I watched Reign’s most recent episode, ‘Acts of War’ yesterday and I’m still in the process of thinking through the issues it raised, but I also wanted to write a little bit about it now. At first, I thought that the representation of Mary’s rape might open up an important discourse about the systemic exploitation and violence committed against women in patriarchal culture, and the importance of including girls in that discussion and critique. However, having read this interview with Reign’s show runner Laurie McCarthy, I’m questioning the intentions behind the inclusion of this storyline. McCarthy states that she wrote this ‘through the prism of Francis’, i.e., what it would mean for him, his journey, and his rule. I find this fundamentally offensive, because it suggests that the rape is simply a plot device to get Francis to the next beat in his journey. Framing women’s pain and exploitation through the prism of a masculine gaze is not something we need to see more of – it is the absolute status quo of patriarchal culture’s maintenance of male power. Furthermore, this dominant gaze is so pernicious because it becomes internalised by girls and women, and we are encouraged to surveil ourselves through it. The routine degradation and humiliation of women in contemporary visual culture, as a kind of punch line or catalyst for a male heroic journey, is completely unacceptable. Why is it that, as a culture, we need to see women in pain, women as fetishized victims of rape and torture, women as mere objects or pawns in narratives of masculine power and domination? I’m not saying that I am necessarily against any representation of rape in visual culture; in fact, it could in some instances open up a very necessary discussion about how rape culture works. But when the representation of women and girls is necessarily aligned with victimisation and powerlessness, we have a problem. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Reign is doing, but I do think we need to be critically aware about deconstructing the ways in which visual culture does this to women and girls, including in teen TV. A genuine question I have about the outcry circulating around this episode is: why this reaction to this particular show, when we are surrounded by a visual culture that represents the women being victimised and demoralised in far more graphic terms – practically every episode of Law and Order and CSI come to mind, along with ‘artistic’ or ‘quality’ series like Game of Thrones. Does it have to do with the perceived threat to the young, female audience’s wellbeing? Is it that we police the borders of acceptability for teen TV more fervently than other genres, letting these other genres off the hook far more readily? Is it because we should expect more from a show that purportedly is dedicated to representing an empowered and authoritative female perspective, and that it has in some ways failed this? I would love to hear readers’ thoughts on these issues.
I think Reign will need to work hard to reconsider Mary’s position as the central subjective position within the narrative; this season has, as my friend and scholarly BFF Jodi McAlister points out, strayed too far from this position. Reign has presented some incredibly poignant moments that represent feminine adolescent power and empowerment, and this is why I have loved it so much. Reign has such a great opportunity to create a visual language of girls’ empowerment and agency, and it has demonstrated this at times, but it clearly has trouble maintaining this language. Depending on where it goes from here, the show has a great opportunity for furthering and strengthening its representation of girlhood agency and power. I hope it takes this path going forward.