Last August, Starz premiered Outlander, based on the Outlander series by the New York Times bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. Like other speculative fiction conversions of material from books to television, such as The Walking Deadand Game of Thrones, Outlander has ignited large swathes of conversation, particularly in concern to its feminist credentials.
Outlander is the story of WWII nurse Claire Randall/Fraser played by Caitriona Balfe, who travels back in time two hundred years to the 18th century. As a woman literally outside of time, Claire is forced to negotiate the patriarchal society of the era, while trying to find her way home. Claire's modern attitudes regarding gender, as well as a suspicion about her true identity, place her in conflict with a Scottish laird and a British Dragoon Commander.
Outlander is often compared quite positively to Game of Thrones because of its similar settings and the fact that both originate from New York Times bestselling authors. Game of Thrones, which caters continually to the male gaze, using women as little more than sexual props, makes Outlander, at first blush, appear to be female-centric and progressive. Claire, flush from the experience of being a nurse on the WWII frontlines, is sure of herself, outspoken, skilled and decidedly sexual.
In the first half of season one, the most talked-about scene involves Claire initiating sex with her historian husband by indicating that he should kneel and perform cunnilingus on her. The simulation of fellatio in the media is a common event because male pleasure, just like the infamous "money shot" in porn, exemplifies sexual gratification. A woman initiating sex – or specifically as in the case of Claire Randall/Fraser cunnilingus – sends the message that the focus ofOutlander is the female gaze; it seeks to prioritize women's desire above that of the men.
It's interesting that there are so many articles aimed at trying to decide whether or not Outlander is feminist, when author Diana Gabaldon stated explicitly that she eschews all labels and wouldn't describe herself as feminist. In fact, in an essay at WIRED, Gabaldon is quoted as saying, “Feminism didn’t enter into it. Feminism enters into it when you don’t feel strong and you feel like you need… an ideology to hide behind. If you’re confident in yourself you don’t do that.”
Perhaps the question we should be asking isn't about how feminist Starz Outlander is, but what feminist potential exists, given that the television program is faithful to Gabaldon's story and that the originating text is riddled with rape as a plot device, slut-shaming, and violence against women.
In a story that is set in the past, historical accuracy often becomes the defense for a lack of modern perspectives from the characters. It may not have been historically accurate for Jamie Fraser, the male lead and romantic hero (played by the handsome Sam Heughan) to become a champion of women's equality, but it is worth noting that there have always been outliers who didn't conform to societal norms. That men had the ability to rape and beat their wives with impunity in the eighteenth century certainly didn't mean that each man did so. It is an absolute fact that without these outliers and allies to various social justice causes, societal values and the rule of law would have remained stagnant.
When Starz Outlander returns for the finale half of season one, new fans who have not read the series and have thus far enjoyed the so-called feminist portrayal, the infamous spanking scene awaits them. Claire is captured by the English and Jamie risks his life to save her. As a result of putting the clan in danger, Jamie takes it upon himself to punish Claire by beating her with his sword belt so viciously that she cannot sit for three days. To add insult to injury, Claire is then teased remorselessly by those who overheard her assault.
This is clearly an incident of intimate partner violence, but for Gabaldon, it typifies Highland justice.
"Well, he doesn’t exactly beat her. He’s not punching her in the mouth or throwing her against the wall,” she said. “He spanks her with his sword belt because she did something incredibly dangerous and nearly got them all killed. This was basically what the Highland justice was like. If you screwed up, you got punished for it, and then you were back in the good graces of the clan. That’s what he’s doing; it’s his duty as her husband basically to correct her, set her on the right path."
Claire does not easily submit to the beating; however, she very quickly accepts Jamie's explanation and it's not long before the two have re-established a loving relationship. Jamie not only feels justified in his position, he actively suggests that Claire should be grateful that he did not demand sex after the assault. This incident actively makes it impossible to believe that Claire and Jamie have an egalitarian relationship and calls to mind the words of Audre Lorde: “Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.” Claire's mindset can only be explained if we accept that she has internalised the faulty notion that there can be justified provocation for intimate partner violence.
