Friday, August 15, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Queen Catherine (Reign)

Let's talk about mother-in-laws in genre fiction. Not a beloved demographic, is it? It's the true hallmark of any romantic story, a mother-in-law who doesn't just disapprove of her potential daughter-in-law, she hates her with the fire of a thousand suns and is constantly plotting her doom. I mean, what better way to emphasize the way in which our hero and heroine's love is overcoming all obstacles than to pit their own parents against them? If his mother hates her, then we can see just how real and true and powerful their love is. Awwww.

Needless to say, I'm not a huge fan of this trope. I find the idea of using inter-generational female conflict as a narrative device to make the men look better and more heroic kind of deeply irritating. Sure, I love Sons of Anarchy a lot, but the tension between Gemma and Tara, or between Gemma and Wendy, really irritates me. They are two strong, awesome women. I want them to get along, and I love best the seasons when they do.

So looking at this, the frustration of this trope, you would think that I really hate Reign's Queen Catherine (Megan Follows). She is, after all, the quintessential poisonous mother-in-law. She is so sure that Queen Mary (Adelaide Kane) will bring disaster on France if she marries Catherine's son Francis (Toby Regbo), that she is willing to attempt assassinations, use magic and fortunetelling, and even hire men to rape Mary. She is not a nice person.

I think she's a brilliant character, though. In fact, I think that the show, without Catherine, would be virtually unwatchable. Mary is all well and good, but the show works because of the way that Mary and Catherine are cast as opposites. Instead of the real conflict between them centering around Francis, their true disconnect is actually about their similarities, and Mary's reluctance to recognize how similar they really are.

But first a little background. Reign is a highly fictionalized, highly soap-operatic, highly entertaining show about Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who was in line for the English throne (somewhere) after the passing of Henry VIII as well as possessing the Scottish throne, is portrayed as a late-teen, early twenties woman, passionate, romantic, and idealistic, who must grow into being a queen in her own right. She's the center of the show, and all of the show's action or drama stems from her and her choices as she tries to govern her country in exile, as well as prepare for a political marriage to the Prince of France, Francis.

The show does a lot with politics (Scotland and France are both Catholic countries, making them natural allies against the hated English, who are always on the verge of turning protestant under Elizabeth I), but the real strength comes from the characters and their interpersonal relationships. Mary, who has been living in a convent in hiding since she was a little girl, has finally come out and is preparing to marry Francis. But Catherine, Francis' mother, has been told of a prophecy that states that if Mary weds Francis, Francis will die and the nation will fall into ruin.

So, obviously, Catherine really does not want Mary to wed her son. For pretty legitimate reasons.

The problem, of course, comes from the fact that Mary and Francis are in love, and that the alliance of their countries could be very beneficial for both of them. Catherine has to figure out how to tear them apart, while still maintaining diplomatic relations, as well as keeping herself out of trouble.

And, complicating matters further, is the simple fact that Catherine doesn't actually hate Mary. She respects her, even. Catherine sees Mary as a version of her past-self, the woman she was before the rough duty of queenship made her cold and hard. Catherine views Mary as her protege, and that scares the crap out of Mary. Because Catherine? Is not a nice woman.

That's a huge part of what makes the show so interesting. Catherine, a cultured, refined, beautiful woman, is hands down the most ruthless character on the show. She makes no apologies for her ambition, nor does she pretend to be a nicer person than she is. Her relationship with her husband, King Henry (Alan Van Sprang) is strained, but functional, because Henry and Catherine both know that Catherine is indispensable for the running of the country.

Catherine is ruthless and terrifying and a great villain, but the show refuses to pigeon-hole her in that role. She's also a devoted mother. She's a patron of the arts, one of the greatest in French history. She's honest in a world where honesty can get you killed, because she is virtually fearless. I mean, the woman goes so far as to plan the decor for her own beheading, for crying out loud. 

More shocking than all of this, though, is the fact that the show allows Catherine to be romantic sometimes too. She's all of these things, and still a woman who likes to be wooed and flattered and loved. Sure, her relationship with her husband is crap, but she isn't dead inside. The show lets Catherine be the kind of complex woman who can still have a private softness in her heart, even when she's ordering the death of hundreds of men in the hopes of preserving the nation.

A lot of props obviously have to go to Megan Follows for portraying Catherine with such sensitivity. She's an amazing actress. Seriously. She steals pretty much every scene she's in, and the ones where Catherine and Mary go head to head in queen-mode are the pinnacle of the show. But I also want to give credit to the show's creators, Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie Sengupta, for making Catherine such a wonderful, multi-dimensional character. 

It would be so easy for Reign to fall off into its soap-operatic tendencies, or to become just about the love lives of its young attractive characters. Who has time for the fate of nations when we're all trying to figure out if Mary will choose Francis or Bash (Torrance Coombs)? Catherine keeps us grounded. She reminds us every time she comes on screen that the stakes here are much higher than the characters want to admit. That their love lives, important as they are, are not the main focus here. This is about the lives of hundreds of thousands of people whose futures hang in the balance. This is about politics, and nations, and armies, and thrones.

I just, I find it so interesting and so compelling that Catherine likes Mary. It would be terribly easy to make her a bitter angry shrew of a woman, whose lust for power and control over her son renders her a simple antagonist who highlights the purity of Mary and Francis' love. But that's not the case. Catherine respects the hell out of Mary. When Mary outmaneuvers her, you can tell she's pissed off, but impressed. Catherine likes Mary, but she still tries to kill her, because Catherine is beholden to a higher cause than her personal feelings about people. She is beholden to her country.

Catherine reminds me a lot of Varys from Game of Thrones, actually. She's willing to do terrible horrible things, but she does them because she believes that as a ruler she has a duty to do what's right for her country. Yes, she is ambitious, and yes, she does still sometimes connive for personal reasons, but it strikes me as kind of awesome that Catherine's driving purpose most of the time is her duty to her subjects.

It's also worth noting, as I did at the top, that Catherine and Mary are very much written as parallels of each other. Catherine exists both as an obstacle to Mary's path and also as a vision of who Mary will become in the future if she is not careful. We are left to decide for ourselves whether it would be a good or bad future. But the fact remains clear. Catherine was once a young girl just like Mary. And Mary is growing up to be a woman like Catherine.

She's smart. She's sarcastic. She's sexy. She's driven. She's ambitious, ruthless, honest, conniving, deceitful, vicious, and loving. She's a hell of a woman, and she really doesn't care whether you like her or not. That's just...I wish we had more character like her. More middle-aged female characters who are their own people, who are utterly essential to the narrative, and who are willing to do what needs to be done, without having to sacrifice their femininity to do it. I'd very much like to sit Catherine down with Mrs. S from Orphan Black one day, and have the two of them talk, woman to woman.

Catherine is something else. I love that she's a character on the show I enjoy so much, but when it comes down to it, I don't know if I actually like her. And I think that also is pretty cool. She doesn't have to be likable to be essential. 

More than that, though, Catherine gives another idea of what women can grow up to be. I'm not saying I want to be Catherine d'Medici when I grow up, because she is terrifying and that seems like an unpleasant life, but I really appreciate the idea that she's an option. We are not limited to lives of being defined as mothers or teachers or carers or shrewish mother-in-laws who hate other women. We can be anything we want, even a ruthless, regal terror who has sacrificed her own happiness for duty. Don't we want more complicated female characters like that?

Ah good times. Plotting the deaths of everyone who annoys her.

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