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  • Calling out the bullshit: love and feminism in Outlander


    It’s probably no secret that I love period drama. Not of the Downton variety, mind – I like a bit more sass and tighter bodices, personally. For me, the eighteenth century is really where it’s at. This was a time of sexual licence and libertinism. It gave birth to enlightenment, archaeology, binomial classification systems, the pianoforte, Mary Wollestonecraft, and democratic republicanism. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a picnic; the eighteenth century also saw the advance of colonialism and the rapid growth of the international slave trade. The industrial revolution created a new type of urban poverty; children could be forced to labour under shocking conditions; women could be legally raped and flogged by their husbands. Certainly, this was a period of extreme dualisms, but it was also one of significant social shift.

    As you can imagine, I’ve been like a cat who got the cream this past year with all of the eighteenth-century period drama goodness (though I must confess that I’m yet to see the Beeb’s ‘Scandalous Lady W’ with Natalie Dormer). It all started with Poldark earlier in the spring (to think that we’ll be heading off to Poldark country in less than two weeks!), and then, a few weeks ago, Julian and I discovered Outlander (courtesy of my brother, Josh). We’ve since purged the entire series (huzzah for Amazon Prime membership!) and boy, were we drained after that rollercoaster. Now, for those of you that don’t know, Outlander isn’t your archetypal period drama, because it’s also about time travel. Yep, you heard me; it’s actually a *sci-fi* period drama! It sounds absurd, I know, and when I read the Amazon Blurb, I thought so too (this was before I knew about the whole series of Outlander books written by Diana Gabaldon). But we instantly fell in love with the characters and the story, and were swept up by the intense tumult of emotions.

    Outlander is a dream for a purveyor of historical drama; the costumes, sets, and details are phenomenal, notwithstanding a few anachronisms (I winced a little at the substitution of the KJV wedding vows with NIV vows). What’s most impressive about Outlander, however, is its resonance, and the poise with which it treats modern concerns through a period frame. This is partly facilitated through the structure of the plot; a woman who serves as a combat nurse in WWII travels back in time to 1743 (enter Claire Beauchamp). She’s sexually liberated, self-empowered, and full of ideas – ideas that are totally incongruous with the ideals of 1743 even at its most enlightened. Claire is like a Buffy figure, in the sense that she’s a ‘strong female character’-type who could’ve been created by Joss Whedon. Except she wasn’t.

    Like most ‘strong female character’-types, Claire is awesome, foolhardy, and headstrong. But she’s also so much more than that, and what we learn about her true strength of character is seen through her love affair with a Scottish Laird (enter Jamie Fraser). It’s a love affair that has all the stuff of modern romance, including a large dose of sex and nekkidness. As the second half of the series reveals, however, the relationship is complex and constantly evolving, testing the sensibilities of modern audiences. It exhibits the disjuncture between eighteenth-century tradition and twentieth-century morality. What is so refreshing about this relationship, though, is the way in which Claire persistently and ceremoniously calls Jamie out on his bullshit. She is unflagging and resolute, and Jamie does not just yield, but takes time to process and learn. The message that we take is that, ultimately, respect, and the capacity to learn and grow, is at the foundation of love.

    I love the relationship that Claire has with Jamie, because it offers us a model for behaviour that we should actively aspire to replicate our own relationships – challenging male privilege and hierarchies of power that are so deeply ingrained in the institutions and power structures of our society. Through Claire, Jamie learns about (something in between first wave and second wave) feminism, and in so doing, learns to become a better human. We could all basically do with lots more Claires and Jamies on the planet. I want to see the drama that’s played out in the eighteenth century realised in the present.

    I’d like to thank Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan for fulfilling these roles so exquisitely, and for calling the world out on its patriarchal bullshit.

    *Since I wrote the post, I have in fact seen the Beeb’s ‘Scandalous Lady W’. A top-notch performance from Natalie Dormer, as always, and a fascinating insight into the life of Seymour, Lady Worsley. Worth a watch, despite what The Telegraph says.


