“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”
I have to organize my thoughts better about this to come to any sort of larger and longer conclusion, but reading the response to the latest episode really crystalized a huge problem with the reviewing done so far on Outlander.
Almost to a one (props to Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya at the AVClub for being that one) everybody seems to want Claire to just shut up whenever she starts setting people down. I can’t read a review without coming over some variation of ‘ho-hum, Claire’s being feisty again when it would be smarter to shut her mouth’. One reviewer even said ‘I’m not victim blaming, but…’ and went on to say getting socked in the stomach and then kicked repeatedly was Claire’s own damn fault for not being quiet.
And, look. I’m not saying that there aren’t times in pretty much every episode where staying silent and unobtrusive would have been the wiser course of action for her in whatever moment— but that’s not who Claire is. Just from a baseline characteristics standpoint she’s brave and proud and confident, and what’s more she’s often one hundred percent right. (And particularly in matters of medicine and history, she knows that beyond a shadow of the doubt.) Personally speaking, I can barely stand to stay quiet when the proverbial ‘someone is wrong on the internet’ situation arises; if I were a battlefield nurse and I was was faced with the choice of watching a patient be subjected to dangerous procedures or take things into my own hands, I can’t say with any honesty that I’d be able to sit quietly by to make sure my safety was guaranteed, and the same goes when it comes to Claire’s constant refusal to let anything unfair go uncommented upon. (Which isn’t to say she isn’t also wrong about as often as she is right, but that’s another thing I like about Claire; she makes her judgements based upon the facts available, and if those facts change she’s not too proud to adjust her view accordingly. I know there’s an odd cultural fascination with never changing your mind, no matter what— to wit: the rise of ‘flip-flopper’ in reference to politicians who change their minds on anything ever, rather than ones who actually do change their opinion like they change their socks— but I tend to believe that changing your mind based on new facts is actually worth a lot more respect than stubbornly clinging to an old opinion out of habit or arrogance.) Claire is outspoken, yes, and often in circumstances where refusal to stay silent compromises her own personal safety, but it’s not because she’s “feisty” or “sassy” or any other vaguely condescending term slapped on women with a brain and the courage to speak what’s on that brain.
(…a brief linguistic aside: I don’t hate either word, just to forestall any confused or angry asks; in a joking manner, I’ve happily called Claire feisty a million and one times myself and will do it again. My problem here is how those words are consistently used in a serious context, when brave would be used if the situation was gender-blind. The use of feisty en masse and barely a use of ‘brave’ is my beef, not feisty itself.
This concludes your linguistic aside.)
The reason Claire speaks up when it would be safer to stay quiet is because she’s dedicated to her own personal moral code; she holds the world to that same basic moral standard, and when she feels it’s being betrayed she’s confident and brave enough to say so.
These aren’t generally characteristics given to women in narrative; the “she’s a bitch/he’s the Boss” double standard in life and pop culture and the discussion about it has been covered exhaustively, and now Claire is just another victim of that societal pressure to shut the hell up and play nice.
Driving this home even more is the show’s purposeful parallel of Jamie and Claire. Both Cait and Sam have said over and over that Claire and Jamie are “kindred spirits”, pointing out their shared nobility and bravery is part of what draws them immediately together; there’s attraction, yes, but more importantly there’s mutual respect and a similar understanding of the world. Jamie’s taunt to Randall about being more concerned he’ll freeze than he is about being beaten, the way he refuses to beg or cry out— those are deliberately an echo of Claire’s characterization so far, and her stubborn refusal to stay quiet and play the game, to prioritize her safety over others’ and not tell the truth in the face of cruelty and injustice. I’m a fan of the flip side of that narrative, as well (sup, Sansa Stark) but I can’t help the excitement I feel seeing what are often assumed to be masculine traits assigned to someone like Claire.
In stark contrast to the way Claire’s bravery is seen, the reviewer response to Jamie’s refusal to buckle has been very literally entirely positive; I couldn’t find one single thing that wasn’t either ‘that poor guy’ ‘ew gross’ or ‘HOW DARE Randall’. There wasn’t a single ‘if he had kept his mouth shut and just cried a little, Randall wouldn’t have beaten him like that’— contrast that with the commentary on Claire extending to the literal use of the word term victim blaming I mentioned earlier, and the double standard becomes even clearer.
To wit: Jamie is beaten more harshly for refusing to just give a man the reaction he wants, and he’s brave and a hero; Claire does the same, and she’s an idiot.
Somehow, though, the dissonance in those two reads doesn’t seem to be striking reviewers; I think it has everything to do with gender stereotypes and expectations, and how a show drawing such thick parallels between Jamie’s bravery and Claire’s and saying they’re both noble and worthwhile and most of all exactly the same is something that unfortunately has been mostly missing from our cultural landscape. (As a note: books are somewhat better than visual media at extending empathy and heroism to women on equal terms as they do to men; I can think of a few book series that do it as well as or better than Outlander, but only one TV show. Tldr yes, I know there are more examples out there, but my point is it’s more societally entrenched and endemic than not and visual media is often the worst offender.)
All that said, at the same time this widespread outbreak of mainstream reviewers Missing The Point makes me angry as hell, it makes me honestly incredibly thankful Outlander got made; it’s not a perfect series by any stretch, but I think it’s so important for where we are culturally right now to see a woman like Claire as a lead character on TV. She’s stubborn, sometimes arrogant and sometimes wrong and she’s also brave and noble and passionate and compelling and we’re encouraged to love her for all that in a way that (outside of Orphan Black) is hard to find in media, and I can only hope we see more and more shows following that lead.
Vasiliy and Dutch: the Buddy Cop movie is a thing I desperately need.
- guy fieri: well that's it for this edition of diners drive ins and dives
- me: THANK GOD
my left leg is half useless and OW oh my god ow but fuck this house arrest bs, I’n getting a drink and slowly crutching around greater San Jose anyway.
(And to all the replies I have waiting: ONCE I GET HOME I PROMISE it’s been Such A Week.)