Five years ago, Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl was a pioneer in the field of teen soap girl masturbation. If it's happened since with an underage female character, I missed it.
So when the CW sent Reign, its sudsy and loose retelling of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, to journalists in the spring, and those journalists noticed that there is a scene in which one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting masturbates, there was some talk about it: mostly about whether the CW would keep the scene when the pilot was finalized.
Perhaps surprisingly, the CW did keep it in! Albeit in a shortened state, as Entertainment Weekly first reported. Subsequently, a lot has been written about the controversy — or nontroversy, depending on your point of view — this week as the Reign premiere (Thursdays at 9 p.m.) approached.
According to Variety, "There's pushing the envelope, and there's dunking that envelope in a sink full of bourbon and trying to light it on fire." Time's James Poniewozik wrote, "For depicting one aspect of sex that TV weirdly has a blind spot about, I for one must give Reign a hand." (Heh!) Someone who hadn't seen the revised pilot from Salon added, "We're thoroughly comfortable with women's bodies being sexualized — but not so much with women being sexual." And then someone from Slate who also hadn't seen the revised pilot, but had read the Salon piece (by the person who hadn't seen the revised pilot), wrote a piece with the alarmingly incorrect headline, "Why Did the CW Delete the Masturbation Scene from Tonight's Premiere of Reign?"
What a mess, in other words! So let's go to the actual scene itself — as aired — for a quick summary of the action. If you didn't watch Reign yet, and don't want to be spoiled about the pivotal masturbation subplot, do stop reading now.
Mary (Adelaide Kane) and her pals watch a newly married couple consummate their marriage. They're not alone, but they're the only sneaky voyeurs of this bedding; the other viewers are actually in the room with the couple (and are old men). The girls have different reactions to what they see. Most notably, Kenna (Caitlin Stasey) steals away, goes at it, and then — this is the actually weird part! — is joined by the king of France (Alan van Sprang).
It's jarring and kind of nuts and gutsy. Is it the wank heard 'round the world? Viewers will decide. I talked to Reign's showrunner, Laurie McCarthy, about the scene.
On the origins of the masturbation bit:
"Doing this research, we realized how young they all were. And we were reminded of the fact that 14 was considered a marriageable age then. Having seen lots of period pieces and lots of depictions of nuptials, including consummation scenes, I felt there was something to be explored there — making it more intimate to a group of girls in a castle. We wanted to dramatize what Mary had signed up for, which was essentially being put together with someone in an arranged marriage. I also wanted a moment of levity. When we went in and pitched to the CW, I pitched that scene. I pitched the girls watching, and I also pitched the girls' reactions. I thought it was a fun way to show that Aylee (Jenessa Grant) was shocked and nearly wanted to faint, and Mary was decidedly intrigued. And one of the girls who is more comfortable with sexuality really got inspired by it. We follow them: One goes and looks for her girlfriends, Mary runs back to court to really try to have it out with Francis. And the one girl goes to a stairwell, and she pleasures herself. My feeling on it is that it's a part of sexuality, and it just didn't seem like any big deal."
So the CW was on board with the idea from the beginning?
"The moment that got everyone laughing and excited was really Aylee's reaction. The CW was really pleased that we would do something that was kind of light and funny. And when we pitched the moment in the stairwell, they just kind of took it in stride. And that was it, it was in the script."
On whether there was anything special — or uncomfortable — about shooting the scene:
"There really wasn't. I don't mean to be coy about this — I was aware it would potentially ruffle some feathers. The day of filming, for the actress, it's an incredibly tame act. There's nothing graphic about it. Think about that action as an actress, especially when you have a skirt that goes down to your toes."
But the scene did get trimmed in the end:
"It's always part of the creative process. We get notes, we address them together. 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. If it sparks a conversation between a teenager, or a younger person, and their parent — I have a son, and my theory and what I've been told is answer the questions they ask. To me, it's clear what's happening. If it's not clear what's happening to the viewer, they're probably not there yet."
Because of the focus on the masturbation, the fact that the (much older, married) king ends up joining her, has been obscured.
"And she barely knows him. To me, one of the key lines in that scene is when he says, 'May I?' We put that in there to show that it was consensual."
On the controversy:
"I think it's a healthy debate. It's getting more of a response than I ever would have imagined? I thought it would be something that was discussed, but I didn't think it would fire people up."
Masturbation: a part of life! But not a big part of depictions of life, on film or in television. Why is that?
"Here would be my guess: Since it's an act that someone does with themselves, and to me it's just a very commonplace thing, it's not necessarily a story point. Unless it's someone getting caught doing it? It's just not that big of a deal. To me, it's almost like making a big deal out of making toast. Which people do a couple of times a week!"