Truth in Fiction (a lesson from Downton Abbey)


[This post contains a spoiler of season 4, episode 2.]

It’s become a Sunday night ritual to watch new episodes of the Masterpiece Theater program “Downton Abbey” in my home. We’re usually joined by a few siblings who don’t have cable too. We make snacks or get pizza and make a party of it. We gather ’round the tube together and watch the (typically) ridiculous exploits of high-brow British culture. (“I can’t go downstairs to dinner in this jacket! I’ll have to take my meal in my room.”)

In last night’s episode a main character, one of the heroines of the show, was raped. Search Twitter or Facebook and you’ll likely find an upset fan or two. She wasn’t just raped, though. She was targeted, led into a false sense of friendship, and then beaten. In modern language we would say she was the victim of a sexual predator.

It was disturbing to watch, even though nothing was shown in the program. I found myself unable to think about anything else as I climbed into bed last night. I began telling myself things you may have told yourself before too:

“It’s just a TV show.”

“That didn’t really happen.”

“No one actually hurt that woman. And she’s not a ‘real’ person anyway.”

If you’ve ever told yourself things like this then you might also know:  These sayings don’t work.

None of them worked. It didn’t matter that I knew the rape didn’t really happen. My feelings of loss, anger, and injustice were still there.

It occurs to me now that I was experiencing the power of fiction.

While the rape scene and the characters in it were not ‘real’ – rape is real. I don’t know what the stats are, but it’s easy to guess that huge numbers of women are raped across the world everyday. Also, the predatory nature of the rapist is real. Read any news outlet and you’ll find stories of sexual predators, people who spend their lives stalking others and taking advantage of them.

The TV show exposed me to reality through fictitious characters. That’s the power of fiction. That’s why the platitudes we tell ourselves in these situations fall flat. Because we know that even though the specific situation in the show (or book, or movie, or whatever) didn’t actually happen, we know that situations just like it happen all the time. Downton Abbey showed me what it looks like to be stalked and abused. I was ‘there’ with the character, helpless against the shame and injustice of her experience. Downton Abbey showed me a real thing last night – evil – through a fictional story.

Last night’s episode is a good one for writers to pay attention to. It’s an example of how to be a truth-teller through fiction. It’s also a good example of why fiction matters, why writers should continue to write great stories that aren’t ‘real.’ Because in the telling of them we can expose people to truth, perhaps in an even more affecting way.


10 thoughts on “Truth in Fiction (a lesson from Downton Abbey)

  1. Jessie Clemence

    An excellent post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Fiction is a great way to get a message across to many people who might not otherwise be interested in hearing it.

    I do struggle with the hard and painful subjects of life in my entertainment, though. I like it to be fun and light, and I save my difficult subjects for non-fiction.

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Jessie – I share your sentiments. After watching the episode last night I suggested to my wife that we start watching Downton on DVD. If there’s going to be heavy subjects in the show, then I don’t want to watch it right before going to bed… before starting a new work week… I prefer to watch light, fluffy entertainment at that time during the week. Downton is usually just that kind of show.

      1. Jessie Clemence

        I agree! I have a favorite author who usually writes light and wonderful things, but in one book he threw in a disturbing, violent rape and murder scene. I was completely unprepared and it took me weeks to get over it. I actually threw that book away. In the trash!

      2. Andrew Rogers Post author

        Wow! I guess that reaction is similar to my immediate response last night: “I’m never watching this again.” I later rescinded that to, “I’m considering not watching this show right before bed again…” ;-)

  2. Erin Bartels

    The number I have always heard is that one in three women will be sexually assaulted in some way during her lifetime–not necessarily raped, but be the victim of unwanted sexual advance or violence in some sense. I think you might be surprised to know how many people in your life have a story–a story that, like this character, they keep secret.

    I thought the show last night did an excellent job telling the truth about a difficult subject, and the writer did it by not protecting a favorite character. Writers often try to keep anything too bad from happening to their characters. But if there is no struggle, there is no story. Because the character in question had her original storyline from previous seasons resolved, there needed to be a new source of tension. Viewers want her to be happy, but the way to get people to continue to tune in is by keeping her from true happiness.

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Erin – I’m sure you’re right in all of this. I know that during the tense scenes someone I was with said, “C’mon Banks! Where are you?” We all wanted him to burst in and save the day. Obviously, that’s not reality. Had that happened, the story wouldn’t ring true.

  3. sarah

    I haven’t begun to watch D A yet, but you know where I am on these issues of violence against women. Hopefully that episode will wake up more people to not only the issue but the long term (life long) effects that victims have. I hope the writers are true to this issue in future episodes. But then, it IS fiction.


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