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Rape in the Outlander Season Finale

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Opinion on the Outlander finale has been very starkly divided. AV Club (my personal go-to for TV reviews) compared the episode positively to Game of Thrones, saying that Outlander is a show that understands rape and portrays it thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Hitflix described the episode as unacceptable torture porn.

And honestly, I think both the praise and the criticism is right, to a certain extent. The show is good at thinking about the psychological aftermath of rape and attempted rape. But it also uses it as a plot device far too liberally for comfort, and this episode in particular was beyond horrific to watch.

But here’s the question: is it problematic for a show to show us this much awful detail? Is that a strength of storytelling, or is it exploitative? I really don’t think there’s an easy answer.

It doesn’t matter how much Outlander‘s attempt contrasts with Game of Thrones’. If this episode had been about Claire, and not Jamie, the internet would be in uproar. And understandably so. The story involved a character allowing themselves to be brutally raped to save their love. The show showed us this assault in great detail. And yes, swapping male and female characters to reconsider a scene is not always helpful, because female characters carry with them a huge weight of marginalization and abuse as plot device, but I do think it’s important here, because it might reveal the way we are more dismissive of male rape. No feminist critic would support such extreme sexualized violence against a female character shown on screen. Why, then, should it be acceptable for Jamie?

Another argument against the flashbacks are that they don’t add anything to the narrative. They tell us nothing that we could not surmise from the episode’s opening moments and Claire’s interactions with Jamie afterward. Surely the decision to show all the gory details is little more than unnecessary torture porn.

But I’ve often criticized stories for using rape either as a casual plot device, or as something that other characters respond to, rather than a narrative that belongs to the victim. And proving flashbacks is the only way we can see this experience from Jamie’s point of view. We might not want to see it from Jamie’s perspective, because it’s a horrific perspective to be trapped in, but if the audience didn’t get to see these flashbacks, we would only learn of what happened as Claire learns. We would see the brand when she saw it, imagine horrors as she imagines them… we would be entirely within Claire’s head and Claire’s perspective. And that’s problematic storytelling too.

Hitflix’s review commented that, by showing Jamie’s trauma in detail, the episode also traumatizes the audience. And I completely agree with this. But I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Obviously, it makes for an appalling viewing experience, but if we’re watching a plotline about rape, shouldn’t we be horrified? Shouldn’t we be barely able to watch? Shouldn’t it sicken us and make our skin crawl? This scene does not treat rape as a casual plot device. It explores it in great detail.

And I hated it. But I also hate, for example, the way Hannibal uses realistic gore for its story about cannibalism. I am literally unable to watch that show because its graphic nature makes me sick to my stomach. That doesn’t make it a bad show — just one that is too awful and real for me. And we, as an audience, are used to a sanitized version of rape. One that works as a plot device, one that is off-screen and quickly forgotten, one that provides guilt to other characters before being waved away. And Outlander refused to give us that. For many viewers, including me, this episode was simply too much. But this was the story it had to tell, and it’s possible that this was the only way it could tell it well. And a rape plotline should horrify and traumatize its audience. If it does anything else, it isn’t portraying it properly.

So the show is not, as Hitflix thought, “a time-traveling historical romance with a heavy framework of feminist underpinnings.” The source material simply does not allow for that. And although the show has made mistakes in interpreting its incredibly problematic and rape-filled source material before, I think it did the best that it could here. It presented a brutal storyline in a brutal and unflinching way. Is that good TV? I don’t know. It’s certainly not TV that I want to watch. But if a story is going to incorporate these sorts of plotlines, it may be the only way to do so realistically.

Rhiannon

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

13 thoughts on “Rape in the Outlander Season Finale

  1. I´m also divided about Outlander. I don´t mind that it´s brutal, but sometimes it´s just too much. And I appreciate that the show dare to exlpore a male character as a victim of sexual violence, but again – too many detalis. We didn´t need to see ALL that to understand Jamie´s suffering, and as you point out – I doubt it would have been possible to show all that with a female victim.

