Outlander and the Problem of Sexual Assault

The finale of Outlander season five is a good reminder that what this show does well is often the very thing that makes this show hard to watch: the pain and trauma of these characters can be depicted with nuance and sensitivity (or not, as the case may be) but is that justification enough for inflicting it on them? It’s the perennial Outlander question: just because it’s “in the books” did you have to depict it in the show or is there a better way to tell the story of these beloved characters that doesn’t continually traumatize them and the audience?

I don’t have good answers to those questions. We’ve been asking them since season one, with no good conclusions. Jamie’s torture and rape at the hands of Black Jack Randall is important to the story going forward, a pivotal point in his trajectory. But were all of those early threats of sexual violence to Claire necessary? Did we need to see Jenny’s assault to understand her relationship with Jamie and his relationship to Jack?

In season two, did Claire need to sleep with Louis XV against her will to free Jamie from the Bastille? Was Mary Hawkins’ rape required for the plot, or just another plot device? Young Fergus? Remember the disgust we felt at those scenes with their gratuitous details? Why not adjust them from the source material or leave them in the editing bay with all the rest that we are missing from the books?

Season three saw our first big development of sanitizing sexual assault in episode four in the story of Jamie’s coercion by Geneva. The writers changed Jamie’s role; he doesn’t ram into her when she asks him to stop. It was a welcome change. But he was still an unwilling participant, and that scene was still filmed to look sexy and titillating. Mark that as unwelcome. Does anyone even remember the rape of Young Ian by Geillis Duncan? Has that impacted the story moving forward? Why is it always the rape that has to make it from page to screen?

Of course season four hinged on the particularly brutal rape of Brianna by Stephen Bonnet, and much was made of how actors, writers and directors tried to approach that scene and its aftermath with awareness and delicacy. Considering how pivotal Brianna’s pregnancy, Roger’s journey, Lizzie’s mistake and Jemmy’s parentage are to the story, this is one that I think deserved the attention it got. Other non-consensual details from book four were cut, thankfully, such as Jocasta’s physical relationship with Ulysses and Lord John’s nighttime visit to the slave huts. But the writers felt they had to include Brianna’s assault, and I don’t think they were wrong. That time. Ron D. Moore explained when talking about it to The Hollywood Reporter:

“We’ve always been guided by that principle … We have a history of it with the show itself [so the question becomes] how much of this material is in the show, when do we do it, when do we decide not to do it and why are we making that choice. You have to approach it on a case-by-case basis and this is obviously a big story point so it wasn’t really an option not to do it. It’s more a question of how you’re going to do it and what it meant to that story in how you presented it.”

Now we are come to season five and Claire’s brutal kidnapping and rape at the hand of Lionel Brown’s men, a collection of scenes from book six that remind us of the brutality of the era, but also the futility of arguing that rape doesn’t have to be the only thing that happens to these people.

If the writers are still approaching it on a case-by-case basis, where is the necessary story point that Claire is sexually assaulted here? In the book, she is kidnapped, beaten, gagged and bound. She’s assaulted, but the details are murky on exactly how she was violated. In the show, they do all that and they leave nothing open for interpretation. She is repeatedly raped while gagged and bound and unable to breathe. It is horrifying. And what for?

This is not to diminish the portrayal of Claire’s trauma by Caitriona Balfe or even the care that went into writing and filming it. I didn’t dislike episode 512. But I can see, with perfect clarity, another iteration of this storyline where Claire is not sexually assaulted, and the story moves on.

Look at the laundry list of sexual assault in this show, and you will not be able to justify it all. Remember that Claire’s rape takes place just two episodes after Brianna is re-traumatized by her rapist and almost sold into sexual slavery. Look at the scenes from the season five finale and ask yourself: did this need to happen to Claire? Was it just for the drama?

The Fiery Cross contains stories of royal gold hidden in a sepulchre, a mistakenly murdered slave who died from drinking a discarded but poisoned glass meant for someone else, a gathering of Scottish clans that heralds a coming revolution, letters from home that keep the Frasers in poverty, a bumbling family of Russian swineherds and more that went unadapted. When does a show that ignores all of that (and more) get critiqued for doubling down on “that’s what happened in the books” when it means leapfrogging from sexual assault to sexual assault? If Murtagh could live post-Culloden to fall in love with Jocasta and spearhead The Regulators, why couldn’t Claire go un-raped?

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