Spoiler Review: I Love Outlander, But It Has A Rape Problem
The season finale of Outlander aired on Sunday (on Mother’s Day, no less). And we need to talk about it. Namely, we need to talk about the rape problem on this show (and in the books).
Image via Starz
Outlander Ends a Strong Season With a Horrifying Rape
The episode titled Never, My Love caps off a strong fifth season for the time-traveling historical romance show. This season saw the development of Brianna and Roger as characters. We got a beautiful new romance between Murtagh and Jocasta that had a tragic ending. It brought back Young Ian early and allowed his character to develop as well. We got a little bit of time travel shenanigans (not enough to sate my genre loving heart alas). It also gave us an excellent episode where Jamie was forced to don a red coat and fight against his own countrymen on the side of his historical (and personal) oppressors.
It also gave us one of the worst plotlines in the entirety of Diana Gabaldon’s books. The finale delivered yet more brutal rape, and I’m not okay with it.
Spoilers for Outlander Books to Follow
A disclaimer for my own status as an Outlander fan. I was a bookseller for many years, and I was always familiar with the Outlander series. However, I never read the books until after I started watching the first season of the show. I began with the show, I fell in love with the characters of Jamie and Claire as portrayed with electric chemistry by actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. At the mid-point of season one, when there was a cliffhanger and a mid-season break I picked up the first book of the series. I read all eight of the books that are currently out (Gabaldon is currently working on the ninth book) in a short span of time, eager to see what would happen next.
So, having read all of the books it is safe to say that my feelings on them are decidedly mixed. Overall, I love them. But there are some definite issues inherent within the books. And then something happened in the sixth book that made me so angry and upset that I wasn’t sure I would be able to watch it when it happened in the show. And then the Outlander showrunners decided to move that plot point up to the end of the fifth season.
Going into season 5 of Outlander, I could sense that the show was weaving in elements from the next book in the series A Breath of Snow and Ashes. But I still wasn’t emotionally prepared for this rape to occur this season. I thought I had a full year or so of Droughtlander to prepare. And then suddenly here it was. The moment that I had been dreading for the past five years. And somehow it was so much worse than I remembered.
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The Outlander Finale Violated Its Last Unraped Protagonist
In the season finale of Outlander, the protagonist Claire is kidnapped by a group of men and tied to a tree. In the book, she endures abuse and humiliation at the hands of her captors. I seem to recall that in the book, a young man self-pleasures (but does not rape her), the leader of the team beats her (but does not rape her), and then a third man does assault her but all the while he is crying and whimpering about his dead wife. The character is strangely gentle about it. This was horrifying to me as a book reader. Not only was the message Gabaldon was trying to send about rape in this instance decidedly murky, but it felt incredibly unnecessary. Claire had gone through so much over the course of six books, but she had not yet fallen victim to the Outlander curse of rape as a plot device. Until now.
In the episode, things changed slightly. And somehow, the changes made it so much worse. In the show, Claire is assaulted by multiple men in succession. We only see a few of these moments happen, we don’t actually know how many men violate her (nor does she apparently). The show does an excellent job of showing Claire’s disassociation from the violence inflicted upon her. We see a fantasy life with many of the main characters sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner. This hallucination is rife with visual symbolism and beautiful imagery. But it only makes the horror that much worse.
Rape as a Plot Device In Outlander
Outlander has long had a problem with rape (or the threat of sexual assault) as a plot device to move character progression along. In the first season Claire is almost raped several times, but always makes a last-minute escape. But we cannot forget that the end of season one (and the first book) sees Jamie raped by Black Jack Randall. At the time this felt like a bold decision by a female author, to acknowledge the reality of sexual assault with a man as a victim. It subverted the bodice-ripper standards that we had all come to expect from Outlander. The books and the show depicted Jamie’s struggle during his recovery with nuance and compassion.
But as time went on, sexual assault became a crutch for Diana Gabaldon to lean on when she wasn’t sure what to do with a character. And that is a problem. Name a character in the show and they have almost certainly been raped at some point. Brianna? Raped by Stephen Bonnet soon after traveling back in time, and immediately after losing her virginity. This set up a wildly unnecessary ‘who’s the daddy?’ storyline with her son Jemmy. Fergus? Raped in the second season as a child by Black Jack Randall as well. There is actually some debate over whether or not Claire was raped by the King of France in the second season, but given that she entered that situation with the knowledge that she would have to have sex with him means there was some consent on her end. It still wasn’t a great move on Gabaldon’s part.
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Diana Gabaldon Needs to Learn How to Outline
Shockingly, the Outlander showrunners actually cut out some of the other rape that was supposed to happen this season. In the fifth book there is an awful storyline where one of the settlers at Fraser’s Ridge falsely accuses Jamie of rape. In reality, the settler’s father actually impregnates and kills her. I was thankful that the show cut this storyline because it was never necessary in the first place. But this just speaks to a larger problem with Gabaldon’s storytelling style.
Years ago I read an article that claimed Diana Gabaldon doesn’t outline her novels. She just starts writing and goes where the mood takes her. And if this is true, it is glaringly obvious that it causes issues with her plotting. In the books it feels often like there are certain plot points that the author wants to hit, but she has to kill some time in order to get there. So she contrives drama that feels like filler, such as the false rape accusation plotline mentioned above.
