[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.