Trigger warnings: rape, sexual abuse, sexual assault, racism
In addition, please note that this post contains MAJOR spoilers for the TV shows “Downton Abbey”, “Bates Motel” and “American Horror Story: Coven”.
Over the past three weeks I have averted my eyes from my TV and laptop screens three times. Once, during British period drama “Downton Abbey”, then whilst watching the pilot of thriller prequel “Bates Motel”, and then because of “American Horror Story: Coven”. In each of these shows, female characters were raped on screen. In one scene, a man was raped, too.
These three shows span across three very different genres, locations and time frames. We have a period drama set in 1920s Northern Yorkshire, England, a psychological thriller in Maine, USA, and a supernatural horror, set in contemporary time in New Orleans. Despite these differences, all three shows chose to use rape as a plot device. I couldn’t help but ask, why?
First, we can take a look at “Downton Abbey”. Anyone who knows me will know that I am a diehard “Downton” fan. I stayed with them when they killed off Sybil and Matthew and man, did it take all the strength I had in me. I was even dealing with that insipid cousin and the fact Thomas still doesn’t have a love interest. But last week they pushed it too far.
The character of Anna has long been a fan favourite. She is strong, she is intuitive and she is a warm, likable character. She has been a friend to Lady Mary after her husband’s death, a savior and shoulder to her husband Mr. Bates during his false imprisonment; hell, she even helped out Mosley in an episode this series and dammit, if I love that bumbling idiot. In last Sunday’s episode, we saw a servant from a different household come onto Anna; when he was inevitability turned down, he punched her in the face and then dragged her into a laundry room. The camera moved through the empty halls as we heard her screams. It was haunting and it brought me to tears. My family was silent, all the usual joking and laughter ceasing.
Next I bring us to “Bates Motel”, a prequel to Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho. It tells the story of how Norma and Norman Bates came to own their infamous hotel and Norman’s steps to becoming the serial killer Hitchcock creates in his film. In the first episode we see the previous owner of the hotel break into the house, handcuff Norma to the kitchen table and violently rape her. Unlike in “Downton”, the viewer is not taken away from the scene, but forced to encounter every horrific moment. In addition, Norman and his friend Emma are able to uncover and liberate a Chinese woman Jiao who has been sex trafficked and is held captive in the basement of a policeman’s house. The bruised, gaunt body of the woman is horrendous to see. Again, these images brought me to tears.
And then most recently, there was “American Horror Story: Coven”, the most horrific of all. The show focuses around a group of young witches and begins with Zoe Benson and her boyfriend having sex for the first time, which leads to him bleeding from every orifice. This should have been a clue; immediately the show sets up bad connotations with sex. Later, Madison Montgomery is drugged and then gang raped by a group of frat boys. The scene is blurry, reminiscent of Madison’s drugged state; dueled with the close up and sounds, the viewer is put into the shoes of Madison and it is truly horrendous. Madison uses her powers to have the boys’ getaway vehicle, a party bus, crash. All of the boys are killed except two, one being the instigator. Zoe rapes the boy in his hospital bed so that like the boy at the start of the episode, he bleeds out. One of the last images of the episode is Madison curled up naked and crying in the shower.
In “Bates Motel”, rape is used as a plot device that gets the story going. Norma kills her attacker and this has a knock on effect. Norma and Norman have to pull up the carpets in the motel to hide evidence, causing Norman to find a notebook in Chinese, leading to his discovery of Jiao. Now, the program is violent over all; men are burnt to death in the street, shot in the head, and run over by trucks, to name but a few gory details. The premise of the show is about the makings of Psycho - gore is expected and I wasn’t naive when I started watching the show. However, whilst men are targeted in the show as well, the violence towards the women in the show is always sexual (so far, of course). Norma is a strong, matriarchal character. Her attacker knows this, and that’s why he uses sexual violence against her. Jiao means beautiful in Chinese — and she is reduced to a gaunt, crumbling shell, raped and killed.