    A male friend “criticized the criticism” towards sexism and sexual violence in movies and TV. He said that yes, women are more often sexualized, but fictional violence against men are often so much more brutal (like in reality I guess). He said that people go on about the abuse and violence against women in Game of Thrones, but forget that more male characters than female characters in the show, have been tortured, mutilated or killed. Ramsay´s violence against Jeyne/Sansa is horrible, but nothing compared to what Theon/Reek has been through. The same with Claire and Jamie in Outlander.

    With his point in mind, it´s refreshing to see how strong the reactions have been on the rape/torture scenes of Jamie. We don´t want to see _anyone_ go through something like that – male or female – and we don´t need all the details. On the other hand, the disturbing scenes and Jamie´s trauma afterwards, might get the impression that it´s worse for a man to be raped, than for a woman. Jamie is portrayed like a real victim, which is good. I hope fictional violence against women doesn´t forget to show the trauma afterwards, which sometimes happens it seems.

  2. Your second passage quite cuts a topic.

    In my opinion, the widely critized usage of rape is the direct result of our society being very desensitized to violence.
    Nowadays there arent many things left with which you are able to shock or horrify people.
    After 120349083459 war & action movies most normal violence leaves people cold while rape and such things as gore, torture etc still don´t.

    Lets just the topic “war”… just the very experience of a war leaves behind a vast amount of people (especially the soldiers themselves) as devastated and traumatized as a rape victim, of course besides the number of people it leaves behind mutilated or dead.
    Now apply the same criticism of the rape topic to this topic. How many stories fail to treat war and violence in a realistic and profound way, especially in fantasy, where it is often used as an “epic plot device”, armies gloriously marching into battle, slaying the evil foes and living peacefully thereafter.

    Well, in the end people just dont care as much about this.
    I myself feel more disturbed by a rape scene than for example by the first scene of “Saving Private Ryan”, which depicts one of the most brutal und horrific scenes of war, just because after all those movies etc ive seen, seeing people being butchered has become something…normal…while rape still hasn´t and probably wont so quickly.

    Although Game of Thrones isnt the basic topic here, it is quite interesting to take look at the Stark-Sisters concerning this topic.
    Everybody is talking about Sansas traumatic experiences and how she has to deal with it and so on, but what about Arya? People seem to be quite cool about her because shes doing the classic “becoming a killer and taking revenge”-storyline, but its actually quite worth taking a closer look at this:
    While Sansa has experienced a great amount of direct mental and recently also physical abuse in all forms, Arya Stark mostly has experienced a great amount of violence and brutality, not even towards herself, but to all the people around her, and while Sansa kinda absorbed all the shit in quiet struggling and suffering, Arya has developed some serious sociopathic and even psychopathic characteristics which many people just dont seem to see.

    We are talking about a (depending on the medium) 10-14 years old girl who chants a list of people she wants to kill before going to sleep, who feels nothing when seeing people being killed or even enjoys it, who later starts killing people herself without any hesitation or remorse.
    And the thing is, the show actually did a good job of protraying this: I remind of the scene where Arya learns that her aunt has died and just bursts out laughing or the one in which she leaves the Hound behind to die painfully… its quite obvious there.

    Yet seeing a girl being traumatized by rape and abuse is way more disturbing to most of audience than seeing an even younger girl being turned into a coldblooded killer by experiencing a world full of brutality and violence, just because brutality and violence dont shock us anymore like they should. Hell, i even would make the bet that most of audience hasnt even taken any concern on Arya´s storyline, because after all those revenge-stories/movies seeing a girl becoming a heartless killer and taking bloody revenge on the world has not only become something pretty normal but even positive and glorious.

    For my conclusion i would like to start actually touching the actual topic of the outlander episode because it fits to other stuff ive written; it fits, because to shock the audience you actually have to rape a man (or torture him like Theon).
    The thing is, if you want to show traumatized and broken men, you dont have to rape or torture anybody. While something called “PTSD” was known not until about 20 years ago and history therefore doesnt really touch the topic, it has existed for the whole history of warfare and hence for the whole history of mankind.
    As mentioned before, every single war leaves behind countless traumatized and broken men, soldiers and civilians alike.
    Yet, seeing a victim of war and violence just isn´t as shocking anymore as seeing a victim of rape, even or for some maybe especially if it is a man.

