Despite how popular it is, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is not a book I would have read under normal circumstances. It’s simply not my type of book, and it has become a kind of running joke in my family because of the time my sister pretended to fall asleep while watching it with our grandparents because it was so awkward and embarrassing. Apparently my dad is also a fan of the show, and he tried to get me to watch it with him and I struggled to get through the first episode. So my hopes were not high going in.
However, people do point to Outlander as a feminist fantasy series, and lots of people have even called it a feminist answer to Game of Thrones. That is… bizarre. I haven’t watched more than the first episode of Outlander, but I have seen all of Game of Thrones and read all of A Song of Ice and Fire (at least, of what’s published so far). Yes, there’s sexism in GoT. There’s too much sexual violence, women are seen as second-class, and there are considerably more naked women than naked men. However, many of the problematic elements were added for the show. Although Westeros is violent and sexist, I’d argue that the novels themselves are respectful of women; there are multiple characters whose arcs are specifically about existing in a sexist world. Game of Thrones is full of powerful women: Cersei, Daenerys, Brienne, Sansa, and Arya are all drastically different women who are well developed characters with important storylines.
Game of Thrones isn’t perfect, but it is a thousand times better than Outlander. Outlander has just as much sexual violence as Game of Thrones but it is considerably more misogynistic because it double dips its misogyny: it has the sexism of misogynistic romance and the sexism of misogynistic fantasy.
What’s it about?
In short, Outlander is about a (married) woman who travels back in time from 1945 to 1743, where she falls in love with a Scots warrior.
Why’d I hate it so much?
If I had to explain why I hate Outlander in a single word, it would be “Jamie.” If I were given three words, I’d go with “Jamie,” “sexist,” and “homophobic.”
Trigger warnings for this review/book: rape, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, sadism, violence, torture, spouse abuse, incest, and pedophilia.
But everyone loves Jamie! What’s wrong with him?
I did not expect to hate Jamie. As far as I can tell, everyone loves him. People who read the book love him. People who watch the show love him. Every character in the book loves him. He’s seemingly a universal fan favorite. He’s also a rapist, a hypocrite, a masochist, a sadist, an abuser, a misogynist, a homophobe, and a sex addict. Basically a dream man, right?
I can already hear what Outlander fans are thinking: Jamie is a product of his time, and people were trash back then. They saw their wives as property. They beat their children. They didn’t see gay people or women as equal to straight men. They didn’t know about consent. Well, guess what? I don’t care.
Outlander is a romance novel about a woman who travels back in time. Romance novels are meant to appeal to their readers. Gabaldon meant for the people who read Outlander in the 1990s to be attracted to Jamie. The show is still airing, so modern women are also supposed to like him. Claire isn’t from Jamie’s time, either. No one from Jamie’s time is going to experience him or Outlander. Jamie exists for modern women’s consumption, and he is an insult to modern women.
I refuse to believe that any modern, self-respecting women could go back in time and fall in love. I have no problem with Laoghaire being in love with Jamie. She doesn’t know any better. She has no concept of a world in which women are more than property to their husbands, or of men who don’t see beating as an acceptable method of childrearing. But Claire does. Claire is supposed to be spunky, smart, and self-sufficient. She knows enough to be aware that it’s not appropriate for a husband to beat his wife for misbehaving, but she is entirely too quick to forgive and forget.
Everyone who dislikes Jamie or Outlander talks about the spanking scene, but it’s impossible not to mention it at least in passing. Claire, at Jamie’s hand, is “beaten within an inch of [her] life” and while she does eventually get him to promise not to do it again, it clearly never gets through his thick skull that it was disgusting and inappropriate, because on later occasions he laughs about it. He takes one of the most humiliating, painful moments of Claire’s life and turns it into pillow talk. He might have agreed not to do it again, but that doesn’t change the fact that he thinks of the incident as a funny and sexy anecdote. He got sexual pleasure out of hurting his wife, and expects Claire to be grateful that he didn’t rape her afterward. Claire completely forgives him for this, and the reader is supposed to continue viewing him as a dashing, lovable hero.