In “American Horror Story: Coven”, I can only assume the gang rape of Madison is to show ‘the woman/witch scorned’ in all her fury. Madison is a movie star and when she is first approached by her attacker, asks him, “Are you going to be my slave tonight?” He replies, ”And what do I get out of it?” She says: “Silly, slaves don’t get anything” — or something along those lines, anyway. (Sidebar: this conversation is totally inappropriate given that slavery and mutilation of black slaves by white masters is a major theme in the show.)
Anyway, despite the inappropriateness of this exchange, Madison has been set up as a strong, sexual female character. She knows she’s attractive, she knows she’s wanted and she owns it. I immediately liked her. The rape (and that final scene) show a spirit crushed, a woman broken. Did anyone else spot the Steubenville connections, too? The young, athletic boys videoing heinous crimes on their mobile phones? Too soon, if soon happens to be EVER. Zoe’s actions in revenge? There are no words. Her rape of Madison’s attacker makes her no better. Frankly, I was disgusted. How is this okay at all? All the writers manage to put across is the message, “HEY GUYS, SOMETIMES RAPE IS OKAY.” Rape is NEVER OKAY. Like never. Not only that it completely undermines Madison’s trauma, as we see her attacker bleed out in the most graphic manner; I didn’t feel like he got his just deserts. I never condone violence against anyone, but if there was anyone playing judge, jury and executioner it should have been Madison. In addition, it felt dangerously close to the recent case in India where a rapist was burnt alive. It just didn’t sit well with me.
In “Downton Abbey” it is the maid Anna Bates who is raped. Whilst the Crawley family and the servants enjoy an operatic performance upstairs, Anna, taken ill with a headache is seen downstairs cornered by Green, a visiting valet. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, finds Anna curled up, dress torn in her room and begs her to secrecy. Now, like I have previously mentioned, I am a “Downton” fan, but I really felt this storyline wasn’t needed. Anna was such a strong character and to see her brought down was truly horrible to see, especially considering Joanne Froggatt is such a tremendous actress.
In the following episode we see Anna utterly changed, recoiling from her husband’s touch and becoming a shell of herself. I know Julian Fellowes (the writer of the series) is one for the dramatic and is known for tackling the tough storylines (homosexuality, death through childbirth, just to name two) but it seems like he’s just charges through the user manual to getting audience reactions and not using Anna’s rape as a reason to explore and highlight issues in society that surround rape. In the newest episode Anna reels off that ‘she feels soiled’ and that she ‘isn’t good enough for Bates [her husband] anymore’, all realistic feelings and emotions, but it falls flat. The writing seems completely without thought and if it wasn’t for Frogatt’s acting abilities, I feel the scene would be utterly deplorable. Rape is such a horrendous thing to happen to anyone, but Fellowes successfully manages to steal lines from every other rape scene ever aired on TV and mash them together, making the scene cliche. It has shocked fans so much that there have been calls for a boycott.
So three shows, three genres, three very different premises, yet rape features prominently in them all. Why is this? Well, there are many reasons. I mentioned in a previous post about “Game of Thrones” using sexual aggression towards women as a way of reducing them so they feel devoid of worth. This is so very clear in Anna, Madison and Jiao’s reactions to their ordeals. It also seems to be used as a plot device to make women do unspeakable acts; Madison, by extension Zoe, and Norma murder their rapists… But wait, no, Madison and Zoe are already killers (Madison kills her director and Zoe accidentally kills her boyfriend, although she seems without remorse really) and Norma has nurtured a psycho. Do we really need sexual aggression towards women to be their catalyst for further deaths? If we are truly honest, rape plot lines have become a way of shocking viewers and writers love to shock. But rape is very real and it happens to men and women all the time. It ruins lives, it causes incredible suffering and should be dealt with using dignity. Have these shows done that? No. I only hope that someday, they will.