Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
For a show that has literally been called the “feminist answer to Game of Thrones” (you never disappoint, Buzzfeed), Starz’s’ Outlander bears little resemblance to HBO’s fantasy epic. The temptation to compare the two is clear: both are big budget period pieces on a premium network and neither skimps on sex and violence in their storytelling. But any comparisons (for now) will stop there, because it seems unfair to reduce Outlander, which has some very original DNA, to another swords-and-sorcery drama.
Describing Outlander as Thrones-for-ladies is an understandable shortcut for the show’s more complicated premise. Outlander follows Claire Beauchamp Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a World War II nurse who is attempting to reconnect with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) after the war ends. While on a second honeymoon in Scotland, Claire is transported back to the 18th century, where she is picked up by a group of Highlanders rebelling against the British crown.
While it touches upon the politics of the time period, Outlander is about a woman out of space (and time). Claire is an outsider in more ways than one: she is a capable nurse in a time before germ theory, an aggressive woman in a patriarchal world, a Briton in an area that is wary of the King’s spies and armies. Claire’s modernity is a liability – she must constantly reach into her limited knowledge of history for names of rulers and regions so as not to draw suspicion – but it is also an asset: her medical skills earn her the trust of at least one Scotsman (dreamboat Jamie MacTavish, played by Sam Heughan) and a safe place at Castle Leoch.
Balfe’s performance as Claire is what makes Outlander stand out. She commands attention and is an actress who can showcase intelligence without saying a word. It’s hard not to be sold on Claire as soon as you see her at work: she saves a soldier’s life only to be pushed aside by a male doctor, and when she is told the war is over she celebrates by stoically drinking Champagne straight from the bottle.
But Outlander, like all fantasies, seems obligated to establish that all women are in constant danger of sexual assault, so Claire is nearly raped as soon as she arrives in the 18th century. Further confirming the dangers of being a woman at any time or place is Jenny, sister of Dreamboat MacTavish. In the second episode, Jenny is assaulted by the same British officer who attacked Claire, though her eventual rape does take place off screen. In addition to using a woman’s attack as a way to give a male character more depth, Outlander puts Jenny’s naked torso on display as she cries for help, a tactic uncomfortably reminiscent of many Game of Thrones low points.
Aside from the show’s use of sexual assault, there are few faults to find with Outlander. Especially impressive is a scene in the second episode where Claire and a woman from the village (the stunning Lotte Verbeek) discuss healing. There is no mention of men, no violence, just a couple of gals trading secrets about medicinal uses for fungi. After Verbeek reveals that her neighbors think she is a witch, it’s clear this relationship has the potential to go in an interesting direction. Claire’s 20th century medical knowledge has already drawn suspicion from her captors, so an association with an alleged witch might not do her any favors.
Outlander is a strong contender for the attention of a growing fantasy audience precisely because of its (sometimes small) differences with shows like Thrones. Like its pay-cable predecessors, Outlander is far from bloodless, but the violence featured in the show is motivated and rather inspired. Claire is not one to shy away from blood, so the camera follows her. Setting broken limbs, cleaning gunshot wounds: Claire is able to handle it all.
The British violence inflicted upon the Highlanders is also present (Dreamboat MacTavish’s back is a map of gruesome scars), but there is little cynicism to be seen in Outlander. The show’s sweeping shots of Scottish vistas and a lovely score demonstrate that, for all its talk of British oppression, Outlander is a romantic show at heart. I’m not sure what lays in store for the rest of the season (I have yet to read the bestselling novels the show is based on) but a show about a female protagonist carving out happiness in a hostile world is distinct enough to keep my attention.
Image Courtesy of starz.com
Just a small correction, Claire is reconnecting with her husband Frank. Not Jack. Frank is from the 20th century while Jack is his 18th century ancestor.
Thanks Anneka (and Jill)! I’ve corrected my mistake in the article. Hopefully Frank will remain absent so it won’t happen again.
