In yesterday’s comments blamer Lab Rat mentioned that she’d given up on Downton Abbey owing to Season 4’s now infamously sudden and disturbing rape story line.
I’m with you, sister. Stinkin crapulence!
But let’s face it: even before Downton writer Julian Fellowes went over to the Dark Side with his decision to rape the virtuous, incorrupt, lovable Anna character for no philosophically justifiable reason whatsoever, there was no way that that show was ever gonna pass muster by even the most lax standards of feminist critique. I never actively Bechdel-ed it, but I think it’s safe to assume that when the whole thrust of a plot is “which dashing white male aristocrat will Lady Mary hook up with and what will she be wearing when she does it?” you aren’t going to see too many conversations between the ladies on the subject of string theory.
The feminist issues with Downton are many and obvious. Other problematic issues include, but are not limited to:
The only gay character is the show’s main villain. You get the sense that his gayness is supposed to add an extra little fillip of depravity to his malicious knavery.
The only person of color is an exotic, passion-crazed profligate who corrupts Lady Mary and is promptly killed off. You get the sense that his skin color is supposed to add an extra little filip of depravity to his malicious knavery.
Disability (in the Mr Bates character) is played for pity and pathos. You get the sense that his limp is supposed to add an extra little fillip of poignancy to his sterling heroicism.
A pattern of filliping exploitation emerges.
Also, they killed off the only feminist character, Sybil (death by childbirth stands alone without equal in the canon of sentimental lady-deaths: take that, you feminist!). Also, relying heavily on tired stereotypes — the jolly ginger cook (Mrs Patmore), the maternal spinster chatelaine (Mrs Hughes), the loyal family retainer (Carson) — Downton glorifies the myth of the benevolent master/contented menial as it has never been glorified before. And, inexplicably, there are scenes without Maggie Smith in them.
I’m not gonna lie. At the beginning of Downton Abbey I shut off the old obstreperal lobe and absorbed the first couple of seasons with the blind, uncritical adoration of a childhood Upstairs, Downstairs fan. Downton was lush, mindless, and pretty. And, OK, fine, I’m not too proud to admit it: those accents were music to the ears of this lifelong Anglophiliac.
I know, I know. I cannot easily explain why any British accent — no matter what its geographical or class-ical origins — strikes an aunt as more mellifluous than its American counterpart. Put it down to a kind of romantic disease or mental deficiency that, to my jaundiced ear, a British accent confers absolute authority upon the speaker and a kind of poetical interestingness upon the otherwise boring shit she is spaking. It’s not just me, either. Accent-fascination afflicts idiot Americans in droves. Advertisers are now using more Brits as pitchmen than ever before. There’s the Cockney lizard in the Geico commercials. Another Brit on TV is selling toilet paper in — I kid you not — a “let’s talk about your bum” campaign. She makes wiping your ass sound like the most magical pursuit a mortal could ever contemplate. An American dude in another ad I saw recently says, “if you don’t believe me, take it from this English guy drinking tea.” Cut to a pasty white dude in a tweed jacket who says, in a fake public school accent, “Product X is best or I don’t have a dry sense of humo[u]r!” Or words to that effect. I was like, yep, it kind of is more convincing when it comes through a stiff upper lip. I still didn’t want to switch to his phone company, though. The only torture more horrific than switching phone companies is going to the Whole Foods at 5th and Lamar on a Saturday.
So — back at Downton Abbey — it isn’t an excuse for my ethical lapse in giving the show a pass, but the whole accent thing (and of course Dame Maggie) may explain why an otherwise right-thinking aunt would turn a blind eye to the classist, sexist, genderist, racist, and stupidist plot lines of this mediocre soap opera for as long as she did.
Well, no more! I draw the line at the gratuitous raped-woman-as-plot-device. You get the sense that rapedness is supposed to add a little fillip of titillational suffering to the faithful servitor’s otherwise waning story arc.
Fellowes has defended the raped woman plot line by suggesting that such a “difficult” story can “take you to a helpful place in terms of self-analysis.” He appears to suggest that I should be deriving some kind of profound therapeutic value from Downton’s rape dramatization. But I wonder, what “helpful place” does he imagine I can get to from having watched a sympathetic character with whom I totally identify suffer a sudden, brutal sexual assault? Is the usual rage and revulsion elicited by the casual exploitation of rape-as-entertainment, not to mention the concomitant elicitation of shameful feelings of real-life powerlessness, supposed to be good for me now?
Fellowes appears to believe that he is entitled to sensitivity points because the rape itself is not depicted. No, you just see the rapist hitting Anna in the head and dragging her off, screaming, to a closet, and then you vividly hear the whole thing, and then you see her afterward all messed up, and then you’re like, oh mang, now there’s gonna be this whole shame thing with Mr Bates and she’ll have to keep this horrible secret and although you know in advance that in the end she’ll come through it OK with her unsinkable British resolve, who the hell wants to endure all that upsetting crap? The last thing an internet feminist feels like watching, after a depressing-ass day dealing with the copious sexisms afflicting the real world, is another goddam graphic rape presented in the context of entertainment. If it were, which it never is, there are countless rape-as-entertainment shows already on offer. Those shows don’t lie to you, at least. You know up front that Law & Order SVU is about raped women and sicko violence; unlike Downton Abbey, it doesn’t purport to be a harmless soap opera and then turn around and, out of the blue, violate you for no reason.
The job of a fluffy, meaningless divertissement like Downton Abbey is not to suddenly start pretending to take up an enlightened position on the global humanitarian crisis that is violence against women, or trying to pass off exploitation as some kind of philosophical gift to society. Its job is to add an extra little fillip of bland, rape-free confectionery to an aunt’s horse-manure-filled life.