Starz’s “Outlander”: Confused feminists want to know…

In The Atlantic online magazine, no fewer than three feminist women writers attempted to review and comment on the new Starz network series, Outlander. The resulting jumble of feminist gibberish—”Outlander: False Feminism?”—reached lots of confusions but few conclusions.

Before we get into all that, a quick summary of the premise of the series: A few months after the end of the Second World War, Claire Beauchamp Randall, a war nurse/botanist, and her husband, Frank Randall, a director of military espionage/history buff, are reunited for their second honeymoon after five years of separation (with a few intermittent visits). They have a warm but proper, loyal, if staid marriage and are considering again working to start a family.

While on an autumn holiday (at Samhain/Halloween) in the Scottish Highlands and after a couple of subdued erotic interludes, Claire observes a pagan ritual and later explores the foliage of the pagan shrine where she is inexplicably transported back in time (but not in space) to the mid-18th century. There she flops into the middle of a military conflict between Scottish rebels and British Redcoats, led by her husband’s direct paternal ancestor Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. Helping her fend off the rapey advances of both her great-great-greatish father-in-law and the Scottish rebels is Jamie “MacTavish” Frasier, a rakish Scottish lout with a chivalrous bent and a mysterious past. Poor Jamie is oft-injured with dislocations, gunshot wounds, and various lacerations and bruises and so benefits greatly from the learned and botanical ministrations of Not-(Yet)-a-Wet-Nurse Claire.

Passion begins to bloom between Claire and Jamie, but Claire is confused by both her temporal displacement and her loyalty to her lukewarm husband, Frank.

But Claire is a lot less confused than the feminist Atlantic writers who tried to grasp her story.

Julie Beck opens the taco fest by downplaying any overt feminist themes in the show, noting that:

Claire is the sort of female character Game of Thrones and so many other fantasy stories lack. (Not to mention so many stories of all genres.) She’s strong, but not in the lazy way “strong female characters” are often written, when a writer takes a typical macho action hero, and gives the character another X chromosome. She owns her sexuality, but isn’t sexualized. She’s smart, caring, and has some creative swears. (“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!”)

But going into the show, I worry that too much pressure is being put on it to blaze the way for female-driven fantasy, and it could prove too much to live up to. I worry the burden on Claire to be all these many different things could flatten her and leave her two-dimensional, especially because TV doesn’t lend itself well to inner monologue. (So far the show has gone heavy on the voiceover, which kind of bums me out.)

Beck’s worry about how you portray Claire as a feminist hero who is both manly and womanly is a reasonable concern—make her too feminine and the feminists rage, and make her too masculine and they also rage. This is the internal contradiction of feminism: an ideology that is open to all “choices” is also an unanchored, undisciplined stew of unfocused conflict where the only possible point is the drama-queen melodramatic emphasis on perpetual conflict itself.

Olga Khazan is similarly confused:

Claire does seem extremely progressive, and that’s actually pretty historically accurate. Right after World War II, women had just taken on all of these traditionally male roles, and so you had this slight feminist surge for a few years. However, I do worry that she’s maybe a little too—dare I say—pushy…. Are we headed toward Fifty Shades of Plaid? Is that a good thing?

Feminist Khazan’s unease with Claire’s successes, both in the years 1946 and 1743, reflects feminism’s other internal contradiction of touting the supposedly ongoing oppression of women while erasing the women who have thrived through the ages despite—or perhaps, because of—their troubles.

Emma Green’s befuddlement is both carnal and oblivious:

To be honest, I’d be totally down with Fifty Shades of Plaid—so far, this series hasn’t had enough classy, feminist-friendly smut. Fine, fine, the male romantic lead has a recently dislocated shoulder, gunshot wound, and bruised face, but he can man up: The ladies are waiting…. And of course, there’s the much-ballyhooed oral sex, which a fully clothed Claire gratefully receives from her WWII-life husband inside a rotting Scottish castle in episode one.

What Green misses, tellingly, is that the dialogue and action make it clear that Claire is NOT “fully clothed”—she has ventured into the castle sans knickers/panties, in what the kids nowadays refer to as “going commando.”  Green’s failure to note the details of this sexual interlude illustrates the slutty/innocence dichotomy of feminism—Green’s writing flaunts her own supposedly slutty desires, but she can’t even take the care to note accurately what actually transpires between a loving couple in a sex scene. Green’s feigned sexual sauciness is as false as her feminist ideology.

But all three women seem to wrestle with the issue of the seductiveness of traditional gender roles and the rough men in them:

Julie: I’m having a hard time navigating this show’s gender portrayals. On one hand, okay, I get it. The 18th century was not a great time to be a woman…. We are edging close to the uncomfortable territory of “feminist woman realizes what she’s really wanted all along is a traditional man to love and protect her.”

Emma: For relatively liberated feminists, though, it’s a little … sexy. It’s transgressive. It’s a small way of reclaiming the patriarchy for ourselves. 

Olga: That said, I’d be interested to see some characters who break free of the dichotomy of power that we’ve seen so far—the women use their wiles, and the men use their brawn. Although I did love that one of Claire’s missteps was getting too drunk at dinner and oversharing. The worst.

Oh, the Gynocentrism

This love it/hate it split and the supposed confusion and conflict between chivalry and feminism is resolved quite smoothly when you grasp that Outlander is based on the worship of womanhood—gynocentrism—the primacy, security, and pedestalization of women by both feminism and chivalry.

The conflict between sexual attraction vs. feminist misandry is captured in one of the most feminist-derided images on the Women Against Feminism tumblr:


The card reads “I don’t need feminism because I love masculine men like Christian Grey”—Grey being a character in the women’s erotic sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, invoked as “Fifty Shades of Plaid” above. Feminists were happy to lambaste the woman in that image as foolish even as they wrestle with, and obscure, the same sexual urges our Grey fan was honest about.

My dear Franklin Delano Christ, do they not teach “metaphor” to feminists in liberal arts any more?

Although “blood-as-signifier” is also significant, both the foreshadowing and overarching metaphor in the opening episode of Outlander, entitled “Sassenach” (which means, unsurprisingly, “Outlander”), is “the vessel” as a traditional representation of womanhood. Both Claire and the author of Outlander are obsessed with vessels of all sorts—an opening scene introduces Claire’s fascination with vases—and in the voiceover she says she has always wanted to own a vase of her own. We see the image of this same blue vase—a melancholy womb?—reiterated in the first few scenes, intercut with images of a crystal water pitcher; a spurting, massive leg wound that covers Claire in blood; a champagne bottle from which Claire quaffs a third; tea pots and cups used to divine Claire’s future; Scotch tumblers sipped before Claire’s first nude sex scene; and even Claire herself as the human vessel, beneficiary of cunnilingus in the ruins of a castle-as-vessel.

The women in the nighttime pagan ritual carry torches that resemble vases lofted on sticks, and even the phallic stones of the pagan temple enclose a negative space of the vessel, like a band of neolithic rapists surrounding their prey. It is from this temple that Claire-the-vessel returns to the past, so that her vessel may be filled—but with what?

Sometimes the vessel of womanhood will carry ichor that feminists will drink, and sometimes it will poison them. Feminists are bewildered, bemused, enchanted, and ultimately disenchanted by the vessel because they cannot control it or even understand it. Their narcissistic demands try to subdue the vessel, but the vessel does not break—the feminists do.

And now that womanhood is openly defying feminism, feminists are beginning to experience a world that is starting to laugh at their irrelevance to everything. Poor little girls—you almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

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