that season one Mary got raped by Pamuk, I wrote an article based on exactly that (it’s on “An Analysis of Downton Abbey The Rape of Mary Crawley). I really loved Downton Abbey but I think Julian Fellowes really doesn’t understand consent, or the full scope of sexual assault and rape. He’s using as a plot device again and again and then he handles the aftermath so poorly that usually goes in the way of blaming the victim (Mary) and what I think will happen with Anna– male hero saving her (Bates).. I really hope that doesn’t happen. I hope Fellowes surprises and this is actually some social commentary about how rape can happen to anyone and it changes their life and hopefully in the end the perpetrator will be handled and the survivor will be helped. But how much faith can you have when you’ve witnesses the showrunner clumsily handle consent time and time again?

        1. I tracked down your article and read it. I agree. I saw it that way as well and it was somewhat shocking the way everyone glossed over it in the first season. Mary may have “participated,” but it was abundantly clear she was coerced into it. And then, throughout the rest of the series, she takes the blame herself — as if she initiated it, when that was not the case.

          Fellowes doesn’t have a good track record when dealing with sexual assault — he bungled Mary, he bungled Jimmy (?) when he was kissed by Thomas, and now he’s going to bungle Anna and pass Branson’s seduction off as something he blames himself for. Sigh.

          1. Coercion in sex is becoming a very popular literary device. Japanese manga and anime is rife with it, one of the major reasons why I quit. A lot of the young girls in my anime club think that it’s sexy. To them, it’s not rape because the “reluctant” participant is only repressed and really does want it. No, it’s rape and what right does a rapist have to make assumptions about his victim’s frame of mind? My major concern is that this trend will alter how our society views rape. I never liked the Pamuk storyline because it was sexual coercion. She felt threatened with consequences if she didn’t do what he said.

            Honestly, Pamuk took advantage of Mary being an introvert. If she’d been an extrovert she’d have screamed bloody murder and damn the consequences. Her father would have challenged the man to a duel and he would have died bloody instead of in Mary’s bed. Much more preferable. But she couldn’t stand the disgrace of being manipulated into that position in the first place. Being introverted can mean being afraid to reach out to others when we need help. Poor thing.

          2. The Pamuk incident reminds me of that scene in “Daniel Deronda” when Grandcourt coerces Gwendolen into agreeing to marry him. She’s uncertain how to respond and he simply steps forward, catches her eye, and insists gently, “You accept me,” until she repeats it after him like a little puppet – because his will is stronger than her own. It’s horrific to watch.

          3. Creepy. I think Grandcourt is the main reason why I avoid rewatching Daniel Deronda. I don’t like the kind of shivers he gives me.

          4. Up until “Bleak House,” it was my favorite BBC miniseries. I’ve always found it fascinating… maybe because Gwen is one of the few Thinker heroines in Victorian literature!

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