Goodbye Forever, Downton Abbey: An Open Letter to Julian Fellowes (SPOILERS)

Dear Julian Fellowes,

From Season 1 of Downton Abbey, I’ve been a huge fan of your work. I didn’t sleep for several days as I worked my way through the season, obsessing over each episode. I even bought the published script and read every footnote. I wasn’t just a fan. I was an advocate.

From the very beginning, you got real with the social commentary. From the very beginning, you were fearless in your portrayal of controversy, class, and gender roles. Whenever someone wrote Downton off as another evening soap-opera, I made sure to correct the error of their uninformed ways. I watched you use Mary’s desire as a catalyst for two seasons, I watched you destroy Bates and Anna’s happiness with a secret marriage, I watched you kill Lavinia for the sake of plot convenience. I said nothing. I might have even applauded you for your efficient writing and self-sufficient plot lines. But deep down in my optimistic soul, I believed you were creating something more: literature, nay, art for the casual television screen.

Tonight I sat down to watch the newest episode of Downton Abbey online with my roommate. Tonight, before I got on with the rest of my studying, I needed a dose of Maggie Smith’s biting wit, a bit of Mrs. Hughes’ sass, maybe even another rebellious and careless act of revelry from Rose. But following complaints about last weeks’ “boring” plotlines, you responded with what one of your actor’s sickeningly and shamelessly refers to as “an exciting and bold risk:” a graphic rape of one of the most beloved and strong-willed female television characters of our time. What I got was unapologetic, senseless brutality. What I got was the usage of violence against women, not as a means of opening dialogue on an important issue, but as a means of sustaining ratings. Rape as a plot point. From the trailers, it would seem to be a plot point to fuel the decline of Anna and Bates’ marriage. I believed better of you, Julian Fellowes.

So, before I check out forever and you lose one more viewer due to your miscalculated publicity stunt, I want to make it clear why I will no longer be stalking Buzzfeed for the latest season trailer or quoting the Dowager Countess of Grantham in my cover photo. Immediately following the episode, I did some research on viewer response, on your response to these responses. I read all the disgusted tweets demanding a public apology for the sensationalist and unnecessary scene(s). What I saw instead was a fine-tuned, rehearsed claim that the scenes were “sensitively shot” (So what if you didn’t show the actual act?!) as you hid behind the feeble excuse that you issued a warning for “violent content” before the episode aired. I don’t know if you’re still trying to save face, or you’re just being ironic. But a warning for violent content is not the same thing as issuing a trigger warning for rape victims. And while I understand that would defeat the purpose by decreasing your shock value, I would’ve thought the mental and emotional well-being of your largely female, loyal viewing population (1 in 4, bitch) would be more important to you than spoiler alerts. Guess not. Yeah, still waiting for that apology, Julian.

But what bothers me most about this incident (and believe me watching Anna get repeatedly hit and brutally, realistically raped upset me plenty) is the sheer insufficiency of response. Every article I’ve read either takes the stance that this scene was inappropriate for the show because Downton Abbey is primarily sunshine, butterflies, missing cufflinks, and escapism OR that this scene was inappropriate because it was Anna that got raped, reactions which mirrored the dissatisfaction at Sybil or Matthew’s untimely deaths. To the first, I can only ask “Have you actually watched the show?” The whole World War I death and destruction thing? The childbirth deaths? The unrequited homoerotic love? To the second, your heart may be in the right place, but you’re equally guilty of treating this rape as a mere plot point.

So, Julian, I would’ve held my tongue had you brought this moment into the show as a means of opening up social acknowledgement and discussion on the horrors and prominence of sexual assault. But you didn’t. You shamelessly exploited and seriously over-stepped the mark. Society already does a sufficient job targeting and victimizing. Thanks for augmenting the problem!  And to those of you out there commenting on these other posts, telling viewers to grow the fuck up, to enjoy some well-written drama, and to stop mistaking fictional characters for real people, I have only this to say: Watching Anna be raped, watching Anna sob out of hysterical terror that people would find out, watching Anna wish her rapist a gracious good evening, was like watching the horrible situation of a friend unfold on national television. And while Anna feels like a friend, I don’t mean Anna. I mean my friends. I mean my acquaintances. I mean total strangers. Real people. And these real people deserve so much more when they turn on a television than the shameless and as of yet, unapologetic, appropriation of horrific tragedy as a means of boosting ratings.

So, goodbye Mary, goodbye Dowager Countess, goodbye Carson. I’ve sincerely enjoyed our three years together, but I won’t be seeing you again anytime soon. Take care, and watch out. Considering how many viewers you’ve lost this week, Julian, you might decide to go after them next. I wouldn’t advise it. THE DOWAGER COUNTESS DOES NOT APPROVE.

