The Problem of Outlander‘s Historical Narrative
***Discussion of the first episode of season four***
In the opening episode of the newest season of Outlander, the main heroine, Claire, waxes poetically about the American dream to her husband, Jamie Fraser. About all the hopes and possibilities that the country will have for people and how they can pull themselves up. As a time traveler from the 1960s, she knows the future of America as she looks into the woodland of 1768s North Carolina.
The same day I watched this episode, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to be the newest Supreme Court Justice. It is a reality that the show could not have known about when crafting this season, but it is emblematic of the way Outlander wants to be a thoughtful series but stumbles because it can only go so far in calling things out.
During the fan Q&A, one young woman brought up the incidents of male rape in the series, and the exploration of it that was seen in the first episode, asking if the writers were saying something because of #MeToo. The woman beside me groaned and said: “It’s not political!” The executive producer, Ronald D. Moore, did have a thoughtful answer, quoting from Obama about history being on the side of progress. But as Obama said in his farewell speech, “History doesn’t always move in a straight line but sometimes zigzags.” Outlander zigzags, because it doesn’t take the time to truly break down the historical nuances it wants to have.
The next day I was speaking to another reporter who said that the show doesn’t want to make “judgments” about slavery and characters who will show up to be slaveholders this season, like Jamie’s aunt, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy, because “people don’t need to be told slavery is bad.” Which, yeah, we’d like to think that, but this is very much not the case in 2018. For a show that wants to be thoughtful, that is loved by so many women for being feminist and being a good love story, Outlander still wants to erase all the things around the narrative that are more complicated than Jamie and Claire’s love.
For me, this inability of Outlander to say something is a problem. Even beyond that, it was also brought up that this season the series would not have Cherokee actors or any American Indians in the roles of the Cherokee people due to SAG rules. According to Cheatsheet, executive producer Maril Davis said, “We went to Canada where we didn’t have the union rules and brought over 100 plus First Nation actors” and they apparently spoke to Cherokee leaders to make sure they “got it right” in terms of depicting the tribe. “I hope we were sensitive in some ways and depicted that culture in a way that we did right by people but still told Diana [Gabaldon]’s story.”
Except that’s the problem: if Diana Gabaldon’s story is problematic and a poor depiction of the Cherokee it should be changed. Drums of Autumn came out in 1996; that is over 20 years ago. The discourse we’ve had about Indigenous people, their communities, and their history has grown and developed since then, so if what Gabaldon wrote is more harmful than good, it should be cut or altered.
It is not enough to say “oh it’s sad what is going to happen to the Native people” when you have two white characters who are going to now actively participate in that. Especially Claire who is our feminist heroine and is now going to be active in this colonization with full knowledge of the genocides that are going to take place. But the Frasers are going to do it, for their future and their family.
Outlander is opening itself up to discussions about race, gender, sexual assault and colonization, and I hope it is prepared to have real answers because it is a series that does a lot right, but also stumbles in ways that it should know better, especially by now.
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