Downton Rapey?

Posted by Charles Reece, March 8, 2013 10:08am | Post a Comment
downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary
Lady Mary Crawley

The porn debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic views of the purpose of law in society. The first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law should protect choice. "A woman's body, a woman's right" applies to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The law should come into play only when a woman initiates force or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which both conservatives and anti-porn feminists subscribe, is that law should protect virtue. It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of public morality, or a breach of "women's class interests.
-- Wendy McElroy, "A Feminist Defense of Pornography"

I recently watched the French documentary Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism, which contains interviews with women who participate in and/or support what you'd think based on the title. One of the main points Virginie Despentes makes with her film is that much of the antagonism the sex trade continues to face is rooted in an old fashioned patriarchal control of women's bodies. It's as if the entire familial tradition would crumble if women were allowed to do with their bodies what they want, giving sex away for free or for cash. This same notion can be seen in pop culture in the way rape tends to be seen as the worst thing that one can do to a fictional female victim, not murder. The contamination of a woman's body, the violation of her "virtue" is too evil to face, rather just kill her and get it over with. And, despite how much I love the subgenre, the same might be said of rape-revenge films, even those with an ostensible feminist message (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave), as if the moral equation balances out with the quid pro quo of rape and murderous vengeance. But the feminist view here (at least the right one) is that a woman shouldn't have virtue forced on her, solely defined by others to have her live as they see fit. This is McElroy's quoted distinction in the two views of law, which accurately places certain feminists on the side of traditional conservatives.

Concern for social constraints is, of course, the central dramatic structure of Downton Abbey. The appeal of the "period piece" mostly comes down to modern audiences feeling secure in no longer subscribing to such otiose moralisms while feeling bad for the poor wretches having to live in those unenlightened times. I became fascinated by the show's minimalist, opiated approach to soap opera. The issues that come up are barely issues at all ("we're going to lose Downton and have to move into a smaller estate!"). Something happens to a character; out of decorum that character fears telling anyone; the secret is revealed anyway, but the resolution is that no one particularly cares. That's pretty much the show, methadone for people trying to ween themselves off of melodrama (and period pieces, for that matter). So I was surprised to discover that I'd dozed through the show's depiction of a vicious rape scene. ... Or that's what passed for obvious on some blogs that I read after disputing the issue with Sean Michael Robinson.

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 pamuk
Kemal Pamuk

Rather than go quote-for-quote with these other blogs (search for 'Downton Abbey' and 'rape', e.g., here and here), I'm just going to offer my  own reading of the scene in question: Series 1, Episode 3, beginning at 27:00. Kemal Pamuk, a Turkish diplomat is brought to Downton for a visit with the Crawleys by mutual friend Evelyn Napier, during which he aggressively pursues the Lady Mary, visits her bedroom and doesn't take 'no' for a final answer, only to die of a heart attack during the throes of passion. I suspect most people read the show the way it was intended, as a young woman giving in to her desire when given a secretive opportunity, and not as a radical justification of rape, or an example of socalled "rape culture" (which is a tawdry rhetorical term meant to shut up any possible objections, i.e., you don't see this as rape, because you've been rape enculturated). The rape thesis is dependent on reading fear into Mary's face, not granting any subtext to her use of 'no' and her supposed inability to cry out for help. As this blog should indicate, I don't have a general problem with ideological and/or counterintuitive readings (I love them, in fact), but I do when they're demonstrably wrong. So this will be a defense of commonsense (what the show explicitly provides), because sometimes that's exactly what's called for. Covering each of the three points in turn:

Instead of fear, I, like many others, registered her face as one of shock at Pamuk's advances and worry at being publicly shamed should she act on her desires and be discovered. With only a frame, it's ambiguous:

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary neck kissed

She protests: "You and my parents have something in common. You believe I'm much more of a rebel than I am." But the scene doesn't stop here, there's a continuity of images with movements, actions and reactions, such as this:

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary enjoys neck kiss

I don't think there's much ambiguity there. That is not fear, nor the learned helplessness of some traumatized bunny. However, for the literally minded, she does say among her pants, "now, please go." But Japanese pink cinema this ain't: she wants what Pamuk is offering (which may or may not be coitus -- the show leaves it to our imagination), so the two fall to the bed, even though Mary continues: "I'm not what you think I am. If it's my mistake … if I've led you on, then I'm sorry, but … I'm not …."

downton abbey series 1 episode 3  mary pamuk bed

They begin to kiss more and Mary asks, "won't it hurt? Is it safe?" Pamuk answers, "trust me," and the scene ends with a passionate embrace:

