Downton Abbey and Exploitation

[Content Note: Spoilers for the most recent episode of Downton Abbey, including the rest of this content note. Descriptions of sexual violence; rape apologia.]

I have not watched Downtown Abbey since its return. I was really bored with it last season, and I hated the way the show dealt with Dan Stevens' departure, and I just couldn't be arsed with it anymore.

But I've gotten a bunch of emails about the most recent episode, so I read about what happened, glad I hadn't been watching and infuriated by what I read:
The "shocker" scene, as it has been referred to in several recaps, unfolds when Anna the maid, played by Joanne Froggatt, is alone in the kitchen with visiting Lord Gillingham's valet, Mr. Green (Nigel Harma).

The two had been playful with each other, but during this dark meeting, he turns aggressive, hitting her, shoving her into a nearby room and raping her. Her screams go unheard as the rest of the house is upstairs listening to real-life opera star Kiri Te Kanawa sing Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro. A sobbing and bloodied Anna tells only Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) what has happened and doesn't want anyone, especially her husband, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), to know.
When the episode originally aired in Britain, it generated hundred of complaints from viewers, prompting defenses from the show's producers, like:
Gareth Neame, the series' executive producer, defended the story to TV Guide as being representative of the shame experienced by lower-class working women of the 1920s.

"It is not us just being flashy and trying to get attention," he says. "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."
Now, I'm not unilaterally against the inclusion of sexual violence in pop culture media, because sexual violence is a part of our world, and survivors deserve to have our lived experiences represented, too. But I am profoundly contemptuous of sexual violence being used gratuitously, or provocatively, or as a plot point, or as nothing more than a defining characteristic of a female character, or as a metaphor, as just some of the most heinous examples of turning rape into entertainment.

Again, I did not watch the episode, but I have little faith I would have considered the scene anything but exploitative and gross, given that the show's executive producer defines rape as "being representative of the shame experienced by lower-class working women of the 1920s," and talking about rape, and justice being elusive for survivors, as some quaint thing of the past, and HOLY FUCK describing a rape scene as putting a female character "in a terrible predicament that gives us a great undercurrent" A GREAT UNDERCURRENT OMG for the rest of the season.

Neame is not alone in having engaged in defenses of the scene that show something less than sensitivity for the material. Julian Fellowes, the writer of the show, rejected accusations of sensationalism thus:
Although the attack was not shown, viewers could hear Green hitting Anna before she emerged later in her underdress with cuts and bruises to her face.

"If we'd wanted a sensational rape, we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out. The point of our handling is not that we're interested in sensationalising, but we're interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage," said Fellowes.
I think it's neat that he imagines the only way to sensationalize a rape is to show it onscreen in graphic detail. Personally, I find it a wee bit sensational for a male writer to write a female character being raped because he's "interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage."

Damage. Not even the emotional aftermath, which could be many things. But the damage. Those are not the words of someone who genuinely cares about—or understands—survivors of sexual violence.

Even ITV, which airs the show in Britain, got in on defending the episode:
"The events in episode three were, we believe, acted and directed with great sensitivity. Viewers will see in the forthcoming episodes how Anna and Bates struggle to come to terms with what has happened."
With how the woman who was raped and her husband who was not raped "come to terms with" her being raped. Neat.

When the episode first aired in Britain, Bidisha wrote of the scene:
We must break the malicious disbelief, victim-blaming and perpetrator excusal that surrounds rape. But the pen must be in the hands of those with humane interest, responsibility and a commitment to psychological acuity...

Downton employed several rape clichés: the ideal victim should be sweet, good and naive; the perpetrator must be creepy from the start; the attack should involve a thorough beating, so the threat to the victim is obvious. Then the rapist, like a ghost, simply disappears, and the real telly fun can begin. The victim's emotional state is grabbed and ripped open. Her trauma is exposed, exploited, fetishised. The audience watch her trembling with pain and shame, crying in corners, torn up inside. They watch her life crumble as she's subjected to further turmoil through pregnancy or marital crisis.
Fellowes says: "Downton deals in subjecting a couple of characters per series to a very difficult situation and you get the emotions that come out of these traumas."

Wrecking female characters with sexual violence for entertainment, for manufactured emotional journeys, is not something I want to watch. I want to see and hear survivors' stories, but a survivor's story is about surviving, not about being deliberately broken by unimaginative men in careless pursuit of emotional satisfaction.

That, frankly, sounds a lot less like survival, and a lot more like rape.

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