We need to talk about rape on Outlander
Warning: This story features spoilers from the season 5 finale of Outlander.
Over five seasons, Outlander has garnered attention for its epic romance, the uncommon beauty and talent of its stars, and its stirring attention to historic detail. And now the Starz drama will be remembered for another extraordinary, albeit uncomfortable, distinction: All three members of its central family have been victims of rape.
In Sunday’s season 5 finale, Dr. Claire Fraser — the central character in the time-traveling saga, played by Caitriona Balfe — is gang-raped by a group of men who are threatened by her newfangled healing methods. Her rape comes one season after her daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) was assaulted in a pub, and three seasons after her husband Jamie (Sam Heughan) was raped by his arch-enemy, Captain Black Jack Randall. (Not included in this inauspicious tally: Claire was forced to have sex with Louis XV to free Jamie while their adopted son Fergus was raped by Black Jack in season 2, and Jamie was blackmailed to have sex with a British woman in season 3, which led to the birth of his only son, Willie.)
In all three violent instances, the perpetrators were killed for their dastardly deeds. But Sunday’s episode was a sobering reminder that graphic depictions of rape remain an oft-used trope in the Outlander saga, which is based on the best-selling books of Diana Gabaldon. The producers are well aware of the sensitive and controversial nature of these story lines, but have often said their goal is to be true to Gabaldon's narrative and the terrifying reality for women of that time period.
“There is a lot of rape in Diana’s books,” executive producer Maril Davis told EW in 2018. (Davis, as well as executive producer Matthew B. Roberts and Balfe, declined to comment on the finale.) “Obviously we’ve seen some of it and every time we try to figure out what is best for the story. We certainly want to be sensitive to the character who is going through this situation.”
"If you harken back to season 1 where Jamie spanked Claire, a lot of the criticisms were about domestic violence and abuse," Roberts told The Hollywood Reporter that same year. "But in that time, that wasn't even a thought. When a modern audience views Outlander through a modern lens, then yes, you can have problems with it. But if you actually place yourself in the period… and we're not saying that rape was okay in that period either… but how the characters view it is how we're showing it. We're not showing it how we view it, and that makes a difference."
For the most part, scholars agree that changing social norms and the advent of the #MeToo movement shouldn't prevent creators from depicting acts of sexual violence on screen. "There is a danger in a narrative which claims that rape should never be depicted on screen, in that the effect could be a silencing of victim’s experiences, issues, and voices," says Dr. Leigh Camacho Rourks, an assistant professor of English and humanities who teaches "Race, Gender, and Class" at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. "The victims of rape and other sexual crimes certainly have a right to depict their experiences in both fictional storytelling and storytelling based on real incidents as they see fit, on screen and off. They are the voices who have been silenced in the past in the false name of morality and protection, and that must never happen again."
Adds Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., "It can be dangerous to expect art to confirm to societal moral codes. Art should push boundaries, challenge authority and morality, or just be edgy at times. If we're not careful, we can slip into endorsing censorship, or engage in moral bullying to force media producers to self-censor."
But sexual assault story lines need to serve a larger purpose — both for the narrative and the characters involved. "Rape should not be ignored in society, nor should its victims," says Dr. Katie Foss, professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University. "However, it doesn’t need to be visually constructed, thus glorifying violence and oppression. We don’t need to re-edit content created in the past. However, new productions, including historical dramas, should find other ways to convey rape to the viewing audience."
Kris Macomber, an assistant professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., adds, "If the historical drama couches the rape scene in a larger context that exposes and critiques systems of power and domination, then the scene can serve a purpose."
In Sunday's episode, the camera primarily focused on Claire's face, as she attempts to escape her trauma by dreaming about life in the 20th century with her extended family. But it's unclear — for now — why the producers had Claire fall victim to a group of men led by Lionel Brown (Ned Dennehy), whose wife relied on Claire's rhythm method recommendations to avoid pregnancy, and thus deprived her husband of sex. While this rape doesn't happen in The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in Gabaldon's book series on which the season is based, Claire is raped in book 6, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. (In that book the assault is committed by a nameless, faceless man, not Lionel Brown.)
Viewers watched as Lionel was captured and brought back to Claire and Jamie's home on Fraser's Ridge, where he was ultimately killed by Marsali (Lauren Lyle). The consequences of his death will likely extend into season 6: The finale ends with Lionel's brother threatening Jamie with revenge.
The episode featured a PSA from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). While the nonprofit organization wouldn't address the Outlander finale directly, the group gave this statement to EW: "Entertainment and media are powerful tools that influence and affect how people engage with important issues like sexual violence. RAINN is frequently approached by screenwriters, directors, and producers to help ensure story lines and portrayals of sexual violence are realistic and sensitive to survivors’ experiences. Sexual violence is an issue that affects nearly every family in America, so it’s critical that we engage with all forms of entertainment to help inform story lines and encourage portrayals of assault that are not gratuitously graphic or violent but help move the public's understanding of sexual violence and its effects forward."
That may not reassure some fans, especially those who remain unnerved by Bri's rape coming so soon after what happened to Jamie, Claire, and Fergus in earlier seasons. Was another rape necessary? Even the romance novel genre, which shares some DNA with the Outlander saga despite Gabaldon's insistence that her books are not bodice rippers, has moved away from those tropes. Though the entire genre was kickstarted with the 1972 release of The Flame and the Flower — which was the first book to feature a hero who rapes the heroine — romance novels, even historical ones, now embrace women's sexuality and their power to say no.
"It's not that we are getting woke about consent, we're getting on board with women claiming their power on every page," says Maya Rodale, a best-selling romance author who also wrote Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. "People do sometimes try to say in the name of historical accuracy that they are going to portray horrible treatment of women. I think that is terrible and wrong. But specifically, why? We have a choice. You can still be very historically accurate but not be horribly degrading to your characters. To include rape is a choice."
Update: A previous version of this story stated Claire was forced to have sex with Louis XIV to free Jamie, but it was Louis XV.
Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending time-travel novels come to life in the Starz series.