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Arts & Culture

The Dark Side of Period Dramas

Professor’s Book Examines Depictions of Sexual Assault in Popular TV Series

By Sala Levin ’10

Still from “Bridgerton”

In her new book, “Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy,” Research Professor Julie Taddeo explores the depiction of sexual assault in popular series including “Bridgerton,” left, and “Outlander.”

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Watching “Downton Abbey,” the PBS series about British aristocrats and those who served them, was a lot like ordering the house-made Twinkie at a posh restaurant: a taste of unsophisticated, sugary fun dressed up in chic surroundings.

But a season 4 episode jolted fans out of their sweet affection for the drama, with the violent rape of beloved housemaid Anna Bates. The brutal event left viewers angry that a show that “treats missing tuxedo shirts as a major crisis,” as one Twitter user put it, would visit such a cruel crime upon one of its female characters.

The “Downton” rape wasn’t singular, though: In “Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy,” a new book out this month from Lexington Books, Julie Taddeo, research professor in the University of Maryland Department of History, explores how sexual assault has been depicted in a number of recent television shows, from “Outlander” to “Bridgerton” to “Poldark.”

Several years ago, Taddeo and her coauthor, Ulster University English lecturer Katherine Byrne, both dedicated fans of British historical shows, noticed a particular phenomenon. “Anything we watched had a rape narrative,” she said. Together, they began to examine how and why sexual assault had become such a routine plot device in their favorite genre, whether it was set in England, Germany or Australia.

Depicting sexual violence wasn’t entirely new to period dramas—the original BBC production of “Poldark,” in 1975, showed war hero Ross Poldark assaulting his former fiancée, Elizabeth, in a way that left many viewers wondering whether the incident might have been consensual. The 2015 version, Taddeo hoped, would correct the flaws of the original, but instead perpetuated a pernicious notion that a woman saying no “just has to be persuaded,” she said.

Of course, one reason sexual assault is so pervasive in these shows is that it was ever-present in the lives of real women. Marital rape was routine and legal, and courts were unlikely to convict any defendant of a sexual crime, in the rare event one made it to a courtroom—especially if the victim was anyone other than a wealthy white woman.

Centuries later, the “Me Too” movement was a watershed moment for how these series dealt with the topic, said Taddeo. Following allegations of sexual offenses against producer Harvey Weinstein, the creators of the time-travel historic romance/drama “Outlander”—so known for inflicting sexual violence upon characters that fans took to calling the show “Rapelander”—announced that they would reassess how they dealt with sexual assault. Indeed, Taddeo said, they next took a less graphic approach with assault: Instead of showing the crime, which took place in the backroom of an inn, the director focused on the amused reactions of the crowd that heard the woman’s cries, implicating them all with complicity.

It’s not always just about violence against women. Some shows, like “Outlander” and the regency-era romance “Bridgerton,” which returned for a second season on Friday, have depicted men as victims of sexual crimes. Those are acknowledgements that “consent works both ways,” said Taddeo. Other chapters touch in the ways in which rape is presented as a war crime, and against demographics often ignored by popular culture, like older women.

What does Taddeo most hope a series will take on next? “I am hoping for just one time, in one of these dramas, to allow the rape survivor to get justice in court,” she said. “Is it unrealistic? Maybe, but it’s also unrealistic to go through the stones and travel to the past (as in ‘Outlander’). So why can’t I have someone win a court case against her rapist?”

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College of Arts and Humanities

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