American audiences finally got to see what already so horribly shocked Downton Abbey fans across the pond on Sunday, and the reactions weren't pretty. When the beloved, ever reliable Anna was raped by visiting butler Mr. Green, audiences gasped in horror, and many were outraged at the decision. But Gareth Neame, the show's executive producer, was prepared for the backlash and more than willing to defend the decision.
"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," said Neame of the incident in his interview with TV Guide. Neame also said when the episode premiered in England, many people came out of the woodwork and said that they've known or have been someone who's had a similar experience. The show clearly took pains to be sensitive with the issue — Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, spoke with rape survivors in preparation for the story.
While the show may not have handled the issue perfectly — in light of Anna's rape, the last five minutes of the episode were a little clumsy — it clearly had its heart in the right place. And rape needs to stop being relegated to crime procedural shows and Lifetime movies, which tend to dramatize the issue in a formulaic way that doesn't invite viewers to identify or even engage with the victim.
Yes, it's hard to watch Anna being raped, especially since she's such an easy character to love. But that's kind of the point: it should be hard to watch. Rape doesn't always happen to nameless people in the newspaper. Every victim is an Anna to someone, and seeing it happen should never not be uncomfortable.
Downton Abbey now has two ways to let this storyline play out for the rest of the season — to play up the shock value to further introduce obstacles into Anna and Mr. Bate's relationship, or to see how this character whom audiences hold so dear has to deal with her rape in the 1920's.
Because as Neame explains, women had even fewer outlets and resources for help then than they do now. The show now has the unique position of not only being able to tell the story of a rape survivor, but also to show a period in time that was extremely difficult for women, especially rape survivors.
Sure, there's always a chance that Anna's rape will be used as an issue of scandal for Lord Grantham, like so many other shocking instances of the show have. But from the comments that Neame made, it seems that the show is less interested in that and more interested in seeing how these characters will react to such a universally sensitive issue in a time when women were frequently blamed for their own rapes.
Unfortunately, that attitude isn't one that's completely gone out of style. Hopefully, Downton Abbey will rise to the occasion and in doing so, teach audiences that decades-old attitudes can be harmful to people who deserve so much better.