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Outlander: Would You Like Some Rape With That Rape?

Ugh.

That’s really the only word to describe my feelings a few hours after finishing reading Outlander. I picked up the novel 100% because I was enjoying the TV show, and after I turned the final page, I found myself eager to start Book 2 straight away. I was addicted to these characters and this world. I had to find out what would happen next.

And then the minutes passed, and the bitter aftertaste set in. All the things that I’d cringed from, or skimmed over, or wanted to kill with fire while reading came back, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe that this was actually something I had read.

Outlander uses rape like it is literally the only plot device in the world. Need to create some tension? Add a rape threat! Want to show someone is villainous? Make them a rapist! Have to show that 18th century Scotland is dangerous? Rape! Want an amusing anecdote about a character? Rape! Need some romantic scenes between your two protagonists? Rape, dammit!!

I wrote last week about the show’s seeming addiction to rape to create tension, but compared to the book, it suddenly seems mild. Positively restrained. I lost count of how many times the protagonist finds herself either threatened with rape, or very nearly raped, before the male hero swoops in to save the day. If I added in the number of times our romantic hero “wouldn’t be denied” or won’t take no for an answer, there’d be more scenes or rape or near-rape in the book than consensual sex scenes — and believe me, there are a lot of those as well.

And it boggles my mind, because there’s so much that is good about this book. The historical setting is richly described. The characters are great. It’s a fantasy/historical/adventure novel with a female protagonist whose struggles and decisions are front and center in the story, and that’s great. But any attempt to enjoy the story is ruined by the casual appearance of rape, again and again and again.

And most of the occurrences aren’t even for plot reasons. There’s an entire scene were Jamie tells the “humorous” story of a Duke attempting to rape him repeatedly when he was a teenager, and everyone laughs about it, including our protagonist/his wife. And then it never comes up again, as though it wasn’t really that important. Various people assault others like it’s all a lot of fun. There are frequent rape-like tones in the scenes between Jamie and Claire, and they’re so much like asides that they could be deleted and you’d never notice the difference, especially since the romance before and after comes across as genuine.

Rape is part of Jamie’s backstory, as he was arrested for trying to defend his sister from Captain Randall. An unrelated rape is part of the reason he hates Randall so much. He spends half the book saving his wife from rape, often at the hands of Captain Randall again, and still finds time to joke about it in the dinner hall.

But worst of all, in my opinion, is the way this all comes together, with the one rape that actually occurs in the book. The one that appears to be for “plot reasons,” when Jamie “sacrifices” himself, once again, to save Claire, and puts himself in the hands of Randall. Several graphic retellings throughout the rest of the novel make it very clear precisely what happened. And the mind boggles. I have to wonder whether this was intended to be a subversion of a trope, where the female love interest is raped either to give the male hero angst and something to fight or to give her some good old-fashioned emotional trauma. Same trope here, but the male love interest, right? But that doesn’t quite fit. Jamie is presented as the hero for sacrificing himself for Claire, and there’s a strange kind of glee in the book for his trauma. And even if it were intended as a subversion, that wouldn’t make it acceptable. Jamie is presented throughout the book as a character we should at least sympathize with, if not love. He’s as much a character as anyone else. And seeing that character go through so much violence in such graphic detail, almost lovingly described… it seemed gratuitous, on top of the rest of the book’s attitude towards rape.

And it’s all so unnecessary. It doesn’t even come together in a satisfying way. Jamie is rescued a few hours later in a really unclear plot involving stampeding Highland cows, and after many many pages of extreme emotional trauma, he suddenly apparently gets completely over it — by his wife drugging him up and basically reenacting the rape so this time he can fight back. Yeah.

I’m just left wondering… why? Why was all this seen as necessary? It could all have been edited out, leaving a fantastically atmospheric and addictive book, a book that made me fear for the characters and squee in delight and gasp in horror without the constant threat of sexual violence. A book that would have been infinitely better if it didn’t decide that rape is the solution to all narrative woes.

