#NoRapeOnReign: When Sexual Violence Is a Plot Device

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 5.49.43 PMAs someone who has always been a sucker for historical fiction in television (The Tudors, anyone?), I couldn’t help but be drawn in when a friend put me on to CW’s Reign, a fictionalized teen drama that follows the early life of Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century.

I quickly came to appreciate the show for its portrayals of complex women characters, especially in a starkly patriarchal era when prospects for women were bleak. Mary was independent-minded at a time when that was unacceptable, and she refused to be silenced by sexist social mores. I’m grateful for a TV show that brings her story to life. TV can always use more shows for teens featuring empowered women protagonists, and Reign even passes the Bechdel Test.

Reign has built up a very vocal fandom among its young (and older) women viewers, with Tumblrs and Twitter feeds dedicated to discussing all things Reign. So when a major spoiler leaked that Mary, played by Adelaide Kane, would be violently raped in an upcoming episode—seemingly just to advance a subplot—the backlash was immediate. Devotees of Reign, who identify themselves as “Royals,” voiced their outrage and disappointment at such a sensationalist plot twist, feeling it would only serve to erase Mary’s autonomy:

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Several fans even launched an online petition urging for the script to be rewritten and for the rape episode to never air. As of right now, the petition has surpassed its original goal of 1,000 signatures. It reads:

In a show where so many characters and their stories vie for screen time, there is almost no way of treating this issue with the sensitivity and gravity that it deserves. To reduce it to something that serves as a plot device … is irresponsible and disrespectful to those many women whose lives have been devastated by sexual assault.

Reign fan Anne Theriault opined in her feminist blog, The Belle Jar:

Rape as a plot device is a lazy way to show a strong woman’s “vulnerability,”… to take female characters down a peg, to put them in their place, to force them to rely on men for protection. … I am disgusted that the writers and producers of Reign would use sexual assault to somehow drive the arc of the show forward or reshape Mary’s character. There is absolutely no reason to show Mary being violently raped.

Reign has already proven that it doesn’t handle sexual assault with the carefulness such a topic merits. In an early episode of the first season, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France and Mary’s nemesis, reveals that she was gang-raped in her youth while being held hostage by soldiers. The only purpose of this bombshell seemed to be courting compassion and intrigue for Catherine’s cold-hearted character, because the rape is merely touched on at the end of the episode and then never explored again. Rape isn’t something that can be wrapped up nicely in a character arc; it haunts women for the rest of their lives.

Story lines involving rape are nothing new; they seem to be a popular go-to for moving plots along. Many of the dramas popular now employ this strategy: Game of Thrones, Scandal, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Revenge, the list goes on. Not to mention that there is almost always an eroticism played out in these rape scenes, thus fetishizing sexual violence.

In these shows, rape is rarely used as a platform to discuss sexual assault in a critical and thought-provoking way. Shows like Veronica Mars or Law and Order: SVU have been much better in dealing with rape culture and the larger social context of sexual assault, but they are rare.

If rape is used primarily to move a story along or explain a woman character’s “complexity,” it can desensitize the audience to real-life sexual violence—a crime that affects one in six American women. Mary is a nuanced and compelling character already; she doesn’t need rape to make her more “interesting.” The use of rape tropes, while sometimes dramatically appropriate, too often exploit women’s pain and dismantle their agency for the sake of shock value.


Photo of the character of Mary on Reign, courtesy of mdksl via Creative Commons 2.0.



Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.





  1. I don’t watch this show in particular but in the last couple years it seems like woman being raped as plot points has become more and more common. I hate it. I’ll turn the off T.V. because it physically upsets me to see it. I’m so glad someone has finally addressed this and put it in words why it is so upsetting. There are some serious social issues we need to address to figure out why this has suddenly become so popular to portray in fictional stories.

  2. this article speaks the truth. I have noticed this is just the norm in seemingly every adult show nowadays. It makes me sick to my stomach and in no way adds to a story or character arc. It seems to reek of “women will always be put in their place”
    Why do we have to have a “place?” Why can’t we just “exist?”

  3. Rebecca Jallings says:

    I quit watching The Sopranos, Rome, Deadwood, plus I don’t know how many shows as soon as they used rape as a plot device to, I assume, get more male viewers? Although I really hate thinking that badly of the men I love…

  4. The worst part about these rapes is that very, very often the makers of the show will say that it’s not actually rape (GoT, anyone?). That’s what gets me. If you don’t want something to look like rape, why film it so that it looks like rape?

