Outlander returns for its mid-season premiere, but has it crossed the line?


Warning: The article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

In its first season, the differences between Outlander and other fantasy series was immediately apparent. The series adopted a unique female perspective and audiences were quickly drawn to its emotional tension and sex appeal; Outlander seemed to be the next in a line of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to successfully capture the admiration of its viewers by adapting books that combine the elements of drama with fantasy. However, tonight’s premiere left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m fairly certain I’m not alone.

Themes of sexual violence have been a constant in Outlander since the very first episode. It almost seems like protagonist Claire cannot pick her nose without someone attempting or threatening to rape her. It seemed to be a symptom of the time and situation she found herself in, and a saving grace of the show was how much Claire was able to extract herself from such situations, as much as she was saved by others. Claire was always strong, clever, and walked with her head held high. She gave the impression of a woman who had survived much and was never going to be ready to go down without a fight.

Importantly, these attacks on Claire were seen as wrong; they were framed by the show as acts of barbarism and cruelty with devastating impacts. That seemed to change during the premiere in a scene where Jamie, the Highlander man Claire has developed an unexpected romance with, spanks Claire repeatedly with a belt against her will as punishment for disobeying him. When Jamie explains that he is going to have to punish Claire for her behavior, she immediately begins imploring him not to. She tries to dissuade him, saying she will obey all his orders from now on, and becomes angry when he still intends to strike her. When he grabs her physically and tries to hold her down, she fights him bodily, kicking and punching, while she screams for him to stop. However, he is significantly stronger than her and overpowers her, whipping her buttocks and even commenting on how he’s enjoying it. All the while, the other men of the Clan are shown laughing and joking about how difficult Claire is being in receiving her punishment. The scene is played as light and humorous, and is fairly disturbing for those reasons.

Let it be known that I have nothing against those who enjoy spanking or other kinds of aggressive play in the bedroom. I had actually been warned about the spanking scene by someone who had read Diana Gabaldon’s books, but since they are an individual who is notoriously uncomfortable about kinky sex, I assumed they were responding negatively to a consensual spanking scene. So long as all parties are giving continuous enthusiastic consent and enjoying themselves, they’re free to play however they want in the privacy of their bedrooms. Consent is the key element of both the RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) and the Safe, Sane, Consensual mantras of the kink community. It is essential to establish that everyone involved is a willing participant before any kind of pain is inflicted in an intimate setting.

Consent is what was glaringly lacking from what transpired between Claire and Jamie. Although it clearly stems from out-dated (though in the show, present) views of what marriage means, it does little to change the reality of his actions or how the show chose to approach them. The scene was played as a comedy of errors with jaunty music, pitting poor, misunderstanding but good-intentioned Jamie against the rebellious and defiant Claire. And that might have been appropriate, had he been punishing her by non-violent means. Instead, the show wound up playing off an assault as a comedy routine. Let it not be forgotten that Claire had just been sexually assaulted more than once in the days prior. My issue is not with the content of the exchange itself, but rather how it was handled by the show’s creators.

At the very least, Jamie does apologize for attacking Claire, swearing to never raise his hand to her again. But this is again soured when Claire holds a knife to his throat while they have sex and promises to kill him should he ever strike her again. The show plays it off as erotic, implying that Claire and Jamie are very kinky people, but suddenly pressing a knife to someone’s throat mid-coitus is not the way to try and find out if they’re into a little knife play. There need to be conversations with proper communication, and consent needs to be given in an environment where nobody is worried about their throat being slit if they give a disliked answer. Basically, don’t try this at home or you’ll be assaulting someone and potentially causing severe emotional and physical harm.

These scenes combined with a looming jealous ex-girlfriend sub-plot has me less eager for the second season of Outlander than I was before watching the premiere. Perhaps future episodes will help me forget the poorly-handled-at-best scenes in the series’ return, but for now it will continue to cast a dark shadow. I am always wary whenever I see assault passed off as a lover’s quarrel, and I’ll be paying even closer attention now.

Outlander airs on Saturday nights at 9pm on Starz in the United States and Sunday nights at 10pm on Showcase in Canada.

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