'Poldark': Steamy PBS Period Piece or Rape Fantasy?

Last night American viewers finally caught up to Britain’s latest pop culture crisis when they tuned into Masterpiece Theater’s Poldark. For those of you who have yet to view last night’s episode, stop reading now. Or, if you’re anything like me, keep reading, then call out sick to view the episode and decide for yourself whether or not the love scene between the very married Ross Poldark and the widowed Elizabeth constitutes what some Britons are calling a “rape fantasy”:

“The Poldark ‘rape’ scene would not be out of place in a porn film – a strong man who knows what must be done and a woman who apparently resists but wants it really,” Sarah Green, a spokeswoman for the End Violence Against Women campaign group, told TIME. “Ideas like this are underneath lots of excuses for not believing women when they report rape.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the series (where have you been?) but still interested in the dilemma that is modern consensual sex, here’s a bit of important context most “rape fantasy” proponents tend to leave out of the discussion. The hit British drama series set in 18th century Cornwall is based on a series of books by the same name authored in the late 1940s. The current series is actually a remake of an intensely popular televised version released in the 1970s. Is your head spinning? It should be when you realize that what constitutes “rape” in the 21st century is not what legally or politically constituted rape in the 70s, let alone over 200 years ago. With the ever-increasingly stressful demands for “safe spaces” and apps created to suit the need to document that a sexual encounter was consensual, any sex on screen is up for debate.

This dispute centers on the moment Ross pins Elizabeth to her bed. That action alone seems to constitute critics’ rape accusations. However, what they fail to take into account is the rest of the scene (and season) leading up to that infamous moment. Critics make no mention of the fact that Elizabeth clearly knew Ross was the one kicking in her front door in the middle of the night; that she intentionally did not lock her bedroom door; that she willingly escorted him into her bedroom. No 18th century woman would ever consider doing such things, knowing full well what the implication would be, rumored or otherwise. Critics also ignore the moment when Elizabeth approaches Ross, practically planting herself onto him while asking, “What do you expect of me, 30 years of widowhood and loneliness? Can you offer me anything else? Do you?

Actress Heida Reed who portrays Elizabeth explained that the writers consulted with both she and Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, on how the scene should be portrayed. They mutually agreed that the scene would be motivated by Ross and Elizabeth’s unrequited love, a feeling Elizabeth directly expressed to Ross earlier in the season. They also ignore the many times the newly widowed Elizabeth clings to Ross to the point that she is warned by her own sister-in-law to stay away from the married man. An observation from Madame de Stael, a real-life contemporary to the fictional Poldark clan, explains Elizabeth precisely: “The desire of the man,” she opined, “is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.”

Modern critics, swathed in fifty shades of dialogue about violent sex, fraternity rapes and redefining the meaning of “consensual” were so quick to defend the woman in the scene that they managed to completely ignore her. The round character of Elizabeth was flattened under the weight of impersonal, theoretical, trendy critique. Asserting that she was raped makes her the fictional equivalent of an inanimate blow up doll. The real insult of these supposedly well-meaning critics isn’t that they accused Ross Poldark, the show’s hero, of being a rapist; it is that they ignored the powerful role Elizabeth plays altogether. Where is the feminism in that?