As part of their reconciliation, Jamie promises never to raise a hand to Claire again. Nonetheless, throughout the series, not only does he repeatedly remind Claire of the incident, he continually threatens to beat her. Clearly, readers are expected to ignore the continual threats of violence, emotional abuse and manipulation.
Though Gabaldon excuses Jamie's behaviour as a part of Highland justice, it becomes obvious in A Breathe of Snow and Ashes (Book 6) that his actions are really about ownership. In conversation with Claire about his failure to utilise corporeal punishment to keep his former wife Laoghaire in line, Jamie admits, “I think it was that I didna care enough for her to think of it, let alone do it.” Jamie's feelings for Claire however are quite different: "You, mo nighean donn—you, I would own.” The message here is that if you love a woman, you own her – and it is justifiable to beat her. This passage reads like the typical defense often employed by men who are guilty of domestic violence.
In Dragon Fly in Amber, the second book in this series, Claire actually requests to be beaten with nettles for the high crime of having sex with the king of France, in an effort to save Jamie's life. Where did the strong woman from Outlander– the one who believed that she had a right to live a life free of violence – suddenly go? It's a particularly salient question, given the suggestion that Claire is a feminist heroine. For Claire, her suggestion is clearly about assuaging Jamie's wounded fragile male pride. It indicates that Claire has stopped fighting and has instead chosen to accede to Jamie's headship of her.
For a series heralded by so many as progressive, it's interesting that violence against women in fiction, much as in real life, is inter-generational. Brianna grew up with Frank Randall as her father instead of Jamie, her biological father. Akin to her mother Claire, Brianna accepts abuse as a form of love. Brianna decides to travel through the stones to meet her parents in the past in Drums of Autumn and is followed by her then-boyfriend, Roger. The journey through time and across the ocean from Scotland to America is trying for them both, but Roger's rage results in him declaring that were he not a modern man, "Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to lay my belt across your arse a dozen times or so.” In an exact mirror of her mother's reaction, Brianna finds herself not only accepting the threat as a form of concern for her safety, but she actually apologises to Roger. Violence is how men react in this series when women dare to step out of their place.
Perhaps Gabaldon can loosely justify Jamie as a man of his time, but Roger was alive and well in 1968 - a time when the second wave of feminism began to crest in a crusade for justice. 1968 was the year that Shirley Chisolm became the first African-American woman elected to U.S. Congress, while activists protested the Miss America Pageant. It was also the year that The Women's Majority Union, a Seattle women's liberation organization, published the first issue of Lilith- one of the first radical publications from the Second Wave. This is the world that both Brianna and Roger come from and yet, Roger expects passivity out of a woman who became an engineer in spite of the glass ceiling.
Brianna knows exactly who she is and what she wants. When she proposes a night of passion instead of marriage, Roger becomes enraged. It's worth noting that Brianna is from Boston, where University students petitioned Bill Baird in 1967 to challenge Massachusetts's stringent "Crimes Against Chastity, Decency, Morality and Good Order" law. Equality with men and sexual liberation were just two of the goals of the women's liberation movement. And in this world, on the very cusp of change and social upheaval, Roger doesn't just decline Brianna's offer – he slut-shames her. "What d'ye mean by making me such an offer - and you a nice Catholic girl, straight out of Mass! I thought ye were a virgin." At this point, Gabaldon could have driven home Brianna's subversion of so-called gender norms but instead, Brianna declares herself a virgin. It's ironic that Outlander has been cast as progressive for having Jamie be a virgin on his wedding night with the sexually experienced Claire, even as fans ignore that Gabaldon retreated from that path by having Brianna protest and proclaim her sexual innocence when her supposed indecent proposal is rejected by Roger.