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6 responses to “Goodbye Forever, Downton Abbey: An Open Letter to Julian Fellowes (SPOILERS)

  1. Oh no. I read the whole thing. I’m in the US. We won’t see it till January. Was not expecting that as I carelessly perused your post on my beloved Downton…Traumatized…

  2. As a rape victim myself, I was also uncomfortable with the rape scene and how it unfolded.. It made me worry that more harmful stereotypes are being reinforced yet again about rape victims. I wonder if Julian Fellowes did any research on rape victims and the real trauma they experience.
    However, I did give the next few episodes a chance and so far I am glad I did. Rape is something horrible that ca haunt victims for a lifetime. And it is often only ever depicted on screen to grab ratings but in this case, Julian Fellowes has depicted rape as a crime that indeed often occurred in the past. Unfortunately, it is simply another part of reality for 1 out of 4 girls and women on earth. And part of me is glad rape is being depicted from the victims point of view.. It sheds light on the emotional difficulty of coming to terms with the violation and it shows the inevitable harmful impact rape has on the victims’ other relationships as well.
    Spoiler warning:
    As a rape victim myself.. I feel that Anna was far more lucky than I was. I didn’t have anyone supportive to confide in.. and the only ones whose remarks I was surrounded with were chauvinistic abusive males who only furthered the damaging false belief that women deserve rape simply because they are female.. and that all rape victims are nothing but trash that should be thrown away.. I suffered for a long time because those remarks were drilled into me everyday along with further cruel violence. . However.. little by little, I’ve discovered the truth.. and I have escaped from the chains of psychological abuse, rape, sexual abuse, and violence. I may never be truly healed but I am still standing tall and proud today because I know that I am not the one to blame. Watching Bates’ supportive and protective reaction to Anna’s rape was so heartwarming. He said the things I wish someone would have said to me during my time of anguish. I felt very emotional.. But happy for Anna’s character. I believe that Julian Fellowes has done far more than use rape as a plot device.. And so far (I’ve seen until episode 5 only).. But so far, I am content with his writing. And I will continue to watch this series. Just my two cents..

    • Thank you so much for your honest, eloquent, and astute comments. I sincerely agree that the shame surrounding rape stems from silence. Thus, I am ashamed to admit that I became so caught up in the traumatic memories and emotions which the scene triggered for me personally that I forgot how powerful and positive the portrayal of a situation can be in the hands of an empathetic writer. Fortunately, due to your insightful and brave comments, I overcame my fear and indignation and returned once more to Downton Abbey last night. I witnessed Anna’s narrative unfold with a compassionate discernment that humbled me, empowered me, validated me, and quite honestly, reduced me to tears. In my own small way, I wanted silence. I not only enabled it, I advocated for it. To enter into a world of entertainment and fantasy with certain expectations and assumptions and to emerge from that same world having encountered the brutal truth of a nightmarish reality diminished my count of safe havens by one. But as Fellowes himself acknowledges in giving a powerful and assertive voice to Anna, not only as a victim reduced to her experience but as a complex human being, “There will be no end to it. Ever.” Safety, even within fictional worlds, is a comforting illusion. But the exploration of Anna’s emotional journey and the passionate defense of her blamelessness by her friends, her employers, and her husband is a concrete reality. One that makes a great deal of difference simply by existing as a voice of support and acknowledgment in the echoing, incriminating silence. Reading your comments, your words, your experiences, devastated me. But they also healed me, restored my ability to hope, and revived the courage to confront unfortunate brutality without succumbing to the despair so often inspired by the reactions of others. No one should ever have to experience what you have experienced: to be victimized both by violent actions and by violent words seems too cruel even for our imperfect world. But it is an experience so frequent, so imbedded and so tangible in every single day that I forgot for one moment to hope for something better. I forgot to hope for Bates’ declaration of love and anguish, I forgot to hope for Mrs. Hughes’ confrontation and accusation of Mr. Green, I forgot to hope for Mary’s discretion and call to action. But you rose above your discomfort and fear to allow for the possibility of change, never allowing past media portrayals to influence your judgment of Fellowes’ plots and intentions until they fully revealed themselves. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you inspired me with your words and I am grateful that you shared with me the opportunity to hear encouragement and support speaking through well-beloved voices, that although fictional, express the loving views of very real people.

  3. Also.. The other reason why I am more or less okay with the subject being addressed is because rape in general is a topic where the shame of it brings about silence. There should be shame involved.. But only for the actual perpetrators, for the rapista who actually committed the crime. Rape victims deserve no shame because they are never to blame.. Rape is never deserved by anyone. Babies, the elderly, an men are also raped. A woman’s clothing or past relationship history, where she is, who she is with, how much she has had to drink, whether or not she is married to the perpetrator or not.. All of that has nothing to do with the fact that the rapist committed the crime. Rape discussed constructively needs to stop being off limits because apparently there are far too many people in society who do not se to understand what rape actually is.. Many boys and men are growing up with the perverse and twisted notion that rape and de are one and the same.. They are learning about rape from twisted sources like pornography.. As well as the media which continually glamorizes perpetrators of sexual violence against women and portrays women as mere objects. Men and boys, who are responsible for 99% of rapes, (although some women do exist as well.) need real education on what rape really is and the damage it does to others. Downton Abbey’s portrayal of the situation was not perfect or flawless by far.. But it does seem to try to focus on the victim’s emotional and psychological side. And considering the fact that no one can truly understand rape unless that person has actually experienced it.. It is, for me, forgiveable. Although I think it is excellent that so many people have broke the silence and spoke up about how they feel.. In the past nobody would dare say anything.. But nowadays, at least victims and other sensitive caring people are not afraid to say they aren’t okay with it. And I think that’s a great step in the right direction already.
    Thank you for your insightful post and for sharing your feelings about this sensitive topic!

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