‘Outlander’s Dark Exploration of Sexual Assault

The sexy, melodramatic Starz adaptation of Outlander started out as the most fun and female-friendly thing on TV. Yet like many viewers who had read the source material, I nursed a nagging concern about where the show headed, based on the graphic turn the book takes towards the end. When would all the narrow escapes, the near-assaults and captures, turn at last into something inescapable and terrible? The answer came in the debut season’s final two episodes, which spared no detail in dramatizing a very intense rape and torture sequence between sadistic villain Black Jack Randall and our hero, Jamie Fraser.

As I noted in my recaps of those episodes, I think the sexual assault of Jamie functions best if you see Outlander not as explicitly feminist, but rather as a gender-flipped take on the classic adventure story — with a feisty but trouble-prone heroine who gets to marry two men without technically cheating and a hero who must be rescued from degradation by the heroine’s wit and pluck. This is true of the adaptation, too, with a show that’s trying to pander to, and in many ways pioneer, a female erotic gaze on TV. Yet inventing such a gaze is complicated. As Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrates, rape and domination fears and fantasies are a part of the erotic landscape for women in a patriarchy.

Outlander takes that concept and passes it on to the hero, making Jamie’s body and soul bear the brunt of the environment of sexual threats that Claire faces when she travels back in time to Scotland. Instead of the menace coming from the hero, as in more traditional romance setups like Twilight and Fifty Shades, the threat ends up being to the hero. He is Claire’s proxy in receiving trauma — and since Claire is the female audience’s stand-in, he’s receiving that trauma for us. Not to get too English major-ish, but here goes: there’s a reason the actors found it resonant to arrange themselves into a Pieta and referred to Jamie as Christ. He’s suffering for the patriarchy’s sins.

Several smart writers are tackling this set of ideas, as we all struggle to process what has happened to Jamie and decide whether, essentially, we’re OK with it: “Claire… has escaped threatened sexual violence time and time again, while the male hero, Jamie, is now a survivor of it,” writes Lauren LeVine, arguing that what makes this treatment different than, say, the rape on Game of Thrones is that Jamie is a survivor rather than a victim. “Jamie Fraser’s assault will be pivotal in the ongoing conversation about how to portray the emotional, physical, and psychological repercussions of sexual violence.”

Ester Bloom observes the way that this sequence inverts typical film and TV tropes: “Almost since their invention, moving pictures have been used to show young, beautiful women suffering at the hands of bad guys. Outlander flips the script,” she writes. “Although Claire, Jenny, and other women have been in plenty of danger over the course of the season, and we got quite used to seeing them stripped at least partly naked, the show’s most gruesome, in-your-face sexual violence is reserved for, of all people, our male hero.” Both writers note that the shame and self-blame that assault victims often experience is intensified by the challenge presented to Jamie’s Highlands-bred sense of masculinity.

The novelty of this plotline in comparison to traditional narratives is confirmed by a recent interview with Outlander‘s showrunner Ron D. More. “I kind of knew, as soon as I read the book, I had never seen this story on film or TV,” he said. “It felt like we had a unique challenge, a unique story, and it didn’t feel like there was much out there to help us along the way, so it was like, ‘How are we going to figure this out?'” Outlander novelist Diana Gabaldon also addressed the controversy on Facebook recently, explaining like a true writer that she takes her plots into the depths in order to test them: “the reason why Bad Things happen to people in my books is not to excite the reader in a watching-a-train-wreck ghoulish sort of way. It’s to reveal the true nature and deep character of the person to whom the bad thing happens — in a way that you simply don’t get when a person is responding to the normal vicissitudes of life.”

Usually, when shows, books, and films mess around with sexist tropes by inverting gender roles, there’s a level at which it feels acceptable — even if the male characters are flattened, if they exist to support the growth of the female ones, or if they are written as secondary and supporting in a typically “female” way. Why shouldn’t some art privilege a female experience and relegate men to the sidelines? In this kind of context, one can understand why what happens to Jamie happens, and one can even understand why this take on a too-common trope is interesting, new, and challenging because of the way gender roles come into play.

The question that remains is whether it’s fair to treat a character so degradingly in service of symbolic resonance, testing, and future character building, whether the scenario is gender-flipped or not. Fans say the scene is absolutely necessary to the future of the series, and if that’s true, I think that qualifies it as an acceptable use of rape in storytelling. But I’m still left ambivalent, perhaps because of the way Jamie’s ordeal played out so agonizingly over the final episodes.

Still, I will tune in to Season 2 purely for Outlander’s take on assault, and its aftermath, even as I quietly lament the campier historical romp that Outlander could have been had this plot point not been deemed necessary. Maybe that alternate version of the show is simply a different story, waiting for someone else to write it.