ABC’s latest drama Still Star-Crossed comes from the world we would all like to live in, Shondaland. That means the Romeo And Juliet adaptation-with-a-twist is filled with confident, intelligent women of colour, a long list of insanely soapy plot twists, and gorgeous costuming. Amid all of these utopia-level details there’s something rotten in Verona. Namely, it’s everyone's baffling level of obsession with female virginity.
In the premiere episode "In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene," viewers meet doomed lovers, Romeo Montague (Lucien Laviscount) and Juliet Capulet (Clara Rugaard). As we all know, the sworn enemies meet at a ball, fall head over heels in love, and get married in secret. Then silly Romeo commits the small faux pas of murdering his wife’s cousin, leading to a Verona-wide manhunt for the young noble. Between the wedding and the bloody parricide, Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, as you would expect from two crazy in love teenagers. Well, everyone but lead character Rosaline Capulet (Lashana Lynch) would expect this.
On the morning everyone’s searching for newly-minted murderer Romeo, Juliet’s father Lord Capulet (Anthony Head) announces he’s betrothed his sole daughter to the powerful Count Paris of Mantua. There’s an obvious issue here: Juliet is secretly already married to Romeo, and bigamy is a huge sin. With Romeo’s death imminent — it’s now Verona law that anyone who commits murder must be executed — Rosaline tries to turn her cousin’s upcoming status as a widow into a silver lining amid the Paris problem.
"There’s no sin in being a widow, and a virgin widow at that," Rosaline tells her cousin, sounding much more like the misogynistic Lord Capulet than herself for a moment. The very married Juliet shoots back, "I’m not a virgin. Do you think me a fool?" In a decidedly non-sex positive moment, Rosaline looks absolutely gutted over the fact Juliet slept with her own husband.
Rosaline’s own virginity is then brought up in last night’s "The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth" when she’s engaged to the remaining Montague heir, Benvolio, and forced to act as Lady Capulet. The title change comes with a move up from the Capulet servants' quarters to the late Juliet’s bedroom. Rosaline is not a fan of the very morbid change. Creepily, Lord Capulet defends his macabre edict by explaining, "I’m honour-bound to deliver you to the Montagues well-fed, well-cared for, and with your virtue intact." Yuck.
The issue with both of these virginity-focused statements is just how unnecessary they are to the plot. Rosaline, a progressive young woman who loves her cousin, has no reason to start talking about Juliet’s virginity. If the Still Star-Crossed team really wanted to make sure the young woman confirms she slept with Romeo, there are other ways to accomplish that than having a character who seems like a feminist start extolling the virtues of chastity. This also applies to Lord Capulet’s weird demands about keeping Rosaline’s "virtue intact." There are literally millions of other duties he could have listed with the upcoming betrothal. But, for some reason, we all really needed to hear about Rosaline’s sexual history.
Yes, virginity was a historically huge factor in engagements at the time Star-Crossed takes place, but it’s not like the drama is sticking to reality in every other facet. The series has created one of the most admirably race-blind casts currently on TV, with a Black prince, his Iranian sister, and a Black Romeo, whose father happens to be white. Obviously, none of this was actually going on with the ruling class of Medieval Italy. If Crossed is willing to take such modern day liberties with the characters we’re looking at, it can leave disturbingly old-fashioned beliefs about female sexuality in the dust as well. Instead, they’re adding to the problem with new conservatisms. Later in "True Love" Friar Lawrence (Dan Hildebrand) mentions Juliet was called "The Flower Of Verona," and everyone knows flowers are used as a metaphor for virginity. That nickname is never mentioned in the original Romeo & Juliet source material, so the show created yet another reference to “virtue.”
If we’re allowed to see Benvolio enjoy his local brothel to his heart’s content, we can totally go without hearing about one more Capulet woman’s virginity.