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Outlander, Rape and the Female Gaze

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I hate when great TV shows come with a “but.”

“It’s usually a lot of fun, BUT some of the jokes are kind of offensive.” “The plot is super addictive, BUT don’t expect any answers that make sense.” “I love the characters, BUT it’s kind of lacking in girls.”

It’s an amazing show, BUT it has rape in pretty much every episode.

Like many other people, I started to watch new Starz show Outlander recently, and fell into a deep, deep hole of obsession. People have called the show “Game of Thrones for girls,” and although that statement is wrong and offensive on many levels, Outlander does feel like epic television made with its female audience in mind. It’s a fantasy-ish, historical-ish story with a capable, compelling female protagonist and a female perspective underlined by frequent voiceovers. Although it has nudity, like Game of Thrones, it never feels like it’s for the audience’s benefit — except perhaps for the frequency with which highlander love interest Jamie is without his shirt. It’s been said that it’s shot with a “female gaze,” but generally it just feels like a non-objectifying gaze.

And it’s so refreshing to watch a show that is gorgeously shot and gorgeously acted and generally epic feeling, without constantly worrying about what misogynistic thing will come along next.

But. But. What is with all the rape? I’m not sure there’s been a single episode of the show so far that didn’t have at least one threat of rape against the protagonist, Claire. I wish that was an exaggeration. But if characters aren’t actively trying to rape her (episode 1, episode 4, episode 8), they’re threatening to do so, or joking about it, or, at best, the male protagonist is sleeping outside her door to protect her. In a massive crime against pacing, Claire is almost raped twice in one episode, by two different threats, with the two scenes within half an hour of one another. One is fairly graphic, and one is incredibly graphic, with added threat of mutilation since a straight rape threat has already been used up this week.

It’s constant. Everyone is talking about how this is the perfect show for female viewers, made with them specifically in mind, and yet this comes up week after weeks. Some people will inevitably argue that it’s “historically accurate,” but is the show really incapable of having tension without it? Can it not think of any other threats to a timetravelling woman in 18th century Scotland? And do we really need two instances in one episode? At least space them out a bit and create the illusion that something else will happen to Claire.

After tackling the first book in the series (as I said, deep hole of obsession), I know that this stance reflects the books, and that several other casual references have already been deleted in creating the show. But is this really what we consider a fantasy show full of the “female gaze”? One with romance and gorgeous scenery and a great female character and a very attractive male lead, but where the rape threat is constant and from all sides? On the one hand, it could be said to reflect serious and very real fear, a part of the genuine female perspective that the show is exploring. But every episode? In a show that should ultimately be enjoyable and escapist to watch? It’s too much.

And it’s depressing, considering that the show is otherwise amazing. The casting, the chemistry, the scenery, the music, the costumes… everything is just wow. And yet, we still have this.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

26 thoughts on “Outlander, Rape and the Female Gaze

        1. I haven’t seen it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying a show, even if others find it problematic. To be honest, if we didn’t let ourselves watch or enjoy anything that was sexist in any way, we wouldn’t have much left to watch at all — and I’m certainly not going to stop watching Outlander, even after writing this post. I think it’s good to acknowledge the ways that our media can be problematic, but some of this stuff is so ingrained that it can be hard to spot, and enjoying something in spite of its problems isn’t a bad thing.

  1. I completley agree with this. I have never understodd why we have to constantly accept watching shitty things happen to women on television because it is historically accurate. It’s not like people in seventeenth century Scotland are going to watching or reading Outlander. It’s made for a modern audience with modern values (at least I hope so).

    I have read the first book and I found the constant rape threats distubing. They seemed to be there only to make Jamie look like a hero and more attractive to the audience. I wonder if the show will include a scene where SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Jamie beats Claire. I don’t understand why the author wrote that. It doesn’t fit with his previous characterisation. And I think the show producers will be stupid if they include it

    1. I hope they cut out the scene where Jamie beats Claire. I did hear that apparently there was one scene that “disturbed” Ronald D Moore so he cut it from the story, but after finishing the books, I honestly can’t guess which one scene it might be.

  2. You’ve hit on the one thing that’s turned me off Outlander (both book and TV show). For all the praise it’s been getting and all the ‘anti-GOT’ comments used to describe why it’s so women-friendly, the similarities are pretty shocking.

    Stripped of its incredible cinematography, Outlander is yet another story about an independent woman being brought into line by her environment/society/the men around her… often with threats of sexual violence. Most egregious still, we’re told repeatedly that the only way for said independent woman to be safe is for her to marry and consummate her marriage to a man she barely knows…

    (SPOILER) … and a man who will beat her violently in the next episode (if the show is true to the book) as well as rape her later on (but it’s okay, because she ends up liking it). It’s not a matter of Claire breaking out of the constraints of the period, but of learning to accept her place as a highlander’s wife – with all the violence and hardship that entails.

