Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault.
I am obsessed with the show “Downton Abbey,” as everyone should be. I didn’t know I’d be so caught up in a period drama that was only supposed to be a one-off miniseries, but it’s ripe with gorgeous scenery and interesting characters. The show includes the etiquette, thoughts, and feelings of that era, all of which I take a great interest in.
But that doesn’t mean the show is free of problems. (Spoilers ahead.)
One of those situations occurs early in the first season of the show. The show begins with drama regarding who will be the heir of the estate. The lord of the estate has three fathers and no male heirs; his eldest daughter, Mary, needs to marry the next male in succession so she will be Countess of Grantham.
However, a young solicitor visits Downton and brings a Turkish diplomat with him. Mary shows some interest in the Turk, Mr. Pamuk. Early in the afternoon, Pamuk kisses Mary against her will. She resists and pushes him away, and she is very obviously taken aback by this turn of events. Pamuk then asks if he can come to her room that evening, to which she responds with a very firm “No!”
Thomas, an under butler, is smitten with Pamuk and tries to caress him while the diplomat prepares for bed. Pamuk slaps his hand away and blackmails him with a devious plan: Thomas is forced to lead Pamuk to Mary’s room that evening.
When Pamuk arrives in Lady Mary’s room, she immediately jumps from her bed, covering herself (though she has a full nightgown on) with a blanket for protection. It’s clear by her face she is sincerely scared and she pleads with him, “Please leave at once or I’ll…”
“Or you’ll what?” He threatens—in a very nonchalant way, acknowledging he is in the alpha position here.
“No, you won’t.” He practically laughs, walking towards her menacingly. He knows most people would believe that she was the one to invite him to her room, as Thomas is self-serving and wouldn’t give himself up by admitting he was the one to take Pamuk to Mary’s room.
“I’ll ring the bell then.” She steps back, eyes still full of fear, but he advances on her.
“Will you really let them find a man in your room?” There’s no hint of friendly seduction here; the banter isn’t playful, or coy. Instead, Pamuk looks like a true predator, cornering his prey—letting her know he absolutely has the upper hand. The only way Pamuk will leave willingly is if she succumbs.
He advances on her more and begins kissing her neck; the shot is behind Pamuk, full on Mary’s face. She’s wide eyed and still afraid. This isn’t someone being seduced; this is someone being coerced into a situation she wants nothing of. Pamuk pushes her on her bed; she is still trying to protest. He shushes her with a finger on her lips. She’s still shaking her head no as he does this.
He guarantees her virginity by having sex with her a “different way”. After countless versions of no and different protests, Mary knows she is cornered and must fall victim to Pamuk.
Let’s be clear: this is not consent.
And the most horrifying part is that things like this still happen today. Later in that scene, Pamuk suffers a heart attack and dies in Mary’s arms, leaving Mary to ask for the help of her maid, Anna, and her mother, to bring Pamuk’s body back to his room rather than allowing him to be found in hers.
Mary’s mother asks if Pamuk forced Mary to have sex with him.
As viewers, we know that he did. What happened between the two of them was coercion; it was not consent. Yet Mary no. I’d like to say Mary, in that situation, was influenced by the era. After all, back then, women were viewed as conquests for men. She, like many others at this time (and some people nowadays, sadly), took the mention of “force” to also include violence, like being beating and held down during the act. Because Pamuk didn’t hold Mary down, or beat her, Mary felt she hadn’t been “forced” to do anything.
But she did. And, in the show, Mary must then endure this “stain” on her for the rest of her life. It’s used against her several times, including when the story is sold to a tabloid owner. This is an obvious form of victim shaming (where victims are often blamed for their own sexual assault) but it wasn’t seen this way during this age.
We can obviously view what happened and know what happened to Mary was wrong. After all, it’s been more than 100 years since 1912, and we are able to recognize Mary did not give her consent. We recognize Pamuk forced a kiss on her. He forced his way into her room. He did not obey her wishes to be left alone countless times. He regarded her as a challenge and raped her.
And yet, I have seen “Downtown Abbey” fans dissent regarding this, thinking that Mary’s initial interest in Pamuk is what speaks the loudest, or her answer to her mother about whether or not she was forced is more telling than the actual scene. Had we not gotten the actual scenes of the kiss and the subsequent breaking into her room then perhaps I would believe this; but we are given direct evidence of Mary’s fear, of her saying no over and over and finally falling victim to him when it’s clear he will not leave without taking what he wants.
These quiet scenes that depict rape in the media can be damaging, and also contribute to rape culture. (Rape culture is an overarching attitude in which rape and sexual violence are made to seem “normal” through prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and—yep—depictions in the media.)
I would have liked to have gotten more of a narrative from the writers stating that it was rape, but I hope viewers can see it when they watch the episodes. Mary is shamed enough about it in the show, considering the era and subsequent storylines, but we are viewers in the 2010s, and should be able to recognize what does and doesn’t constitute as consent. Today, we need to realize that anyone saying no isn’t an invitation for coercion; a fleeting interest isn’t an invitation for sex.
Photo credit FanPop.com.