Spoiler alert: if you have not seen Episode 2 of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, you may not want to keep reading… Or you may.
Blogs and friends have been crying out "Why Anna?" since this week's episode of Downton Abbey. Why must Anna be raped? Why has Julian Fellowes cruelly done this to her (and us)? They feel he is using sexual violence as a plot device and manipulating his audience in a way that is unacceptable, insensitive, historically unlikely, offensive, or sensational.
I don't disagree that I felt manipulated Sunday night, but that's hardly a new experience with Downton--it was Season 1 when O'Brien put the bar of soap on the floor to cause a miscarriage. Sensational violence has been a part of the show all along.
But as I felt my own dread building on Sunday night when I realized what was coming, I thought about all the violence I see on TV and in the media daily and ignore. Why do I not find it offensive to see a character commit a murder?
Rape has a special taboo. You could say that because rape is so personal and intimate, it is in a special category and "tasteful" art doesn't include it; or at least that mainstream drama shouldn't go there because of the powerful response it can inspire in the viewer.
But in a modern world where 60% of rapes are not reported to the police, and 98% of rapists don't spend a single day in jail, doesn't that just reinforce the taboos that prevent women (and men) who are raped from seeking help and justice? I deliberately avoid TV shows that feature sexual violence, so don't feel like rape is over-used as a dramatic device. I found Sunday's episode shocking.
Why Anna? Why anyone? But dramatically, why not Anna? Why not remind the world that rape doesn't just happen to people who are not close to our hearts?
Anna was raped by someone she knew. She is afraid of telling anyone because she fears she will lose her marriage and her security. She was raped even though she's nice, everyone likes her, and she wasn't doing something perceived by society as being risky. She was raped even though she's already had enough bad stuff happen to her that it seems like she should be getting a break--not more trauma.
That sounds entirely plausible. And incredibly tragic. If only sexual violence were rare, sensational, and came when we knew we needed to be emotionally prepared.
I'm sorry for people who felt traumatized by Sunday's Downton episode, and very sympathetic. I know what it's like to get blindsided by an image of violence when I was least expecting it that left me in a full-blown panic attack.
But I hope there are a few more conversations because of it about rape survivors seeking healing, telling their stories, and seeking justice. Art (and I would include Downton as art) is meant to move us, to inspire us, and to change us. It hopes to affect our hearts and even our actions. I pray that may be so--for the better--from this.