    1. I think that within America there is very much a desensitization to violence, I mean there are video games where the point is to be a violent criminal and kill people. In addition, I also think there is a desensitization to rape just based on the pervasiveness of rape culture within so many shows, movies, advertisements etc. I think that definitely both are employed for shock value more than to actually bring light to a serious topic. I dislike the whole torture porn genre of films such as Hostel and Saw. Stuff like that always is over the top, disturbing, and almost glorifies homicidal behavior. In terms of rape, I very rarely have seen it done in a way that is focused on the victim in a thoughtful manner that doesn’t exploit their experience.

      I do remember people being upset by all the unnecessary torture scenes that were added for Theon on the show. A lot of people thought it was too much and it would have been better to leave it off screen as it was more ambiguous to some degree in the books. I personally disliked the Oberon head explosion scene. That was horrific and although pretty close to the book description, it still seemed liked a lot to witness as a viewer.

    2. You have many good points, but I think you´re missing the point when it comes to the difference between Arya and Sansa Stark.

      Everybody wants to see protagonists who stand up for themselves, that´s why people “love” Aryas revenge acts and “hate” Sansa´s quiet, submissive suffering. It has nothing to to with moral. We can understand Aryas anger, but she has become pretty dark and scary herself. But the audience love to see the bad guys get what they deserve, (at least to a certain limit) and hate to see an innocent victim just suffer or “accept” opression.

      It doesn´t matter that much if it´s a man or a woman. Theon may have deserved some shit, but he didn´t deserve Ramsay, no one deserves him. And to see him completley broken is much harder to watch than if he had run away or somehow defeated Ramsay. The same with Sansa. Add to that her current story line, which is totally out of order in many ways, and not even in the books.

    3. To add, I don’t think that these two topics, violence and rape and their impact on the victim has to be mutually exclusive. Both are difficult to see on screen, especially stuff involving victims in war time. One can be equally horrified by both experiences. I think that is what bugs me a bit about the way people were making excuses for the inclusion of Sansa’s rape. They would say isn’t murder worse? Why must it be a competition of human degradation in order for us to care? Rape is terrible and so is murder. They can equally destroy a person’s sense of self, identity, and faith in the world. But more importantly, why was it included for a character who is not even in this situation in the novels? What does this say about how the creators view women characters within this story?

      1. I think it was included because in the show there was no Jenny Poole. Not that this is a real excuse. In fact, I don’t understand why they said that Sansa would become strong in this season…

        What makes no sense to me it’s cut Arianne Martell and cast the 3 sand snakes at the same time that they cut the role the sand snakes play in the books. I mean, yes, we see them naked and they are “supposed” to be “badass”, but we don’t really see then doing anything. And they send Tristane instead the sand snakes. Why? Why bother to put them if you are going to cut short their part? (It’s really a retorical question XD).

        1. I think the Sandsnakes amount to what one person called a female fuck toy.
          Also by cutting Dorne’s equal primogeniture, they made Dornish sexual liberation impossible.

  3. Another “proof” that this doesn´t have so much to do with gender, is the fact that I think many people found it quite satisfying to see Cersei thrown in a dungeon herself, after her visit in Margerys cell. Finally Cersei got a taste of her own medicine. The Sparrow sect may be scary and dangerous, but at least they treat everyone the same.

    We want to see the good guys triumph and the bad guys get what they deserve. Good stories are more complex than that, but yet this is what most people want to see in the end. It´s psychological.

  4. I thought the flashbacks were too much at first. But I was watching it with a friend who is kind of macho who really doesn’t take these kind of story lines seriously, being utterly desensitised by torture porn. At first he didn’t understand what was wrong with Jamie ” Oh come on, walk it off dude! Why is he sulking? etc…” Then after the first flashback he got quiet and quieter still as the show progressed. Hiding his eyes during the last flashback.

    I think the graphic nature of the flashbacks could only really work in that way since we genuinely care about the characters.

