'Reign' Proves There's No Masturbating On Network TV Allowed

'Reign' Proves There's No Masturbating On Network TV Allowed

The CW's newest series, Reign aired its pilot last week. The episode was deemed scandalous not for its sex scenes, but for the scene the show cut: a masturbation scene. 

A teen drama about Mary Queen of Scots, the original pilot showed Mary and her four handmaidens witnessing a post-marital bedding scene. The aroused women then disperse across the castle, one of whom (Kenna, played by Caitlin Stasey) stops in an empty stairwell, reaches under her dress, and begins to pleasure herself. However, in the final version of the pilot the viewer only sees Kenna lifting up her skirts before her actions are cut short by the King of France, who interrupts with a "May I?" and takes over. As James Hibberd wrote in Entertainment Weekly, "The moment went from a clear 'I can't believe they're actually showing this' to 'Was she doing what I think she was doing?"

The scene in question itself ends with what could be considered as rape. While Kenna does not resist the King when he asks "May I?" she has no option to decline. The King has already started and has too much power for her to be able to easily decline. Though the series obviously takes place in a time with significantly different sexual norms than our own (they were, after all, witnessing a bedding scene), we read our own sexual mores into the story by determining what can and cannot be shown to modern viewers. Regardless of whether one believes that masturbation or sex should be portrayed on TV at all, it's hard to conclusively argue that masturbation is less appropriate for public viewing than sex. So why is questionable consent appropriate while self-pleasure is taboo?

This outdated taboo on masturbation is explained by Tracy Clark-Flory on Salon as resulting from society being "thoroughly comfortable with women's bodies being sexualized — but not so much with women being sexual." Katy Waldman on Slate challenged this explanation, linking the taboo on masturbation with its severing of "pleasure from intimacy or emotional connection." It's prudishness, not sexism that forced the cut. But this argument fails to take into account the sex scenes on the show. Sex in Reign is not exactly portrayed as intimate.

Mary herself is threatened by rape in the climax of the episode. A handmaid's boyfriend is coerced by the Queen to rape Mary (who fails to drink the wine that was supposed to make her pass out) so that she would be impure and unfit to marry her son. This elaborate plot results in a man entering Mary's room, climbing on her bed, and removing his pants before she wakes up screaming. 

After the attack, the would-be rapist is declared an unwilling participant and thus not responsible for his actions, and Lola insists "He wasn't a rapist!" Even Mary hopes to clear his name for his crime, but is too late, for he is beheaded — a scene that was added in the final cut responsible for removing the masturbation scene. Apparently both beheadings and attempted rape are more appropriate than masturbation. 

As James Poniewozik wrote on Time, "Maybe it says something about the nature of what really shocks people in a depiction of sex. In a self-pleasuring scene, after all, the focus is on the pleasure and not the display of flesh. It's graphic in a sensual rather than visual way, and that depiction of enjoyment — raw, primal, without attachment to a relationship — is, oddly, more shocking to people than two stylized bodies wrestling in a bed." It seems this holds true even when the "wrestling" is not consensual. Violence, be it in the form of a beheading or sexual assault, is more acceptable than woman's sexual independence. 

I am not arguing that violence or sexual assault should not be shown on TV. Rather, I am arguing it is time that we take a step back as a society and discuss why we are concerned a masturbation scene in a show marketed towards teens would create awkward conversations for parents, while a rape scene would apparently need no explanation at all.