  • Injustice and ‘Foul Lies’ – Slaves and Freemen in the Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

    This morning, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, I was excited to hear that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave would feature as Radio 4’s ‘book of the week’. I am one of the biggest champions of the recent film adaptation of Northup’s memoir, and I once again confirmed this to myself last week when Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen were presented with BAFTAs (for best actor and best film respectively) and I began punching the air and howling like a wolf, before jumping off my seat to do a little victory dance (at home, by myself.) I hope that the film will enjoy similar acclaim at next week’s Oscars’ ceremony, and that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’O, in particular, might be recognised for her part in the film’s brilliance. I spent a good part of the morning after the BAFTAs trawling articles on the web, hoping that the evening’s results might have stimulated a renewed critical interest in the film and its real-life historical subject (Northup). Inevitably, I found myself revisiting some of the material that had been produced after the film’s initial release, as it was here, in the ‘Comments’ sections, that the debate was really taking shape.

    When I went to see the film (some of you may recall) I was in Louisiana. I had attended a graduate seminar at LSU hosted by Professor Michael Bibler – with whom I share a great many scholarly interests – on transnationalism and the American plantation. When I arrived in the class, I had not yet seen the film, whereas my other class members had. They gave me an insight into things to be critically wary of: the moments of virtual torture porn, the obscuring of the black female voice, and the romanticisation of the ‘Free North’. Having sat with the carrot dangled in front of me for most of that day, I had to go and see it that night so that I could judge for myself. I was completely overwhelmed. I continued to contemplate the points that had been raised in class earlier that day, but generally had few scruples with the film.

    When I watched the BAFTAs, rooting for Steve McQueen and his brilliant cast, and, the following day, as I read the ‘Comments’ sections of the aforementioned online articles, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of proponents that the film seemed to have. Of course, as we all know, these feeds range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and not all of the comments that I fell upon were full of unbounded praise. Naturally defensive over things about which I feel passionately, I was surprised, however, to find myself in (partial) agreement with one of the more critical commentators. The commentator in question argued that the film only made us feel empathy for the plight of Solomon, suggesting that his capture and his enslavement was an injustice, when, in fact, the injustice lay in the fact that anyone at all should ever have been enslaved.

    Although I would contend the point that the film makes us feel empathy for nobody but Solomon – the personal traumas of characters such as Patsey and Eliza demonstrate, after all, the extreme brutalities of the American slave system – our sense of triumph when Solomon is claimed by a former acquaintance from the North to be taken home to his family in New York is undeniable. Our capacity to empathise with the likes of Patsey and Eliza is thus partially obscured. In this moment of elation and (apparent) catharsis, Patsey collapses in a heap to the left of the screen, on the periphery, almost outside of our view. This is a potent symbol. We root for Solomon, and yet after his liberation Patsey, and the rest of the slaves on the Epps plantation, are out of sight, and out of mind. Recalling this moment reminded me that ‘justice’, and our sense of justice, is rarely informed by these peripheral voices, but is shaped by those who have had the power to speak.

    As I was listening to Northup’s memoir on Radio 4 this morning, I was also reminded of the fact that free people of color across the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not always share the same interests with those from the enslaved community. I was struck by a particular section of the narrative in which Northup describes his enslavement a ‘foul lie’. While it was indeed a lie, I wondered why it should have been considered to be so ‘foul’, given especially that Northup was descended from slaves. This piece I now give you is a slight digression from the chapter that I am currently writing for my thesis on the struggle of free people of color in colonial Saint-Domingue and its transmigrations across the Atlantic. While free people of color formed alliances with the enslaved people who had risen up in rebellion in the colony at the end of the eighteenth century, there was to remain bitter and longstanding divisions between these two groups (the traces of which remain visible in independent Haiti today.) Indeed, many of these free men had owned property and slaves of their own, and counted themselves amongst the colony’s ruling elite. These men fought not, in the first instance, to end slavery, but to advance their own civil and political rights as free property-owners.

    Northup cannot be counted amongst this class of property-owning ‘elites’. After his return to New York, he became a leading actor in the abolition movement, and his memoirs were part of an influential tidal-wave of abolitionist literature that surged across America in the 1850s. These thoughts nevertheless remind us that ‘justice’, especially in the context of slavery, did not always have a universal reach, but was, on the contrary, very much individual.

  • An Ode to This Day: 2 January 2014

    Breakfasting with the woman that shares my soul;
    Running in the sunshine:
    Danson Lake glistening;
    Tiny dogs all muddy;
    Children all muddy;
    Getting new trainers muddy.
    Singing in my head: Fats Domino;
    Finding things;
    Eating the last slice of pie;
    Undoing imperfect stitches and restarting;
    Leaving the dishes in the sink;
    Telling the man I love that I love him;
    Writing this.

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