Reign—the CW's cheesy and historically inaccurate drama about a teen Mary Queen of Scots (by way of Coachella)—is no stranger to scenes featuring sex and violence, but last night's episode, which featured the graphic rape of one of the series' lead characters, has many viewers saying that the show has taken things too far.
In the episode, Mary is held hostage when her French castle is besieged by Protestant rebels. One such rebel blames Mary and her husband Francis (heir to the French throne) for the death of his son and, in a violent act of retribution, pins her to the floor and rapes her. Mary is shown struggling, her nightgown is hiked up and she is seen in visible pain as the man assaults her. It would be disturbing in any context. The fact that it was shown on a primetime show for teens makes it all the more questionable.
Including rape in a television show, even a show for teenagers, is not always a bad thing. According to RAINN, one in six American women are victims of sexual assault and 44% of rapes happen to people under the age of 18. Leaving rape out of fiction entirely would ignore the experiences of a very large portion of the population. That being said, a TV or movie rape scene should always be played out with respect for victims—not stylized, idealized or glorified in anyway.
Whether Reign followed that guideline is debatable. While there was nothing remotely sexy about Mary's rape (a small relief), it was included for fairly questionable reasons. When asked about the scene by Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Laurie McCarthy replied that they used the sexual assault not to further Mary's development or make her more relatable to teen girls who are also survivors of sexual violence, but to punish Mary's husband Francis for past transgressions:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for Mary's rape originate?
LAURIE MCCARTHY: 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.
Later in the interview:
Surely, some people will say, "Why couldn't they have found another way to make Mary have this turning point in her life?" What do you say to them about why you chose to do it this way?
There are always other stories to tell and always other ways to go and we chose to tell this story. That's the truth of it, and I'm sure we'll tell those other ways moving forward. I think oftentimes what people actually mean when they say that is, "Could you have done it to another character and someone other than the lead of your show?" My response to that is, "Why is it okay for some other female character?" The waters get very muddy for me there. I think that the underlying question there is: Does something like this ruin a person? And I find that question really galling because I feel like, why should it ruin a person? It should ruin the person who did it. It should not ruin the character to whom it was done, and I'm very much looking forward to a story of seeing Mary find her strength again and find her sense of security and also her ability to love and experience intimacy again.
It's misleading to present rape as an inevitability that will either happen to Mary or another character when the plot is fully within the writers' control. No one on this show had to get raped. The silver lining here, I suppose, is that a real life rape survivor who's a fan of the series might feel comforted and inspired by seeing a character that she or he admires go through what they've been through. For their sake, let's hope they give this regretful storyline the time, kindness and thorough development that it deserves.
(I did not clip the rape scene, but you can watch the aftermath in which Mary reveals her rape to her mother-in-law Queen Catherine—who, in a past episode, discussed being sexually assaulted as a girl—below.)