Getting Downton and dirty

More of this
More of this

And lo it came to pass that (not for the first time), I indirectly made the dizzy heights of the Daily Mail, having tweeted in typically less than eloquent fashion about the distressing scenes of sexual violence present in the plot of last night’s Downton Abbey. At this point I should probably insert a spoiler alert, particularly as I am aware that I have a regular American readership who have not had the current series screened over there yet, but it seems unnecessary because Downton Abbey has already been spoiled, by the addition of a sensationalist and unwholesome plot line involving a brutal rape.

Admittedly since the last series, Downton Abbey has been in serious danger of becoming a pastiche of itself, which is half of the pleasure of watching. We know that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, the plot is hackneyed, the script is riotously dire, redeemed only by the Dowager Countess’s screamingly acerbic one-liners and yet despite the achingly self-conscious critique from certain quarters of the self-appointed cognoscenti, the British and American public are lapping it up, precisely because of its over-the-top self-indulgence. Sunday night TV has not been so much fun, nor so eagerly anticipated since the the heyday of the sadly demised Spitting Image.

The problem for the scriptwriters is that four series into the show, with almost ten years having elapsed in the lives of the Crawley family, the plot has reset back to zero and there are only so many dramas one particular character can endure without the whole thing becoming ridiculously far-fetched, which is why Downton Abbey has now moved beyond its original description of serious period drama, to 1920s soap-opera. By last week it was clear that Downtown was the equivalent of Neighbours only with finer sets and a more imaginative and opulent wardrobe, the narrative was light-hearted, predictable and yet still wholly engaging.

The appeal is obvious, Downton is the Upstairs Downstairs of our era, a vehicle of pure escapism, depicting a whole other world, where people still bothered to get dressed for dinner, where manners, respect and social etiquette still existed and the class system was not brushed under the carpet, nor was being working class deemed anything to be ashamed of. Whether or not it bore a strict resemblance to the era was irrelevant to most of us. We enjoyed it for what it was. A soap opera mainly revolving around posh people and their wholesome domestic staff. That was the entire point.

Until last night. Perhaps what was so shocking was not the sexual violence itself, which was not graphically shown, demonstrating once again that the portrayal of sex on TV does not need to be explicit, the imagination is always far more powerful than the reality, but the physical and emotional darkness. In a disturbing and clever piece of cinematography, the rape scenes consisting of a savage punch to the face, Anna being dragged down a dark silent corridor and her screams going unheard, were juxtaposed with those of Nellie Melba played by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing exquisitely to a rapt audience, the brutality of the sexual assault thrown into sharp relief by the refinery of the drawing room.

We didn’t need to see precisely what had taken place, we knew and how many of us were sat white-knuckled literally gripping the arms of our sofas, willing or (and in the case of my husband) physically shouting at Bates, or just anyone to get up, go to the kitchen and disturb the assault taking place before it could get any worse. It was reminiscent of the terrible scene in Schindler’s list where the Nazi commander Amon Goeth, played so chillingly by Ralph Fiennes, begins to sexually force himself upon his Jewish housemaid and on that occasion drew back. If only the same thing could have happened, if only Anna and we the audience, could have been spared.

The devil was in the detail, the bruised face, the dishevelled hair, ripped uniform, tears, snot and convincing performance by Joanne Frogatt were incredibly disturbing and there’s no doubt that the scene will have proved traumatic to victims of rape. This was more akin to the gritty and iconic rape of Kathy Beale by the equally dastardly and charming Rupert Wilmott-Brown in Eastenders, than a fluffy Sunday night period drama.

Less of this
Less of this

Sadly we missed the generic warning of violence which apparently came before the show, tuning in time for the credits, but after a gruelling week, both physically and emotionally, I was looking forward to my Sunday night visual equivalent of a comfort blanket, not a show that would depict rape violence. Maybe the uncharacteristic warning at the beginning of the show could have alerted us that something was up, after all Downton’s normal fisticuffs doesn’t usuallymerit such treatment, perhaps with hindsight it was obvious where the story was leading and perhaps that serves as a useful device to help us identify with Anna, a usual reaction by victims of rape is to think “how could I not see that coming” but the fault always lies with the rapist.

