Starz’ Outlander Gender-Flips the Script on Rape

Beware: This article includes spoilers for Outlander Season 1, Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.”

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Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Starz’ Outlander

We all know what a rape victim looks like according to television: young and female. The more dewy-cheeked and doe-eyed, the better. Of course, outside of television, a rape victim can be anybody. Not all rape victims are pretty young women. Not all rape victims are women, period.

Male rape is barely-treaded territory in the cultural landscape — in fact, when movies and television go there, it’s usually treated as a joke more than a crime. But a Starz cable drama has gone bravely where few shows have gone before.

Outlander, faithfully adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s beloved historical romance series of the same name, explores a minefield of sexual taboos — rape included. Its heroine is the Englishwoman Claire Beauchamp (Catriona Balfe), whose post-WWII Scottish honeymoon with her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) is cut abruptly short by the mysterious time-traveling magic of standing stones. She finds herself in 1743, smack dab in the center of a tussle between Redcoats and rebel Scottish Highlanders. Her husband’s great ancestor is the English Captain “Black Jack” Randall (also Tobias Menzies, in a perverse inversion of her brainy, gentle husband), who attacks Claire. Her anachronistic slip makes her look quite the whore to these 18th-century dragoons, but she’s saved just in time by the rough-hewn Highlanders. Among the rebel clan is the young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Claire was a wartime nurse — and despite some whispers that she is a witch, given the suspicious breadth of her medical knowledge — she wins favor among the Scotsmen and is whisked into the bagpipe-scored, kilt-adorned maelstrom of the wild Scottish Highlands.

The Scotch-based cocktail has a diverse genre sampling of ingredients, from wartime drama to political theater to science fiction. The lynchpin, however, is the romance between Claire and Jamie. Their marriage begins as a pawn move in the complicated chessboard of Scottish politics, but quickly blossoms into a painfully genuine love. The more experienced Claire coaxes the young Jamie into a sexual awakening. In fact, much of Outlander is about sex — namely, putting female pleasure unapologetically at the forefront. While there’s no shortage of bodice-ripping — and rest assured, Catriona Balfe has quite the body under that bodice — Sam Heughan’s well-oiled muscles are given the same reverent, candlelit treatment.

Rape is but another ugly feature on the craggy face of eighteenth-century Scotland, and one that can’t be ignored. Claire is sexually assaulted on multiple occasions; as a beautiful and headstrong woman, she is vulnerable to the old-fashioned social mores of the time period, her body just another field to be conquered by the lusty soldiers who come across her.

However, it is the rape of our male hero Jamie that is given the most sustained attention. Jamie has been the object of almost singular obsession for Captain “Black Jack” Randall. He still wears the scars of a brutal double-whipping from his past — as the man wielding the whip, Jack found himself both admiring Jamie’s stubborn refusal to scream and stimulated by his youthful strength. Jamie manages to evade Randall’s pursuits for most of the season, though his marriage to Claire emboldens him to return to his childhood home. He’s captured by the Redcoats and taken to Wentworth Prison to be executed. Claire breaks into the prison to save him but is stopped by Randall himself. Knowing that Claire is Jamie’s Achilles heel, Randall negotiates a deal Jamie can’t refuse: give yourself to me and your beloved wife goes free. Jamie submits himself to martyrdom, much to Randall’s delight. Determined to break the young Scotsman once and for all, the season one finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” recounts, in graphic detail that’s just shy of excessive, the brutal torture and rape of Jamie Fraser.

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Sam Heughan in Outlander

The episode opens with Jamie’s rescue from the prison — the rape itself is revealed through his memories, as he struggles through the recovery process. In the previous episode, Randall had nailed one of Jamie’s hands to the table. After freeing his hand, he cradles Jamie’s limp body in his arms — the allusions to Christ’s suffering are self-consciously on-the-nose. After complaining that kissing him is like “kissing a corpse,” Randall whispers, “Is that your plan? To submit like Christ on the cross?”

Tobias Menzies’ performance as Captain “Black Jack” Randall sometimes luxuriates too much in his character’s mustache-twirling depravity, but subtlety has never exactly been Outlander’s style anyway. Sam Heughan’s portrayal of Jamie’s suffering is a little too gorgeous, a little too much of a beautiful masterwork in itself. His magnificently-lit, muscled form is something Michelangelo might have immortalized in marble; at other times, his anguish resembles the latest installment in the centuries-long effort to render, in worshipful detail, the torture of Jesus’s nude body. Randall is nothing if not an artist in sadism, and Jamie is his long-awaited canvas.

But simply admiring Jamie’s helpless agony is not enough for Randall — he wants him to be more responsive. He flips Jamie over a table and savagely violates him until he finally hears the sound he’s been waiting for: Jamie’s scream. Still not satisfied, Randall wants to make his ownership of Jamie’s body more literal, so he forces Jamie to brand himself with his crest: JR.

These memories haunt Jamie and shame him into silence. At the hospital Jamie’s recovering at, Claire tends to Jamie’s wounds, confused and hurt by his silence and outbursts of confused rage. These spasms of PTSD are, of course, part and parcel of a rape survivor’s recovery process. So is Jamie’s shame, which keeps him from telling Claire what’s happened to him until she physically forces him to.

Finally, he tells her the most painful memory of all. During their last encounter, Randall took advantage of Jamie’s barely-conscious daze as he rubbed lavender oil over his wounds and encouraged him to “think of Claire.” Randall even lets down his shoulder-length hair, touching Jamie gently before he violates him again, though much more tenderly and intimately than before. This time, they’re making love. By invoking Claire, Jamie can’t help but feel pleasure. This is what finally breaks him. Jamie is shipwrecked on foreign shores — by tethering the memory of his rape to the wife he loves, Randall casts a shroud over everything Jamie once found familiar.

“To Ransom a Man’s Soul” is groundbreaking on multiple accounts. For once it is not the lovely heroine who is forced to submit to sexual perversions, but our hunky hero. He is the damsel to be saved. But more importantly, the episode painstakingly recreates what the process of recovery is like for a survivor: fraught with shame, grief, and self-hatred. Most shows treat rape as a plot device, forgotten by the next episode. But Outlander does not just show the wound, but the scar that lingers after.

 

 

 

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