On Reign, Rape And Sexual Assault As Plot Device

On Reign, Rape And Sexual Assault As Plot Device
 

Let me start by saying that Reign is a great show. I started watching during the break between seasons one and two and haven't turned back since. In a lot of ways,Reign is typical CW fare: pretty people's pretty problems, but in others, it's a very progressive and feminist look (even if wildly historically inaccurate) at the life of one of history's most notorious and fascinating women.

One of the show's biggest strengths is that Reign deals quite openly with the struggles that women faced at the time; from their inability to own property to their inability to guide the very direction of their lives. The show expertly demonstrates how the show's female characters find ways to move through a world that refuses them power or autonomy. Because of this, I'm very surprised and disappointed that the show chose to have its title character violently raped as a way to advance the plot.

I am not as plugged into this show's online fandom as I am with other shows that I watch, so I was not aware that the details of this particular plot had leaked online a few months ago, and consequently did not see it coming. I will admit that even as it happened, I thought Mary might escape. After all, this would hardly be the first time that Mary has been under threat of rape in the show. Additionally, Reign had previously tackled rape (poorly) when Catherine de Medici, Mary's mother-in-law, admitted that she had been gang-raped as a child in a season one episode. A petition started back in October to persuade the showrunners not to go through with the storyline nicely sums up many of my issues with this episode:

 

Many of us have come to love this show for its portrayal of strong female characters and the unflinchingly feminine light it shines on the dynamics and pitfalls of power in a world that is dominated by men. Much of the series has focused on Mary's womanhood and how she has learned to utilize it, manipulate and weaponize it, even as the outside world has looked upon it as her greatest weakness. After persevering through so much adversity and triumphing over those who have fought so hard to silence her, to have her suffer through this violent assault sends the message that the world will only punish--crushingly and humiliatingly--those women who dare to assert their places within it. It is a message jarringly out of tune with everything we have come to admire about this series, and it has no place in a show geared toward young women who dream of a future in which they may rise without fear of retribution at the hands of men.

As with the HBO drama Game of Thrones the argument can certainly be made that the threat of rape is a historically accurate concern for women of the time. But Reign makes no pretense at accuracy and never has; this rape is a fictional concoction inserted into the story solely to create controversy and advance the plot. They cannot even hide behind the defense that they simply bungled the retelling of a true story.

This development is also particularly jarring considering the context of the rest of the episode and the tone of the show in general. Mary and her four ladies have dealt with the conflicts of finding love and honouring their duty to marry well and ensure the financial future of their country and families. In this episode, Francis' younger sister Claude spends most of the episode plotting to purposely destroy her reputation in order to prevent her mother from marrying her off. Claude refuses to stop fighting for autonomy even as she remains caught between the needs of the crown to create a political alliance, her mother's desire to get her out of the castle and her own desire to remain young, free and in control of her own destiny.

When Mary proposes a Protestant suitor for Claude in an effort to help quell the growing religious unrest in France, and reminds her that Francis can compel the marriage if he chooses, Claude defiantly declares to both Mary and her mother:

"Tell the king, my brother, that I'm not a brood mare to be bartered and sold. By any of you!"

Clearly, the show is no stranger to the themes of female empowerment, independence and the struggles of retaining either in such a strictly patriarchal society. And this brings us to Mary's rape. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly that went live last night, Reign showrunner Laurie McCarthy essentially confirms that Mary was brutalized as a way to advance the plot:

 

It really started from the end of last season when we made the choice to have Francis kill his father. Even though it was a righteous action, I always felt like it would be something that just had to haunt him, and we obviously played that in many different iterations. But it really felt like it should be something that should haunt his rule as well. It seemed like something that he couldn’t tell Mary, that he wouldn’t tell Mary, and then we looked at, “What if the wrong person found out and he became a compromised king and it made him make choices that he wouldn’t otherwise have made?” And then since we’re playing the civil unrest in the nation, which is historically accurate, we thought, “What could be one of the worst things that could happen that would really affect the person he loves the most?” And that’s Mary. So we looked at it originally through the prism of Francis, and then we looked at it through the prism of Mary, and I couldn’t imagine any other character—other than Catherine—who could experience something like this and that we would be able to then take on a journey of healing, somebody who could truly rise above this but who also would be in the worst possible situation to have something like this happen to her as a queen, as a woman, as a new wife.

