The Cliffs of Insanity: Women, Television, & Rape

Downton Abbey Series 3
Downton Abbey Series 3–that’s when the melodrama really kicked into gear. © Carnival Films & Masterpiece

Welcome to this week’s adventures climbing the cliffs of insanity.

This week was a banner week for women in television, and I say that will all due sarcasm.

First, there was The Mary Sue’s post on the Celluloid Ceiling Report, showing nothing had changed for women in Hollywood in the last sixteen years, despite supposed efforts to move women in decision-making positions in Hollywood.

Then I read a brilliant essay by an Oscar-nominated director–“Hello, my name is Lexi Alexander, Difficult Bitch. Nice to meet you!”–who called b.s. on Hollywood’s supposed attempts at diversity.

And, finally, the news that a possible Wonder Woman show was nixed by the CW network before even a pilot was filmed.

Because, you know, Wonder Woman is “tricky.”

And then there was episode 2 of season 4 of Downton Abbey.


First, for those of you saying, “But, wait, you gave away a spoiler with your title,” you’re right, I did.

One, because this event absolutely deserves a trigger warning for the roughly one-third of the female population who have been the victim of sexual assaults, and two because if I told you that a horrible thing happened to a woman on DA and she didn’t die, you’d know exactly what I was talking about anyway.

That’s how prevalent rape is as a plot device. And, make no mistake, this is rape as plot device in a soap opera, not a serious look at how women dealt with rape in the 1920s.

I ranted a while back in a cliffs of insanity column, on Comics, Women, and Rape, and how it’s used as the worse thing that can happen to the men in the life of the woman who’s been assaulted. Of course, misuse of rape as a plot device isn’t limited to comics. Television has issues too. Not just Downton Abbey. This season also saw a female cop nearly raped by an acquaintance on Blue Bloods, which would have been an interesting storyline except for the fact that the episode was about what a great guy her partner was, as he man-splained why she should report the assault.

I theorize that the lack of women writing, producing, and directing our popular entertainment may have something to do with all of this.

DA isn’t part of Hollywood, being a British production, but series creator and writer Julian Fellowes has fallen prey to the same kind of mistake. He has done some interviews explaining why he choose for the brutal rape of Anna to happen in Season 4, mainly resting his position on that rape is traditionally a problem for women and would especially be an issue for women in the 1920s, just as women inheriting an estate is.

Well, I agree. Rape was definitely a problem in the 1920s (it is still a problem now) and especially in the servant class who had no power to punish the rapists. Women who were raped were  absolutely viewed as soiled and wrong.

But all that is beside the point because DA has completely lost the right to pull the realism card to defend the rape.

To start:

1. There’s the miraculous cure of injuries from World War I.

Sure, the poor footman who had cannon fodder stamped on his head died horribly yet in true soap opera fashion, of course, marrying his true love for a last moment of happiness. That is so pure soap opera melodrama, it’s not funny.

Then Matthew is sadly paralyzed–more melodrama–yet still manages to look as gorgeous and healthy as before his injuries. We see him be stoic and self-sacrificing. Do we see him struggling to use the bathroom? Clean himself? No, all we see him is manly declare that he’s no good for Mary because he might not be able to have children. We don’t see him lose any dignity at all. And then, magically, he’s cured. Oops, misdiagnosis. No lasting trauma, no thing. Again, absolutely pure soap opera.

For good measure, I give you poor Thomas’ hand. He took a bullet right through the middle of it. For a while, it bothered him. But then, it didn’t. All better. No problem with fine motor movements that might keep him from doing the job of a valet, no mention of a lingering pain. Yes, that’s realistic. Not.

2. The servant/master relationships on DA are by no means realistic.

When push comes to shove, the lords of DA show their humanity by helping out the poor servants who have so little. Always, it seems.  Even when one of the maids has a baby out of wedlock with one of the lordly hospital patients, they lend their home for a meeting between the maid and the upper-class grandparents. They also step up for the cowardly, incompetent Moslesley.

