Tuned In

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.