Outlander: False Feminism?

Speaking of delicate touches, which are sure to come, let us consider for a moment young Jamie “MacTavish,” horse whisperer and defender of loose women. He is just fulfilling fantasies left and right. No matter your flavor of choice, Jamie’s got a scoop for you. Wounded soldier? Yep. Bad boy? He’s got a price on his head, and MacTavish isn’t his real last name. He loves animals! He’s got a dark past! He offers his cold-weather garments to shivering women!

Frank, on the other hand, is a blandly nice dude who tells boring stories and is really into his own ancestors. He does seem to be excellent in bed, but it’s pretty clear whose team we’re supposed to be on. And while Jamie seems mildly enlightened for an 18th-century man, what with the not wanting women to be beaten for having sex, and the respect he has thus far shown Claire, we are edging close to the uncomfortable territory of “feminist woman realizes what she’s really wanted all along is a traditional man to love and protect her.” We’re not there yet, and the show might not steer their relationship in this direction at all. But so far, so troubling.

In other “look-out-girl-you’re-in-danger” news, in the second episode Claire meets Geillis Duncan, and they bond over their love of plants and healing people, until of course, some uncomfortable insinuations that Geillis is a witch. Women with knowledge are witches in this era, don’t you know, which makes me nervous for Claire, who’s going around shouting about the proper way to re-set a dislocated shoulder, and demanding antiseptics that don’t exist yet.

Olga: I haven’t read the books, so I’m interested to see how they treat the whole Dr. Claire Medicine Woman component of her role. One thing that I love most about time-travel movies is how the modern people can use the knowledge of the future to outsmart the bad guys. I find those types of protagonists more relatable, as opposed to, say, a really strong person, because it makes me think that geeks can prevail—as long as everyone around them doesn’t know about germ theory.

That said, I’d be interested to see some characters who break free of the dichotomy of power that we’ve seen so far—the women use their wiles, and the men use their brawn. Although I did love that one of Claire’s missteps was getting too drunk at dinner and oversharing. The worst.

Regarding the outfits, I kind of love them. I’d like to hear more about how she deals with the lack of shampoo, makeup, and tampons, though.

One thing that’s been bugging me: What do we think of her reaction to the fact that she fell back in time? Doesn’t she seem a little too chill about it? She’s acting like someone who accidentally drove to the wrong Starbucks, not someone who might be trapped in a parallel regressive universe forever. Emma, what say ye?

Emma: Yeah, there are some wacky metaphysics involved here, which I am willing to overlook because time travel, but you’re right: She’s way too unbothered by the fact that she apparently stumbled into a space-time wormhole and doesn’t know how to get back. I think we needed at least one wide-eyed, “duuuuuude” moment to believe that she’s really wrapped her head around this.

As with all fantasy stories, there has to be some temporary suspension of disbelief, but it’s interesting to look at how the showrunners asked us to do this. In the first episode, Frank and Claire spy on a group of women in flowy, white dresses dancing among suspiciously Stonehenge-esque rocks atop a hill (not by coincidence, this is the same hill where Claire later falls into her wormhole). There’s a ritualistic flavor to it; the women seem to be attempting to summon the sunrise. Even though the dancers are contemporary to Frank and Claire, they seem to be from another time—another world in which magic is possible.

My instinct is that the Britain/Scotland dynamic is relevant here: On vacation from England, arguably the birthplace of modernity, the couple encounters a ritual from the “old world”—and then Claire is thrust, literally, into an older world. Our heroine hasn’t just entered a different era; she’s in a whole different epistemological operating system. The standard rules of rationality and modernity—time-travel isn’t a thing, witches don’t exist, women aren’t objects—don’t necessarily apply. As Claire says in the first episode, “I knew that my journey had only just begun.” I’m willing to bet—and hoping—that we’ll be in for more challenges to our assumptions about the nature of the universe as Outlander continues.

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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