Diana Gabaldon Has Some Problematic Storytelling Tendencies
The sexual assault storylines are not Gabaldon’s only problematic plotlines. Do you remember the nice Chinese man from season 2? In the book he was a racist caricature that for some reason became a serial killer. Thankfully the showrunners completely changed that storyline, and I would argue that they should change more of these storylines. Far too often, the contrived drama invented by Gabaldon centers around sexual assault. And it is exhausting.
There is a common refrain when it comes to rape and sexual assault in genre fiction. Far too often authors fall back on the excuse that rape is ‘historically accurate’ to the time period depicted. This is what allowed George R.R. Martin, and the showrunners of Game of Thrones to depict brutal rape scenes that were also wildly unnecessary. (Is now a good time to mention that Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin are friends who often swap writing tips? I don’t think that is doing either of them any good.)
The excuse of historical accuracy has allowed writers to get away with inflicting gratuitous sexual assault on their characters for far too long. There are so many perils for women living in the 18th century like Claire (not to mention Brianna, Marsali, and all of the other women of Outlander). Resorting to sexual assault as the only means of moving their characters forward is a lazy trope that must end.
Gabaldon herself has spoken about utilizing rape as a plot device in order to show ‘the resilience of the human spirit.’ I have news for you Diana, there are so many other ways to do that.
Handling Rape Plotlines With Sensitivity
I will give the Outlander showrunners credit for doing their best to handle all of these rape plots with care and sensitivity. They went to great lengths to show the both Jamie and Brianna’s PTSD after their respective rapes. The book actually handles Brianna somewhat better (I give credit to Gabaldon where it is due) as it takes her months to be able to find intimacy again with Roger. The show glossed over this time period. However the show has made certain subtle changes to both Brianna and Claire’s rape storylines that have made them all the more horrifying.
I’m not saying that rape should never be a plotline in any show or book. This is a scenario which millions of men and women have endured in real life. When handled appropriately, it can shed light on a topic that is considered taboo. It can allow those who have not experienced rape some degree of understanding as to what survivors experience, both during and after. It can be done right, but it can also be overdone and that is where we are at with Outlander.
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Is It Necessary to Have a Rape Plot Every Season? Of Course Not.
But is it really necessary to have a rape plotline in every book and/or season? Is there no better way to move a character’s arc along? There are a million bad things that could have happened to Brianna when she traveled back in time, did she have to be raped immediately? And why subject Claire to this degradation now? The show at least set up the idea that it was knocking Claire down a peg, as the men who abducted her are angry with her for publishing medical advice for women. In the book, there is no such reason for the event. It simply happens.
But why does it happen? Claire didn’t need one more horror inflicted on her to help her grow as a person. She has been through hell and back already. If Gabaldon is using rape as a means to ‘show the resilience of the human spirit’ that is entirely unnecessary for Claire’s character at this point. As she says later in the episode, she has been through a World War, a miscarriage, lost two husbands, been tried and almost burned at the stake for witchcraft, and traveled through time more than once. We already know the resilience of Claire’s spirit. This will not break her. But it broke me.
The event doesn’t even really affect what happens next in the books, with the exception of Jamie eventually killing the man who violated his wife. The show will almost certainly handle the fallout differently, with the brother of the man who abducted Claire ominously threatening Jamie at the end of the episode. But as a book reader I am still disgusted by the way this storyline played out.
It Is Getting Harder to Recommend Outlander to People
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There are many reason to love Outlander. The characters are vividly written and memorable. The love story between Jamie and Claire is timeless, and they remain one of the best fictional couples ever written. The time travel element is intriguing (but horribly underutilized so far). The time period and setting for the books allow us to glimpse what life was like for people during the Jacobite uprising or the beginning of the American Revolution. The show on its own is beautiful and compelling. It has lush scenery and set design, not to mention incredible costuming. The acting and directing is often incredible, and for what it’s worth, Caitriona Balfe gives her all in this incredibly brutal episode.
I love Outlander, and I have spent years recommending it to friends and family who may never forgive me. But it is getting harder and harder to recommend it to people. Because the constant rape in Outlander is a problem. It is graphic and violent. It is triggering for many survivors of sexual assault. At a certain point, no matter how carefully it is handled the amount of it on this show begins to feel gratuitous.
The Future Of Outlander Should Be Less Rapey
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Fortunately, this should be the last rape that will occur on Outlander for awhile. Having read all of the books, I cannot recall another rape plotline that happens after this one. Unless I blocked it out. From here, certain storylines get much better. Brianna and Roger’s storyline in particular will pick up momentum from here on out. Despite the fact that they are not my favorite characters, I found their plotlines in books 7 and 8 far more compelling than anything involving Jamie and Claire. I look forward to seeing where the series storytellers take it.
Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic there is no timeline for when Outlander will return. There will definitely be a sixth season of the show, and it is interesting to note that with the incorporation of book six into season five the show is rapidly catching up to Diana Gabaldon’s novels. We know that she is currently working on the ninth book – Go And Tell The Bees That I Am Gone – and that this novel should start to wind down towards the finale of the series. Here is hoping that Gabaldon has a clear plan for the final chapters of Outlander, and one that involves less rape.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.