Why “The” Episode Was Good for Women

If you aren’t caught up on the current season of Downton Abbey, and you don’t appreciate spoilers, please stop reading right here.

If you have seen the show—specifically the episode where Anna gets brutally raped by a visiting valet—then I’d love to know in which camp of viewers you’d place yourself.

Camp A (the louder camp): The show pulled a horrific ratings stunt and degraded women by allowing a beloved character to be sexually assaulted.


Camp B (the calmer camp): The show should be applauded for weaving in a realistic, terrifying act of violence upon a strong female character, who has so far beaten life’s challenges.

As you may have guessed, I’m firmly in Camp B, and honestly quite astounded that Camp A even exists.

For a show that’s constantly ridiculed for its soapy story lines, and a narrative that shockingly killed two major characters off last season, I can’t imagine how anyone could be surprised that violence would make its way into subsequent episodes.

Not long after the season premiere aired here in the U.S., I read a number of whiny social media posts about how “boring” the show had become in its fourth installment.

Still bored? Didn’t think so.

Placing a well-liked, strong, feminine character in such nauseating peril is a perfect way to communicate the restrictions of the era and the reality of class division.

If the rape had happened to Lady Mary or Lady Edith, the police would have been called or Lord Grantham would have handled it with no fear of repercussions. There would have been what we would now call a media “gag order” to protect the Lady, and—save for the victim—everyone would move on.

If the rape did happen to a servant like Anna, it would be her word against her attacker, and if she reported it, she’d undoubtedly bring shame to the residence. Furthermore, she’d most likely be shamed out of her job, leaving her penniless and without a sense of normalcy to help cope with her pain.

Just a few decades ago, the British royal family underwent scrutiny after a male servant alleged rape by another male employee of higher regard. The Palace denied the event took place, and the victim died of an “unknown illness” at age 44. Princess Diana was said to have a recording that would reveal the truth about the incident, but that was lost shortly after her death. Whether the victim was telling the truth or lying to damage the royal reputation, the whole situation is tragic.

Quite frankly, us Americans shouldn’t be criticizing any writers or actors about choosing to spotlight the horrific crime of rape. We practically ignore it here, allowing an estimated 400,000 rape kits to go untested because of “budget restraints” or “inadequate funding.”

Never mind the ladies who have suffered at the hands of these attackers; just think of the women still out there who will soon be in their line of fire.

And that’s another point: Sometimes viewing a television show of something horrible that’s happened to you in life can inspire you to seek help for the first time. A spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, is quoted as saying, “When an episode is well done, it can really help viewers.”

On March 18, 2001, I sat down with my ritual glass of red wine and a bowl of pasta to watch my favorite show, The Sopranos. In that episode, a strong, beloved female character was raped in a far more visually graphic way than Downton depicted. We saw nudity, we saw facial expressions, we saw the emptiness of the parking garage, devoid of people to hear the victim scream.

Following the episode I promptly threw up, cried and went to sleep, only to have nightmares about the fictional attacker. I parked only on the street for about a year thereafter.

It was a disturbing, sickening episode, but I don’t remember the outcry surrounding it nearly as much as the overreactions I’m seeing in regard to Downton.

Some may argue that The Sopranos was an inherently violent show and those who are bothered by such violence wouldn’t watch it anyway, but I beg to differ.

Just because Downton Abbey doesn’t feature mobsters, doesn’t mean it should be exempt from exploring real-life scenarios. In present-day U.K. an estimated 1 in 5 women has experienced sexual violence; in the U.S. the number is 1 in 6. Until we recognize that these statistics are unacceptable, we need reminders of the crimes.

No matter how painful they may be to watch.