Downton Abbey Rape Scene Causes Controversy

Downton Abbey has for several years now been a hugely successful piece of weekend entertainment. It caused controversy recently, however, as it progressed through its fourth season. The reason? The series’ depiction of the rape of maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). According to The Independent ITV received more than 60 complaints following the broadcast of the episode with another 30 complaints sent straight to Ofcom. Meanwhile, The Mirror estimated that the total number of complaints was actually closer to 400.

Downton AbbeyPersonally, I felt confused as to the cause of the complaints made against Downton Abbey with regards it’s depiction of rape. A genuine complaints would of course be justified if the programme had not been preceded by a warning of content featuring sexual violence – the safety and emotional wellbeing of rape survivors is immeasurably more important than preventing plot spoilers – but this does not appear to be what the majority of complaints were about. It seems – quite simply – that viewers were upset that the scene in question was ‘not nice.’

Of course, it wasn’t. The storyline involved rape. Many viewers apparently took offence at the apparent departure from the established more light-hearted tone of Downton, but I don’t think this is the case. The series has addressed many serious issues during its time on screen so far, including death and mutilation in the first world war, mental health concerns or, more recently, the difficulty of pursuing an abortion when such things were illegal. These things are not light hearted entertainment, so why the outrage with the depiction of rape?

I think the difference with regards the rape scene is that we inhabit a culture which seems to pretend far too often that rape doesn’t happen. Rape so often goes unreported or untalked about, cloaked in a culture of blame and shame. Anyone that watched the episode of Downton Abbey could have been in no doubt that what happened to the character of Anna was a horrifically violent attack in which she had no blame. The reality of rape needs to be delivered to the public – and Downton Abbey did just this. As a society, we can’t go on pretending that such things don’t happen.

I personally found the offending scene to be a testament to the creativity and sensitivity of the Downton team. The juxtaposition of a celebratory atmosphere upstairs with the dark and muffled isolation of Anna’s experience downstairs effectively highlighted the horror of the attack. Whilst the progression of the storyline may have had its problems – the focus on Anna’s husband’s need for revenge as opposed to Anna’s recovery – the depiction of the event itself was well handled.

It should certainly also be noted that the attack has not been turned into a major plot point for the character of Anna. Though scarred and initially traumatised by the attack, Anna has recovered remarkably and has been portrayed as strong and assertive in her own way following the rape, rather than merely as a tragic victim.

Downton Abbey has shown what life after rape means. The complaints are unjustified – this isn’t sensationalism, it is genuine cultural representation and social history, and it matters.

Photograph by Catherine Thackstone.

Leave A Comment