    So yeah. Women friendly? Only about as much as True Blood ever was.

    1. I had major regrets after picking up the book, thinking “I’m really enjoying the show, I’m sure I’ll love the book too!” I feel like the show has been tweaking some things as it goes along, but not enough, and I don’t know how they can possibly tell the story from this point one with making major major changes along the way. Ugh, and I thought it had such potential too.

  3. I haven´t seen the show yet, but don´t buy the “historically accurate” argument. Gosh, I´m writing about shieldmaidens (based on Norse legends) and not even I have rape threats in every chapter or many scenes. There are such scenes yes, but not all the time and it´s not a constant threat.

    But maybe it is because my characters are often able to defend themselves? Maybe it is because not all the men surrounding them are monsters? My story is not a cheerful little fairy tale (life wasn´t like that in pre-Christian Scandinavia). Quite the contrary, it´s quite grim and brutal at times. Not like Game of Thrones, but more like that than Disney.

    Yet, it would feel strange, and not very realistic, to include rape or rape threats _all the time_. Like the only reason most men are not rapists today, is because it´s illegal, or what?

    1. Thank you for saying this! I don’t buy the “historically accurate” claim either. I wrote my thesis in the Masters program I was in on women in colonial times. Specifically Revolutionary War women and how they lived, using my own ancestors as a guide. In two years of study, I found that rape and domestic violence was common, but it wasn’t as common as these books portray. Yes, the men of the time had the RIGHT to treat their wives this way…i.e. beating or raping them (ravishing as it was called then), but it wasn’t as common as DG makes it out to be. Most men, in this time, honored their wives and they protected them. That beating was so far out of character for what she had built up for Jaimie that when it came about in the book, it totally turned me off. I was handling the violence and the attempted rapes up until then and when he “took her” even though he knew it was causing her pain. So, thank you for saying this! The history in these books are exaggerated at best, not well examined at worst.

  4. Thank you for this post! It was exactly what I was thinking. I think the frequency of the rape threats is also really disturbing because it’s like the show/book is trivializing rape. Like, oh rape threats happened all the time, it was just the time period..
    It’s almost like Claire is not changing anything just adapting to her environment..

  5. Now I have sen a few episodes of Outlander and I would rather call it “Narnia for adults” than Game of Thrones for girls. Not in an offensive way, but in a way that a mature woman walk though some kind of portal, time travel and end up in a – for her – alien environment, where she quickley have to adapt and play her cards right to survive. And the story includes both war, violence, romance and sex. Apart from the time travel thing it feels quite realistic, but I still agree the freqvent rape threats feels a bit unneccesary.

  6. I tried watching the first episode but had to stop because of all the rape threats aimed at the protagonist. How can this show be called “women friendly” when it can be so triggering the whole time? It’s ridiculous. If this is what women friendly television looks like, we’re fucked.

  7. yes! i stopped watching the show after the second last episode because i couldn’t stand the repeated use of rape for ‘added drama’, and found it particularly awful because it comes from a show that’s supposed to treat female characters better than GOT. apparently the whole book series is quite bad in this way and also in terms of race. i reckon i’ve had enough of it.

  8. The scary thing is that when I posed a question about Outlander, asking if there was a lot of rape/sexual violence/etc because I kinda would like to be warned if there is an excess of that material, esp. for “shock factor”/”added drama”, before I watch the show/read the book and about 10 people who answered by question said “wtf there is no rape at all in the books” or “yeah, but it’s minimal and not like everywhere like Game of Thrones”.

    1. Are you serious? Jeez. Not only are rape threats and rape attempts littered throughout the book like confetti, but a rape actually plays a really significant role in the plot. Up until the latest episode, I could see the presence of rape in the show as “minimal” compared to some other fantasy-esque shows (but not minimal in reality), but that couldn’t describe the book by any stretch of the imagination.

      1. I really wish I was joking! There is so much and it’s so significant. It always left an awful taste in my mouth in regards to Jenny’s story and how her rape was used for Jamie’s “man pain”. Diana Gabaldon also said she was excited to Sam Heughan raped and tortured. That just struck me as a disturbing thing to be excited about – why not Clare and Jamie’s story, costumes, scenery, etc? Gabaldon is so talented and so engaging as a writer, and Outlander is a really clever and lovely story, but the constant rape and rape attempts just rip me out of her world. It’s disappointing, to say the least, since Outlander is actually really good and pretty clever.