Roger wants the pure Catholic girl - a woman purer than Cesar's wife. He cannot accept a Brianna who is in control of her body and sexuality and must reduce Brianna to her vagina, making her body a conquest of possession in the guise of love. Roger could not and would not contemplate what Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique: "Instead of fulfilling the promise of infinite orgastic bliss, sex in the America of the feminine mystique is becoming a strangely joyless national compulsion, if not a contemptuous mockery." For Roger, sex with Brianna is not about her fulfillment, let alone her desires; it's all about staking his claim.
This is confirmed again in A Breathe of Snow and Ashes. Roger and Brianna are sleeping after an evening of partying. They are completely surrounded by friends and family, yet the drunken Roger initiates sex. Brianna tries several times to stop Roger and even pushes his hand away on numerous occasions but Roger refuses to be stopped. To keep Roger on good terms with the readers, Gabaldon has Brianna simply submit to Roger's demands after he pins her on her back. Brianna suddenly declares arousal, despite her fears that their child is sleeping nearby and that they will be caught in action. How many times does a woman have to say “no” to sex for it to count as an explicit lack of consent? Why does Roger and Brianna's marital status somehow wash away the stain of violation? Roger's failure to accept “no” and Brianna's eventual acquiescence only come into appropriate context if one truly understands former journalist Evelyn Cunningham's assertion that "women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their oppressors." For Brianna, it is marriage that turns an act of sexual assault into marital copulation.
Much of the Outlander series deals with Jamie's brutal rape by Jonathon Randall and his recovery from this violation. Jamie's assault serves two purposes: it humanises him as someone to empathise with and turns Randall, one of two LGBT characters in the series at the time, into an evil antagonist. Throughout the series, Gabaldon returns repeatedly to Jamie's PTSD and his struggle to move past this moment of violation. It brings to mind Sarah Dessen's Just Listen.
“I'd still thought that everything I thought about that night-the shame, the fear-would fade in time. But that hadn't happened. Instead, the things that I remembered, these little details, seemed to grow stronger, to the point where I could feel their weight in my chest. Nothing, however stuck with me more than the memory of stepping into that dark room and what I found there, and how the light then took that nightmare and made it real.”
It comes as a shock when our favourite red headed male lead becomes a rapist himself.
In Voyager, the third novel in this series, Geneva, a wealthy heiress, blackmails Jamie into taking her virginity. Unfortunately for Geneva, when she changes her mind, Jamie is far from accommodating.
“Take it out!” she screamed.
He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of. “No,” he said definitely, and shoved.
He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of. “No,” he said definitely, and shoved.
Jamie is cast as the character we are meant to root for – someone supposedly steeped in morality – and yet he is undoubtedly a rapist. This man – someone who knows intimately what it is to be violated – becomes that which he despises most. As much as rape as a plot device is deplorable, Jamie's rape of Geneva could have been an interesting interrogation of how power is operationalized through rape. Instead, the rape is cast aside as though nothing untoward, violent and abusive occurred. Geneva apologises to Jamie, believing that the grimace he makes during orgasm is a sign of his pain. Unlike Jamie, Geneva does not get years to reflect on what happened to her and instead dies giving birth to Jamie's child - the product of her violation.
Geneva's rape is not the only time Jamie fails to identify with the victim. By the time Brianna finally meets her father, she is pregnant. Because Brianna is raped shortly after having sex with Roger, she is unsure of the child's paternity. As fitting for the time, Jamie seeks to find a husband for his daughter, determined that she shall not be shamed in front of society. Brianna, quite unsurprisingly, refuses to countenance the idea of marrying her rapist. This is enough to make Jamie question Brianna's story.
“Well, I’m thinkin’—are ye maybe playin’ wi’ the truth a bit, lass? Perhaps it wasna rape at all; perhaps it was that ye took a mislike to the man, and ran—and made up the story later. Ye were not marked, after all. Hard to think a man could force a lass of your size, if ye were unwilling altogether.”