But one has to ask, what was the entire point of the plot? To get viewers to realise how awful rape is? It’s difficult to see where the storyline can go from here, there are hints that Anna is pregnant, she was seen taking a headache remedy prior to the attack, is she going to attempt to procure a backstreet abortion, will there be rows about paternity, or will Bates and the rest of the staff find out and the inevitable victim-blaming occur? In a situation such as this in 1920, victim-blaming would certainly have been the norm and more likely than not her attacker wouldn’t have been a visiting valet but a member of the aristocracy who would have felt that a quick grope or more was well within his rights.

I just can’t see it ending well at all, what resolution can there be, particularly as we know that Lord Gillingham is going to make subsequent appearances presumably with his valet in the series due to his burgeoning affair with Lady Mary. The rape did nothing more than to further the plot, to sour one of the most heart lifting and genuinely loving relationships in the show. One wonders whether Fellowes has a particular dislike of young married couples, no sooner do we have a young stable pair, then something comes along to chuck a spanner in the works.

Rape is a subject which requires delicate and sensitive handling and should not be used as a plot device in order to cynically maintain ratings. There is very little that we have to learn from Anna’s response to her attack and subsequent decision not to report the crime, aside from despondently noting that perhaps attitudes have not changed much, or on the other hand, noting how much they have – would work colleagues in 2013 really be complicit in the cover-up of a seriously violent assault and rape of a female? I guess one could argue it either way, depending on one’s view of today’s supposed underlying patriarchy, but whatever the answer, grappling with the dynamics of violent sexual assault is not everyone’s idea of entertainment, and not I suspect, what given the demographic of the average viewer of Downton Abbey, would wish to see.

Molesley may have protested that wearing the pristine mandatory white starched gloves of a footman was beneath his dignity, but they provided a welcome contrast from the bare and grubby hands of the rapist.

Downton just turned dirty, dank, dismal and depressing and disloyal to its core audience. Series 4 is a little late to go all Forsyte Saga on us. I do hope it gets better, trouble is rape is not the kind of storyline one can just brush-off or ignore. The sepia tones are beginning to look just that little bit sickly.

Blaming and shaming

The feminist left-wing blogger, It’s Mother’s Work, wrote a thought-provoking piece about “victim-blaming” in the case of rape, in which she posits the campaign from the Welsh police anti-rape campaign which features this poster, seeks to put the blame for rape upon victims as opposed to perpetrators.

Eamon Holmes inadvertently stumbled into this row this week, with his comments to a rape victim during an interview on yesterday’s This Morning, during which he asked “why were you tempted to walk home”  and concluded with “well I hope you take taxis now”.

There’s now been a flurry of complaints into ITV as a result of Holme’s “misogynistic victim blaming.” This was an interview, therefore Holmes, in common with all interviewers was attempting to empathise with his interviewee. He wasn’t saying the attack was the woman’s fault, but acknowledging the unpleasant and unsavoury fact that, women tend to be more at risk from sexual assault than men. On the whole women are more physically vulnerable than men, I was in the CCF at school, I’ve completed several self-defence courses and yet I know that on a dark night if a man stole up behind me, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Generally speaking women are more likely to be the object of sexually related violence from random strangers, than men, which is one of the factors that renders the issue of male rape so taboo and one of the reasons why so many instances of it go unreported.

There can be no justification for rape and Its Mother’s Work is correct when she states that young men need to be educated to respect women and as Alison noted in her post, featured in the Telegraph this week, we need to have a serious think about the effects of pornography upon our young people. Education may only go so far however.  Education is not mooted as a solution for the crime of murder, we know that motivations of murderers are far more complex than a simple unawareness that what they are doing is immoral and that they ought not to be doing it.