        1. Ugh, I heard about that comment, and it really skeeved me out. If someone’s willing to say that in front of the actor, and to treat it as some kind of exciting event rather than a horrid but necessary plot point… I don’t know. Not sure I even want to think about that one.

  9. Good Grief,

    I thought it was just me seeing tons of rape and rape language. In the 8th episode, I couldn’t tell if she was already raped by the soldier she stabbed.

    Then when she was very nearly raped again by Randall like 30 minutes later, she was stripped up top, then exposed backside and bent ….and then Jaime comes in with the victorious/cutesy line that went something like “I’ll thank you to take your hands off my wife” like some dude has had his hand on her arm a little too long at a party or something

    That so minimized what was happening to her.

    And they left her image like that in everybody’s head until the next half of the season. Really? I”ll feel dirty watching it now. But I want to know what happens next.

    And they leave her

  10. my final lecture this semester concerned literature vs popular culture. In which we discussed the serious fiction we studied for most of the semester (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Sun Also Rises, Wide Sargasso Sea) vs the popular romances (Bridget Jones-good feminist popular lit- and Fifty Shades of Grey-really terrible). One of the main difference was the radical nature of literature (Jane Eyre was pretty radical back in the day) vs the conservative nature of pop culture. Nevertheless One of the things that most romance novels have as a plot is “emotionally unavailable man opens up to beautiful heroine”. Anyway one of the arguments was that romance with the constant cold behaviour of heroes, is actually a reflection of many relationships that female writers and readers experience, and this helps them deal with it…however the solution to this is shown to be ‘the love of a good woman’ rather than a critique of how patriarchal culture deforms male behaviour.
    Now Outlander is essentially popular literature (even if the gender roles are kind of reversed), even if it is crazy well researched and well written. So I think that, just as real life women often have to cope with ‘men who are emotionally unavailable’ they also have to cope with a fear of rape. I would say that a lot of women think of it constantly. This fear also harms us: we have to catch cabs or wait for the bus that arrives in 1 hour, even though it is cheaper and fitter to walk. So Outlander is full of rape, but it’s okay, because Jaime usually rescues her, or kills the rapists, etc.
    So a huge societal problem is fixed with ‘the love of a good man’ rather than say legal action (not that this is possible given the historical setting).

    1. I go back and forth on the idea that “rape is reality, so it should be represented in fiction” a lot. On the one hand, it’s true, and it provides a fictional outlet to explore and deal with these issues — which I think is really necessary. On the other hand, sometimes it feels like the ONLY challenge female characters can face, or like it’s not treated with the seriousness it deserves, like here. My problem with reading Outlander was partly that rape was treated TOO lightly in some places, and partly that it was TOO dark and graphic and intense, when I was hoping to read a fun time travel romance.

  11. The thing that bugs me the most about the historical accuracy argument is that the series is not historically accurate. If it can make the Jacobites and Claire Catholic (it’s far more likely they would all be Episcopalian), pretend there were clan tartans a good 100 years before such things were invented, have just about everyone in the Highlands speak flawless English (in a time when the majority of them spoke no English or Scots at all), make reference to the English reading of the banns in reference to a Scottish wedding, and basically ignore the actual political and ideological basis for Jacobitism in favour of a distilled “Scots Catholics vs. English Protestants” showdown, it can have a little less sexual assault than is “accurate” to the time period.

  12. You’re absolutely right. I find it so depressing. We started with this great female character. The first episode shows her on the receiving end of quicky oral sex – role almostr exclusively portrayed by men. Then, we see her raped, beaten and and threstenthreatened with rape/violence until she is very literally beaten down – so beaten down that she takes back a man who ‘punished’ her against her will – even though she realizes that she shouldn’t.

  13. Let’s see, threats to a time travelling woman in 18th Scotland….how about germs? I have yet to see a single historical fiction where the time traveller realizes what a bad idea it is to drink stream/river/well water. Even the air would be unsafe to breathe, there’s so many diseases that modern first-world people have no immunity from because we got rid of them in the early-to-mid 20th century.

    Haven’t watched it because the many people commenting on how rapey the show is, but is the woman anything but Scottish? Because Scotland was pretty violent towards outsiders in those days (esp. to English). Religion? Dress? (Pants, on no no). So many many things besides rape to be afraid of. Hell, even bathing was still dangerous because, no central heating, you could catch your death. And seriously, women aren’t in any LESS danger of rape today….that’s really the thing they think makes it “historical”?

  14. I agree with everything you’ve written. I just finished watching “Both Sides Now” (S.1 E.8) and paused it continually to yell at my husband who is napping on the couch about how disturbing and offensive the rape scenes are.

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