On Reign’s Rape Scene and Content Warnings

The CW’s Reign must, first of all, be established as a show that is not true to history in any way, shape, or form. At best, it’s ‘inspired by.’ There is a woman named Mary who is theoretically the Queen of Scotland, though she lives in the French court with her husband, Francis, King of France. And that’s about where things start to break down and diverge wildly into a show that’s focused more on entertainment than facts. I’m okay with that — as a viewer, I know and understand that Reign isn’t designed to be faithful, that the ridiculous costumes are kind of supposed to be laughably inaccurate, that everyone speaks in weird accents. Some of the actors are quite good even with the scripts they’re given.

And I will also freely admit that I enjoy watching Reign. Not because I think it is high art or fantastic television, but because it is fun, and sometimes fun pop culture is a good thing at the end of a long week when you can’t face the thought of dealing with something serious and you feel like your brain is melting. The show feeds something inside me, and other viewers — there’s a little cluster of us on Twitter who giggle and titter over it because it’s so patently ridiculous even at the same time that we all love it, too. This is a show that is best enjoyed in groups, not as a solitary endeavor.

At the show’s midseason finale, there was a dramatic rape scene that set the tone for the coming episodes — I hardly think that information (and the title of this post) is a spoiler at this point since if you watch Reign you’re hopefully caught up with the show (or at least loosely so) and if you don’t, you’re probably not about to pick it up any time soon. The rape scene is intense, visceral, and violent. You very much feel it as you’re brought eye to eye with the character, seeing her suffering as she attempts to scrabble away from her rapist, terrified and enraged.

It’s a turning point for the character and the series — if you haven’t intuited by now, the victim is Mary, who, as a queen, can’t afford to be seen as violated, thanks to the mores of the time. Oddly enough, it’s her frosty and sometimes malicious mother in law Catherine who sweeps in to aid Mary, in a strangely allied moment between two queens, or perhaps a cynical move to protect the French monarchy (one hardly ones a whiff of rumour to swirl around the Queen of France, especially in terms of babies with uncertain provenance). Catherine advises Mary that though she may be in acute pain, she needs to wrap herself both literally and metaphorically in the mantle of queenly power, she needs to thread her way to the throne room with her head up, and she needs to show that she is both untouched and determined to track down and punish the attackers who made their way into the castle.

In a scene oddly reminiscent of Elizabeth, Mary is shown garbed all in black (unlike the English queen’s white) as she sweeps down the aisle of the throne room between her courtiers and sits on the throne, crackling with fury at her attackers. She convinces the court that she is untouched, that the men never even reached her chambers, but when Francis returns, she reveals the truth, and the episode leaves viewers wondering what will happen to their relationship — a question that started to be picked up in the following episode as we saw the growing tensions between the two as Mary struggled with the aftermath of her rape and the desire for vengeance.

There’s much to discuss in terms of how the show handled recovering from sexual trauma and the added burden of being a public figure who is supposed to present a specific image to the court, and to the world. As a queen, Mary is put in an awkward position as someone with a body that is in a sense ‘owned’ by the public around her, as revolting as that is, and thus her rape is not just an intense personal violation but one of the entire kingdom — it’s a gross, crude way of looking at it, but it’s why she’s forced to suppress her reaction to her assault in the interests of presenting a smooth, unruffled appearance.

But there’s something else I want to discuss about her rape, which is this: At the end of the episode, Adelaide Kane appears to tell viewers about how the episode handled intense content and adult themes (no shit, guys) and that anyone in need of counseling should call RAINN, providing their contact number. It’s a move we often see when shows provide content that might be traumatising, or that touches upon traumatic issues — whether seeing the episode might be intense for viewers, whether viewers might end up confronting their own trauma and wanting to talk to someone, whether viewers might internalise information that could be important in their future if they encounter trauma. It’s definitely not a bad thing for television shows to take the responsibility to include that information at the conclusion of episodes like this one.

That said, I fail to understand why a content note wasn’t provided at the beginning. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, and I understand the desire to avoid spoiling viewers — someone tuning in to a warning that says ‘this episode includes sexual assault and adult content’ might correctly assume the identity of the character involved, given who is at the centre of the drama — but in this case, ‘spoilers’ are overruled by the potential trauma of viewers. I, like many viewers, was not expecting that scene and found it extremely traumatic and upsetting — the advice to call RAINN afterwards was cold comfort. With a warning, I would have been better prepared, and maybe could have made decision about whether and when I wanted to watch the episode.

Warnings in front of episodes are rare, though sometimes actors will appear at the start of an episode to mention its themes. Usually, it’s in the case of a special episode — The West Wing did it once, at the start of their 11 September episode, which they reshot and reworked because they didn’t feel comfortable airing their scheduled episode on that terrible week. Issuing a content warning about adult thematic elements might have been a start, or a note that the show included assault — such coded, vague language would be understandable to many viewers, without ‘spoiling’ the show for others.

Being confronted with an intense violation is emotionally damaging for some viewers, especially in the context of a show that’s primarily fun and ridiculous. The use of rape for ‘character development’ is an old and frustrating trope and it was disappointing to see it used here, but it was also emotionally wrenching to be forced to watch a rape when I wasn’t expecting one, no matter how simulated it was. Especially with so many young, female viewers, the network would have been well served to add a warning. The decision not to tells me a great deal about how the network views rape victims/survivors.