As more and more women hop behind the camera, we can almost certainly look forward to seeing more and more depictions of women enjoying sex — scenes that understand that sex is something complex, sensual, and not something that happens the instant a man, er, let’s just say gets the process going (something every woman knows is not even close to realistic). But for now, scenes in which women are given pleasure the right way, and are shown enjoying said pleasure the right (i.e. non-exploitive) way are still remarkable. And one such scene centers Saoirse Ronan’s Mary in Mary Queen of Scots.
“You don't really get to see that in in films, and what I also like is that it's purely pleasure for her,” says Ronan one December morning. I’ve just brought up the small, but impactful Mary scene in which the queen’s husband-to-be performs oral sex on her for almost an entire minute (an eternity in movie time) and doesn’t receive any sexual gratification in return. The scene is almost entirely about Mary, focused more on her feelings during the act than anything else around her. “You're just watching this person receive pleasure as opposed to having to give it back and you don't really see that that often," the actor adds.
Ronan says that director Josie Rourke made the effort to ensure that this tiny scene was done right, including digging into the real Mary’s sexual history at the time of this encounter with the man who would become her husband, Lord Darnley. “[The scene] is the way it is for a woman when she experiences that for the first time. It's a total revelation for her,” says Ronan, pointing out that in real life, Mary’s previous marriage was to a young king she largely regarded as a brother, so it’s extremely unlikely that prior to meeting Darnley, she’d ever experienced oral sex. In fact, the actor worked with her co-star in the scene, Jack Lowden, and the film’s choreographer and movement coach, Wayne McGregor, meticulously to perfect “how it could sort of progress and how it would build and, and the excitement that builds and the passion within, but also this was a very new thing for [Mary] and we needed to keep that innocence in it as well.”
Aside from the choreography, the scene uses one almost absurdly simple tool to keep the scene about the experience of the character, rather than any male-gaze sexualization or exploitation in the moment: clothes. While Mary experiences clear and visual ecstasy, her face is the focus, and her body is not exposed.
“The thing that really excited me about that was the fact that there wasn't, you know, a nude woman's body on the bed and everyone else was fully clothed, because I feel like you see that so often in films where it's like, it's the woman's arse or the woman's tits that are out and everyone else is just sort of covered up because it's just been acceptable to expose one [gender] more than not the other,” Ronan says. She also specifies that while she doesn’t think all female nudity is wrong in film, this scene stands out because “it's dignified, it's still very sort of innocent, but she's sort of coming into her own.”
So while the scene is a tiny one in the scope of the movie, the steps taken to perfect each detail ensure that a true depiction of sexuality makes it to screen, and that this potentially insignificant movie moment is no one but Mary’s. As it absolutely should be.