The way Caitlin Stasey talks about her Reign character Kenna, a fictional lady-in-waiting to Mary Queen of Scots, is enough to make even non-Elizabethan era audiences blush.
“I call her the clitoris of the show,” Stasey says after a quick glance around at her surroundings at Insomnia Café in Los Angeles. “Almost consistently for every episode I was doing something sexual. I was naked, I was doing this, I was making out with this person, I was having a threesome here, and I realized that was my position. Which is fine. I’m totally fine with that. It’s great.”
But while Stasey’s frankness might shock the more inhibited among us, it reflects the kind of sexual openness the 24-year-old actor celebrates. The more we talk about it, she reasons, the less weird it’s going to be. And for a generation of young girls embarking on the complicated journey of self-discovery, just knowing they’re normal can make all the difference.
“The more normal it is, the more it’s perceived as just an everyday way of being, the less scary it’s gonna be for girls, obviously,” Stasey says.
Of course, it’s not as though Kenna has any trouble expressing her sexuality. The most liberated of the ladies-in-waiting trailing behind Mary (Adelaide Kane) on The CW’s period drama, Kenna has wielded her sex as a weapon, been subjugated by those who seek to control her body, and finally discovered mutual respect and love over the course of Reign’s first season. She’s gone from being a virgin to the mistress of King Henry (Alan van Sprang) to the wife of Henry’s bastard Bash (Torrance Coombs).
“She’s kind of done it all,” Stasey says, taking a sip from her iced coffee. She manages to come across as both charming and matter-of-fact as she discusses touchy subjects, lowering her voice ever so slightly when using words like “orgasm” and “masturbation.” The other patrons at the coffee shop don’t seem to notice.
“Masturbation” is, in fact, a major topic of conversation: Reign raised eyebrows with its pilot, in which Kenna — so sexually charged from watching a newly married couple consummate their relationship — ducks into a hallway to pleasure herself. It was a rare depiction of female masturbation on network television — and with a teenage girl doing the deed, no less.
Even for Stasey, who doesn’t shy away from much, filming the scene was a daunting prospect.
“I was kind of horrified at the thought of having to masturbate on screen,” she admits. “Masturbation was such a sensitive issue for me as an adolescent, as a young woman, the thought of doing it publicly, albeit very tame, it felt like it was going to be an insight into me and my desires and my methods, I guess you could say. Because a little piece of you has to find its way into those situations, into those scenes.”
When the pilot finally aired, the masturbation scene had been cut down significantly: While it was obvious what Kenna was doing, the act itself was mostly just implied. As showrunner Laurie McCarthy put it, “With The CW’s concern, we all came to a creative decision that allowed us to keep the bulk of the scene, but to make it more suggestive. It felt like the right way to do it.”
Stasey is somewhat less understanding.
“I was disappointed,” she admits. “It’s always a little bit personal when your work is cut down for whatever reason. And when it’s for reasoning that’s as antithetical to my views as this was, it’s even harder to swallow. It would be like if you were a gay man on television kissing your lover in a scene, and they had to cut it down because of network sensitivity.”
Stasey’s disappointment was compounded by the fact that she went through with it, despite her initial discomfort — and she was proud of her performance when all was said and done.
“I fucking did it,” she adds. “I did it in front of all those men that I didn’t know and all those women I didn’t know, and now people got to edit it and watch it and fucking dissect it. There have been conversations over boardroom tables about my masturbating, so why couldn’t you just let it happen?”
Editing choices aside, the simple inclusion of a scene of female masturbation on a teen drama remains a bold one. Particularly as the depiction of female pleasure on the whole is far more restricted than that of male sexuality. The response to scenes like Kenna’s clandestine masturbation speak to a double standard in terms of what audiences are comfortable with. Variety’s senior TV editor Brian Steinberg found the scene in question so distasteful that he wrote, “There’s pushing the envelope, and there’s dunking that envelope in a sink full of bourbon and trying to light it on fire.”
It’s a response that may disappoint Stasey but does not surprise her.
“We are the fairer sex. We are pure. We are not earthly creatures,” she jokes. “And I think to put us in the midst of all of it, to see that we are in fact just as sexually driven as men, is kind of confronting. Also the fact that we are largely, nowadays, not reliant on men to provide pleasure for us.”
Part of what makes Kenna such a fascinating character is that she brings what feels like a distinctly modern sensibility to a series that takes place in 1557. In fact, all of the women on the show are complex, three-dimensional characters who, at times, espouse more feminist ideals than many of the contemporary female characters on television.
Stasey suggests that perhaps it’s the societal restrictions these women face that allows Reign to grant them more developed interpersonal relationships and internal lives. But there’s something to be said in particular about Kenna’s sexual independence, an exciting quality for a female character on network television, regardless of the time period.
“[Kenna] kind of doesn’t give a fuck. She’s making decisions of her own accord,” Stasey says. “Self-determination is what she’s trying to achieve. Obviously in those times, you couldn’t have rampant sexual partners. You needed some sort of, I guess, arrangement whereby losing your ‘virtue’ was not worth losing everything. She’s as much as a feminist as you could have been during those times, and every decision that she’s made for herself, by herself, I think is a testament to her strength.”
Of course, that’s not to say that Kenna represents a feminist ideal. Stasey acknowledges that she has a harder time with scenes in which her character is bent to the will of others. The world of Reign is, after all, 16th century France: However evolved Kenna feels — and however historically inaccurate the show allows her to be — she’s still a product of the times.
