Outlander and The Dark Side of Humanity


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 09 July 2012

*Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual assault*
*Spoilers for Outlander by Diana Gabaldon*

During the recent Lara Croft discussions, some (including myself) pointed out how tired they were of the lazy use of rape in a number of stories, particularly fantasy and science fiction. This led to the question of which rape stories were “good” and, to be honest, I had a hard time coming up with any beyond perhaps Tess of the d'Urbervilles. For most of them, I felt that the rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault used could have been replaced with a number of other horrendous violent crimes and the overall story would not have changed, except maybe to be less sexualized overall.

Then I read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The bulk of the novel is set in 18th century Scotland and primarily involves multiple levels of Scottish society and British soldiers. As in the Game of Thrones, rape was a constant threat for women, particularly those who did not have political power through their relationships to men (although sometimes those relationships were also seen as reasons to “ruin” the woman as a political maneuver).

Lots of novels make use of rape as a background device, as an easy way to show how evil the time period was and as a contrast to today. However, Outlander goes further, making the act of rape and society’s views of it, part of the story.

  • The main character, Claire, learns how to protect herself and is given self-defense lessons. She learns how to use the society’s low expectations of women to her advantage, giving her the upper hand in a number of occasions. She is forced into the position of welcoming a rapist’s advances to make it easier for her to kill her attacker.
  • The worldview of her love interest, Jamie, is tainted by rape and attempted rape. He becomes estranged from his sister in part because his captor, Captain Randall, tells him not only did he rape her, but she carried his bastard child. This leads him to place the blame on himself and blinds him to the entire story of what happened between Jenny and Randall.
  • Later in the book, we suffer with Jamie as Randall captures him again and he surrenders his body to Randall in exchange for Claire’s freedom. The way in which Randall rapes Jamie leads him to question himself, feeling that his body betrayed his emotions and his love for Claire. Through this, we explore the guilt often suffered by survivors, especially when Jamie says he couldn’t stop his body from reacting anymore than he could stop a cut from bleeding. We watch as he works through this grief and guilt.

A number of other similar situations appear in the book. A few of them, particularly in the beginning, might fit more into the flavor category, showing us how the world of 1740s Scotland worked. Overall, however, rape isn’t used just to establish how terrible the society or the people within it was. We get to examine not only the effects it has on the individuals, but on society itself, especially as we see Claire, a woman from the 1940s, deal with her desire to be a free and independent woman and the realities of a world where women who expressed their independence often suffered consequences for it.

Outlander deals with some dark aspects of the human condition but often does so with gravity and respect and in a way that leads the reader to think critically about not only the world of the novel, but our own as well. Given the number of survivors out there, of all genders, I think we have an obligation as creators to use rape in moderation, especially in more mainstream works, and when we do use it, to make it more than a symbol for how bad a person or society is.

Given the sensitive nature of the subject, comments will be moderated.

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Thank you for the post, it's an interesting and thought-provoking example. I'll give this series a look. There's so very few examples of a work that talks about rape in a mature way that I'm almost instantly offput whenever I see it in a work at all. I would wish people would be willing to look at examples like this, and think critically about whether they can do the same, before they jump at their gun and claim as their right being able to use rape tropes whenever they want.

A much better way of handling the idea of rape there. I do agree though that most works of fiction that include it, use it as just a lazy short hand.

http://shortymonster.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/women-in-gaming-tabletop-e...

The problem with avoiding rape in a narrative is that real world rape is such a prevalent and constant threat.
85-90,000 women get raped annually in a country as safe as the US. One in ten young women in college are sexually assaulted. Female troops serving overseas are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than suffer an injury from the enemy.
It seems strange to all but dismiss such a potentially ubiquitous experience, just because "rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault used could [be] replaced with a number of other horrendous violent crimes and the overall story would not have changed."

Has any woman not had the experience of walking home later at night than she'd like, heard a noise and grown aware of how alone she was, and that anyone could do anything to her and there would be no one there to stop it? Suddenly found her mind making her all too aware of how vulnerable she was at that moment.
Why is a subject *that* universal so taboo?

It also feels unrealistic. Bad guys do bad things. They kill, they maim, and, of course, they rape. It's the evil that men do. There hasn't been a conquering horde in history that hasn't raped its way through a sacked town.
My mind has wandered this way a few times during a movie, when the female romantic love interest gets captured by the skuzzy evil bad guys to be used as bait. And somehow the thoroughly evil ex-cons who've spend the entire movie killing without remorse don't do the unspeakable.

I do try and skirt the issue of rape when I write or DM, following Sarah Darkmagic's comment that the story doesn't matter if it's an assault or a sexual assault. But it feels odd that it's preferred to have a female character stabbed or have some teeth knocked out - potentially life altering injuries - rather than have her raped.
As a writer I play rough with my toys. I do horrible, horrible things to my protagonists to see them rise above it, and overcome the problems despite injury or humiliation. But I find myself playing softball with my female protagonists, not drifting into rape and stringently trying to avoid that woman in the refrigerator.

Narrative rape can be lazy. Like any hot-button issue, it's tempting to mash the button for a quick an easy reaction. This is probably a large part of the problem: evoking rape for the inherent shock value.
The Lara Croft issue likely falls into that, where they wanted to give her a hard time so they can show her overcoming the issue, rising above the trauma and becoming a hero. But rape is probably crossing a line.

Has any woman not had the experience of walking home later at night than she'd like, heard a noise and grown aware of how alone she was, and that anyone could do anything to her and there would be no one there to stop it? Suddenly found her mind making her all too aware of how vulnerable she was at that moment.

Part of the reason women feel that way has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with the fact that SO MANY STORIES have this in it. Stranger rape is fairly rare. There are 155.6 million girls and women in the US. According to the stats you gave, 0.06% of them will be raped in any one year.

Likewise, yes, there are a lot of survivor of rapes out there. But most women, most times ARE NOT GOING TO BE RAPED. Most people, even bad guys, aren't rapists, at least not in the way you are describing. The whole line of reasoning you give is based more on rape myths than rape facts. That you feel it so common it's weird to not have it in stories with bad guys is a result of what is commonly called rape culture.

I'm not happy with my previous comment. I'm not comfortable with the final tone. Part of me doesn't even want to comment again. But I'm too darn stupid to just walk away...

While the US has a high per capita rate of rape for a first world nation, but it is still a safe first world nation. Especially compared to some place more horrific like South Africa, where 1 in 3 women is raped, 1 in 4 men admits to being a rapist, and women are more likely to be raped then get a higher education (which, admittedly, might say more about their stance on post-secondary education than rape).

Genetics have shown some interesting things and historical ravaging. Papers have claimed that 1-in-200 men is descended from Ghengis Khan (or, more likely, the Khan and his followers), following the mongol invasion of Europe and Asia in the 12th and 13th centuries. And while some historians dispute the Viking reputation for raping and pillaging (as being written by the victims as well as justifying the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity) many communities do have high Scandinavian genetic markers suggesting interbreeding did occur.

Most people, even bad guys, aren't rapists, at least not in the way you are describing. The whole line of reasoning you give is based more on rape myths than rape facts. That you feel it so common it's weird to not have it in stories with bad guys is a result of what is commonly called rape culture.
Quite possibly. You never hear the stories of the Vikings who just pillaged and wanted to remain true to their wives back home. And my perception of convicts and prison life might (read: is) be coloured by Oz and Shawshank Redemption.

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