News Editor, The Daily Gazette
Claire’s husband’s name is Frank, not Jack. Jack is that evil rapist you speak of.
Great article though.
Jenny, Jamie’s sister, isn’t assaulted in the same episode that Claire is attacked. The assaults go to show the character of Black Jack Randall (aka BJR) as sadistic & opportunistic. The flashback to Jenny ‘ s assault is also a key point in Jamie’s history as it is what landed him in jail & led to him being flogged twice & then declared outlaw.
While the assaults aren’t pretty, they aren’t just thrown in. They are historically accurate & essential for character development.
Great article- looking forward to seeing how you enjoy the rest!
Hey Jeannie –
Yes, Claire is nearly raped in the pilot, and, as I said in the piece, Jenny is assaulted in the second episode.
I understood that Jenny’s attack was meant to show Randall’s abusive nature and Jamie’s penchant for sacrifice (reinforced later on when he takes on the punishment of a village girl), but I have never been a fan of hurting women to develop male characters. It’s a lazy device used too often in genre fiction (see also: “women in refrigerators” in comics).
I’ve talked about similar problems while writing about Game of Thrones. While depicting sexual assault is “accurate,” I disagree that it’s essential. There are many other everyday occurrences that these medieval fantasies could portray – why is rape always first on the list? Why is that the go-to tool to develop characters?
I hope this doesn’t come off as too harsh on Outlander. I am already in love with the show, and I’m hoping I’ll write more about it!
News Editor, The Daily Gazette
Love the article. Thank you. I don’t think the show is using rape as a tool but simply following the original book material which addressed the very real threat of rape for women in the mid 18th century.
Since you haven’t read the book, you only know what Jamie has told Claire about what happened to Jenny. Book readers also made the same assumptions at this point in the story. The assumed rape of Jenny would have happened in the house, away from Jamie’s eyes, and he hasn’t seen Jenny since he was knocked out and taken off to prison to be whipped. And I’ll leave it at that 🙂
I appreciate your review, however in reading the books you may find that some of your assumptions are off the mark. I won’t put spoilers, but you’ll find that men are equally at risk of sexual assault, and that women don’t simply acquiesce to advances whether wanted or not.
Also rape isn’t just historically accurate, it is still a part of war and political manoeuvring. Angelina Jolie is helping the UN fight against sex crimes in war. Also consider the practice of “prima nocte” Whether it was ever a law or not, it was still a common enough belief to be oft repeated.
Believe me if you picked up the books, well actually just the first one, you would be amazed at what depth the characters have, and be lucky to read it before the series on TV finishes…. Unless you put your life on hold, which has been done before! Great show, good recount!
Nice review. If you haven’t read the books then you are in for some big surprises. Buckle up – it’s going to get rough later on.
A couple of notes:
“British” is not a synonym for “English.” British people are residents of the island of Britain, which includes England, Scotland and Wales. The Scots are in conflict with the English, and that is how they are referred to in Outlander.
You have obviously not read the book – which is fine, it’s nice to get a non-reader’s perspective – but I’ll just note that in this series, many things are not what they seem, so many assumptions can be wrong. You’ll see as it progresses. 🙂
Not to be spoilerish…but please do not assume that you know what happened offscreen. Knowing what I know from the books, please do not make an assumption about what happened to Jenny, even if that’s what you are lead to believe.
I expect that will be cleared up for you in time. The refreshing thing about this story is that most of the women are stronger than the men around them think. 🙂
Mother of Dragons has nothing on the women of Outander!
Otherwise a really apt article. 🙂
Great article, Alison! About the Jenny/Black Jack scene…I think you’ll understand the need for this scene later in the season. While the scene in episode 2 certainly develops male character, to our feminist horror, all may not have been as it seemed. I’ll be curious to read your reaction later when all is revealed about this purported encounter.
