Reign & The Problem of Representation: “Acts of War”


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.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. All of this is controversial. Sure, I get it, it’s not nice hearing that this may be a plot line put there to turn the story in some direction. But they are trying to make believable characters from history facts, so there will probably be more than one thing put in the story to stir it in some direction. It’s just that rape is the one thing controversial enough that they need to explain themselves. I watched both Acts of War and the following episode, and I actually think that whether it was put as part of the plot because of Francis is besides the point. The fact is, rape does happen, and it needs to be represented on TV just as anything else. The fact that a lot of movies would be fine if they show graphic murder, but get such huge response if they show rape, is bad from my standpoint. Rape is sometimes senseless, meaningless. It can happen anywhere to anyone even now, and I would imagine that at times of war and royal politics when women had a lot less power, it could happen even more. And for people like me who have been through the same thing, yeah, there are times when you want to avoid it, but at some point if you want to live, you have to live with what happened to you. And it’s sort of really horrible how awkward topic it is for many people. That you can say you need few days rest because you’re sick, or feel bad because you lost your job, but if you start talking rape it’s just awkward. It needs to be talked about so that people understand that it happens. That it can happen, and it’s okay to talk about. It’s one of those horrible things in life, that do happen anyway and we get through them best if we can talk about them. It doesn’t matter who you are. Independant strong women go through this as well. It’s a hard thing to go through, but if you can survive it, you might end up even more independant one day. It’s still a horrible thing, but it does happen. And having seen episodes 9 and 10 from the second season, I am saying GOOD for whoever wrote this. GOOD for the actors. The range of emotion that Mary/Adeline is showing is incredible. The range of ways she is trying to deal with this was shown so well, it left me looking at the episode for long time, because it was so incredibly accurate. It was strikingly real, and I say this most sincerely, because it was as if I was looking at myself (well, without actually punishing the guilty, but nevertheless, the anger and the desire for closure and understanding). All the small details were incredibly realistic- her breakdowns, and keeping it together when she has to, her visible jumpiness when close to people close to her- and then her obvious reaction when Conde got close to her, but trying to hide it…Being careful whom to trust, the feeling of sleepwalking through days, the desire to erase what happened by revenge, and realizing that removing the guilty from your life doesn’t change that you are already altered in some way and need to deal with it…The shock, and the bizzare switch of emotions and having to deal with keeping your life together as you are falling apart…I think that is the one series that can be complimented on it, because they are creating a great representation of how things really can be. There have been series in which it happens, and all it takes is for the guilty to be put in jail and that is the resolution to things, and then things get better. In reality it can bring a much bigger and longer change in your life, one that can take years to fix, and that can take toll on everything in your life. May be not with everyone, but it does go that way for a lot of people. So I think it’s great how they have chosen to represent it. Respectfully, this is my opinion.


    1. athenabell says:

      Hi seekingafrica,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond to my blog post! I totally agree with you that we need to have more of a discourse around rape culture and sexual abuse, for sure. I mentioned that in the article. Perhaps some of the controversy surrounding the scene is that it is intended for a girl audience and many people might assume that girls won’t be able to ‘handle’ it? Which, in my opinion, is almost always untrue; girls are active, engaged viewers with critical capacities. I think that the blog post I wrote was also about questioning and interrogating patriarchal visual culture’s construction of women and girls in popular narratives, and that’s also a really important conversation to have.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas with us!


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