No one at DA is in fear of Robert swiving the servant girls–he nobly refuses!–and no one is even in fear of Carson hitting the women or otherwise abusing his position. He’s too good. He’s too pure.

This isn’t a realistic depiction of a manor house of the time period. It’s a soap opera with the trappings–excellent trappings–of the time period. I like the melodrama but let’s not pretend it isn’t what it is.

3. Rape is realistic because it was a problem of the time.

Absolutely true in real life.

Except in DA, until Anna’s rape, we never got a hint of how the women have to account for perhaps being raped. Oh, they’re careful not to be alone with men but that seems social convention, not any serious worry.

Mary let a strange man in her room. Cousin Rose has been dressing as a servant to better appeal to a hot gardener, even Sybil often spent time alone with the chauffeur, who somehow restrained himself from even trying to kiss the poor girl and instead waited years for her to say, “Hey, no problem, let’s get married.”

If you’re going to be realistic, you have to be consistently realistic. DA has consistently taken a soap opera treatment of the plot, even of tragedy.

Now we’ll take how realistic Anna’s rape, and its aftermath, is in the episode it takes place.

1. For realism’s sake, Anna would already be wary of strange men who seem overly friendly. Women would have to be of that time period. She’s one of the smartest characters on the show, and she’d know when someone was flirting with her, and that it would be inappropriate.

2. She wouldn’t need her husband to point this out to her and, even if she did, the realism of the times would make her stop and think, “You know, he might be right, I should be more careful.” Because, realism says it’s a very real problem and this is a man she’s just met.

3. Anna is brutally and horrifyingly raped and beaten. (I’ll give the show that: the scene was staged for maximum terror. It’s more realistically depicted than even Sybil’s death because if you’re dying in childbirth, that whole bed is going to be messy, there’s going to be throw-up and, well, childbirth is more than just sweating and screaming. It’s really, really, really messy.)

But having been so beaten, she pulls it together awfully fast.

–She gets Mrs. Hughes to help her change clothes.

–She gives her husband an excuse for the wound on her head.

–She walks home under her own power.

Anna after the rape.
Anna after her rape. Yep, that definitely looks like injuries from a floor/table. © Carnival Films & Masterpiece.

If we want realism, a person who’s been that brutally beaten is going to be in shock. She might even have a concussion. She’s going to be bruised on her legs, her wrists, and the area between her legs. None of these other injuries show, either directly or indirectly. She walks just fine, for example.

She’s going to be in emotional shock. Anna sort of is when Hughes finds her but then she pulls it together enough to say a curt word to her rapist instead of cringing back in horror just minutes after the deed is done?

No. She’s not. She’s going to still be incoherent and terrified.

4. Bates is a war veteran. He’s very smart and clever. He’s also, especially in this episode, very protective of Anna.

When he sees her shaken up with a nasty wound, does he grab her and hold her (or at least try) and find out what’s really wrong? Nope. Does he recognize the difference between hitting the floor/table and injuries made with fists, as he should? No. Does he see the bruises on her wrists? Oops, no, because apparently, they’re NOT THERE.

Does he notice some fear from his wife when they talk to the rapist in the hallway? No, but I’ll give him a pass for this one because Anna is apparently immune to emotional shock–even the minor kind her husband might notice–because, uh, writer reasons.

Instead, he accepts what she’s said without trying to get close to her and lets a woman who supposedly just fainted walk home alone. In the dark.

Yeah, right.

Absolute realism fail.

Absolute story fail.

But, I thought, I’ll read ahead. Maybe the rest of the season deals with it better. Apparently not. Anna moves out without telling Bates why she can’t be touched. (And Bates is smart enough to guess what this might mean.) Then the big reunion seems to be about Bates assuring her he still loves her. Oh, well, how nice of him.

As a comparison: when I watch Spartacus, I expect brutality, even rape. I also expect the show to deal with that brutality maturely, and it did, very, very well.

When I watch Downton Abbey, I expect to get melodrama. I don’t expect a horrible rape thrown in as a plot device  to keep the Anna/Bates relationship interesting. There is a story promise inherent in the way a show is presented. Spartacus never broke it.

Downton Abbey has.

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