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My Take on the Downton Abbey Rape Controversy

Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen the January 12th episode of Downton Abbey – DO NOT continue with this post! This post contains massive spoilers!
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I am a Downton Abbey fan. I admit, my love for the show was quite unexpected. I had heard some internet buzz about the show but never really thought a period piece about the British upperclass would really float my boat. So you can imagine my surprise when I finally watched an episode and immediately found myself being happily dragged into the world of Downton.
You see, Downton isn’t just about the British upperclass. It’s a beautiful portrayal about the lives of everyone at Downton…from the footman to the Countess. Each character is developed fully and you find yourself caring deeply about the hardships of both the wealthy and the poor. Therefore, I am now an admitted (and perhaps ravenous) fan of the show. This past Sunday night, I snuggled down in bed (with a cup of tea of course) and prepared to enjoy all the newest adventures of those at Downton.
And like the rest of the country, my heart broke when fan-favorite Anna, was raped by a male visitor at Downton. Yes. Raped.
The scene was startling. Anna briefly left an opera concert being held at Downton to soothe a headache. Her doting husband, Mr. Bates, seemed concerned and offered to accompany Anna to the kitchen but she insisted that he stay to enjoy the music. After all, Anna spent a lot of time in the kitchen. She worked there. Surely it was safe. 
As Anna, and viewers, soon learned — it was not. The scene was gripping. It was graphic.  Joanne Froggatt, the actress who portrays Anna, masterfully showed the horror, the anger, and the fear that a woman in that situation experiences. That experience is the same whether you are wealthy or poor. It is horrifying. And as Anna’s screams echoed down the hallways of Downton, I felt an all too familiar grip of terror.
I am a survivor. It isn’t something I talk about. It isn’t something I share often. Even now, nearly seven years later, emotions often boil to the surface when I least expect them. 
The grip of terror cemented its grasp during the followup scene where Anna is discovered — broken, bruised, bloody, and scared — by Mrs. Hughes. More than anything, Anna’s shame is apparent. She insists that Mrs. Hughes doesn’t tell a sole, including the police and her own husband, Mr. Bates. The fear and the shame pours down her face as she demands that no one should know. 
No one should know.

After watching the episode, I couldn’t sleep. It was probably a horrifying episode for many.  But I tossed and turned all night reliving Anna’s shame. And sadly, my own. The next morning, I was somewhat surprised to learn that there was controversy regarding the episode. Since the series airs in England prior to being aired in America, many outlets had already picked up the buzz that apparently gripped England last year when the episode first aired. (Over 200 people in England called in complaints on the episode when it aired last October.)
Similarly, many bloggers, organizations, and individuals in America took to the internet to proclaim their dislike of the plot line. For example, Slate Blog writer June Thomas wrote a piece entitled “Why is Downton Abbey so Horrible to its Female Characters?” in which she blasted the episode for being an “experiment[] in sadism.” 
While respecting other opinions on the issue, I feel compelled to put mine out there. Rape is such a scary word because it is such a scary thing. What is scarier is that it happened centuries before Anna’s time and is still happening in our own. And each time it occurs, a woman (or man) feels fear, horror, and sadly, shame. Downton Abbey is providing a poignant picture of what rape was like for women in England during the early twentieth century. Anna’s experience reminds us of a few valuable lessons about rape.
Rape can happen to anyone. Anna is a fan favorite. She is sweet and kind and hard working. She is loyal and stood beside Mr. Bates when others did not. Anna is simply wonderful. And yet, something so horrible happened to her…
Rape is unexpected. Anna merely went downstairs to get medicine for a headache. She was in what she considered to be a safe place… in fact, probably a place she considered “home.” Today, we are so quick as a society to point fingers at the victims of sexual violence. Was she drinking? Did she wear an exposing top? Did she flirt with the guy? Was she in a dangerous place? Frankly, the blame game disgusts me. Anna’s rape reminds us, that rape — yes, all rape — is solely and completely the fault of the perpetrator. Period. End of story.
Rape shame is real. I am still replaying Anna’s face upon being discovered by Mrs. Hughes. Her hair is disheveled and her limbs shake with fear. Her bruises and blood are visible, but it is really the shame in her eyes that is most clear. This character — who we love and who couldn’t have possibly have done anything to “deserve” what happened to her — still feels shame. It is the shame that millions of women (and yes, men too) feel every year. It is deep and it penetrates your soul. It isn’t something easily shaken off or cast aside merely because someone who cares for you insists that it wasn’t your fault. Anna’s shame is real… as is the shame of millions.
So while I will respect those who chose to quit watching the series based upon this turn of events, I for one, will watch. I will watch because I love Anna. I will watch because Anna represents all victims of sexual abuse and I hope that the show’s creator’s will continue to treat her character, and the experience she had, with the utmost tact but also with the raw honesty it deserves. And frankly, I believe that it is a raw dose of honesty about the lasting impact of sexual violence. In my opinion, that is something that we all, as a society, need to see.
Rape isn’t a topic we should sweep under the rug. It is a topic that we need to keep talking about and keep talking about and keep talking about until it is an event that no longer occurs. Until then, I stand with Anna. Do you?

