I went to the Outlander premiere, where everyone laughed at domestic violence

This is the face of someone who does not know why she is at the Outlander premiere.
This is the face of someone who does not know why she is at the Outlander premiere.

I’m sitting in the beautiful Ziegfeld Theater in midtown Manhattan, watching a woman be beaten with a belt. The audience around me is laughing, clapping, and whistling. My plus one winces as he watches the scene through his fingers. I listen to the delighted howls echoing through the theater and wonder if I am missing something. Is this supposed to be funny? Is this supposed to be sexy? Am I being a feminist buzzkill? Did I miss a memo?

I really need to talk about the Outlander premiere.

For those of you not in the know, Outlander is a time-travel romp of beautiful costumes and sexual tension on Starz. Claire Randall, a no-nonsense WWII nurse, gets sucked back in time to the 1700s Scottish Highlands, and her assertive “modern woman” personality doesn’t exactly mesh with the kilt-wearing rogues she is sort of held captive by. She winds up marrying Jamie, a sensitive fugitive from the English troops, and they have a lot of steamy sex but she’s conflicted about it. Outlander is beloved and popular because of its extremely heavy use of the female gaze, despite Claire being nearly raped every other episode. It’s the sort of show I watch with skepticism while scrolling through Tumblr on my iPhone: feminist enough to entertain but not perfect and not spectacularly written.

I was excited to get tickets to the premiere of the second half of the first season, because the show is fun and because attending free media events is a great way to spend a Wednesday night in New York City. I recruited my friend David to come with me and we settled into our velvet seats with free popcorn, ready for a weird evening of entertainment. David had seen absolutely none of Outlander and only knew of its plot what I had rambled about on the subway ride over from Brooklyn. We were particularly intrigued by the promise of the after party at the Plaza immediately following the screening (celebrities + open bar = broke hipster catnip). Basically our expectations of the evening were very low, and we were excited to merely people-watch and make sarcastic comments. The same could probably be said of a third of the people in that theater with us: a mix of media types, people somehow involved in the series, random folks invited as thank you’s, and a cluster of Outlander super fans seated hilariously in the far back.

The episode opened with Jamie rescuing Claire from the sociopathic English soldier Black Jack, roughly thirty seconds before she could be violently sexually assaulted. We get most of this episode from Jamie’s inelegant perspective, an unwelcome change considering the series’ female gaze is, again, one of its best qualities. Jamie is also not the most interesting character in the world, but whatever. Usually I would allow this POV experimentation, particularly in a young show, but I have distinctly less patience for it in damsel in distress situations, especially in poorly directed scenes of female victimization. Bitch Magazine wrote a great breakdown of how Outlander filmed the rape scenes during the season finale, which I recommend you check out. Spoiler alert: female directors do a much better job depicting trauma without sensationalizing it.

But let me get to the meat of the episode, what the rest of the Internet is tripping over itself to make Fifty Shades-related puns about: Jamie takes Claire back to their room at the Inn after rescuing her (and after they have the most ridiculous and cringe-inducing fight about how it was her fault she got captured in the first place and it’s patriarchy all over the place). Jamie explains that he may have forgiven Claire for getting herself captured (how generous of you, Jamie) but the rest of his men who put themselves in danger to rescue her expect her to be punished. The traditional punishment? Spanking. With a belt.

Hold the fucking phone, yo. Claire feels much the same way I would feel in the same situation: terrified, betrayed, and violently opposed to being spanked with a belt without her consent. Also, she was just nearly raped twice this same day. This is not the time for non-consensual spanking. This is not even the time to joke about non-consensual spanking, if such a time exists at all.

The theater went fucking wild when they realized what this scene was—apparently it’s a fan favorite from the books. I of course had no idea what was coming. I listened to the disturbingly upbeat musical score underlying the scene and assumed Jamie was intentionally riling up Claire to protest loudly, so as to make the men downstairs think he had beaten her when he actually hadn’t. Jamie has been depicted as this generous softy so in love with his new bride that he would never hurt her. He’s clever enough to know his bros need to think he put her in his place and come up with a way to appease them without actually being a horrible husband.

WELL, I THOUGHT WRONG. Jamie eventually corners his new bride, rails on her ass with his leather belt, and grins his head off as she screams and writhes in pain. “I said I was going to punish you, I didn’t say I wasn’t going to enjoy it,” he says.

