Why It's Good That Everyone Has an Opinion on Last Night's Downton (And Why Mine Might Surprise You)

Due to the Golden Globes, I didn't watch last night's Downton Abbey until this morning before work. I noticed the viewer discretion warning before the show, but all I thought was, "How have I never noticed that before?" and went about watching the episode.

At the end of last night’s episode, one of the few characters who makes it a point to avoid deceit and dirty tricks and is kind and lovely to everyone, Anna aka Mrs. Bates is raped while everyone else at Downton listens to an opera singer upstairs. Articles abound today, as they did when it aired in England, with people upset about the episode. People who think the scene was a cheap plot device. People who think it had no place in a show like this.

And as someone who cannot abide Law & Order: SVU, who leaves the room and finds it nauseating that members of our society think a marathon of fictionalized rape crimes is “entertainment,” I would have expected myself to be one of those ranting against this use of sexual violence for drama. 

Hours later, I can’t shake the episode. I didn’t see it coming, and it was heartbreaking and shocking.

But the thing is, and I know this is a weird thing to think and probably stupid to write and publish on a blog, but to some degree that’s how I feel sexual assault should be on TV. For one, Anna and her rapist knew each other, they were even friendly. (According to RAINN Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network 73% of sexual assaults are committed by a non-stranger, including 38% who are a friend or acquaintance, and there is even a specific category of sexual assault called "Acquaintance Rape"). 

Additionally, it is mentioned earlier in the episode that before the war, the staff--particularly the kitchen staff--wouldn’t have been allowed to go up and hear the singer. So at the very moment that classist barriers are dissolving, Anna is raped and the two are drawn together as it ever clear to the viewer that were the kitchen staff still relegated to being downstairs, the assault wouldn't have happened. This is another real and true issue. When studying abroad in South Africa, I remember reading: "These Women They Force Us To Rape Them: Rape as Narrative of Social Control in Post-Apatheid South Africa"

Even the fact that the assault itself happened off camera. Creator and writer Julian Fellowes said that the show consciously didn't show the rape because they didn't want it to be sensationalized, they wanted to explore this issue in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bates. I do think that not showing it was another significant (and correct) decision, not only because I would not want to see it, but this too makes a statement that just because no one views it, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

I recently overheard a middle-aged man relay counsel that he had given his daughter. She had gone on a tour of a college that she was thinking of attending, and it happened to be during a time when student groups were raising awareness about sexual assault on campus. She told her father that she was worried about going to a school with such a high occurrence of rape. This is how he advised her: 

"I asked her, 'So are there men jumping out at women as they walk to class to rape them?'

And she said, 'No.'

So I asked, 'What about during class? Are they jumping out and raping women during class?'

And she said, 'No.'

Then I asked her, 'What are the three parts of a Jewish marriage?' [The third part is "seclusion" when the husband and wife consummate the marriage, and the father's point here was the reminder that young women are supposed to remain virgins until their wedding days]. He continued, 'These rapes happen behind closed doors, and you won't be behind a closed door with a man, because if you are, there's already something wrong.'" 

The father was proud of this advice, and thought it would comfort his daughter and remind her to be virtuous. I'm sure that he did not intend to infer that if his daughter was raped, his first question would be "why were you alone with a man in the first place?"...but that's what it sounded like.

Anna excused herself to get some headache medicine. And someone who seemed hours earlier like a perfectly fine person (save flirting with a married woman) followed her and assaulted her and no one could hear her screaming over the sound of the opera singer. It came out of nowhere. And Anna, who is loved, and adored, and respected, refuses to tell anyone other than Mrs. Hughes for whom she goes to for a clean dress. Even when encouraged by Mrs. Hughes, she won't tell her husband.

The viewer didn’t tune in expecting a crime. As far as I could see, there was no charting or telling that it would happen. And now everyone who watched feels horrified and devastated. But that's the thing: It shouldn’t be portended and it should be heartbreaking.

I remember once being punished for doing something wrong as a child. I was sent to my room, and when it was time for me to come back downstairs, I was crying, and I said to my mom, “I just feel so bad.” And she said, “You did something wrong, you should feel bad.” It wasn't mean in the slightest, in fact, the point was that I should feel reassured that I felt bad when I did wrong. Both because that feeling keeps us on the straight and narrow, but more than that I could take refuge in that I was a good person--good enough that I wouldn’t just shrug off an aberration, I would feel bad about it.

Anna’s sexual assault has viewers across the internet angry, devastated, and confused—and that’s how they should feel because it was angering, devastating and confusing. Of course, we'll have to wait and see how the storyline develops on episodes to come, but in my opinion the reactions don't mean the storyline should have never been told, rather it underscores the importance that we talk about it.