The Unicorn Scale: Outlander

4/27/2017

 

I remember all my friends tearing through Diana Gabaldon’s novel, Outlander, and its seemingly infinite sequels when I was in college. Somehow, I never got sucked into them. Many years later, I found myself browsing Netflix looking for a new show to binge watch. My criteria were simple, I wanted beautiful people in beautiful clothes and gratuitous sex. I saw  Outlander and there was a picture of a beautiful woman spilling out of a gorgeous old-timey red dress and I knew I had found it!

I dove right in to the madness…. There will be spoilers from here on out. If you are unfamiliar with the story, be warned. Also, if you are unfamiliar with how the unicorn scale works, feel free to check it out here.

Outlander follows the story of Claire, a young WWII army nurse, and her insane time travel adventures. She finds herself torn between her two great loves, her WWII era husband and Jamie, her 18th century Highland “laird.”

What I Liked:

I appreciate that Claire is very comfortable with the fact that she likes sex and is willing to express that. When she becomes pregnant, she also doesn’t suddenly become a chaste Madonna. She has to convince Jamie to have sex with her, because she is still a sexual being, not only a baby incubator. It is nice to see that pregnancy isn’t just about morning sickness and swelling feet, her body changes, but Claire still remains herself. Part of that self is sexual.

The show also manages to deal with something that you see very rarely in popular media. At the end of season 1, “Black Jack” Randall imprisons, tortures, and rapes Jamie. It is very rare to see male victims of sexual assault in popular media. I think it was especially shocking to viewers because Jamie is always portrayed as a strong giant, but even he can be a victim. He confesses to Claire that he became aroused during the assault, and that that arousal makes him feel complicit in the attack. At no point do Claire or the show seem to see Jamie as less strong or less masculine because he has gone through this trauma. The first half of seasoned two revolved around Jamie trying to find some kind of peace again and deal with what had happened to him.

What I Didn’t Like:

I was very concerned by the sheer amount of assault, rape, non-consensual, and coercive sex in this show. It wasn’t just that there was so much of it, I get it, it was a brutal time, it was that the show brushed so much of it off. Claire was constantly being dragged off and stripped down kicking and screaming and she never seemed particularly troubled by the experience. There was one assault that troubled her, but it seems like she was more disturbed by the fact that she killed her attacker than with the rape part. I wish that Claire’s, or any of the female victim’s, emotional well-being could have been as sensitively handled as Jamie’s.

Even Jamie and Claire’s relationship seemed to teeter on the line of consensual a few times. The infamous spanking incident immediately comes to mind. Claire disobeys Jamie’s orders once again, gets herself kidnapped and sexually assaulted and now he decides he needs to punish her for her disobedience. Jamie drags Claire kicking, screaming, and pleading across his knee and spanks her. After the spanking, she refuses to sleep with him, he apologizes and promises he will never do it again and they have a bunch of kinky sex. I’m happy they worked it out, but it seemed way to simple to me.

Jack Randall, dragging off Jamie’s sister

This is all well and good, but the unicorn scale is about bisexuality, right? The big bi elephant in the room is the villainous “Black Jack” Randall. He is the ancestor of Claire’s 20th century husband, Claire and Jamie’s 18th century nemesis, and super evil dude. I mean, he isn’t just kind of evil, he’s a twisted, torture-loving, rape-happy fiend. The author of the series, Diana Gabaldon, posted this explanation of Randall’s sexuality on her Facebook page, “He’s a pervert. He’s a sadist. He derives sexual pleasure from hurting people, but he’s not particular about the gender of a victim. (Personality, yes – gender no.)” She goes on to point out that he has attacked both men and women throughout the show, so it’s inaccurate to call him gay. Not gay men who are attracted to people’s personalities, but don’t care about gender are called bi.

This statement makes it seem as if something extraordinary and vile is required to ignore categories like gender. Most of Randall’s actions seem to be motivated by the desire to sexually torture our heroes, their family, and their friends. There is no real explanation of why, other than his perversity. Not only is he an exceptionally evil bi character, but he is a bi character that is only motivated by sex. The only thing that drives him is sex. He is the epitome of a two-dimensional untrustworthy bi sex fiend.

I could have possibly (it would have been hard) forgiven the show for using so many terrible bi stereotypes with “Black Jack” Randall if there had been some other awesome queer characters. The Duke of Sandringham is the only other queer character on the show. He is arguably less evil than Randall, but he’s still a villain. Both are portrayed as devious, untrustworthy, and motivated by lust. I assume that the Duke is gay, although he does spend quite a bit of time complimenting Claire’s beauty, so who knows?

This depiction of queer characters as sexual deviants is doubly frustrating because sex is often portrayed as healing when it happens between Jamie and Claire. They heal their relationship and their emotional wounds with sex. We never see a same-sex relationship with the same power to heal or even with mutual affection. Same-sex relationships are only portrayed as destructive and vile.

The Rating:

I don’t believe that every bi character in every show must be an exemplary human being, a shining example of how wonderful us bi folks can be. However, when you only have two queer characters and both are not only evil, but sexually evil, it’s hard not to feel like the show is sending a message.

Ultimately, because of the terrible representation of the one bi character and one could be bi, but probably gay character, this one can only get 1 unicorn.

Talia Squires
Talia Squires is the editor in chief for bi.org. Talia has a degree in German Literature from Bryn Mawr College and a Master's in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She's obsessed with good food, fantastic wine, and trashy television. She lives in LA with her husband and fluffy Lhasa Apso.