Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Deterioration of Female Agency and the Ladies of Reign


I'm not sure what I think of Reign these days. Last season I was boundlessly optimistic about the show. The first season felt like the female-centric historical fantasy I've always wanted, and I was duly happy about that. I still think that's what the first season was. But the second season is turning out a bit different. And not in a good way.

In this new season, it feels much more like Mary and her ladies have taken a back seat. The plotlines that previously revolved entirely around them are now driven by their male counterparts. Mary's agency as a queen has been undermined, and she now finds herself being constantly overruled by Francis. But that's not the real problem. The real problem is that as an audience we agree that Francis should overrule her. Mary's making a mess of things on her own.

It's this development that most irks me. The idea that Mary, Queen of Scots, is actually such an incompetent leader and so naive politically that she keeps getting herself and the kingdom into dire trouble that only her husband can get her out of. It's really frustrating, because all of last season we spent building Mary up as a cunning and shrewd political manipulator, only to tear it down in the last three episodes of that and first few of this one.

For example, in the first few episodes of this season, France is beset by the plague. Francis runs off to help Lola, who is having his child, while Mary stays and rules at the castle, keeping order over the panicking nobles and trying to halt the spread of the plague. While she's at court, a nobleman comes to her with a request: in all the chaos and confusion, "accidentally" send one of the other nobles to be locked in with the plague victims. In other words, this guy wants to assassinate his rival.

Mary is naturally incensed, and refuses. But Catherine, now the Queen Mother but still dangerously powerful, says she should. The noble who put the hit out, young Lord Narcisse, has a very powerful father whose lands supply the castle with grain. If they don't acquiesce, Narcisse will starve them out. But Mary refuses to be a ruler who cowers before her nobles, so she refuses. Then Narcisse has the man and his family killed anyway. So Mary takes justice into her own hands, and locks young Lord Narcisse in with the other plague victims just has he wanted to do to his rival.

Only only only, his father finds out, there's political backlash, and all of a sudden we're faced with the idea that Mary is absolutely terrible at politics. I mean, here she is basically ruining the country! Francis and Catherine have to manipulate and maneuver in order to get the nobles to back down, and the whole time everyone keeps telling her that she shouldn't have done that, that everything would have been better if she just left it alone.

That's not a good message to send. And it doesn't make for very good television either.

See, I watch this show because I enjoy the power fantasy. I enjoy watching a young woman rule two countries and do it extremely well. I watch it because Mary makes me feel good about being a girl. Seriously. We don't get very many political role models, and having one who is both a real historical figure and also the culmination of so many princess fantasies is freaking awesome. 

It's a problem that this season has seen fit to dramatically reduce Mary's agency and effectiveness as a ruler. And the worst part is, she's not alone. This has happened to all of the women this season. It sucks.

Lady Kenna, whose sexual freedom and silliness was sometimes annoying last season but always very interesting, has been reduced to a sweet, nice bride complaining that her husband doesn't come home enough. I love Bash, and I love Kenna and Bash together, but there's something very disheartening at seeing a character like her taken down to just being a window dressing for a powerful man. Bash's actions determine all of her storylines. She exists only in relation to him. 

By that I mean that all of Kenna's new storylines are about her reaction to Bash's actions. She doesn't get her own plots anymore, she just bounces off of other people. 

Or take Lola, whose storyline last year was definitely the most soap operatic (and that's saying something). While Mary and Francis were broken up - because Mary was trying to get Bash legitimized so he could become the next King of France and so that Francis wouldn't die - Lola and Francis slept together, just the once. Immediately afterward Mary and Francis got back together, and Lola discovered that she was pregnant.

She hid her pregnancy for a few episodes, until she tried to get an abortion and Mary found out, then Mary and Lola hid it from Francis for a while, then he found out, and then he went after Lola. Now, that part I don't mind so much, because it was an interesting plot point. But here's where we get to the really frustrating part of the new season: Francis, as the new King of France, has complete control and sway in his country. Lola, a recent widow and not particularly powerful lady, has just born his bastard child.

Francis can do or say anything he wants about that child. If Lola gives the child a name, Francis can give him another one. If Lola tries to leave the country, Francis can prevent her. Which, in fact, he does. Lola wishes to go abroad, where she and her child can live a peaceful life, away from court. He'll have a respectable name, because she married quickly enough for him to probably be her husband's son, and she can live away from the drama and angst of the French crown.