For the record, he does rape her at other times, notably out in the open while twenty men sleep nearby; Claire specifically tells him no, he ignores her, and it is presented as okay because Claire responds physically. Jamie refers to Claire as his property, as the spoils of war, etc. on many occasions and Claire lets him… because he’s handsome, I guess. To Claire and Jamie, love and lust are one in the same. Because Jamie wants to have sex with Claire, he loves her. More to the point, because Jamie wants to have sex with Claire, he does. A lot. If Claire objects, he either reminds her that she belongs to him or promises to be quick. He’s lucky that he’s attractive enough that she wants him back, because if he were ugly Claire might see that he is as despicable as anyone else in the novel.
Actually, literally every man in Castle Leoch is a rapist. While Claire stays there, it is stated baldly and repeatedly that at certain times women have to hide because if any man sees a woman while drunk he’ll rape her and think nothing of it. Jamie protects Claire from this, supposedly, by sleeping outside her door and walking her places, but it’s hard to see him as any kind of anti-rape hero when he clearly sees consent as optional and has no qualms whatsoever in using his considerable strength to get whatever he wants. Sometimes he says lovely things like this:
JAMIE: “I didna ask your preferences in the matter, Sassenach […] You are my wife, as I’ve told you often enough. If ye didna wish to wed me, still ye chose to. And if ye didna happen to notice at the time, your part of the proceedings included the word ‘obey.’ You’re my wife, and if I want ye, woman, then I’ll have you, and be damned to ye!” (431).
And if Claire did get raped—and she gets very close many times because this is a historical fantasy so there’s gotta be the threat of rape every ten pages or so—you can bet your life savings that Jamie would be an asshole about it.
One major annoyance about Outlander is that literally everyone is in love with Jamie and likes to reminisce about his past and how manly and damaged and tortured he is (he’s the worst offender; how many creepily cheery stories does he tell about how much he loved that his dad regularly lashed him?). One of the most oft-repeated stories is about the time Black Jack Randall whipped him nearly to death and only stopped because Jamie’s sister stepped in; we’re told that Randall raped (and impregnated) Jenny, and that Jamie is so disgusted by it that he refuses to return home or write to Jenny.
When Jamie and Jenny finally do reunite, Jaime gives the most disgusting masterclass in slut-shaming and victim-blaming that I have ever had the misfortune to read. A quick reminder: Jenny went with Randall because if she hadn’t, Randall would have continued torturing Jamie, and might have killed him. Jenny saved Jamie by allowing herself to be hurt and violated by a dangerous sadist.
What’s that, Jamie? Oh. My bad. Apparently she disobeyed Jamie and chose to dishonor herself.
JAMIE: “Tell me why ye disobeyed my orders and chose to dishonor yourself and your family instead.” (578)
Apparently Jenny’s husband should be thanked for marrying a “soiled” woman (585). Apparently the pregnant Jenny should avoid going outside because doing so damages Jamie’s very fragile pride.
JAMIE: “You’re not content wi’ ruining your good name and my own, ye must go on with the scandal, and flaunt your shame to the whole neighborhood! […] you’re going about swelled out to here like a mad toad” (578).
And in case you’re wondering, yes, he also calls Jenny a bitch. He is only able to forgive Jenny when he finds out that Randall didn’t actually rape her and that her children were fathered by her husband. Because women who are raped are stupid sluts who should be shunned!
Claire, of course, saves all her sympathy for Jamie. When Jamie first tells her this story, she cares only about him. She never says anything like, “Hey, asshole, people don’t like to be raped, and she did it to save your life, so maybe you shouldn’t treat her like a pariah.”
Of course, at the end of the book Jamie does the same thing Jenny did. When Claire is in danger from Randall, Jamie offers to be raped so that she can go clear. The hypocrisy of this does not register on Jamie.
This is probably because Diana Gabaldon is so madly in love with her own creation that she doesn’t realize that Jamie isn’t as hot and cute and heroic as she thinks he is. At one point Jamie literally tells Claire that she has a sheep’s face, but that she makes up for it with her nice butt. Claire takes it as a declaration of love.
It’s just… Jamie is so gross, and I could let some of it slide, except that everyone is so obsessed with him. Every chapter is full of characters talking about how great he is. Even Jenny, Jaime’s sister, talks about him in a weirdly erotic way. His flaws are all ignored in favor for repeated adulation. He’s so strong! His hair is so beautiful! He’s so good at sex! And then to distract us from the fact that Jamie is as violent and possessive as anyone else in the book, we’re told repeatedly about all his beatings. Jamie spends half the book being a dashing hero and the other half being whumped. Gabaldon describes Jamie’s many, many, many beatings in a disturbingly romanticized way. There’s a lot of sex in Outlander, but the torture scenes are even more lovingly written. There is so much torture porn. It’s ridiculous. And gross.
