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Outlander's obsession with sexual violence has become exhausting

Illustration for article titled iOutlander/is obsession with sexual violence has become exhausting
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This season finale is Outlander at its absolute worst. Whole seasons ago, I wrote that the show was over-relying on rape and sexual violence as a narrative device. And it’s still doing it. Using rape as a character arc over and over again is not radical. It’s hard to see these choices as anything other than trauma porn at this point. Trauma seems to be the default choice for the writers of this show when it comes to complicating a character or their arc. And it’s growing exhausting.

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There are attempts to soften the blow by mixing in scenes of Claire’s imagined fantasy world where she and Jamie are back in her own time, surrounded by the people they love. Claire relies on these fantasies, in part, to survive. She has been beaten, tied up, tormented. These bright-colored scenes provide a contrast to the otherwise harsh, dark scenes depicting Claire’s trauma. The fantasy sequences only make the horrific scenes even harder to watch. Sure, this puts us in the character’s head, wraps us in the throes of her attempts to escape and her terrible reality. Claire’s dissociation is affecting, but the fantasy scenes also feel like a stunt. It’s more style than substance.

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With any violent depiction of rape on television, there’s the question of what it truly adds to the story. I’m honestly perplexed, exhausted, even a little angry at Outlander at this point for making me consider this question over and over again. Most of the main characters on this show have now experienced sexual violence. And yet, Outlander has yet to make that a meaningful story. Rape is not a motif—or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Outlander isn’t concerned enough with making any discernible points about any of this—not about rape culture or patriarchy or the violence of its world.

The show does pay a lot of attention to the after effects of rape. Jamie and Brianna both experience PTSD over the course of their arcs. But even though there is focus on the survivors and their trauma, Outlander still doesn’t seem entirely equipped to deal with any of this and often rushes toward hasty conclusions. In both of their cases, their rapists die, and Outlander suggests that this brings them peace, something that isn’t true for a lot of survivors. It just feels like Outlander is telling the same rape story over and over again, and given how this episode plays out, I don’t have a lot of hope that Claire’s will be much different. The men in her life kill all of the men who assaulted her, and she contemplates killing Lionel before Marsali takes it into her own hands. Outlander ends up being pretty reductive in its depictions of retribution, trauma, and catharsis.

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The image of Claire being repeatedly gang raped by Lionel and his men is horrific—full stop. To say it’s hard to watch is a complete understatement. It’s beyond disturbing. It’s gratuitous. It’s an abrupt and cheap grab at high-stakes drama after what has ultimately been a very unfocused season. I’m just somewhat at a loss as to why Outlander keeps returning to rape as a way to advance the story.

It’s especially frustrating that it happens in a season that has often sidelined Claire and not known quite what to do with her. The threat of rape has been a constant part of Claire’s life, and I’ve never been totally sold that that aspect of Outlander’s tension actually says anything. Again, it feels like sexual violence is being used as a motif rather than as a commentary. Even Claire’s voiceovers have been sparse this season, and taking away a character’s voice in the same season that ends with her being raped multiple times is exceptionally maddening.

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On top of all this, it turns out Roger and Brianna didn’t even travel successfully through the stones. They ended up right back where they started, because they were thinking about home and this is apparently their home right now. Normally, I would be charmed by Outlander’s earnestness here, but I’m mostly confused about the logistics of time-travel, something that the show is purposefully hazy about. This “twist” also undoes all the emotional work done in the episode before. Roger and Brianna went through all those intense and tough goodbyes with their friends and family, and now they’re just still...here. Nothing happened! At all! So what was the point of sending them on their journey to the stones in the first place? I find myself asking “what is the point” throughout this finale. I think any defense of Outlander’s depiction of sexual violence is a reach at this point. It has become an indelible stain on the show, an unfortunate but solidified legacy for a show that’s otherwise so celebratory of consensual sex that eschews the male gaze.

There are ways to depict the realities of patriarchy, violence, and wartime abuse without doing repeated rape storylines. Outlander has not learned that lesson. It feels like all the biggest emotional moments on this show always hinge on sexual violence, and it has become worse than tired.

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Stray observations

  • As a critic who covers this show weekly, it is literally my job to watch this episode. I can tell you right now that if it were not my job, I would have skipped watching it once I knew about its content.
  • There’s no denying that Caitriona Balfe gives a moving performance throughout, but I will be frustrated if this is the performance that finally gets her awards attention. If I were merely grading her performance, it would receive an A. But I’m frustrated by the idea that an actress is only considered serious and awards-worthy after performing in a sexual assault scene.
  • Here’s your regular reminder that these reviews are written from the perspective of not having read the books. So I do not know if this storyline is “staying true” to the books, but I will say this: Adaptations change storylines and details in small and big ways all the time. Adaptations are not bound to their original works.
  • On that note, if you are going to discuss the books, remember to label spoilers in the comments for those who haven’t read them.
  • So, there’s another time traveler around. And he sucks. He doesn’t do anything to help Claire, so I hope the show addresses that when he inevitably returns.
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