Amid the hustle, bustle and period melodrama of Downton Abbey this year, one thread stands out as particularly problematic: the rape of lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). What makes her assault so difficult isn’t the crime itself — although it felt as out of place in the normally placid series as Mr. Pamuk’s death-by-seduction in the first season — but its aftermath, and the character the show has emphasized as a result.
From the viewpoint of Downton Abbey, the person who suffered most wasn’t Anna, but her husband Bates (Brendan Coyle). At first, she tries to hide the attack to protect him from whatever calamities he’d cause seeking revenge, which leads to almost two full episodes focusing on Bates as the victim of circumstance, with Anna harangued for not telling him the truth.
Worse yet, when Bates learns of the attack, he blames himself for not being there to defend her or being man enough to magically prevent it from happening. Anna, in response, wants to put the whole thing behind them and start afresh, as if it were simply a mild disagreement that she wishes to pretend never happened.
Throughout comic-book fandom, there’s a term known as fridging, which refers to the practice of doing something horrific or tragic to a female character with the sole objective of causing an emotional reaction from the male lead of a storyline. (The term itself comes from a Green Lantern storyline in which the hero discovers his dead girlfriend’s body in a refrigerator. Subtlety was not a priority.)
In this season of Downton Abbey, the entire rape storyline is one long, slow, continual fridging of Anna, seemingly for the sole purpose of providing Bates inner conflict. While there are those who defend the treatment of the subject as being period- and class-appropriate, I’m unsure whether that feels enough of a justification for a show made today.
A plot line from the recently-released second season of Netflix’s House of Cards crystalizes these concerns about Downton‘s shortcomings. In the second episode, we discover that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) was raped while in college. The revelation comes when she meets her attacker at an event in which he is to be honored by her husband, the newly-installed vice president.
Initially, it appears as if House of Cards is heading down the same route as Downton; Claire tells Frank (Kevin Spacey) that her attacker is present, and he immediately jumps into alpha male mode, smashing a light in frustration at her refusal to allow him revenge. Later that same episode, however, Claire confronts Frank about the exchange. “You think I don’t want to smash things?” she asks him, adding “I know what that anger is, more than you can imagine.”
After recounting her experience, she talks about the way in which she deals with the memory. “Every time I think of her, pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis, so she doesn’t strangle me,” she explains. “I have to. We have to. The alternative is — it’s unlivable.” When Frank prepares to leave the room, she adds, “You’ll still feel the hate in the morning. You’ll use that. But not on him.”
That one scene makes Claire the center of her own story in a way that Downton never allows Anna, while also setting the scene for Claire’s outing of her attacker later in the series, another event that emphasizes Claire’s ownership of her experience, with Frank explicitly placed in the scene as an onlooker unable to effect events at all.
For a series so obsessed with power and power exchange, perhaps it’s unsurprising that House of Cards manages to avoid the pitfalls that Downton Abbey couldn’t.