There has never been a man on screen quite like this Jamie character. What does that mean to the business of entertainment, and to the portrayal of gender violence on screen?
Last night I went to Paley Fest with my girlfriend to watch a Q&A (and a new episode) of Outlander, the new Starz series based on the epic Diana Gabaldon books. As I sat among a 90% majority of screaming (grown) women, I caught a glimpse of how gender (and gender violence) is going to change in the media in the coming years.
We’ve already seen that shows led by white male cisgendered protagonists are becoming extinct. Production companies are finally aware that the market is not binary, and they are responding with shows that experiment with different types of masculinities, with female leads, and with more actual diversity instead of tokenism. We still have work to do, but it’s happening. While this first season is set in Scotland (think white people everywhere), there are departures here that will lead the way for nuanced gender and sexuality conversations for seasons to follow.
If you don’t know this series, it’s about a woman in post WWII Britain named Claire who falls 200 years into the past, emerging in Scotland in the mid 1700s. She is torn between two worlds at war, two husbands (eventually), and two distinctly different sensibilities about women’s rights.
The protagonist is a woman, but everyone in the audience was there because of a man – Jamie Fraser – who executive producer Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Gallactica) calls “the king of men.”
There has never been a man on screen quite like this Jamie character. He’s tough and brash, heroic and noble, but he’s also invested in love and intimacy. He is bent by traditions of the time, but also willing to rethink some of the ones his strange new wife protests (like spanking her as punishment for disobedience).
There is an argument between Claire and Jamie about his concept of wife as property, which sets up the tension that so many women I’ve spoken with found both challenging and titillating. Deep down, I think many women want to have a husband they can call “master” as Claire does in moments of ecstasy… which I find challenging because it seems like a mixed signal at first. Later, I learned it’s not about one being master over another, it’s about both being masters of each other. She is his master, and he is hers. There’s a mutual responsibility and tethering to each other that entices so many women (and men).
As a feminist man with cursory knowledge of the story, I found myself shocked at what the next half-season will hold. There is a wife-spanking scene which plays as comical, but creates a valuable inner dialogue for the man afterward about how he wants to treat his wife in spite of tradition. There will be a male rape scene later in the season that will shake up our awareness of the trauma of male survivors in a way that I can’t remember happening since American History X.
In all of this, I sense the tables are turning. The women in the room seem to be aroused by the idea that a male character would be the victim instead of a female character – it seemed sickening to consider this until I realized again we’ve been shown female rape scenes continuously since In Harm’s Way came out in 1965 and Kirk Douglas’s character clearly rapes John Wayne’s daughter-in-law before martyring himself in a twisted old boys’ sense of retribution.
Rape of women has been a plot device for ages, and now the tables are turning. As an activist against sexual assault for 12 years, I detest the glorification of this kind of violence, but I also understand why this is what we should expect to happen in scripts not quite as eloquently realized as this one will be.