So although Stasey believes there are aspects of Kenna that could prove helpful to young girls watching Reign, she also notes that it’s a bit more complicated than simply wanting to grow up to be her.
“I hope women that watch it can at least take with a grain of salt the level of importance that is placed on our virginities and on our male counterparts,” Stasey says. “I would hate for any young girl to watch and be like, This is the standard by which I will set my life. I think they’ve done an incredible job of creating female characters who are really empowered by the times rather than restricted by them. Or, at least, empowered enough within the restrictions that they find themselves in.”
And for her part, Stasey continues to speak candidly about not only Kenna’s sexuality, but also her own. The more she talks about it, she explains, the less awkward everyone else has to feel. In her own life, the frank and shameless discussion of sexuality has helped her evolved to a state she hopes other young women can achieve.
“I’ve always struggled with relationships and my sexuality and being bisexual and not knowing how to sort of embrace that while also not being judged for it,” Stasey says. “It took me dating feminists to understand that these things are OK. I always knew it was OK — I was always fiercely defensive. There was always this little bit of doubt in me that people would think the worst of me, that people wouldn’t understand me.”
Stasey and Reign can’t do all the heavy lifting alone, of course, which is why she expresses the need for more positive representations of uninhibited female sexuality in TV and film.
Cable, at least, is making strides forward with shows like Comedy Central’s Broad City and HBO’s Girls, both of which allow their female characters to talk about sex openly and, for the most part, without fear of judgment from those around them.
“Broad City is how I wish we could all be, whereas Girls is maybe a more accurate representation of how things are,” Stasey posits. “There is still this expectation, there is still this reticence and fear, but I think that [Girls creator] Lena Dunham and [Broad City creators] Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are forging the way forward.”
These are the shows Stasey wishes had existed when she was younger and struggling to figure herself out. When she thinks back to the female characters she was familiar with growing up, she has trouble identifying any that she was truly impressed by — or who made her feel like less of an outsider.
“I bore this great shame,” Stasey says. “And I would pray every time before I’d masturbate. I was like, ‘Dear God, this is the last time, except maybe three more times on the way to Queensland.’ I was so scared. And because, ever since I can remember, I’ve been fiercely attracted to women. No one in my world resembled that at all.”
At this point, Stasey can look back on her past from a more enlightened perspective. She speaks proudly about her refusal to cater to a culture of slut-shaming and notes — with her consistently refreshing candor — “Because of this antiquated, patriarchal, and patronizing mentality, we are scared to express ourselves.”
It’s strange, at times, to hear an actor talk so openly about such taboo subjects. Many figures in the public eye are reluctant to even admit to dating, let alone speak freely about masturbation and fluid sexual identity. But for Stasey, as for Kenna, open is the only way to be. Shocking people is an unintended side effect, and one that neither has time for.
“I’ve undoubtedly offended people,” Stasey says, “but in the end I’ve learned, the people that will understand are the people I want to connect to, anyway. And if I can change anyone’s opinions, that’d be fantastic. But there are some people that are so set that it doesn’t matter. And if my sexuality offends and repels or intimidates anybody, then we would never, ever connect, professionally or personally.”
The best way for Stasey to stop offending people with discussion of female sexuality is to expose them to what they’re so afraid of. In the same way, shows like Reign, in depicting female pleasure, are teaching audiences to — in blunt terms — get over it.
“My dad and I had a conversation before I left,” she continues, “and he said, ‘I think you’re living with a sort of air of naiveté, because the world that you want to live in, the world that you expect to live in isn’t the world that you’re currently living in. People aren’t always going to accept it.’ And my response to that is, I think he and other people confuse naiveté with an unfailing commitment to an ideal. It’s like, yes, things aren’t this way, but I have to communicate as though they are, so that things will eventually change. If you compromise in any kind of movement or any kind of wave of revolution, if you sort of play the game, things are gonna change far more slowly than you need them to.”
Reign may not seem like a series with many teaching moments — it’s more steamy soap than after-school special — but there is undeniable power in its female characters and the way they continue to express themselves.
Now nearing the end of its first season, the show has proven its commitment to portraying realistic female sexuality past that masturbation scene in the pilot. It’s not simply a method to shock and titillate viewers, but to normalize something that should be far more commonplace by now.
“I would just love to think that through experiencing Kenna and other women that are showcased like her, [young girls] will learn to discover that there’s nothing wrong with being sexual and embracing your sexuality,” Stasey says. “It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Again, in hushed tones, but fully into the recorder, Stasey continues, “I was so isolated by how fucking horny I was as a young girl. I thought I was deranged … I just remember feeling so much shame and so much guilt as a young girl, and I really hope that can be eliminated for girls my age who go through the same thing.”
Beyond what it means for the young women watching Reign — and given the fact that it’s a romantic drama on The CW, that’s a significant portion of the audience — depicting female sexuality contributes to a larger cultural shift, the same trend whose tremors are felt on Broad City and Girls.
It’s not simply a matter of creating strong female characters, though that’s important too. It’s showing women as sexually independent people whose bodies and pleasure exist for themselves and not for the men around them. While not a radical concept, it’s one that television continues to struggle with.
And many, like Stasey, are growing increasingly impatient. She smiles before offering this pithy summation: “I’m really just looking forward to the day when a woman’s orgasm isn’t scary.”