Ofcom: No action against Downton Abbey for rape storyline

The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom is not taking action against Downton Abbey over the rape storyline which caused so much controversy last month. The regulator has said their decision comes after “careful assessment… because [the 244 complaints] did not raise issues warranting investigation.”

Downton Abbey

The scene in question occurred in the third episode of the fourth series of Downton Abbey. The housemaid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), who is sweet natured and loved by viewers the world over, was attacked and raped by a guest’s valet (portrayed by Nigel Harman) in a scene that caught us all completely off guard. Ofcom began receiving complaints shortly after the episode aired on 6 October.

Now I’m a fan of the show. I watch every week and the scene in question did shock and upset me. But it’s not like Downton Abbey is set in a parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t exist. Men were far more likely to get away with rape back in the 1920s, and considering these days blame is so often placed on the victim, now is as good a time as any to bring it up.

Many of those who complained felt that Downton Abbey is supposed to be a form of escapism, filled with romances, scones and backhanded compliments, but sexual abuse is not the first topical and sensitive subject the show has covered, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Spoilers ahead! In the three seasons prior there have been the following: A man throwing himself at Lady Mary Crawley and dying in her bed, Mr Bates being accused of murdering his wife and sentenced to death by hanging, Sybil Crawley dying in one of the most traumatic child births seen on screen, Thomas Barrow having his hand shot during the Great War in order to be discharged from duty, Matthew Crawley getting paralysed, a disfigured war veteran turning up and claiming to be the Crawley’s long lost cousin, and the blameless Lavinia Swire dying suddenly of Spanish influenza.

Why is it we are desensitized to the violence, death, sickness and other injustices which befall the residents of Downton Abbey, but we draw the line at sexual abuse? Surely it’s better to raise awareness of rape culture and help people understand why it is wrong, rather than pretend it never happens?

Or are we to take a leaf out of the aristocratic Crawley’s book and push the topic under the rug?

Ofcom says there isn’t an issue to investigate because: the episode was aired after the 9pm watershed, a warning was put out at the start of the episode alerting the 12 million who tuned in to the upsetting scenes ahead, and the attack itself wasn’t shown in explicit detail. Julian Fellowes very cleverly implied it was occurring without actually showing anything on screen.

“Downton deals in subjecting a couple of characters per series to a very difficult situation and you get the emotions that come out of these traumas,” Fellowes told the BBC recently.

I’m not sure difficult quite covers the extremity of Anna’s situation, but he makes his point.

The conclusion to the fourth series of Downton Abbey airs Sunday 10 November.

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