Mostly, my book-reading experience has got me praying that the show writers have got their pruning shears ready and are more than willing to use them. But the book is so pervaded with rape that a lot of it has already slipped through. And no matter how gorgeous the scenery might be, and no matter how much chemistry the leads may have, I really don’t think I want to see the end of this book on screen.

Just… ugh, guys. Ugh.

Rhiannon

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

23 thoughts on “Outlander: Would You Like Some Rape With That Rape?

  1. My thoughts exactly. I fell in love with the show and was glued to the book for a couple of days, but as addictive as it is, the more you think about it after finishing it, the more you go… just UGH. And it’s a real pity because the novel has so much potential and so much beauty, but the constant rape just ruins it, especially because there is really no much point to it after all. Add to that the extremely uneven pacing and it’s obvious that the editors did a very poor job. It’s really a pity. Let’s just hope that the runners of the show are brave enough to make the necessary changes.

    1. Agreed. I hated all the rape scenes in the book. It made my stomach turn. I no longer want to watch the movie because who wants to see the hero so demoralized and violated repeatedly?

  2. I think that such things are written with a male reader/ audience in mind. Women are expected to just accept the ‘period detail’ or ‘realism’ without a reaction – because if we were considered this just wouldn’t happen. I haven’t been raped, but I have known many women who have been, plus have been in enough situations to know how it might feel. I can totally empathise with anyone who finds it triggering because I cannot read about or watch rape scenes without feeling quite distressed.

  3. It almost sounds like it´s something wrong with the writer of Outlander? I mean, what the hell?

    Look att History Channels show “Vikings”, for example. It´s impossible to exclude sexual violence or rape attempts (and other kind of violence) in a realistic story about Vikings. But there, it´s not used as a plot device. It happens, but not all the time.

    I´m not saying Vikings is a perfect show, but the Outlander series sounds almost sick, the way you describe it. I have seen all the episodes now and I also fell in love with it, but I don´t know if I want to read the books if it´s even worse there.

  4. My pet peeve about the humorous retellings about Jaime and the Duke is that Claire is not only passive and silent when Jaime talks about oh ho ho the things he used to get up to as a lad, but the fact that a few chapters later she decides she actually likes the Duke… who tried to rape her husband when he was a boy. Repeatedly. And would have done it, too, if he could corner him. Apparently even Jaime’s uncles were complicit in the attempt!

    She’s married to Jaime by this point, may have children with him. For a female character to stand idly by and decide she’s totally fine with a man who preys on boys boggles the mind. Where’s Claire famed strength then? Where is her wisdom, her knack for getting her point across – presumably the way she charmed Jaime in the first place?

    Between this ‘shrug and smile’ attitude to child rape and her forgiving her husband for beating her with a belt AND ENJOYING IT I can’t for the life of me understand where feminist readers find the female-friendly in this book.

  5. What about the hero whipping the heroine after an attempted rape because they endangered themselves to save her? Then, the sex scene after that…dubcon at the least. I really hope that the show leaves that out.

  6. The TV show´s strongest cards, are 1) Claire and 2) Claire´s and Jamie´s wonderful chemistry. Not the other characters, not the setting, not the sceneries, though all this is very well done as well. But Claire and Jamie are the heart of the show from start to end. The casting is brilliant here, and I don´t know how this would work if Jamie was to beat Claire? It would destroy a lot between them and also be way out of character for Jamie, at least from how he is portrayed in the TV show.

  7. I really enjoyed the books but certain parts often made me feel uncomfortable and that the author had taken things to far. After the 4th book I decided that although I liked the story, there were too many things that bothered me and I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading. A shame, since the more historical fictionish parts I thought were amazing.

  8. Randall/Jamie is not the only explicitly written rape scene. How about when Claire is raped by Jamie after they come back to Leoch? This is equally disguisting, if not worse, since the author clearly intended it as a sexy scene.

