Outlander: False Feminism?

Three Atlantic writers discuss Starz's buzzy new fantasy show.

Julie Beck: Every time I mention the new Starz series Outlander to someone, they say some variant on “Oh, my mom loves those books.” My connection to the show is no different—the women in my family have been into these books for years. My grandma, my mom, and my aunt all read them, and passed them along to me when I was in high school. The story, which focuses on Claire Beauchamp Randall, a World War II-era nurse who travels back in time to 18th-century Scotland, is captivating. And despite the inherent awkwardness in finding steamy romance scenes in a book your grandma gave you, I binge-read the novels.

I have only good things to say about Starz’s decision to adapt a book series that has long been popular among women in a natural, word-of-mouth sort of way. I have less good things to say about the fact that many people are comparing the show to Game of Thrones, when the two are similar only in that they are based on books, are fantasies, and are produced by premium channels.

I get the impulse, though. Claire is the sort of female character Game of Thrones and so many other fantasy stories lack. (Not to mention so many stories of all genres.) She’s strong, but not in the lazy way “strong female characters” are often written, when a writer takes a typical macho action hero, and gives the character another X chromosome. She owns her sexuality, but isn’t sexualized. She’s smart, caring, and has some creative swears. (“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!”)

But going into the show, I worry that too much pressure is being put on it to blaze the way for female-driven fantasy, and it could prove too much to live up to. I worry the burden on Claire to be all these many different things could flatten her and leave her two-dimensional, especially because TV doesn't lend itself well to inner monologue. (So far the show has gone heavy on the voiceover, which kind of bums me out.)

Olga Khazan: Ah yes, the inner monologue. I keep hoping I’ll get used to it, but two episodes in I’m still waiting for it to seem like something other than a porny, British Wonder Years.

To recap, at this point we know that the war is over, Claire is a nurse who is trying to reconnect with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish highlands. She witnesses a druid ceremony, touches a creepy stone, and falls back in time to the same location, 200 years earlier.

Fish-out-of water travails ensue: Claire speaks “like a whore” so she gets nearly raped by her husband’s ancestor, a British army officer named Jonathan Randall. She encounters a group of locals and gets whisked to the castle home of the local “Laird,” Colum MacKenzie. In a highpoint/lowpoint of her journey, she “endures” a multiple-day horseback ride under the woolly tartan of Jamie, who you can tell is the love interest because he’s the only guy on the show who doesn’t have a weird, old-timey haircut.

Claire does seem extremely progressive, and that’s actually pretty historically accurate. Right after World War II, women had just taken on all of these traditionally male roles, and so you had this slight feminist surge for a few years. However, I do worry that she’s maybe a little too—dare I say—pushy. Like, common sense might dictate that if you find yourself transported through time to what appears to be an 18th-century Scottish castle, you don’t talk up your own mysterious healing powers, take an acute interest in the shoulder health of the low-ranking stable boy, or debate rape culture with the Scottish Laird who has the power to take you prisoner. As someone who has reported on people whose views I find abhorrent, sometimes the way to take care of yourself is just to nod and smile and dish to your friends about it later. I like that she’s so tough, but she needs to learn how to lay low.

Also, let’s talk about those healing powers. Is there anything Claire can’t do? She apparently mends dislocated arms with her hands and cleans gunshot wounds with moonshine. Later she fixes Jamie’s various busted body parts by boiling a bunch of rags. If we had some of this 1743-by-way-of-1946 medicine in the modern age we sure could drive down healthcare costs!

Of course, it wouldn’t be a fantasy series without a healthy serving of sex and violence. So far, plenty of flesh has been groped, flayed, and everything in between. But is there a more tactful way to announce that this show is “for women” than to have one of the first big sex scenes to be of a Frank going down on Claire in a castle?

Emma, what do you think? Are we headed toward Fifty Shades of Plaid? Is that a good thing?

Emma: To be honest, I’d be totally down with Fifty Shades of Plaid—so far, this series hasn’t had enough classy, feminist-friendly smut. Fine, fine, the male romantic lead has a recently dislocated shoulder, gunshot wound, and bruised face, but he can man up: The ladies are waiting.

Which is kind of weird, actually; like Julie, I’m ambivalent about the idea that this is a “Game of Thrones for women.” The idea of “television for women” and even “books for women” has been around for a long time, so it’s not like the marketing and buzz around Outlander is all that innovative.

But what, exactly, supposedly makes the show “for women”? There’s a strong female lead. There are some fascinating historical fashion items—in the second episode, Claire dons what appears to be an airplane neck pillow around her hips, presumably so that a 18th-century bard can compose the ballad, “Scottish-highlands badonkadonk.” And of course, there’s the much-ballyhooed oral sex, which a fully clothed Claire gratefully receives from her WWII-life husband inside a rotting Scottish castle in episode one. If in 2014, there are still men who would object to a TV show featuring any of this stuff, they’re not men worth worrying about.

But, since we’re talking about gender, I do have some questions about the emotional dynamics of the show. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not totally sure what’s coming, but as Olga said, it’s pretty clear that Claire and Jamie are going to make sweet, sweet Scottish love. From a tantilization perspective, I’m totally in support of this hook-up, but from an emotional perspective: wow! The first episode was all about Claire and her WWII-life husband, Frank, trying to reconnect after five years of being separated by the war. He seems kind, smart, and caring (he goes down on her in a dank castle, for God’s sake!), and at one point, they even have a touching conversation about whether they were faithful to each other during the war (they were).

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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