“Outlander is fantastically feminist but has never heard of intersectionality."
Episodes Reviewed: S01E01 - S03E01
Creators: Ronald D. Moore 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Original novels by Diana Gabaldon 👩🏼🇺🇸, TV scripts by Diana Gabaldon 👩🏼🇺🇸 (35 eps), Toni Graphia 👩🏼🇺🇸 (9 eps), Matthew B. Roberts 👨🏼🇺🇸 (9 eps), and various (3 ♀ and 3 ♂, all white)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Romantic costumes and steamy sex scenes makes Outlander a guilty pleasure that doesn’t actually require that much guilt, thanks to solid storytelling, high production values, and wonderful performances by the cast. The series starts off with a bang, but the latter half of Season 1 gets bogged down with flashbacks and cutscenes, reminiscent of a soap opera with its lack of narrative progression. Luckily, Outlander improves and by midway Season 2, I was right back to being enthralled with this ambitious, timeline-bending drama.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Whether we’re dodging redcoats in 18th century Scotland or suffering from heartbreak in 1960s Boston, the entirety of Outlander is narrated by and told through the eyes of the time-traveling heroine, Claire (Caitriona Balfe).
In fact, the entire perspective of this show is distinctly female. Outlander shows us that action-packed war and complex political intrigue is hardly exclusive to men, despite the vast amounts of film and television that would like us to believe otherwise. Outlander proudly yanks back the curtain and reminds us that women have always played an integral role in history. For example, as Claire’s Scottish lover Jamie (Sam Heughan) dashes off to the Battle of Prestonpans, we not only follow the men fighting at the front lines but Claire as well, where she stays behind to direct a gaggle of amateur nurses at the makeshift hospital and shuttles key intel back to Scottish soldiers at the front.
Outlander also derides toxic masculinity. Jamie might be a redheaded, bodice-ripping Fabio, but the audience is made to love him for his kind heart and moral compass. Machismo is an unwanted trait, even when attributed to protagonists such as the hotheaded Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish). For example, Dougal puts his hat in the ring when the Mackenzie clan compels Claire to marry someone, but he is easily brushed aside in favor of the more tenderhearted Jamie. In episode after episode, men are rewarded for the right things—showing mercy, or maintaining a sense of humor in a cruel and harsh world. In contrast, strutting displays of braggadocio or violence against women are rightly disparaged.
I only considered one drawback in this category: the massive amounts of sexual violence, particularly in Season 1. Roxane Gay describes for Wired:
“Outlander seems truly hellbent on demonstrating the infinite nature of suffering, and I wonder if it's becoming too much.”
It definitely was for me; the Season 1 finale consists of nearly two hours of seeing Jamie tortured and raped by the British captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), in an important but graphic depiction of a male victim. I fast-forwarded through much of the scenes, then took a long break from Outlander before picking it back up two years later. That being said, this show manages—if barely—to avoid falling into any truly problematic territory. As Amy Zimmerman explains for The Daily Beast:
“In Outlander, rape is far from extraneous—it illustrates psyches, illuminates a love story, and ultimately strengthens a protagonist. The assault scene [against Jamie] is painstakingly portrayed as psychological warfare, not a lurid means of spicing up an episode...Moreover, the narrative deals with his and Claire’s attempts to heal and move forward. In this way, recovery and survival are inherent to the sexual assault storyline.”
Fortunately, Season 2 seems to have tired itself out from the barrage of rape-based machinations and while instances do still crop up, the female gaze is employed to convey the scenes as unsavory and mechanical. Overall, the way Outlander portrays sexual violence keeps pace with other feminist works such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Harlots, both of which also focus on the stories of survivors rather than disposable victims.
No depictions of people of color, but accurate to the show’s real life settings. Even in 1950, researcher Haug tells us that “there were no more than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain, mainly in England, almost all born overseas.”
Still, it’s almost impressive that a modern show can list 339 credited actors on IMDB and still not cast a single person of color. Womp.
The only instance we see of LGBTQ storylines is the fucked up torture sesh between Jack Randall and Jamie. While I hardly expect gay marriage and drag shows in a show set in Jacobite Scotland, the series certainly had room to include ambiguously gendered individuals, or to hint at same-sex interest among smaller characters. Of the 30 episodes I’m reviewing here, at nearly an hour apiece, there is certainly enough content to go around. Do all 339 listed characters really need to be so aggressively cisgender and heterosexual? Some small acknowledgment that sexual ambiguity has existed for centuries would go a long way, especially considering the epic bromances that already litter the show.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.19/5
Outlander is fantastically feminist but has never heard of intersectionality. While it’s truly groundbreaking in casting a female perspective on topics of war and politics, which have historically been dominated by male narratives, creators Moore and Gabaldon screech to a halt at that point. Racial diversity is nonexistent, as are any believable LGBTQ depictions asides from one horrific plotline involving torture and rape.
At the end of the day, though, the show is strong enough by traditional metrics that I still consider myself a huge fan who will simply have to get her dose of racial diversity and positive LGBTQ storylines elsewhere. If what’s left is fit men in kilts, moody Scottish landscapes, and an ultra-capable heroine storming across centuries breaking hearts and taking names, you won’t see me tapping out anytime soon.
Find Outlander on STARZ or if you’re unplugged, stream from the STARZ app via Amazon (7-day free trial, then $8.99/month or $2.99/episode). Seasons 1-2 are also available on iTunes.