  5. I am not an expert, but Jaime’s recovery after the torture seemed to be too easy in the end. His only problem is insecurity about whether Claire will forgive him for being raped? And the moment she accepts him even as damaged goods, he is suddenly fine? Seriously? I was expecting some self-loathing because he started to enjoy bottoming for Black Jack, or something.

  6. I haven’t read the books and I honestly lost all interest after watching the season finale, the last two episodes to be more precise. I also think teaching audiences to be more sensitive about male rape is good, as often women seem to be priority in these matters. I don’t agree, however, on how graphical it was. I’m not sure it was at all necessary. The story isn’t exactly realism, as it has some fantasy in it, why bothering making the rape scene so real for the audience? I don’t think it adds too much to the story either to know every detail. I think nobody wants to see a male or female being raped, not in real life, not in TV certainly, esp. because the story doesn’t seem to be going that direction from the very first episode. If so, at least you can decide whether to keep watching the series or not. If we have to get to that point to humanize the audience, I think you are not doing a good job artistically. You are looking forward to unleash your own demons rather than contributing to society to be better; it seems more like morbidness than a wish to increase awareness and sensitivity in my opinion. I think they (meaning “they” as everyone resposible for this visual scene) forgot aestethic factors that would allow the audience to sympathize rather than to be horrified. Catharsis and trauma are different things. Fiction is not real life. If it were, it would be too unbearable for audiences to be able to heal their own wounds, and I think this show is a sad example of it.

  7. I just finished binge-watching Season 1. I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve been avoiding both the book and the TV series because of 1) All the rape stuff I’ve been hearing about and 2) I find Diana Gabaldon’s infamous rant against fanfiction writers really off-putting. I mean, I understand it when an author doesn’t approve fanfic based on their works, but she takes it a bit too far and says, among other things, that writing fanfiction is the same as breaking into her house and raping her children (what’s with the rape fixation, anyway)? But finally I decided to give the show a chance.

    While I did find the constant rape threats in every previous episode bordering on ridiculous, I thought the writers actually made the right choices for the finale. If one has to show rape at all, it needs to be done properly, by capturing the gravity of the trauma and the repercussions. Many creators throw in rape for character backstories, for drama, for shock, without putting too much thought into it. But if rape is used in a story, the viewers/readers need to be made aware of what it really means.

    What we saw in this episode was horrific, and it needed to be horrific. And, most of all, we got to experience it through the eyes of the victim. Without the flashbacks, the story could have easily become about Claire – her guilt over leading Jamie into this situation, her pain at seeing him like this. It would have been an inversion of the popular trope of hurting a female character to make a male one suffer, and this would have been a disservice to Jamie’s character. I also find it important that the victim was a major and beloved character, and not a side character inserted there to show how evil Randall is.

    We witnessed a large part of the healing process and the dealing with the consequences. Importantly, the story touched on Jamie’s guilt at feeling pleasure, which is what many victims struggle with. The recovery seemed a bit too quick at the end, but then I hope Jamie’s trauma won’t be swept under the rug in Season 2 (which I haven’t seen yet.)

    There is one thing I’m worried about – Claire experienced numerous near-rapes, and Jaime’s sister experienced at least one. Yet, we never got to see any of them dealing with trauma. Granted, the situation never escalated to what Jaime went through, but still I’m worried this gives the message that rape is worse for a man than it is for a woman. After all, women should be used to it, and should expect it. If a woman is threatened with rape, it’s just a day like any other, so nothing to get traumatized about. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.

    Overall, I think depictions of rape in fiction should be much, much fewer than what we are seeing nowadays. But when we do see them, we need to witness, experience, and understand the full extent of the trauma. Hopefully, watching this episodes will make creators think twice before carelessly throwing rape into their own works.

    1. She said that?? I have heard uncomfortable things about Diana Gabaldon, but I hadn’t heard that one. Eek.

      Anyway, I think this is really well said. If a show is going to go to these dark places, it really has to commit to them. I haven’t watched any of S2 yet, because it’s all too intense for me and not what I initially thought I was signing on for with the show, but since the show couldn’t exactly escape the rape obsession of the books, I think it handled the season finale about as well as it could.

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