I can’t agree that these assault scenes are gratuitous or that they merely develop male the character.Both are in the books – not there to develop Black Jack’s character only. They build the history of these women and explain much of what is to come. As this story develops I suspect that you will see their significance. If you will look back to “RobRoy” and “Braveheart” you may find that the depiction of this part of Scot/Brit history was brutal to both men and women, and though I realize they are both Hollywood renditions, they have some factual basis. There is a great deal of backstory and in these first episodes in order to develop the many characters who will be introduced as this story develops. When you have the advantage of having read the books, it is clear. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series despite this. I’m hoping it will inspire you and many others to read it.
Jenny was not raped (you’ll find out later) and it’s an important scene to include because it establishes why Jamie and Jenny are separated as family and haven’t spoken. It wasn’t a scene solely to mark Black Jack’s cruelty but to reference Jamie’s closest living relative. Great article but I promise the book is worth reading for greater insight.
Also, Dreamboat’s last name is Fraser, not McTavish!
We know it’s Fraser but that has not been revealed in the Starz production yet. He’s still going by McTavish.
Oh, I DO hope you read the books! So many more layers than possible on TV, no matter how fantastic a job Ron D Moore and cast and crew are doing. Diana Gabaldon wrote this book for practice, not even intending to publish it! She was seeing if she could do it! That may explain away some of the more obvious plot devices…. ENJOY!!!
Although I have no idea how the screenplay will portray the assault on Jenny, in the book it is discussed at length and she is in fact not raped. I won’t say what happened so I don’t ruin the show for anyone who hasn’t read the books. I do think that it’s hard to watch/read about but in that time these things were far too common and were serious dangers to women. In the book these incidents are essential not only to the character development of the male characters but also for the female characters.
Black Jack Randall’s “rapey-ness” is an expression of his sadistic, perverted use of his power, which is actually quite an accurate description of rapists in general. Further, the incidents in the first two episodes are important for the ongoing character revelations and plot development of the story.
You may even have noticed that nobody was raped or even had consensual sex in the 3rd episode. This is NOT a hackneyed TV series that relies on breasts being exposed every 10 minutes or so to keep viewer attention. This is an intriguing, original story that will surprise, enthrall, and amuse you. The heroes have flaws, villains have the potential for good in them. Stay tuned – it’s gonna be a wild ride!
Jenny wasn’t raped off scene or otherwise. Jack Randall wasn’t capable after she kneed him a good one.
I’m glad you’re enjoying the show. It’s so fascinating seeing the reactions of those who haven’t read the books yet and I’m hoping you write more about bit later in the season as well. I understand your distaste for the violence against women and I will be very curious about how you view those scenes once you’ve seen how they play into the larger plot.
As an aside, and I hope that this comes through as well in the show as it does in the books, one of the things I love in these books is that violent actions do not come without consequence. Even for the “good guys,” maybe especially for them.
And the men won’t be the only ones doing the rescuing in this series I assure you. 🙂 I want to say more but I’ll come back when the season is over to see you reactions.
allison, do yourself a favor and read the books. not only will the reading provide you with a deeper understanding of the tv series so that you would not make errors such as assuming jenny was raped by jack offstage [the failure of said attempted rape representing an important element in understanding who this man was], but you’d be treating yourself to a literature dish par excellence!
Just wanted to say–
Allison’s assumption that Jenny was raped was not a “mistake.” The viewer (and in the book, the reader) is meant to make that assumption.
Commenters should really be more careful about revealing spoilers to those who have never read the books.
Allison, it’s always a treat to read a thoughtful review and yours was a reasonable assessment, given the information you have, but it was also incomplete. Sam Heughan’s very fine portrayal of Jamie is not even mentioned, and Jamie’s character is reduced to nothing more than repeated mentions of “Dreamboat MacTavish.” If you think that’s all he is — the requisite male hunk — then you’re missing a vitally important layer to this story. You’re very quick to praise the women, but the strong performances of the men are given very short shrift. Why is that?
So Allson, what was it like? Walking into the human buzzsaw that is the collective fandom of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” and the wildly popular TV series bases on that book? Brave lass! I enjoyed reading your article.