To add insult to injury, the one time Jamie decides to explain the helplessness a victim of sexual assault experiences, he does so by physically assaulting Brianna.
“I could break your neck,” he said, very quietly. The weight of his arm left her shoulders, though the twisted arm still held her bent forward, hair loose and tumbled, nearly touching the floor. A hand settled on her neck. She could feel thumb and index fingers on either side, pressing lightly on her arteries. He squeezed, and black spots danced before her eyes.
“I could kill you, so.”
“I could kill you, so.”
This is how Jamie chooses to treat his only daughter. This is the man readers and viewers are meant to embrace and cheer for. He is far removed from the hypersexual Highland fantasy. Jamie is prone to violence against the women he loves. For Jamie, love is not what bell hooks theorized in Communion: The Female Search for Love: "a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.”
All of this and so much more awaits viewers of Outlander, should the Starz adaptation stay true with its commitment to faithfully reproducing the original text. It is for the sake of brevity that I focus on the four main characters: Jamie, Claire, Roger and Brianna.
Jamie's empathy towards other survivors continues to be horrifying at best. When Claire is raped after being kidnapped in A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Jamie initially seeks to comfort her. With the advent of the morning-after pill hundreds of years off, Claire has no opportunity to stop the occurrence of a possible pregnancy from rape. Jamie's solution is to offer to have sex with Claire, so that if she finds herself with child, there will be doubt as to who the true father is. The supposed magnanimousness of his offer is astounding.
What is perhaps is more troubling, however, is Roger's understanding of Jamie's perverse proposal.
"It wasn’t the possibility of a child, he thought suddenly. It was fear—but not of that. It was Jamie’s fear that he would lose her—that she would go, swing out into a dark and solitary space without him, unless he could somehow bind her to him, keep her with him. But, Christ, what a risk to take—with a woman so shocked and brutalized, how could he risk it? How could he not?"
Roger's interpretation indicates that Claire's violation for Jamie does not represent a crime against her, but a violation of his rights as Claire's husband. Jamie wants to eradicate the trespassing of his property (read: Claire) by replacing his mark upon her, thereby reclaiming his possession. A true partner does not choose to own their equal, but to compliment and uplift the other person when necessary. For all of Jamie's supposed belief in Claire's intelligence, at the end of the day, Claire is Jamie's possession, as surely as the horses he loves so much.
Though I have detailed several problematic incidents in the series, it does not come near to a full accounting of the outright sexist and violent treatment of women in Outlander. It concerns me that Outlander has managed to convince audiences that it is feminist or even an answer to the misogyny regularly displayed on HBO's Game of Thrones. Outlander has a prettier backdrop which carefully disguises its nefarious intent – justification of the subjugation of women based supposedly in love. Those unfamiliar with the originating text have no idea of what is in store for them in the second half of season one, let alone season two. The creators of Outlander have set viewers up for disappointment and they have most assuredly set up new fans to be triggered by its crass treatment of violence against women. Outlander isn't the speculative fiction answer to the misogyny regularly featured in more readily recognisable and popular tomes, because the bulk of the series reads like an abuser’s handbook. Without drastic changes from the original text, there is no chance that Starz adaptation of Outlander can be female-positive, let alone actively feminist.
It's clear that after a careful reading of this series, Gabaldon is right: feminism has nothing to do with the Outlander series and based on this, we certainly shouldn't expect a feminist agenda from the Starz adaptation. Feminism empowers women, but Outlander routinely situates its female characters to be victims of both sexual and emotional abuse. Feminism doesn't explain away intimate partner violence in the name of love – and it certainly does not trivialize rape for the sake of making a cheap point. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde famously wrote, "We do not have to romanticize our past in order to be aware of how it seeds our present.” This is something each person who chooses to reads this series or watches the Starz adaptation should actively consider. Outlander is not mindless fluff to pass the time when so many of its themes continue to perpetuate real harm to women today.