But Francis doesn't want that. Can't want that. So even though Lola has made it very clear she wants nothing to do with him, nothing from him, and even though she has actively asked him to send her away, and even though Francis' own wife has begged him to let Lola go, Francis forces her to come back to the castle and remain there. Not only that, but he chooses to tarnish Lola's reputation by claiming the child as his, and by there doing binds her to himself for life.

And the thing is, I think we're supposed to understand why Francis is doing all of this? Well, I guess I do understand, but that doesn't make me more sympathetic. Francis just tramples all over the desires of literally every woman in his life, and we're supposed to applaud him for it. He does things without their consent, makes choices that don't involve them, and generally acts like a whiny child. Trust me. I know whiny children, and that's what he acts like.

And finally there's Greer, whose plotline I feel most hopeful about, but that has made me the most frustrated so far. Greer, if you will recall, is the noble lady who fell in love with a servant boy, and was subsequently caught and punished. Because her virtue was in question, Greer feared she'd never be able to marry, but she found someone who still loved her: Lord Castleroy. And then her former love, Leith, found glory in battle, won Francis' favor, and ended up becoming a minor noble.

Leith comes back and begs Greer to go away with him. But she doesn't. She stays loyal to Castleroy, because he stayed loyal to her. And I support that, actually. Castleroy is, from what I can tell, the only genuinely good man at court, and he has pleasantly liberal ideas about how women should hold property and be in charge of their own romantic futures.

Unfortunately for me and for the story, Leith doesn't go away. He sticks around, making trouble for Greer and Castleroy, both intentionally and unintentionally. It frustrates me because it feels like the writers are trying to pull drama out from where drama should not be, and it bugs me that they can't think of anything more interesting for Greer to do than to be a human pinball going back and forth between her suitors.

Urgh.

The women of Reign have so much potential. They're all fantastically cast, interesting characters with different strengths and abilities. It's devastating to watch them all flounder about in storylines that don't tap their potential and instead reduce them down to being playthings for the men around them. I hate that. I hate that so much.

Not just because it undermines my appreciation for the show, or even because it makes me feel like maybe I can't actually have all that agency I so desire, but because it makes for a genuinely worse show. Seriously. The show would be better if the women were given more to do.

Like, we've already established that Mary is politically savvy and aware. Well, how about actually having her do the right thing for once? Or how about her actually succeeding? Instead of making a four episode arc about Mary's failures, why not give us something meaty to deal with: have Mary take on Rome and win. Have her chart new territories, and have Francis be the one unsure and blundering. After all, she's been Queen a lot longer than he's been King. And it's not like we have to worry about the historical accuracy. Trust me. No one cares.

Lola has been established as a brilliant tactician and spy for Mary, so why not use her to that end? Instead of all the baby drama, use Lola for what she's good at: getting information. Even better now that she and Mary can be seen to be at political odds with each other. She can manage the nobles for information and report back to Mary, but because Lola is the "King's Mistress", no one ever suspects that she and Mary and in it together.

Greer's marrying a wealthy and successful businessman, and Greer has always been painfully practical. Why not have Greer and Castleroy slowly work their way into the treasury and start dealing more realistically with the Crown's debts. Having Greer work her charm and Castleroy his ledgers in order to get the Crown in the black would be incredibly compelling, and would be really fun.

Heck, even get Kenna using her talents for the kingdom. She's eminently charming, in a way that Mary never will be because Mary is a Queen, and she's married to the King's half-brother. Use her! Sic Kenna on recalcitrant nobles and ambassadors and let her give them the charm offensive until they succumb to Mary's wishes.

In other words, use their potential in the story! There is nothing so frustrating as a show that doesn't know what it could be. Reign has the potential to be amazing, but right now it's just okay. And there's something very insulting about that. It seems to suggest that we as an audience will accept "okay" because we don't realize there's anything better to be had.

Well, I won't. I refuse. I want a show that actually takes me seriously and represents its female characters well. And I'm willing to make a hell of a stink to get it.

Besides, it's always more fun when Catherine and Mary are on the same side and plotting together.

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