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.