Outlander: False Feminism?

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).

By the next episode, we’re already being set up to cheer for Claire and Jamie getting together, which is jarring—just because she’s found a hunk in another century, why should she have license to be unfaithful to her husband? Presumably, the introduction of the dastardly Jonathan Randall is supposed to ease this tension a little—he is identical to Frank, and he’s a jerk, so we, the viewers, may find it easier to defect from team Frank on account of his asshole ancestors. But I’m still conflicted—just because Claire’s husband theoretically hasn’t been born yet, her impending liaison with Jamie still seems like cheating to me.

Also, as Olga mentioned, there’s been a lot of rape so far—Claire’s been threatened with rape at least twice, and another scene shows Jamie’s sister being forcibly unclothed in front of her brother and a group of soldiers and then taken away by Captain Randall. Even if this is historically accurate, even if it serves the purpose of heightening the stakes of Claire’s feminism, I found this jarring. It seems like rape is being used a general symbol for violence and patriarchy, tossed in whenever the writers need to make a point. That’s not smart or insightful—it’s demeaning.

To give the show a little credit, I do think it exposes one fascinating, counter-intuitive gender dynamic, which I’ll call the “feminist airdropped into the patriarchy” phenomenon. As Julie and Olga wrote, Claire’s a pretty strong lead—she’s smart, sexy but not oversexualized, confident, and not afraid of 18th-century Scottish Lairds. But there are already hints of romanticized traditionalism. “You need not be scared of me, nor anyone else here, as long as I’m with you,” Jamie says to a teary Claire in the second episode. They stare at each other before a crackling fire; she has just tended his wounds from battle.

Later, Jamie takes a beating on behalf of a young girl who’s being punished for “loose” behavior. This is supposed to be an “aww” moment, which, it is—it’s nice for anyone to offer to take your state-mandated beatings for you. But if this were a truly “feminist” show, it would be nice because they’re both humans, not because he’s a strong man and she’s a weak girl who probably canoodled with the young sheep farmer who lives on the next farm over.

I think there’s an appeal for self-styled feminists—including Claire and, probably, a lot of viewers—to fantasize about “traditional” romantic and sexual roles, especially if they’re the ones who are choosing it (and if there’s probably going to be lots of oral sex involved). For 18th-century women, who had no choice but to marry manly husbands and be charmed by their chivalry, this is patriarchy. For relatively liberated feminists, though, it’s a little… sexy. It’s transgressive. It’s a small way of reclaiming the patriarchy for ourselves. And, as no small bonus, it involves time travel, which is objectively cool.

Julie: I’m having a hard time navigating this show’s gender portrayals. On one hand, okay, I get it. The 18th century was not a great time to be a woman, and it’s reasonable that they’re going to show that for, you know, verisimilitude. But Emma’s right—two attempted rapes in as many episodes is a lot to handle. And when Claire stands up to Colum MacKenzie, asking if there’s ever a good reason for rape, part of me rejoices because, duh, she’s right, but part of me cringes at the heavy-handedness of it all. I sometimes felt like the writers had taken all the injustice of being a woman in the past, smelted it down into a sledgehammer, and used it to crush my skull in. There’s something to be said for a more delicate touch.

Presented by

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 writes about religion and culture.

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

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