The crowd went wild, which even confused the showrunner. I looked on in horror. David and I exchanged murmured what the fuck’s under our breath. It was a fascinating moment of cognitive dissonance: we both knew the show had crossed a line, but no one else seemed to. Violence against women in the media is disappointing but never surprising. A theater full of women delighted by violence against women is the height of disturbing. I held off on writing this post until I could re-watch the scene by myself and see if it plays differently outside such a charged atmosphere. Nope, still gross.

And no, the episode was not be redeemed by the aggressive “look, they’re going to be okay!” sex scene that occurred on. As symbolism is apparently lost on this program, Claire holds a knife to Jamie’s throat and threatens to kill him if he ever hurts her like that again while they are fucking. OH GREAT, HOW EGALITARIAN.

Also, for those who have not been spanked with a leather belt, that shit fucking hurts. I once asked a partner if he would be willing to spank me with a belt instead of his hand, because I’d been reading a ton of BDSM fiction for Cleis Press and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. He instructed me to hold out my palm. I did so, confused but curious, and watched with wide eyes as he smacked it with his belt. It was a sharp, burning pain the likes of which I rarely if ever encounter. I cried like a little bitch. Suffice it to say, we permanently shelved the whole belt idea. This is not fun, frivolous stuff. You have to know what you’re getting into with belt play.

There are a number of ways Outlander could have made the belt scene work (David and I listed them as we got hammered at the after party, needing to soothe our feminist media critic nerves). You could film the episode from Claire’s point-of-view, validating her experience and exploring what was going on in her brain during this cluster-fuck of a scene. Or you could keep the scene exactly as it was, but not score domestic violence with gleeful fiddle music, which played it off as a silly joke in which Claire was being absurd and overreacting to her abuse. Because let me make this clear: there is nothing about this scene that suggests BDSM. This is not consensual, and it is meant as a punishment and as a statement to the other men. This scene is Domestic Violence with a capital DV, and I’m not down with that being written off as a steamy, sexy joke.

I can appreciate Outlander wanting to explore the central conflict of Claire not being from Jamie’s time, and the power dynamics involved in a “modern” woman marrying a Scottish highlander. That is a fascinating set-up for a plot line, and one I thought Outlander was prepared to do justice consider the wonderful way it depicted female sexuality in the first eight episodes of the season. There is so much oral sex, genuine pleasure, and honesty about how sex isn’t always amazing (Claire takes Jamie’s virginity and it’s so realistically pathetic and sweet, guys, I can’t even). But everything about that belt scene was sloppy, irresponsible and fucked. You violated my trust, Outlander. You are officially on probation.

EDIT: This writeup from the New York Times on the same scene is very, very worth reading as well.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

8 thoughts on “I went to the Outlander premiere, where everyone laughed at domestic violence

  1. I’ll admit it, I laughed. Having read the books, I knew the scene was coming. In many ways, I was prepared to cringe, but Claire’s reaction and her (limited) success in fighting back, and the response from guys downstairs about it were humorous to me. There was no way to avoid the scene, but it was much more palatable like this.

    I’ll also add that I didn’t care for Claire holding the dirk to Jamie’s throat during the sex scene. That did feel rather over the top.

  2. I was not able to go to the premiere, but I am appalled to hear that there was some laughter during the spanking scene. Having been a fan for 20 years, I am very familiar with this part of the story. The second half of the series is being done with Jamie’s inner dialog. Maybe they should have included some of Claire’s thoughts. The scene in the book is very layered with conflicting emotions. I watched it with that in mind. In the book, Claire feels betrayed. Since she stepped through the stones into this bewildering and scary time, Jamie has been her champion, pledging to protect her with his body. He has been a safe haven for her and even though she is still trying to get back to Frank, she has clung to Jamie as a rock that would make her feel safe and anchored. When he tells her that he is going to give her a beating for endangering the men in the party, she feels like that trust and safety is being stripped from her. It is not just modern feminist sensibilities at play here, it is primal fear. She doesn’t know Jamie well enough to know how much he loves her. For Jamie’s part, he still has know idea that Claire comes from a different time and that she wasn’t merely taking a walk, she was trying to get back to the stones and Frank. When he finds this out he is ashamed that he punished her and he makes further apologies even taking Claire back to the stones so she can make the decision for herself. An act of letting go which really does tear his guts out because he has grown to love her. I think down the road, the series needs to come with cliff notes. Diana Gabaldon has written a dynamic and organic story with a plot that weaves like a piece of cloth picking up and putting down plot lines and motivations through all 8 books. The thing is that you can’t take one episode at face value because its thread will be woven into future episodes with many aha moments. I won’t tell you that you have to read the books. I will only say that people who have read them have a distinct advantage in understanding the plot lines and characters over those who have not. Especially with controversial scenes like this.

