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Jan 29 2014

Done with Downton

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.

20 comments

  1. whalermeg

    That event was really the final straw for me. I seriously had a tradition of coming home, snuggling up with a blanket and a glass of wine to watch downton and let the stress of the day melt away. It was pretty and fluffy and I liked the characters. The two deaths of last season were just utterly senseless and I wasn’t really sure I’d even keep watching. But what they did to Anna is just awful and unnecessary and takes away the “watch to relax” aspect of the show.

    Also the other rape that went on in that episode where the evil maid got Branson drunk and took advantage of him…did not like how they dealt with that either.

  2. Ms Misantropia

    What really got me about the rape story-line is that the show is mostly concerned with the man’s/Mr Bates’ feelings and reactions afterwards – even the victim/Anna.

    The “violated” man needs to take off/pull away and get HIS (!) revenge (when he should really be all there for the victim). Anna’s violation and trauma is barely dealt with, all she is concerned with is if Mr Bates will be repulsed by her now, and if he’ll do something “crazy”. And once the revenge is carried out the man is relieved, the victim is suddenly no longer traumatized, everything goes back to normal and the story-line is “wrapped up”.

    Moral of story: Man’s helplessness, rage and sense of entitlement is more important than woman’s pain, fear, violation, degradation and shock. And: As soon as your rapist is killed/punished you will magically heal!

  3. ew_nc

    Yeah, Downton Abbey is a good way to dip your toe gently in the water. I too admit to chucking my sensibilities aside and gobbling the show up like a brownie sundae, at least for the first 3 seasons. Now I’m not so enchanted.

    One of the things that bugged me most about the Anna-rape story is that she couldn’t grieve and heal from it because she had to care-take her husband so he wouldn’t go all macho ape-shit and kill the rapist. Her pain was all about HIM, not her rape. And of course he won’t put his “I own your body” shit aside and decide to be there for her. No, he will inevitably find out who the guy was and scare poor Anna to death by trying to kill him. Way to be there for your wife.

    And alas, it looks like poor Lady Edith, who dared to have a career and have sex without the bonds of holy macaroni, will turn up pregnant and dumped. Of course. Who was she to think she could have an independent life?

  4. Amber

    Joan’s fiance raping her in MadMen is the only instance I can think of a television series handling the rape of one of its characters in a meaningful way. It’s a remarkably blunt scene, striking in just how banal the assault is without ever giving the impression that it is anything less than rape. The camera remains on Joan’s stoic face the entire time. She doesn’t fight or scream after her initial, clear objections. It doesn’t create any further drama or explicit consequences for any characters, although the implications for Joan are powerful and left for the viewer to carry.

    I don’t think MadMen is by any means a feminist show (quite the contrary), and I absolutely hate how they kick the shit out of Joan every time they want to make a point about how the midcentury was a different time for women. However, I thought that part of Joan’s arc was profound and handled very well, and an example of how sexual assault – a reality in women’s lives – can be a part of a female character’s arc without being gratuitous or seen entirely though the male gaze.

    (So thrilled to see your blogs again, Twisty!)

  5. Keri

    Oh bollocks! I had that in the DVR queue to watch after I catch up on Sherlock but now, delete. Sounds bloody awful.

    The way they say everything really is just better.

  6. Twisty

    @ew_nc I know! The rape is all about Mr Bates. That’s precisely a theme upon which I have no wish to divert the slightest fillip of attention. Apologists insist that Anna’s plight is “historically accurate” or whatever, but I say again, this is supposed to be entertainment, not “The History of Selfless Women’s Misery in Pre-War England.” I don’t need Downton Abbey to educate me on how rotten things were for women back in the day. It’s common knowledge. And even if it weren’t common knowledge, things are still rotten enough now that if I had any doubts, I could easily extrapolate.

    @Keri: Sherlock! I had some annoyance with that show, too, at the introduction of his bondage lady love interest. But then, accents. A blamer can’t catch a break.

  7. iorarua

    ‘…they killed off the only feminist character, Sybil’

    I thought at first that she was going to be the series token feminist character, as that’s the way it was sold to us at first, but as with virtually all token feminist characters, it turned out to be a false alarm. Feisty rebellion does not a feminist make.

    Over time, she dutifully conformed to routine passive female role stereotyping – e.g. she was ‘talked into’ falling in love with Irish socialist revolutionary guy (who didn’t end up being very socialist revolutionary at all – or even very Irish). She never proactively went after him, rather he did the usual traditional fictional hero’s ho-hum routine of wearing down her resistance to her feelings for him which traditional fictional heroines try their plucky little best to deny. Once Irish socialist revolutionary guy reeled her in, she immediately went into standard beatific masochism where-he-goes-I’ll -follow mode – mandatory behavior for all feisty fictional heroines who fall in lurrrve.