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  • Reply Codi @ The Art of Balance

    Kate, this is such a powerful and well written post. I applaud you for your courage and strength to share with us today.

    Your take on the situation, to me, is poised and educated. YES. The topic of rape should not be swept under the rug. IT HAPPENS. Why can't we talk about? That continuing cycle that rape discussion is taboo only further cements that idea that victims should stay quiet and live with the shame.

    I was so startled by the whole incident. Anna is probably my favorite character and I felt a piece of me hurt when we finally see her afterwards. My heart hurt for her, especially when she demanded that no one find out. I really like the quote you included from the show creater and I'm really interested to see how this plays out over the season.

    You've got me choked up over here, for you, for Anna, and all other victims. Thank you for this post today. I, definitely, stand with Anna. And with you!

    January 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm
  • Reply Kate

    I'm a little behind on Downton, so I have not seen this episode but it makes me feel sick. I can understand that some people may be upset, but I would actually hope that they way they treated it really gets people talking about rape, and the fact that plenty of people are raped and yet they tell no one because of this shame they feel. I hope it makes people start thinking how we, as a society, must act towards victims of rape if this is a typical response–even though Downton took place about a century ago, it's a problem that still haunts many today. I think you're right about it all being something we need to see as a society, and I think it will be interesting to see how they continue to develop what happened on the show.
    p.s. It KILLS me to hear the phrase "she was asking for it." WHAT??!?! Would you say that if it was your best friend, your sister, your mother, your spouse?? That needs to stop.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm
  • Reply Elizabeth at Southern Finesse

    I've never watched Downton but now I don't think I ever will. BUT, I agree with you 100%. I applaud your bravery for approaching this subject and disclosing full honesty on why it impacts you so much. As a survivor, I haven't reached a point where I can bear to watch sexual violence. I'm a big advocate for "trigger warnings" but I understand TV shows and even movies can't really offer that. If they did they would take away the sudden and unexpected nature of the event. Which I think is the hardest moment for others to understand. Not just the suddenness of the event but also the sudden and complete impact it has on a person. I do hope they handle it with tact and start a discussion around the issue.

    I can't really say I stand with Anna since I don't watch the show but I will say I stand with you. <3

    January 15, 2014 at 2:20 pm
  • Reply Autumn @ The Unreal Life

    This is so well written, and I think it's so important for people to hear. I think it's sad that people would stop watching after this, because they're not going to see the follow through–the grieving, healing process…everything. It's such a tough topic and it is very mentally disturbing so I understand…but I also feel like people saying "we won't watch anymore" is reinforcing "this isn't something we talk about." We want women (and men) to come to a point where they can find someone safe to talk to if this happens to them. And such public backlash over a popular TV show won't help that.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:20 pm
  • Reply Brittany

    You are so brave for sharing, for your honesty and vulnerability. You are so right, especially about the disturbing fact on how quickly society, media, and those who commit the crime want to point fingers and find a "justification". That makes me physically ill. <3 You are a survivor and you are a voice for the voiceless.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:25 pm
  • Reply Charlene Maugeri

    I stand with Anna! I don't have any first hand experience with rape or any sexual abuse but I have heard story after story and I know of the pain is real. I too am surprised that some people are going to stop watching because of this. Downton is supposed to portray how life really was during the time. They don't sugar coat anything. Why should this be different? I still love Anna and Mr. Bates and I am interested to see how they handle this.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:31 pm
  • Reply Anonymous

    I don't watch this show but damn girl you wrote the hell out of this.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm
  • Reply jackie jade

    I was shocked and appalled by what happened to Anna in the show but didn't feel any anger to the show or its writers for having it happen. Sexual assault has been rampant for forever and I can only imagine that things just like this happened more often than we know back in the time of the show (and continue to happen now). This just shows a part of history that isn't often mentioned because the women likely never reported it. Though it was awful to watch/experience, it was/is a real issue and I don't blame the show at all for putting this into the series.
    — jackie @ jade and oak

    January 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm
  • Reply Maddie~The Whimsy One

    I know these emotions all too well and I took them for a raw and approached look at it. I, too am a survivor. I was 13 and it took 22 years to heal from the scars. When I first broached the topic on my blog I was nervous as to how people would react, but I was overwhelmed with the compassion.I actually applaud them for the realness. How can people ever truly grasp the horror if they have a shaded view of reality?