  5. I don’t think I agree with you. Sexual a use is something that is part of every woman’s experience, even if only because our culture lets us know that it is possible. I think making a point of not portraying rape would be turning a blind eye. Murder is also a heinous act, but it is the meat and potatoes of shows like this and no one is protesting.
    The fact is, that time was one of incredible sexism, and we are deluding ourselves that we have come that much farther along.
    The real issue is not IF they portray a rape, it is HOW they portray it and how they portray the aftermath. That is what we should be focusing on.

    • Eva Facundo says:

      Um the title of article is “When Sexual Violence Is a Plot Device” the whole story is about HOW rape is used in entertainment as a sub-plot. The whole article is how some shows to it well and others dont. So yes, you agree with her.

  6. I completely agree with this. I seriously hope that Laurie McCarthy and all of the Reign writers have taken note about the backlash and change the episode, and/or remove the rape element all together. They aren’t ignorant, not with social media like twitter making it clear to them that their fans don’t want this to happen – so if they still go ahead with it, they’re just ignoring the fans that fuel their show. I hope that won’t be the case.

  7. KimberleyNicole says:

    I think people are too sensitive. Mary also became pregnant and had a miscarriage all in one episode. Are you going to scream your heads off because that there wasn’t adequate time in the episode to fully cover the issue and sadness of miscarriage. I am by no means saying the rape is light and trivial. I’m just saying that this is a SHOW and in most part a work of fiction. It is in the nature of the show and even the film/ tv industry business that there will never be enough time (perhaps a realistic amount of time) to dedicate to one issue. That doesn’t mean you don’t show the episode all together. We all know rape is bad. We know that men and women who rape are bad people.

    • So, people who dislike seeing rape on TV are too sensitive? 1 out of 3 women will be raped in their lifetime. Even if it is FICTION they don’t need to make the scenes as disgusting as they do. Rape is real, and shows try to make it seem normal when it is a disgisto g thing. By the way, not everyone knows that rape is bad.

  8. Well, I don’t watch reign, and have no specific opinion on the use of rape in this show, but I watch downtown abbey, where a rape was part of a story, and I don’t think any of the claims on this article applies to it. I thought the scene wasn’t erotic at all, but gut-wrenching and painful and it appropriately hunted the character and many others around her throughout the rest of the series. It was in fact a very effective plot line, but one that I thought was be appropriate. When you consider that 1 in 6 women have been raped (some figures are higher), it is impressive how underrepresented this population is in the media, increasing the sense of loneliness and isolation this experience can create. After seeing the rape on downtown abbey I started wondering why more show characters haven’t been raped. Yes it is a sensitive issue, but not portraying it reinforces the message that rape victims received that their experience is not one that should be talked about, hence perpetuating the pain and secrecy the perpetrators want to maintain. I believe rape is a sensitive issue and talking about it is the best way to deal with it. Yes, sensitivity is necessary, but I still think more good cones from portraying it, and the range of reactions to it, than avoiding it deliberately.

    • When I saw that episode of Downton Abbey, I was physically ill and almost couldn’t conceive of finishing the series. It was disturbing, there was no warning except for a subtle premonition that Mr. Green was a turd, and it was COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. Fiction is fiction–no part of it needs to mirror real life if it’s going to harm people in real life: you focus on a topic like rape with all your attention, and make sure that you’re talking about it in a productive, helpful way, but you do NOT make it some minor plot point to f*** with characters further and generate scandal. It was horrible and it was clearly a plot point orchestrated by jerks who don’t understand the topic.

  9. First, I think we need to get rid of the phrase….’put a woman in her place’ when we talk about it. What it is, is an act of violence against a person. The person committing the act may refer to it as ‘putting a women in her place’ but we need to refer to rape for what it truly is…an act of violence. Second is hiding from it, turning away from it, refusing to watch a show that has rape in it…is like turning a blind eye to the issues that surround rape. Media can be a powerful enemy or ally. Instead of demanding shows not feature rape, we should be asking them, to be sure to make it what it is..an act of violence. We should demand that they show, how it isn’t erotic, but also the fallout to the victim, the family and friends. We need to have the audience care, because this could help fight the stereotypes we have in society about rape, how causal we view it in society and how we blame the victim and defend the perpetrators. This crime is horrid, devastating, and allowed by a sick society. But more importantly, if you feel uncomfortable about the subject being on tv…than do something. Volunteer to help rape victims, donate to the cause, help fight for stricter laws and penalties, stand up for women. But stop acting like if we don’t talk about it…if we don’t have to view it…it will go away.

