As 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:
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.