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.