The Trouble with Mrs. Hughes
*Spoiler alert: this post contains specific, spoilerific details about season 4 of Downton Abbey, which finished airing in the U.S. this month.
This is the first of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.
Before I begin my comments on Season 4 of “Downton Abbey,” I would just like to take a moment to acknowledge that sometimes I think I’m a little crazy to keep watching after the train wreck that was Season 3 (or, for that matter, the train wreck that was season 2), but also that in many ways, Season 4 was better-written than the show has been for quite some time, in terms of the writers’ ability to keep a storyline going for more than one episode. For whatever reason, I don’t seem to be able to quit the show. There’s just something about that damn piano and violin motif that provokes a pavlovian response in me. It’s like that duh-duh sound on “Law and Order.” I’m hooked.
This season started, of course, with one of the most controversial and upsetting events in Downton history, when Anna was raped by the valet of a guest. I am not going to dwell on the scene itself, nor am I going to go into its effects on Anna, or how it was a cheap shot to use a rape to “liven up” the Anna-Bates plotline, which had apparently gotten boring (because, you know, happy married life is totes boring). Instead, I am primarily going to focus on how the depiction of Anna’s rape emphasized seemingly unrelated figurative language that threatened violence against other women on the show, and how the application of that language to the beloved housekeeper Mrs. Hughes normalizes the idea of violence against women.
One of my favorite characters on “Downton Abbey” in previous seasons, Mrs. Hughes has always been the voice of reason, the problem solver, the one who shows mercy when Carson has been too strict. As this season has shown more than ever before, she’s the one you go to when you have a problem you can’t tell anyone else (though she might tell everyone for you). And perhaps most of all, she is the moral center of the show, which makes some of the language given to her this season particularly dangerous, especially considering that, for a short time, Mrs. Hughes was the only person who knew what happened to Anna.
Mrs. Hughes’s questionable language begins as a result of a second instance of nonconsensual sex on the show. At the end of the same episode as Anna’s rape, Edna, another lady’s maid, disappears into Branson’s bedroom after she had been plying him with drinks all evening. Before I remembered that I was watching a dubiously scripted soap opera, I thought for a moment that “Downton Abbey” might be sophisticated enough to compare and explore two different instances of rape. Silly me. Instead of the show depicting what happened to Branson as rape, it turned out just to be a set-up for Mrs. Hughes to tell Edna off for the viewers’ entertainment.
What was supposed to have been (and which was so for many viewers) a satisfying show-down had an unpleasant and deeply problematic tone. In calling Edna’s bluff about being pregnant with Branson’s child, Mrs. Hughes threatens to call the doctor and have Edna examined. When Edna protests that Mrs. Hughes “can’t force” her to submit to the examination, Mrs. Hughes snaps, “Oh, yes, I can. First I’ll lock you in this room, then when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down if that’s what it takes.” The threat of tearing Edna’s clothes off and forcibly restraining her while a doctor performs an exam would have been disturbingly suggestive of rape even if Anna had not herself just been attacked, but placing this language so close to the scene of Anna’s attack seems either to be deliberately in reference to the attack or appallingly thoughtless. Further, this language suggests that some women “deserve” such treatment even if others don’t. While I am certainly not defending Edna’s actions—which, again, I see as rape—the fact is that the show, while acknowledging that Edna was not “seduced,” as she tried to claim, does not seem to be drawing a parallel between Branson and Anna. Instead, the show’s version of the story is that Branson made an error in judgment involving a scheming, promiscuous woman who keeps a birth-control manual in her room, and the audience is encouraged to cheer on Mrs. Hughes’s sexually-suggestive, violent threat.
This type of linguistic slippage occurs again in episode 6, when a disillusioned Ivy returns to Downton after Jimmy, in typical date-rape fashion, has claimed Ivy “owes” him after he has paid for several trips to the theater and movies. When Ivy tells Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes that Alfred would never have treated her that way, Daisy lashes out at Ivy for ignoring Alfred while he was at Downton. Ivy seems confused by Daisy’s outburst, but Mrs. Hughes tells Ivy, “you had it coming.” While Mrs. Hughes was presumably referring to Daisy’s reaction, the similarity to Jimmy’s sentiments—that Ivy should have expected the dates to come with a “price”—implies that Mrs. Hughes’s could also mean Ivy “had it coming” in terms of Jimmy’s advances.
These two incidents are much less prominent, of course, than the way that Mrs. Hughes essentially takes control of the discourse surrounding Anna’s rape. Despite Anna’s insistence that Mrs. Hughes tell no one about the incident, Mrs. Hughes proceeds to tell several people. While it is clear that Mrs. Hughes is trying to help Anna, it was dismaying as a viewer to see Anna’s ability to tell her own story taken away from her, multiple times. And of course it’s Mrs. Hughes who discovers evidence that implies Bates murdered the man who raped Anna, which allows her to control the discourse around Bates’s actions as well. She even tells Lady Mary about the ticket in Bates’s pocket, for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to convince Mary, and by extension the audience, that Bates’s actions—which involve, in addition to MURDER, repeatedly questioning Anna’s behavior toward Green prior to the rape, stalking Anna after the rape, hovering creepily in the shadows waiting for her, and badgering her to tell him something she isn’t willing or ready to discuss—are justified. It’s understandable, because of course, it’s really all about him, not Anna.
If these incidents had been distributed among various characters, there may have been a different effect. But because they were all associated with Mrs. Hughes and situated in emotional scenes clearly designed to invoke in the viewer a feeling of triumph in response to Mrs. Hughes’s words, the overall effect naturalizes and encourages social policing of women’s bodies, emotions, and decisions.