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).

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.

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.