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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.

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Outlander: Witch Trials and the Devil’s Mark

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In The Devil’s Mark, Outlander upped its game once again, redeeming a couple of weeks of questionable choices and patchy character development with a stunning episode of persecution, desperation and self-determination. After getting arrested for witchcraft, Claire and Geillis face their trial, knowing that no one is coming to help them, and knowing that the people have already decided they must burn.

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Outlander: Thoughts on Laoghaire

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Generally speaking, By the Pricking of My Thumbs was a return to form for Outlander. The show seemed more than happy to forget that last week’s episode ever happened — Claire and Jamie are happy once more, we’re back to Claire’s narration, and the plot barrels onwards with the focus, once again, on Claire’s experience of the past.

Claire even managed to hatch her own schemes and assert her own agency without facing a single threat of rape this week, which is another breath of fresh air. Claire gets into some considerable danger, but it’s almost all based on the clash between understand of the world and the realities of the 18th century, and although some of that threat is very gender-based, it’s not sexual at least. If anything, there’s a considerable amount of female sexual autonomy in this episode, ranging from the opening scene with Jamie to Geillis’s summoning, both of which focus on female pleasure and power.

But there is a sticking point with the current story. Laoghaire. Originally introduced as a somewhat naive young girl with a crush on Jamie, she’s rapidly spiralled into a spurned woman with murderous intentions. That would be a pretty intense escalation under the best of circumstances, but Laoghaire’s development is also hampered by lazy writing, falling back on tired old tropes of female rivalry and “hell hath no fury” to move the plot forward.

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Outlander: Reckoning

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It can be difficult to return to an enchanting show after six months away. It’s exciting to finally get more to watch, but how will they feel now that the spell created by marathoning through the existing episodes is broken? Time away means time to reflect, time to read the book on which it’s based, time to think about why the show threatens its protagonist with rape every five minutes.

So what happens when the show returns?

Well, Outlander is as gorgeous as it ever was. The music swells, the setting enchants, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie crackles.

But, unfortunately for the show, its first episode back tackled an extremely controversial scene in the books. And if it intended to maintain the feminist, “female gaze” perspective for which it’s been praised, it failed in every possible way.

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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.

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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.

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