    And her deathbed scenes would never pass the Bechdel Test. I could think of a lot of things a feisty feminist facing death would want to talk about, but all SHE wanted to talk about was what a lovely bloke her husband was. If the series was serious about portraying her as a bona fide feminist, then the actress could have been written out of the series in a more feministy way, e.g. officially leaves home, goes off to university, travels the world, takes a job in London or Baghdad – whatever.

  8. ivyleaves

    I also enjoy Elementary, the other modern take on Sherlock. Still plenty to blame, of course. As for Downton, I never thought it was all that, even worse now, but I’ll take Dame Maggie anyway I can.

  9. speedbudget

    Lard, I wish the rape-as-plot-point-so-dudes-can-have-angst-and-shit trope would just go somewhere and die already.

  10. tinfoil hattie

    Sigh. There’s not a dang thing on TV anymore. I’ve watched Land Girls, Foyle’s War, Call the Midwife, and The London on Amazon Prime. I watched Wallander, Inspector British Guys at Oxford, and parts of Vera. I love love LOVE Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren.

    And as Speedbudget knows, my TV boyfriend and Secret Feminist Guilt is Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.

    It’s a desert out there, though. I’ve gone back to reading! Heaven forfend.

    Now I know not to bother with Downton. And BTW, it never was really made clear whether or not the saintly Mr. Bates murdered his first wife. I’m betting “yes.”

  11. Treefinger

    There’s probably not a blamer on this site who can’t relate to “the art of selective disregard as a means of intellectual survival in a hostile society”! Nice phrase. Catchy.

    “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.”

    There was a study done by some linguists (Giles & Trudgill, 1975) some years back, which involved Brits and Americans being played clips of 10 British accents and ranking them from “pleasant” to “least pleasant”. This was supposed to be a rebuttal to snooty Brits claiming that lower-class accents were objectively horrible. It worked: the Brits rated RP (Queen’s English) as most pleasant, Cockney as least pleasant, and the others in a consistent order that saw the posher accents near the top, while Americans rated Cockney and RP the best (the researchers thought this was because they had heard these accents more on TV) and put the others in a random order.

    I’m sure you didn’t need to hear about a study to know this, but it’s pretty funny as a British person with a “lower class” accent to know my voice would be seen as distinguished and upper-class abroad.

  12. Twisty

    ” I’ve gone back to reading! Heaven forfend.”

    You know that’s right.

  13. Linda

    I also put aside my radical feminist values in order to get into Downton. Surely there’s a selling point there for the series; even a few radical feminists can stomach this shit! But luckily I can enjoy and be in contempt of toxic patriarchal narratives, simultaneously.

    Bates in particular shits me to tears; the unfolding of his back story clearly revealed him as a domestic perpetrator of violence. Was I the only one to notice this? Or did I miss an episode where this issue was acknowledged and magically explained away?

  14. jojodunc

    I watched the first season faithfully, but quit during the second season when I realized that everything bad that had happened to anyone in England through World War I happened to someone at Downton, from white feathers to shell shock to the flu. I came back off and on during season three because I was curious — and again, those accents and Maggie Smith! But they lost me completely when they killed off Matthew. Just too soap-operish, and I found myself forgiving them for the sexist shit because “that was then.” So I have not been watching this season, and now I’m glad, given the Anna-rape story line.

  15. Ayla

    I must be a right anti-royal weirdo, but I found Maggie Smith’s character to be one of the most insufferable on the show. Her disgusting worship of her own elevated status and anti-American BS pretty much epitomized everything I despise about British royal culture. I kept hoping Sybil was going to give her along, pointed talking-to…. but we all know what happened there.

  16. Linda

    Ayla, pray tell, what is “anti- american BS”?

  17. ElizaN

    Tinfoilhattie, take a look at Bomb Girls. It’s about WWII factory workers in Canada. Some of the storylines seem derivative of Land Girls, but I still found it enjoyable.

  18. Serial Cereal

    Maggie Smith’s accent / royals = insufferable. Agree 100%. Can’t do Downton anymore.

  19. Ayla

    Apologies for the late response, Linda. I certainly hold no patriotism in my heart for the US, so it’s not that I want to defend “my country” or whatever. It’s just that British royals have exactly zero high ground from which to criticize other cultures.

  20. Mildred

    The only ‘feminist’ show I can watch when I’m feeling all vulnerable is BROAD CITY.
    I’d say the fact that it centers on a couple of 20-somethings in New York would preclude quite a lot of people from enjoying it but I love how it centers on the friendship between the two female characters, tonnes of gross-out comedy and comedy farce.

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