11/15/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The "Scandal" And "Downton Abbey" Rape Scenes Are Problematic, But Not For The Reasons You Might Think

Warning: Life-altering spoilers for the most recent seasons of "Scandal" and "Downton Abbey" ahead.

Two of my favorite TV characters were raped this season. Mellie Grant last night (Nov. 14) on "Scandal" and Anna Bates on "Downton Abbey" earlier in October. As my viewing schedule would have it, I witnessed both episodes in almost rapid succession -- an unfortunate fact that rendered comparison of the two scenes inevitable. After much thought on both upsetting events, it seems to me there are two matrices upon which we ought to evaluate fictional rape: Does the portrayal allow for eventual empowerment of the victim? And is it "necessary" in terms of exposing the rape culture within which the act is entrenched?

In the realm of TV drama creation, rape never needs to happen. In terms of extreme plot points, fictional rape is similar to fictional death in that both contain the potential to significantly shake-up the show. The key difference lies in the fact that death often must happen (when a cast member leaves the project, for example), whereas having a character raped is a deliberate choice. Yet, used effectively, either can function as a paradigm shift in the moral landscape of the series.

Beyond that, fictional rape has the distinct ability to be dealt with in a positive and empowering manner. Neither "Scandal" nor "Downton," however, even closely enlisted advocacy in their depictions of sexual violence. Instead, both Mellie and Anna were portrayed as noble in keeping their terrible secrets to themselves (albeit for different reasons). No female should ever be shamed for the way she copes with an attack, but there is not valor in silence. Both story lines seemed to tacitly communicate the opposite idea: keep quiet to protect all the men who might have to deal with this. Neither rape was dealt with in a manner that valued recovery.

While it is possible to argue that Mellie's silence evidenced the prevalence of patriarchy (and her persisting desire to be a "good wife"), self-advocacy and the exposure of a patriarchal milieu are not mutually exclusive. Mellie's near-immediate decision to keep quiet was realistically imposed by desire to protect her husband, but it would have been much more effective if she were able to communicate her burden, despite the difficulties that would have evoked.

That said, at least Mellie's rape was, as Emily Nussbaum tweeted last night, "a melodramatic twist that makes perfect psychological sense." Watching the future first lady be violently taken advantage of by her own father-in-law bestowed the character with extreme sympathy and, in many ways, explained aspects of her disposition that may have otherwise been seen simply as flaws. It further succeeded in communicating the difficulties of womanhood -- especially successful womanhood that includes political aspirations -- in Mellie's (and our) social moment.

Anna's rape, on the other hand, was not only completely lacking in the plausibility of empowerment, but also completely ignored the subsequent realities of the event in her historical setting in favor of focusing effects of Anna's experience on the increasingly sympathetic character of Anna's husband, Mr. Bates. In terms of historical accuracy, it is fair to argue that Anna would have been essentially silenced by her position in society and it is not unrealistic that she would be upset by how the incident will make her husband feel. However, her reaction quickly took a backseat to Mr. Bates' distress, as the pathos almost instantly shifted to internal struggle over why his wife is upset in the first place.

When Bates finally does discover what happened, the focus turns to how he (and not Anna) will respond to the tragic event ... a revelation which leads him to explicitly threaten to murder Anna's rapist (and possibly end up doing so, though only the Christmas episode will tell if we are right to suspect him of that). As Holly Baxter put it in an essay for The Guardian, "Anna's rape was just a dramatic device intended to continue the narrative arc of her husband as a tragic hero."

The problem is not that Anna didn't go down to the local police station and have her rapist arrested. That would be about as absurd as her chasing him down in a flying car. But even in keeping with historically accuracy, there was no need to centralize Mr. Bates as the emotional focal point of Anna's severely traumatic experience. Ultimately, the issue is that Fellowes "wilfully failed to turn the Downton Abbey rape storyline into anything empowering or boundary-pushing." He managed to expose historically significant aspects of rape culture, but did so in a way that was further disempowering to the woman whose story he told.

There is, in both Anna's 20th century Britain and Mellie's presidential present, a culture of rape, which does not allow for adequate retaliation or healing after a woman has been attacked. Both "Downton Abbey" and "Scandal" reveal aspects of the social infrastructure, which is extremely troubling for women so grossly taken advantage of. Yet, both shows also place value on the silence of victims rather than hailing the merits of self-defense.

How much more powerful might these episodes have been if they allowed Mellie or Anna to be the "sole proprietor of her own body"? Rape is never a required story line; it is a deliberate choice by the writers, which should be just as deliberate as their decision to incorporate advocacy in story lines which encounter sexual violence.

"Downton Abbey"