  10. I would understand this argument if we were talking about a purely fictitious show, but this is a historical drama based on a real person. A real person who was raped as a political manipulation, to force her into marriage. To ignore that fact would be inaccurately portraying Mary’s life and reign, not to mention reinforce the culture of shame and silence that surrounds rape.
    As for not spending enough time examining it: Again, historical fiction. Women of that era were not afforded the same respect we expect today, even from other women. Also, TV shows are notorious for minimizing time devoted to any given tragedy. Yes, it’s insensitive, but Sensitivity is not what TV producers are known for.

  11. Kimberly W says:

    Reign aired the rape scene last night in Canada with no warning. Tonight it will air in the U.S. It was horrendously executed. Moments after Mary is raped Catherine says to her:
    “We are going to change your clothes, fix your hair. We’re going to erase any mark of their hands on you…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…because you will walk out of here and face your court as if this never happened…These next moments of your life will either define you as victim or a powerful queen untouched…they will define who you are perceived to be, your place in history.” Every. Single. Element. Of. This. Is. Despicable. The rape was immediately taken out of personal context and characterized as motivation to diminish a king. Then public perception of Mary being untouched, as though this rape had soiled her, became paramount. This is the message Reign is telling young women. Conceal. Don’t feel. Because rape will define who you are perceived as a woman. Shut this show down. Shut it down now.

    • It’s a TV show about history. It isnt very realistic but they try to depict that epoque, as best as they can; so no, I dont believe they went to far, or that they just did it for the ratings. I think they did it to show how powerless women were back then, even a queen, and that even now, they (we) are still suffering from it. Also (I repeat) it’s a TV show, Mary is the protagonist, i find it reasonable that it happenned to her because it shows us it could happen to anyone.

  12. Of the many criticisms I have of this storyline, I will only focus on one here. The way they wrote the response to the rape is promoting the same mechanisms that keep sexual assault both pervasive and under-reported. They made it a cover-up affair. Demonstrate power in public and suffer in silence. In the next episode Mary’s justice will be hunting down her assailants (whether she or Francis does it, who knows) and killing them. Rather than public prosecution and public punishment for a brutal crime against a woman. All because the writers decided to place a premium on reputation over healing and justice. Shame on the writers. Shame on the network. They just aren’t smart enough to represent this narrative. I am sorry I ever supported this show.

  13. I wont be watching anymore, that was disgusting.

    Yes rape happens. And yes men get raped in jail. And yes people have been cooked and eaten before. But that doesnt mean I want to watch such suffering by an empathetic character on tv. I will get my entertainment from tv shows that employ talented writers that do not have to resort to shock value to create drama.

  14. I think what is really discusting is how these women are saying that the show used rape to make a strong women look weak. Are you saying that only weak women get raped? That to me is horrifying. How dare you say Mary getting raped makes her look weak. I think it makes her look powerful, more powerful than she look before. Because like so many women in today’s culture, she is a surviver. Mary is a powerful woman and she is still just as powerful.

  15. Yolanda Alvarez says:

    We haven’t “Come A Long Way Baby” when women through centuries have been nothing but a commodity. History has not changed. In countries today including the one I live in, women are still being beaten, raped, sold, and killed. Many afraid of speaking up out of shame and fear. In some countries women are BLAMED!!! for being raped, and often stoned to death. Men are NEVER!! bought to trial. When a show such as Reign brings to light that rape should not be shameful, and that women can be courageous, I stand and APPLAUD!!! Sending a message that girl, women should not be kept silent is empowerment. Yes watching “light funny” entertainment is good, but sticking your head in the sand is denial. I walk with an open heart, and mind. It is sad to say that here in our land of freedom The United States of America, there is human trafficking of young vulnerable girls, who are raped, and kept silent for fear of losing their life. Rape does not discriminate, no one is immune to it. Not even Queens..

  16. George ACL says:

    So, if someone gets killed to advance the plot or establish a villain, that’s totally okay. The only reason rape is used as a plot device is that it’s the most serious crime which leaves the victim alive, so that they still have a character to have their story developed. If there was an episode where a main character was killed, and the episode was built around finding the killer, and the emotional storm that the other characters had to go through, and depicted their recovery, and perhaps revenge, would there be an internet outcry about it?

    Probably not? I wonder why? Maybe it’s because these people have double standards and don’t trust the authors to tell their own damn story? Nahhh, probably sexism.

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