  9. I agree. The last part of the book was hard to read. Did all that description needed to be included?
    And some parts of the book too were uncomfortable to read. The book has its good parts but then come those passages that I don’t care about reading. Still I begin to read the second book mostly because I like both Claire and Jamie and want to know what is going to happen to them.

  10. You said my thoughts exactly. I started reading the book at the suggestion of my mother, who loves them, until I told her that there was so many scenes that are close to or are sexual assault that I couldn’t read it anymore. I am a victim of sexual assault. This book actually made me sick. Even worse is the people who go rabid if you say anything bad about them as if they glossed over the scenes or romanticized them. I made it to after the “beating” of Claire before I began skimming through the book. I counted in the first half of the book, at least two attempted rapes per chapter (after she goes back in time) and one scene that could be termed rape and then of course the final sodomy of Jaimie. My wish would be for people to stop glamorizing the book and glorifying it. I wish they would also stop bashing people who can’t get through the books and to stop telling sexual assault victims, like myself, to get over it. The book had potential but it could use to remove half the attempted rapes, about 30% of the talk about floggings and beatings, and about 300 pages.

  11. Thank you for writing this. For some reason when I searched “feminist review Outlander” this did not come up. But when I searched “Outlander book series I do not like Jamie” it did. Chuckle.

    For lack of better things to do, I read all eight Outlander books over the past 5 months. The frequency of rape gets worse and worse and worse. By the end of the series to date every major character (save for one) is raped. Surprisingly, I would actually argue that Jamie is the character with the most realist response to the sexual assault he experiences and it does remain with him throughout the series. I think it’s terrible when authors use rape as a plot device but I get even more upset when it’s handled so poorly with so little consequence. For all of the characters who are raped later in the series, Claire especially, their actions immediately after the assault are completely unrealistic and as a result, the story trivializes the trauma they have just gone through (we don’t even know that one character has been raped until 50 pages later, even with sections of the story in their POV!).

    And I completely agree to comments about fans of the book that seem to troll comment boards everywhere to defend Jamie the King of Men. There is nothing special about Jamie (except the fact that his hair manages to be fifty different shades of the same color). He is obsessed with ownership and we are constantly reminded that he owns Claire. Btw, Claire is cool with this, which makes her more and more difficult to like as the series goes on. Jamie’s action at the end of the last book sealed it for me: he belongs in the club with Edward and Christian. Ugh.

  12. Try reading the “KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES” by John Jakes. It’s just as bad. Nearly every female member of the Kent family has been raped or nearly raped. Nearly . . . every . . . one. Think I’m joking? Read the novels.

  13. The story Jamie relates about his teenage experience has to do with the Duke of Sandringham, I believe? While he may tell the story with humor, he was quite serious about not falling into the duke’s clutches. Apparently, the man did not take offence at being told no, and later he notes to Jamie’s wife how fond he continues to be of “the boy.” Claire uses that and a few other wiles to persuade the duke to carry a message to Black Jack’s superiors that might succeed in getting him banished from Scotland, and in the process, reestablishing Jamie as laird at Lallybroch.

  14. Isn’t Claire sometimes getting Mary Sue-ishly special treatment just for being the protagonist? Like always getting through danger without a scratch due to luck and others’ help rather than her own skills and getting power and credit on a silver platter BEFORE proving herself.

  15. I agree with you on the unnecessary focus of rape as a plot device in the series. I only just found Outlanders on Netflix and after getting near the end of the series, I am left with the exact same questions as you- why, why, WHY? I loved the first half of the show so much I almost ran straight out to get the books, I wanted to re-live the world all over again. The series was nearly lost for me somewhere between Claire was accused (and released) of being a witch and when she was rescued from Fort William. It was almost like a badly penned Mills and Boon by the second miraculous escape from death for Claire. But I kept persevering with the series, hoping for a return the same story that had me hooked on the first episode. Sure, there was several awkward and disturbing rape scenes in the first half of the series, but it definitely didn’t prepare me for the absolute rape-fest that was to end the series for me.
    I just CAN’T understand what the anal rape scene between Randall and Jamie was supposed to achieve, even in a literary sense? It was left entirely unresolved, and didn’t contribute in anyway to any kind of character development. It just seems kind of like the author had some kind of rape fetish by the end of the ordeal. It really ruined such an amazing story, I can’t even bring myself to finish the last few episodes.

