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!
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.