Last week’s episode of Downton Abbey featured a controversial scene where one of the audience’s favorites, chambermaid Anna Bates, was raped by a guest’s valet driver.
In what can has been considered one of the most graphic scenes in the show’s history, Anna, portrayed by Joanne Froggatt, screams helplessly, while upstairs, oblivious spectators enjoy a moving opera performance. The events of the attack and Anna’s trauma afterward resulted in over 400 complaints to the show’s media regulator, Ofcom, as news sites, blogs, and social media networks were immediately set ablaze with debate regarding the “explicit” episode.
Many fans and critics labeled the rape as “disturbing” and “inappropriate for television,” while others further complained that the inclusion of that scene was used as a tactic for publicity, i.e. it’s only purpose was to shock people and produce higher ratings. Some voiced that the violent depiction was an exploitation of women, suggesting that the writers were hoping Anna’s abuse would translate into greater success for the show.
Another displeasing aspect of the incident being discussed by viewers was that Anna was blaming herself for her rape. She also kept her attack to herself, save a fellow maid who she asked to bring her clothes. She begged this woman not to tell anyone, and that she herself would not be informing her husband or the authorities. Some critics stated that this, most of all, was the worst part of the episode.
This particular episode received so much media attention that members of the cast and production team made public statements defending the episode. The show’s writer, Julian Fellows, responded to criticism in an interview with BBC, making the following statements:
“The whole point of the way we do things on “Downton” is we don’t do them gratuitously. We are interested in exploring the resultant emotions and the effect these things have on people. If we’d have wanted a sensational rape we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out.
It is not us just being flashy and trying to get attention. It is definitely something that was an issue at the time and women did not have any of the recourse that they would have now. Anna is in a terrible predicament that gives us a great undercurrent that runs through our fourth season.
The point of our handling is not that we’re interested in sensationalizing but we’re interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage.”
The argument boils down to essentially one question: Is the depiction of rape too inappropriate to televise?
In my opinion: No. Is it shocking? Yes. Disturbing? Yes.
We absolutely SHOULD be angered – not at the episode, but at the crime of rape. Seeing an act of sexual violence SHOULD anger all of us, and instill an urge to protect and defend the victim.
Sadly rape happens at an alarming rate, every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted. The public outcry about this episode illustrates that society doesn’t want sexual violence interrupting their viewing pleasure. Therefore, as terrible and uncomfortable as that scene might have been, I applaud Downton Abbey for generating an international conversation about rape and sexual violence.