    January 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm
  • Reply Margaret

    Girl- this is an amazing post! Major props to you for sharing. While watching the episode, I was shocked and heart broken that the show would have something like this happen to Anna, who is so clearly a fan favorite. But that's what I love and respect about the show- the ability to show something so real and true, and that it can happen to anyone.

    And when people play the blame game with rape- my blood boils. It is never EVER the fault of the victim.

    January 15, 2014 at 3:37 pm
  • Reply Kay

    I don't watch the show, but this was an incredible blog post. I really want to write a really long and thoughtful comment to go with this beautifully written post, but I'm speechless and no words are coming. And you for sharing this.. I just.. You are pretty awesome.

    January 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm
  • Reply Karly Kim

    I haven't seen this episode, but agree with you 100%.

    January 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm
  • Reply Ashley

    I have never watched this show, but this post gave me chills! Such a well written post and so BRAVE! Thank you for sharing, Kate!

    January 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm
  • Reply Rebecca Jo

    I first want to thank you for being so brave & honest… & showing exactly how the times HAVE changed in some instances. The fear to speak up isn't as relevant. I just want to hug you.
    Second – I think Downton Abby handled it well. Like mentioned – they could have been graphic with it. But I think that tells us something when just sounds & the "ideal" of what our minds show us is enough to make us want to cry, get mad, protest, whatever – it shows its a topic that still is around & something that needs to be addressed.
    I too stand with Anna!… & with everyone who has suffered through this horrible event in their life..

    January 15, 2014 at 4:53 pm
  • Reply Amanda - Voyage of the MeeMee

    "Rape isn't a topic we should sweep under the rug. It is a topic that we need to keep talking about and keep talking about and keep talking about until it is an event that no longer occurs." Agreed. I feel horrible that you had to go through it yourself but I'm so PROUD of you for sharing YOUR story – these things do need to be brought to light rather than swept under the rug.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:06 pm
  • Reply Rebekah @ Living Lavender

    This is such an important post. Thank you for being brave enough to open up and write it. My heart broke when I saw Anna cowering in the corner in Mrs. Hughes office and it broke even further when Anna moved away when Bates tried to touch her. I was enraged when her rapidly had the audacity to say goodnight. I only hope she tells Bates after he followed her outside.

    This is such an important issue and just because it is upsetting or difficult to watch doesn't mean we should look away. We have to face the reality.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:11 pm
  • Reply Katie MacDonald

    Kate, thanks for writing this. I am beyond shocked that people are boycotting Downton after this episode. (and I guess I shouldn't be come to think of it). After the episode I was so sad for Anna and I only hope that Mr. Bates finds out, even if Anna is too ashamed to tell him. I'm shocked that people were angry about this, it's documenting real life here. It is not sensationalism in ANY way. Life was horrible for all women through out most of history. Too many time then and now is the abuse just simply ignored, forgotten about, or whispered about. How are we supposed to stand up and say no, if no one else will even reach out a helping hand? I hope they continue to expand this story line. We must face the facts.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:42 pm
  • Reply Kari P

    I am very behind on Downton (I've just begun the 3rd season), but I didn't care about spoiling anything, because I felt like I needed to read this. I needed to read the post that dared to talk about something that never is (although it should be). Thank you for writing this. I know how hard it can be to confront it when you've gone through it.
    I think that it is a good thing that the writers wrote real life into the show and that they are using the character of Anna as a way to try and change the views of the millions watching. These things do not happen to particular types of people for particular reasons. The horrible people who do these things don't single-out "bad people" (as if "bad people" makes any of it dismissible). These horrible people don't get to know their victims enough to even know that anyway. They don't give a shit about anyone but themselves.
    When I first saw this post on my blog feed, my automatic reaction was disgust that it happened. I didn't think of who it was or in what context. I thought "that's horrible no matter what". That's how everyone should view rape – it's horrible no matter what, and hopefully Downton can assist in teaching people to think of it in this way.