Reign raped Mary to punish Francis. Reign raped Mary to motivate Francis. Reign came as close to fridging its own main character as it is possible to do without actually killing her.

I have been vaguely cognizant of how much Mary had been sidelined this season in favour of Francis dealing with the repercussions of murdering his father last season, but seeing as avoiding charges of treason seemed like a fairly realistic concern given the situation, I didn't think much of it. But to now know that strong, independent, star of the show Mary, Queen of Scots was brutally raped as a way to better raise the stakes for her husband's actions and deepen his guilt, makes the situation completely unacceptable.

Once again, we're left with a woman whose sexuality is demeaned as a way to diminish the men around her. Once again, her terror, pain and suffering is used as a bargaining chip between the men who actually hold power and those who seek to take it. Once again, a brilliant woman is reduced to the act of violence that is committed against her.

What upsets me most about this scene is that even in the aftermath, the show demonstrates that it deeply understands the politics that make this scene in such poor taste, making the choice even more infuriating. When Catherine finds Mary running through the halls after she manages to get free, she takes her into her chambers and asks her point blanks if she has been raped. When Mary collapses in tears, Catherine offers a rousing speech of support:

 

I know you don't want to be touched. That's all right. But you're safe. I don't know how you managed to escape but you did. You are alive. You will survive this. I know this, because I survived, you know that. They tried to destroy you by taking your pride and your strength but those things cannot be taken, not from you. Not ever. We're going to change your clothes, fix your hair, erase any mark of their hands on you. We are. We are going to do this for you and for Francis and for Scotland and for France. They tried to diminish a King tonight by degrading a Queen and they will not succeed because the world will never know what they did to you. It is, because you will walk out of here and you will face your court as if this never happened. Yes, you can. You have to. Mary your guards saw you. You must put to rest any rumours immediately. These next moments of your life will either define you as a victim or a powerful Queen untouched by a failed assassination attempt. They will define who you are perceived to be. Your place in history. Do not let them win. Trust me. Trust me and let me help you. Trust that I can get you through this because I swear to you that I can.

But even here there are problems. Even as Catherine seeks to support Mary in her most vulnerable moment, she also encourages her to bottle up her emotions, to lie about her trauma and to pretend it never happened. TVLine's Eleni Armenakis said it best:

 

What could possibly be gained from this? More strife between Mary and Francis as Francis copes with the guilt that his wife was raped while he was murdering an innocent man—and not, as she thinks, pleading with the Vatican for religious tolerance? It would be another failing on Reign’s part to turn an attack on Mary into yet another crisis for her husband.

Does it make Mary a stronger, harder queen? She already was—and reducing her to a crumpled, crying ball on Catherine’s floor only undercuts that. Powerful speeches that force her to hide both her inward pain and her outward bruises don’t make her strong. They make her yet another woman who’s learned to keep things like this hidden so she won’t be seen as less than. For a series that has done so much for young women, this is one “lesson” they don’t need to hear again.

Reign failed big time with this episode and undid much of what made this show so progressive to begin with. It took a show and a character defined by her independence and willingness to push back against social mores in order to do what is best for her people and herself and reduced her to a pawn in her husband's story. It's unforgivable, but especially from a show that made a point early on of celebrating female sexuality and sexual liberation. To turn around and use that sexuality as a weapon against its own protagonist even after being begged by the show's fans not to do so is something I'm not sure it can bounce back from.

Rape is a very real and very traumatic event that millions of women are forced to deal with everyday. Reducing it to a plot point that doesn't even serve to further the assaulted woman's story is reprehensible and using said plot to reinforce the code of silence that surrounds sexual assault as a means of reclaiming strength is a damaging precedent to set for a show with such a young audience.