In Salon earlier this week, Tracy Clark-Flory riffed on the CW’s decision to cut a scene of a teenage girl masturbating from the pilot episode of its period drama Reign. The show, which premieres tonight, imagines Mary Queen of Scots as a teenager. Kept in were shots of a bedding ceremony (a 16th century ritual in which a new couple consummates their marriage in the presence of elders), a bloody beheading, and an adult man’s seduction of a young lady-in-waiting. But, as Clark-Flory notes, “a young woman masturbating? Heavens no.”
She asks why autoeroticism is so much more shocking than partnered sex. Then she answers herself: “We’re thoroughly comfortable with women’s bodies being sexualized—but not so much with women being sexual.” Furthermore, “we’re unaccustomed to depictions of female desire that emphasize sexual longing as opposed to manipulation or a narcissistic want to be wanted.”
In other words, sexism. It’s a powerful argument—that we would still rather eroticize a woman’s form than view her as a person with an erotic appetite. (When Marnie got off in a bathroom stall on Girls, it was a subversive reclaiming of sexual agency. Though it actually scanned as pretty dismal and sad to me.) Maybe the CW scrapped the one scene that cast a woman as the author of her own erogenous destiny because the network can't stand to imagine women as anything more than passive recipients of pleasure—or, worse, objects of voyeurism. (I’ve reached out to the CW for comment and will update this post if I hear back.)
Except I suspect that footage of a teenage boy masturbating would have met the same fate. And many, many two-person sex scenes make it perfectly clear that the lady is passionate and engaged: We have an over-moaning problem, not an under-moaning problem. The issue here is not so much sexism as general prudery. From a network perspective, masturbation is more shocking than public intercourse not because it returns sexual agency to women but because it severs pleasure from intimacy or emotional connection. In 2013, this is still a radical idea.
Meanwhile, self-service sounds like pumping gas for a reason—it’s mechanical and does not exactly shimmer with romance. The kind of gratification you get from getting yourself off bears no relation to the stories civilized people tell each other about sex: that it’s linked to love, that it is expressive, that it keeps society together. And here, maybe, lies the final piece of the outrage: People tune into a network television period drama for fantasy and escape, not to watch characters do what you do alone on a Tuesday night in between loads of laundry. So I hereby abandon the sexism argument in order to propose a simpler explanation for Reign’s deleted scene: CW is full of Puritans. The real Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, would have hated them.