  3. I wonder if the cheering and laughing was for the fact that the fan base was so happy to have this important scene played out on screen so soon in the second half of season 1 not knowing for sure how it was going to be handled. That is the only thing that makes sense to me. Otherwise, yuck!
    It’s a strong powerful passage in the book that underlines the difference from the 21st century customs and norms. It’s also a major turning point in Jamie’s education on seeing women in a different light. As he says in the the scene how this is how it was done by his father, his grandfather, and back and back, but that he sees that this is not how it should be moving forward for him. It was an ugly truth and common ocurance of the time. I think you were very unsettled by the weird reactions of the audience, and coupled with the scene, possibly missed the bigger point of the characters’ relationship development triggered by way they’d interacted.

  4. I agree the laughter and hooting/hollering was just plain weird. The gal next to me who I had just met even leaned over and said, “it’s kind of weird that everyone is laughing”.

  5. As a feminist, and a HUGE Outlander fan…can I just say I’m sorry for the cheering in the spanking scene that you had to endure? I do believe that probably made the scene even more disturbing and unsettling than it already should have been. I honestly don’t understand the cheering. I’ve been a fan of the books for years, I understand the importance of that scene but I really don’t understand why anyone would cheer for it. I watched it last night and I enjoyed the entire episode and that scene made me uncomfortable, as it should. It doesn’t bother me as a feminist mainly because putting it in a historic context, I understand where Jamie was coming from and why he felt like it was an appropriate punishment. Sure with our more modern morality, it’s horrible but at that time, it was the accepted punishment for a disobedient wife, as a wife was seen as a man’s property and was expected to listen. With how she fought back, he could have done a lot worse and would have been fine. Yes, it was a disturbing scene, I was uncomfortable watching it…but I see it as the same way I see watching a movie that features slave owners or people using the N word. It’s disturbing and wrong and…was true to the time. And in that way, I take it as it is and use that scene as gratefulness that 200 years later, Claire wouldn’t stand for it and stayed angry at Jamie until he realized that wasn’t what he wanted out of his marriage and came around to the idea on his own. But really, I’m sorry for the cheering, I don’t understand it and I’m sure it hurt your enjoyment of the show. As a feminist I can appreciate the scene from the historic pov…but I can’t understand cheering for it.

    As for the feminist note…the actor that plays Collum put it the best for me… “”That scene caused quite a lot of discussion, because obviously, from Claire’s perspective, we don’t look too good. The attitudes of the Mackenzies and men of that time doesn’t look too good. But what it made me wonder was: 200 years from now, how are we going to look in terms of our attitudes and our relationships with women, and how we treat women in society today? You know, the pay gap, the patriarchal society, how women are put down, domestic violence, everything; it really posed a deeply serious question to me, that scene. I think it’s very profound. And it’s shocking, because he’s doing it matter-of-factly.”

  6. I have read the books, and I feel the author here makes a valid point. The screenplay deviates from the book, where Claire recognizes what goes on during the time period, and while in disagreement, she somewhat acquiesces and the struggle to defy it does not become violent but is done to prevent greater discord from others, who already are painfully aware she does not fit in. The book’s author, Diana Gabaldon, the master of making a strong woman come to life, in no way makes the scene erotic. By Diana’s hand, it was believable and not sensational. I found the knife put on Jamie also distasteful, as this was not reflective of the thoughtful, and heretofore rather gentle, relationship. Ron D. Moore is another master, but the liberties he took with the script here disturbed me as the “punishment” seemed calculated and vengeful, and Jamie’s comment of enjoying it was completely out of character. Regardless, I love the series (okay I’m obsessed) and of course Ron D. can’t put them all out of the park. I just hope internally most, if not all people understand why this is not cool in today’s terms, and Comprehend as how this is not from Diana’s svelte hand, and how truly empowering she is for women. In addition, how she loves a strong yet respectful and compassionate man.

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