Calling out the bullshit: love and feminism in Outlander

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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.

 

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