The XX Factor

Why Is Downton Abbey So Horrible to Its Female Characters?

Anna the lady’s maid joins the list of female characters who have been punished on Downton Abbey.

Courtesy of  Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited for Masterpiece

Downton Abbey has a long record of punishing women who dare to challenge convention. This week, Anna the lady’s maid was raped after she ignored her husband’s warning and was—gasp!—polite to a visiting valet. In previous seasons, Lady Sybil died in childbirth after marrying below her station; Lady Edith was dumped at the altar after choosing a husband her father didn’t approve of; and Cora, countess of Grantham, lost a male heir after she tried to undo a complicated legal arrangement that effectively disinherited her daughters.

Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who wrote this and every other episode, wasn’t coarse enough to suggest that Anna deserved to be sexually assaulted—not directly, at least—but the rape was a consequence of changing social standards. Typically, Mr. Green, Lord Gillingham’s valet, wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be alone with Anna, but Lord Grantham allowed the servants—even the kitchen staff—to attend a recital by Dame Nellie Melba at the climax of a weekend house party. “Before the war, they wouldn’t have been included,” expositioned Carson the butler, but Lord Grantham’s permissiveness meant that the usually bustling servants hall was deserted, allowing Green to force himself on the long-suffering Anna at a time when her screams wouldn’t be heard.

Anna had dared to ignore her husband’s intuition about Green. “There’s something about him that gets my goat,” Bates told her, but she mistook her husband’s unease for jealousy. Committed, as always, to the smooth running of the household (in the world of Downton, Anna is a saintly drip), she made small talk with the handsome young visitor and even encouraged him to teach the servants a raucous new card game, which caused them to scream with laughter, further upsetting the very proper Bates.

Like other women on Downton before her, Anna was punished for her choice of husband. “You’re not telling me that sad old cripple keeps you happy,” Green the rapist snarled before he slapped Anna across the face. “He keeps me very happy,” she told him, but Bates’ bad temper and his history of violence—he was found guilty of killing his first wife, though he narrowly managed to avoid being hanged for it, thanks to Anna—mean that she can’t report the assault. She knows that if he found out about it, he’d kill her attacker, and he couldn’t avoid the gallows a second time.

When the episode aired in Britain last fall, more than 200 people complained to the British media regulator about the rape scene. Fellowes responded by pointing out that every season, Downton subjects “a couple of characters to a very difficult situation [in order to generate] the emotions that come out of these traumas.” Why these characters are often women, he didn’t say, instead adding that he’s “interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage” that follow. That’s always been the show’s modus operandi: A woman loses a baby, sister, daughter, or husband, or is humiliated in front of her family and friends, and we get to watch her recover. Raping a beloved character is just latest of the show’s experiments in sadism.