Rape is equally psychologically complex. The cases of premeditated stranger rape are fortunately rare, but they do happen. There are some psychologically damaged individuals out there, who are determined to perpetrate atrocious crimes, the products of a broken or twisted psyche. For some people it really is a case of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like it or not, people walking on their own late at night are more vulnerable to attack. Both men and women walking alone are likely to be targeted by those with malign intentions, for a variety of reasons, be they racist, homophobic or sexist. For the attacker who is bent on attacking a person of a different colour, or targeting a homosexual, or raping a woman, there are a variety of factors that will determine whether or not a particular person will be that particular victim, one of which will be how easy it will be for the attacker. A rapist is far less likely to pick on a group of women walking down the street, or a woman accompanied by a friend, than he is a single woman on her own. Her location and the preponderance of passers-by will also play a factor, as will things like street lighting, CCTV and cars passing. It is not blaming a woman who is targeted in this fashion, to note that a woman walking on her own is vulnerable to attack. This is not a new phenomenon, twas always thus. Women in seventeenth century London, frequently dressed up as men when going about their business in the city, not to make any specific point about gender, but because it was safer, they were less likely to be accosted.

Most men who are guilty of rape however,  have not deliberately set out with the intention of having sex with a woman without her consent. Alcohol is usually a factor in cases of rape, the heady and intoxicating nature of alcohol blurs boundaries, renders one less risk averse and makes signals more difficult to interpret and communicate. There is no doubt that being on your own and drunk dramatically increases your vulnerability and thus susceptibility to unwelcome sexual advances, you may not be able to understand what is implicit until it is too late, or perhaps more pertinently you might not be able to adequately physically defend yourself.

In either situation, there is a way to mitigate risk, in the first case, by individuals endeavouring not to walk alone at night, or if they have absolutely no other choice, to put in place various safety measures. In the second case, it is wise for women who don’t want to risk an uninvited sexual encounter to which they can neither consent nor defend themselves, to be prudent about drinking in certain situations.

That is not to say that cases of rape will dramatically decrease, but it certainly will diminish an individual’s risk of attack. The Welsh police campaign was not seeking to cast blame on a woman, its slogan explicitly mentions the word “victim” which is an acknowledgement of that rape is an uninvited crime. It does not seek to blame, but to ask women to take responsibility for their own personal safety. In an ideal world, rape would not exist, along with a whole host of other crimes. In an ideal world, I would be able to leave my house unlocked, or my children fast asleep in bed whilst I popped down the road for a drink, but we don’t live in such a world. We have to engage with the world as it is, instead of how we would like it to be.

Eamon Holmes was trying to get into the psyche of his interviewee, he clearly felt that a woman walking alone at night following a night out was taking a risk and so asked her as to the factors that led to this decision. He wasn’t saying “it was your fault, you deserved it”, just wondering what it was that prompted her to take a risk. No decision in life comes without risk and we can learn lessons from others’ experiences without resorting to blame. Stating “well I hope you take taxis now”, is not blaming the victim for the horrifying assault, but more the statement of a concerned other. There may be an implied “well had you been walking home this may not have happened to you”, but that is not the same as stating that the girl was responsible for or invited her attack. It’s a statement of fact. Had the young woman not been walking home alone, she may not have been attacked in this way. It does not render the attack her fault, nor lessens the severity of it, but is a salutary lesson in safety.

Whilst we shouldn’t be living in a climate of fear and no-one is suggesting that women should neither go out, nor have a drink, it is not unreasonable to state that we all bear a level of individual responsibility. Had the woman not being walking alone, then she would have removed the factor that facilitated the rapist. Of course she should have been able to have been walking alone at whatever time she liked, just as I should be able to leave my house very obviously unlocked, but that’s not the world in which we live.

Rather than getting into a futile war of victimhood and wasting our energies bemoaning the fact we do not live in Utopia, or casting all men into the role of potential rapists and seeing a misogyny, which in this instance is not present, why not take steps to acknowledge that some activities are risky and take steps to neutralise the risk? Eamon Holmes and the Welsh police are not wrong to point out that there are ways of staying safer. There are no guarantees that the taxi-driver won’t turn out to be a rapist, or that staying sober will protect you from sexual attack and neither should women be eying every man up with suspicion, however wisdom and personal responsibility surely have to play their part, as they do in every single situation in life.

A consequence of walking home alone at night means that one is more vulnerable to attack. A consequence of getting drunk means that one might end up being raped, or being accused of rape. Why do women need to be absolved of the responsibility of the potential consequences of their actions more than men? Doesn’t seem very equal to me.