    January 16, 2014 at 12:04 am
  • Reply Pleas(e) and Carrots

    I actually watched the season online when it aired in England back in the fall. I thought this whole story line was an enlightening one, and it made me cry more than once. I like the creator's explanation, though I don't feel he even owed one to anyone. Your lessons are on point, too. Thank you for sharing your story. You are so brave.

    January 16, 2014 at 12:45 am
  • Reply Laura Beth

    My heart was racing the ENTIRE time from the moment I pressed play on my DVR today after work. I knew what was coming, not when why or how but I knew. My heart broke into a million little pieces. I expect it from the shows I watch like SVU but not Downton. And then I knew the point…it can happen to anyone! I almost texted you before I read your post because I was nervous. Knowing what your post was about. Knowing I would get goosebumps. Knowing I'd want to drive to LR and give you a GIANT hug. I am proud to call you a friend and for putting this out in blogland for all the world to see. I will without a doubt stand with Anna and you and all other victims of this heinous act!
    Thank you for sharing xoxo

    January 16, 2014 at 2:18 am
  • Reply Amber Thomas

    I couldn't get into Downton Abbey because it felt too smart and over my head (how old am I?), but the few episodes I watched I was always enamored with Anna. Obviously I haven't seen the rape episode, but I can say not only should rape NOT be swept under the rug, it also pulls the rug out from underneath us. And whether it's comfortable to talk about or not, there's an abundance of conversations and feelings that need to be brought out into the open and you've just created space for that to happen.

    Terrible things happen to good people. You are so right. So, so right. And Downton might be the first show to go ahead and illustrate that… Because what's popular TV without untouchable characters? Not only has Downton redefined popular TV, but you just redefined what it means to bring your secrets into the open, just resurfaced the "face" of a rape victim, all the while being the truly beautiful and talented woman that you are. So proud to call you my friend.

    January 16, 2014 at 2:53 am
  • Reply Rachel Murphree

    I think that it was very brave of you to share your story, and very brave of the producers of Downton Abbey to air the episode. I am sure they knew it would make people uncomfortable, but they did not hold back and I applaud them for that. It's an icky, uncomfortable thing that unfortunately happens too often. Sweeping it under the rug is what allows this to happen, and the best way to make it stop is to confront it head on. So bravo to you and bravo to Masterpiece for confronting the issue of rape in a way that can't be ignored.
    – Rachel @ With Love, Rachel

    January 16, 2014 at 3:17 am
  • Reply Tori

    You are so so brave, and so incredibly strong. I think every one of us was put into an uncomfortable and scary place while watching that scene, and I'm so glad you took it on. I wasn't sure I would be able to do it justice & I took a light hearted tone about the show this week, and I had no idea there was such controversy surrounding it. It is really unfortunate and baffling to me that people think what happened in that scene was sensationalizing it, I think the message is clear that this could happen to anyone, and it does. Every day. And it is something we need to start talking about. I'm really glad Downton defended their decision. Thank you so much for writing this.

    January 16, 2014 at 5:12 am
  • Reply Lisa @ Two Martinis

    I have too many thoughts on this to even form into a coherent comment, but I just wanted to say bravo on a well written post and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this! I don't watch the show, but I think it's so important that we (as a society) talk about rape and acknowledge its existence, instead of making it a taboo topic that is too 'heavy' for people to handle.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:22 am
  • Reply This N That

    Great post! Thanks!

    January 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm
  • Reply Life with Amberly

    I don't know how I missed reading this the other day, but wow!!!! You are amazing, and I appreciate your stance on this. I stopped watching Downton a couple of seasons ago just because I never remembered to watch it and fell behind, so I had no idea about any of this and actually hadn't heard about this episode until you wrote about it. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable!

    January 17, 2014 at 8:54 pm
  • Reply P!nky

    I know a few people that stopped watching the show because of this scene. Because it just seemed it was attacking Anna and Bates again. I never really thought of it the way you wrote your post, and I applaud you for being brave and sharing your story. <3

    December 31, 2014 at 8:54 pm
  • Reply Emily S (Em Busy Living)

    People actually stopped watching because of this? Because the show dared to show just one more reality that makes people uncomfortable? Wow. Their loss. This is an incredible show and faces many different terrible scenarios. This one was by far the worst, but I won't ignore the fact that it's so real.

    May 8, 2015 at 8:46 pm
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