This post has massive spoilers for the latest episode. Spoilers and ranting and a huge huge trigger warning.
When I first heard the spoiler that Mary was going to be raped in an upcoming episode of Reign, I was absolutely horrified. Reign has always been a fun Gothic-y fantasy/history show that is 100% female focused, that is safe and fun and melodramatic. When it did once include the threat of rape, it dealt with it well, but raping the powerful protagonist for the sake of creating drama felt like it crossed a very serious line. Why must all female characters in fantastical or historical shows be either raped or threatened with rape at least once in their stories? Why must this apply even for a fun, light show aimed at teenagers? Why can’t the writers come up with something, anything else?
After watching the episode, my feelings are far more mixed than I expected. In fact, to be able to talk about this coherently, I’m going to have to break it down into three distinct things: the scene itself, the aftermath, and the existence of the plot point at all.
The scene itself was awful. Horrifically graphic. I could rewatch it to analyze the details, but I really, really don’t want to. But Mary was struggling, Mary was clawing the carpet, and if the desperation of the moment wasn’t enough, the show decided to go into slow motion, hazy-lighting mode, to emphasize how traumatic and awful and significant the moment was. I couldn’t watch it without pausing in horror several times. In this episode, Mary’s ladies learned a new dance. Claude flirted with Conde. There was a Christmas party and some funny scenes and a standard Reign-y tone. And to throw this at your audience, who are expecting to watch something that is dramatic but ultimately safe and enjoyable, to force them to watch their protagonist being graphically raped… horrific is the only word I have for it.
That said, some of the scenes that followed were fantastically done. It was a story of female solidarity and support. Despite any of their past rivalry, Catherine helped Mary immediately. She understood what Mary was going through, and told her, with all the empathy and understanding in the world, that she would survive this. The show explored Mary’s shock and horror, and every character respected Mary’s wishes, reaffirmed their care for her, and generally responded well. Could this help rape victims who watch this episode? Possibly. It’s a very affirming message, it explores a very serious, traumatic and common event through fiction, and it presents a strong message that it’s possible to fight and not be destroyed by what has happened.
On the other hand, it also presents the idea that it’s better to remain silent and pretend nothing ever happened, and that everyone will view you as weak and a victim if you tell people what happened. Triumphant music played while Catherine told Mary that her actions now “would define who she is perceived to be, her place in history,” and although this was presented as a moment of strength and self-determination, it actually carried the completely opposite message — that rape defines you and changes you if you let anyone know about it.
And here’s the thing: the scene did not need to happen. The men did not need to “punish” Mary for her supposed slights against them like that. They could have just tried to kill her. They could have left after they realized Francis wasn’t there. They could have been talked down by Mary’s powerful and persuasive speech. She could have escaped before she was raped, not during.
And this is not just “something that happened to Mary,” another plot point for her to work through. It affects the audience as well. It makes female viewers feel unsafe, ruining that fun fantasy element of the show. It takes a badass queen and tells us that, no matter how powerful and awesome you are, rape will always be a threat, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You will be powerless against it.
It doesn’t matter how sensitively the aftermath is handled — viewers still have to watch that scene, most likely without any warning. They still have to view yet another story with rape, something that all awesome female characters seem to have to eventually face.
And they have to deal with the fact that this isn’t even about Mary. She was “punished” by the rapists for something she did not do, something she actually fought against. She was “punished” for something that Francis did, and so her rape is basically a cause of pain and angst for Francis. We get to see him believe that it was all his fault.
I don’t know any spoilers for the episodes to come, but here’s my bet: Francis will feel intense angst and guilt about Mary, and we will spend a lot of time watching that. Mary will finally become pregnant again, but will be afraid, because she can’t know the baby is Francis’s. Francis will feel more guilt. All will be angst. All will be Francis.
Enough, TV writers. Enough of this nonsense. When will they realize that this might create controversy and talk, but it is doing a massive, harmful disservice to viewers? When will they acknowledge that this is narrative laziness, and erase it from their fantasy story repertoire? When will even fun, Gothic-y dramas aimed at teenage girls be free of this ridiculous trope?
Last year, I thought Reign was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable and feminist fantasty shows on TV. Now… fuck that. Fuck it all.