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Reign’s Royal Scandal: What’s So Shocking About Masturbation?

The CW's decision to cut a scene of self-pleasuring in Reign shows that TV still follows an absurd taboo

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Ben Mark Holzberg/The CW

There are plenty of things to be bothered by in Reign, the entertainingly ridiculous CW teen drama about Mary, Queen of Scots. There’s the ludicrous dialogue, the fact that its idea of period realism is playing the Lumineers’ “Scotland” over and over for half the pilot episode, the imagining of Nostradamus as a hot young hunk. (Or, you know, the fact that there is a teen drama about Mary, Queen of Scots.)

But what was apparently so outrageous that the network trimmed it down for the final version airing Thursday was this: after spying on a “bedding ceremony” (in which a royal couple consummates their marriage for witnesses), Kenna, a young lady-in-waiting, steals away to a staircase and begins pleasuring herself. She’s interrupted by the lecherous King of France; he asks, “May I?,” he kisses her deeply, and they commence the ooh-la-la together.

As Entertainment Weekly describes it, in the revised version,

now viewers see the barest suggestion of Kenna’s actions in a few quick shots, then king’s hand snatches hers from her lap. 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?”

So… all better? Sure, the original scene was steamy and risqué. But keep in mind, we’re talking about a incident that was, and still is, preceded by one sex scene and followed by another. (And it was no more graphic or explicit than many.) For some reason, however, the notion of a solitary teen masturbating is more outré than teens–or adults, or teens and adults–having sex: in Reign, on many other CW shows, all around network and cable TV.

This is not about slamming TV-decency advocates as prudes. If you’re against the depiction of sex on TV altogether–particularly on a network aimed largely at teens–fine; I may not agree with you but that’s a consistent position and your prerogative. But the idea that masturbation is somehow dirtier and more outrageous than full-on sex is absurd. (That EW post suggests that the version censored for air means that parents won’t have to have “awkward conversations” with their kids while watching Reign together. Because watching a teenager get it on with the King of France is not at all an awkward way to spend an evening with your mom and dad!)

Maybe it speaks to how desensitized we are by now to two-person sex scenes. Or 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.

Whatever it is, two decades after Joycelyn Elders had to resign as Surgeon General for suggesting that masturbation be promoted as an alternative to riskier forms of sexual activity, the solo act still freaks people out. It’s not an unknown subject in fiction; where would Philip Roth be without it? But as TV Tropes notes, in network TV it tends to be used, or referred to, as a punchline–see Seinfeld’s “Master of my domain.” Often it involves male characters who are depicted as geeks who can’t get any. It’s pay cable, unsurprisingly, that has taken on the subject substantively: Sex and the City, Girls, and now especially Masters of Sex. (All of them, not coincidentally, shows that particularly focus on female sexuality and sexual pleasure.)

But hell, if your concern is that sex on TV promotes promiscuity, or teen pregnancy, or unsafe practices, we should be celebrating Reign, not condemning it. No one gets pregnant masturbating! It’s not so easy to give yourself an STD either! (Side note: I’m no Masters or Johnson, but I’m guessing any honest TV depiction of teen sexuality would be a lot heavier on the masturbation and lighter on the actual sex than what The CW depicts now.)

It’s fair enough to say that Reign, like many CW shows, like much TV now, uses sex mainly as fantasy: lots of hotter-than-average people getting better-than-average action. But for depicting one aspect of sex that TV weirdly has a blind spot about, I for one must give Reign a hand.

8 comments
DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

It seems to me that people are racing off on a tangent that shouldn't have been followed in the first place.

Since WHEN has TELEVISION been a tool to learn about REAL WORLD behaviors?  Reality shows aren't even "reality".  Television is now, and has always been, and forever will be, all about entertainment.  I mean, who in their right mind is using Modern Family to get tips about interpersonal relationships?  Or Sex and the City to get ideas about how they should play with themselves?

It's ENTERTAINMENT, folks.  It ain't real life.  It's not SUPPOSED to be real life.  Even the "real life" on TV is contrived to the point that it's distorted beyond any reasonable comparison. 

And when you consider the "Christian sensibilities" of those who control our media, it's not only not unexpected that they'd cut a scene of self pleasure in favor of full blown sex, I'd have been shocked speechless if it had done anything ELSE.  To that mentality, sex is all about procreation and has nothing to do with pleasure, self or otherwise.  For them, that's how it's always been.

zorgster
zorgster

There's also a scene in The Bridge (US version 2013) in first or second episode..  the lead character, a female detective, begins to masturbate herself, the scene is cut, she has gone out to a bar where she proceeds to pick up a guy for casual sex..  (but she has Asperger's, so people might make the wrong assumptions there...)

PhillyCannabis
PhillyCannabis

It's bad when males do it. It's creepy and the general consensus is the man can't get a women and society looks down upon that failure.

jondelfin
jondelfin

This is the network that (clumsily) trimmed the word "wet" out of a reference to a "paranormal ... dream" in the premiere of "The Tomorrow People." I'm not surprised in the least.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Strangely enough , one doesn't go blind . ( Who said that ? ) .

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

I get that the show is supposed to be a Knight's Tale--style mashup of old and new, but I'm still way more offended by the idea of a 16th-century lady-in-waiting being named "Kenna" than by the masturbation. (Are there other ladies-in-waiting named "Mackenzie" and "Madison"?)

JasonM
JasonM

Great post, this is something I have been saying to myself for a while.  I have also found it strange that so many network TV characters are portrayed as either having sex, or not partaking in any sexual activity whatsoever. As many teens know, there's a whole slew of options in-between having sex and abstaining entirely. For some reason, these in-between options are not addressed very often, and when they are, it's usually through the use of a "clever" innuendo (i.e. reaching second base). I would assume that people who are concerned by the depiction of sexual content on network television would be troubled by actual sex, than comparatively less risky acts of foreplay. But that doesn't seem to be the case.