  16. I agree with the comment that it trivialises sexual assault and trauma – this is rape for titillation and entertainment purposes. It has nothing to do with how real trauma affects people. I also can’t understand the obsessiveness of fans, it’s akin to the Twilight and Fifty Shades brigades. As a victim of sexual assault myself, I find the constant rape scenes deeply offensive, unrealistic and unnecessary to the telling of the story. Everything else about the show, I enjoy.

  17. This series is definitely a rape extravaganza. Having read several of the books and watched the series thus far, I’m left thinking, the characters are interesting and the story is engaging, yet I’m always on the verge of giving up because I feel I shouldn’t contribute, even as a spectator, to the glorification, even fetisization of sexual violence. The disgusting truth is that the author, Diana Galbadon has a rape fetish. The title should have been, “Outlander, a Rape Story.” There isn’t any other explanation for having rape as a quasi character throughout the series. Later in the books, even Brianna is raped. The only thing that surprised me is the fact that no one rapes the horses. I don’t judge the author for endulging her fetish, and possibly working out her own issues through her fiction. But she should be honest and not pretend the rapes are necessary to move the story forward.

  18. Thank you! I had just started listening to the audiobook on my daily commute, whilst also watching the tv show and reached the last episode of season 1 of the show, god, it was so awful, I felt sick. I don’t know if I can continue listening to the audiobook now, knowing this interesting, romantic story turns into that.

  19. I agree. It is quite unsettling and the rape-esque scenes between Jamie and Claire are the ones that bother me the most. ****SPOILER ALERT****

    I am currently reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes and Claire gets raped by multiple men, only one of them penetrates. Jamie wants to spare Claire the horror of having the rapists baby so he insists on sleeping with her to hopefully impregnate her with his baby instead. She is a grudging, but “willing” (as willing as a recently traumatized woman can be) and when they finally muster up the courage to do it, her instincts kick in and she fights him. This triggers his own rage and he becomes unaware of his actions and basically rapes her. Afterward he says he feels awful and she says she feels safe. What the he’ll? And this all happens after the first 12% of the book is completely devoid of an interesting plot… rape as filler. Yuck.

  20. I’ve just finished reading book one and watched season 1 & 2… And yes, there are lots of rape and this is getting to a point where it’s lack of plot devices. I totally agree with you, any time she wants to create tension, she seems to use rape at once.

    To be honest, although Jamie’s rape was quite unnecessary to move the story, I personally “liked” this part of the book. Before anyone judges me, please let me explain. For a start, I think it’s “great” that for once the victim was a male and we need to talk about this in our society. And the part where Jamie express the way he feels after his trauma (remember the fortress talk people?) was one of the few parts where I felt the writing was good and it depicts a lot how awful rape is. Even if there were some graphic descriptions, that’s not what bothered me the most. Here are the things that did just not work out for me.

    A) Jamie, all the other men and even Claire making fun of the times when the Duke basically tried to rape a young Jamie… As few other people mentioned in this post. What is this? Of course other time period, but still… This is upsetting and i’ll hit anyone who says it’s not a rape seriously.

    B) The numbers of rape actually. One, i’m “fine”, I can deal with this if it’s not used as a cliffhanger or whatever and it’s well written. But when all the principal characters are either raped or nearly raped. This is getting ridiculous.

    I will continue reading the books and i’ll see where this is going. This won’t stop me from reading it but I just feel like this is a huge lack of ressources. For example *SPOILER* (just in case), when Fergus was abused by Randall. This was used just to stir a reaction from Jamie, which led to blabla… I’m sure there were thousands other possibles means which would have led to the same consequences. Seriously this is just using the rape of a child to achieve someone’s else actions and this is disgusting.

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