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary pamuk embrace

The intent, however one might wish to read the look of her face in a few frames, is quite clearly that she's not afraid and is actually desirous of Pamuk's advances. So why say, "no"? This gets back to the quote that I began with. This is the law, or the collection of social constraints, speaking through Mary, because that's what's expected of her. She's not the rebel of the family -- that would be her youngest sister, Sybil, who runs off with a Marxist chauffeur and publishes radical suffragette pamphlets. The scene wouldn't work the same way with her, since she wouldn't be attracted to this asshole and would've told him to go fuck himself. No, Mary is the oldest sister, concerned with upholding the traditions of Downton and the aristocracy (which makes her an asshole, too). But the girl still has desires, society or no society, and is, in fact, envious of Sybil's freedom, which she makes explicit in the Christmas special for series 2: "Sybil's the strong one. She really doesn't care what people think, but I'm afraid I do." Mary is supposed to say certain things and is supposed to like certain types of guys. Her dramatic conflicts are rooted in the character trait 'dutiful', of which 'concern for virtue' is a distinctive feature. So no matter how much she might want to have sex, she's not supposed to explicitly express that.

And what of Pamuk, the cad? In a world where his potential love interests -- the class of women he's allowed to be interested in -- aren't allowed to be literal and explicit in their desires, he has to apply some subtextual criticism. This situation, where a lady is surrounded by acceptable suitors competing for her attention is seen earlier in the episode when Mary is surrounded like a fox in a hunt by Pamuk, Evelyn and Matthew. It's a genteel version of a wolf pack, so there's a reason why Pamuk attracts Mary's attention instead of his politely docile competitors, you know? He's better at reading the women in his environment than others. He knows that Mary is expected to say no to his advances, or as he says to her: "You are just what I think you are." The audience is supposed to prefer Matthew because he's the liberalized bourgeois substitute -- not the capitalist thuggery of Sir Richard Carlisle (whom Mary almost marries for reasons of duty), but enough of a modern democrat to bridge the gap between aristocratic ways and contemporary beliefs.

As the show increasingly liberalizes the Crawleys over the three series (acceptance of Sybil's Marxist husband, acceptance of homosexuality, being amazingly tolerant of any questionable choices the staff makes, etc.), it becomes more of a white washed apologetic for what was in reality an odious social arrangement. At least, in series 1, when the butt of all the jokes is Matthew and his mother, there's a hint as to what kind of family we're supposed to find sympathetic and likable in this representation. This class of people was raised to be assholes, was attracted to other assholes and generally behaved like assholes. Pretending otherwise is where the show really becomes immoral (if one insists on treating the show as if it's making a serious commentary about reality). If anything, it's Mary's eventual attraction to Matthew that's forced on her. That's what should be protested.

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary crying

So why would Mary not cry out if she were truly fearful? The other view suggests that she's concerned with her virtue and how it might be socially tarnished if it were discovered that a man was in her room (even if uninvited). But it's pretty clear from the show that Mary's parents always support their daughter (e.g., upon learning of the whole Pamuk affair in the Christmas special, Papa Crawley says he'd rather have his daughter endure a scandal than be unhappily married to that capitalist scoundrel, Sir Richard), so what evidence is there that Mary wouldn't have cried out if she were truly in fear of Pamuk? I submit: none. But the real clincher comes when Cara (her mother) asks, "did he force himself on you?" Mary pauses for a second, looks off to the side at her housemaid Anna as if she wants to lie, but reluctantly shakes her head no. If protecting the semblance of virtue from her parents was so important that she wouldn't yell for help when being raped, why would she then go on to lie about the rape to her mother, which would only make it seem as if Mary willingly threw away said semblance? The only rationale that makes sense here is that she didn't originally cry out before the sexual encounter because she didn't want to. Her only fear was that of being discovered, which is exactly her focus when talking to Cara about moving Pamuk's corpse back to his room.

Finally, there are Mary's reactions after Pamuk's body is back in his room:

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 anna consoles mary

Where Anna consoles a distraught Mary who says while weeping, "he was so beautiful." That doesn't exactly sound like PTSD, does it? Or what about her reaction to Eveyln's summation of Pamuk: "Actually, he was a terribly nice fellow." (See, all assholes.) Reminded of those supposed qualities (and no accounting for taste), Mary begins to uncontrollably sob:

downton abbey series 1 episode 3 mary crying

Evelyn asks, "perhaps you saw his qualities for yourself?" Mary can't talk and runs up the stairs to her room. Eveyln pretty much spoonfeeds the audience what the show has set up: "Which obviously … you did." But, if there's some lingering ambiguity to all of this, Mary clears it up when talking to Matthew about the Pamuk affair in series 2's Christmas special: "It was lust, Matthew! Or a need for excitement … or for something in him that I … oh God, what difference does it make?"

To ignore all of that and treat Mary's 'no' as a true indication of her desire is tantamount to subscribing to the conservatives and anti-porn feminists' conflation of social prohibitions with a woman's inner-life. It's also a really thickheaded approach to a TV show.


Downton Abbey
, Series 1, 2 and 3

Relevant Tags

Mutantes (1), Wendy Mcelroy (1), Downton Abbey (1), Feminism (18)