Authors should call their characters out for their behavior, and while Gabaldon occasionally pretends to chastise Jamie through Claire, he is always let off the hook too quickly and too completely. He’s not an angel, but you wouldn’t know it from how Claire and the other characters act towards him.
That’s enough about Jamie. There’s more to say about how trash he is, like all the inappropriate times he has sex or his offhandedly sexist remarks or how he tries to act like he’s just a poor nobody when actually he’s like the most important Scot of all time or something, but I’ve had it with him. Romantic heroes are often problematic, but Jamie Fraser takes the cake. I hate him. I hate him so much. The only way I was able to make it through the book was by choosing to laugh at how awful Jamie is instead of letting him make me mad.
Now let’s talk about that rampant homophobia
My other major complaint about Outlander is how homophobic it is. Again, I can hear fans saying things like Audra, people were homophobic back then. Again, I don’t care. It’s gross and I don’t want to read it. And it’s not just the characters who are homophobic. The book itself is. There’s a difference between books that deal with homophobia and books that are homophobic. Outlander is definitely in the second category.
Pretty much every single man in this novel is a domineering rapist. Frank, Claire’s first husband, is pretty much the only exception… probably because he’s from the 1900s not the 1700s (again: I don’t believe any woman could travel back in time and fall in love). This is just… understood. If a woman comes across an unexpected man, he’ll probably try to rape her. For most of the characters, this is seen as a little drunken quirk. Hide out for a few hours and come back out when they’re sober! Jamie, as we’ve already discussed, derives sexual pleasure from beating his wife. The unambiguously evil Black Jack Randall is also a sexual sadist. He’s also a rapist. He is absolutely abhorrent, yes. So is everyone else. But Black Jack is the only one who is portrayed as irredeemably despicable. What’s the difference?
Yep. Black Jack Randall is gay.
It’s fine to have gay antagonists. LGBTQ+ people are people, and some people are evil. There are good LGBTQ+ people and bad ones, just like there are both good and bad straight ones. What’s not fine is to make sexuality a shocking reveal or to use it as a shorthand to mean even more evil!
In case you need a quick explanation about how this sort of thing works. Thomas, in Downton Abbey, is gay and an antagonist. He’s an antagonist because he likes making trouble and hates the people he works with. If he were straight, he’d be pretty much the same character. You could argue that he’s so unpleasant because of the way society tramples on him as a gay man. There’s text to support that, but narratively it’s clear that the societal homophobia is the issue, not Thomas’ gayness. Thomas is an asshole who is coincidentally also gay. Being gay and being an asshole are not synonymous and, in fact, Thomas is more sympathetic when his sexuality is being addressed than at any other point, and it actually only rarely comes up because it’s not usually relevant.
Black Jack Randall, however, is a villain because he’s gay. Once Gabaldon shockingly reveals Randall’s sexuality, he rarely appears again where it is not mentioned. When Jamie first tells Claire about Randall’s preferences, Claire says this:
“I was seeing Jack Randall again, in a new and revolting light.” (413)
Claire already knew that Randall regularly tortured people and raped women. He tried to rape her when they first met. Jamie has already told Claire about the way Randall tortured him before attempting to rape Jenny. The only new revelation is that Randall also rapes men. He was already maximally despicable. Now he’s just maximally despicable and gay, but that’s enough to cast him in a new, “revolting” light.
The rest of the book makes sure to remind the reader that Black Jack is an evil deviant. He can’t do a single evil thing without Gabaldon being like, now remember, reader. This murderous rapist is also very GAY. Don’t forget that. She has to keep reminding us because being gay and being British are the only things that distinguish Black Jack from the other characters. When your heroes are murderers, sexists, sadists, and rapists you have to make your villains gay, I guess, or the reader wouldn’t know they’re the villains.
Black Jack Randall isn’t the only evil homosexual, either. The Duke of Sandringham also preys on little boys. Because for Diana Gabaldon it’s not bad enough to demonize homosexuality. She also had to conflate it with pedophilia and incest.
How do people like this book? Seriously? It’s so popular. Does everyone who reads it just pretend that this intense level of homophobia is okay? Do you ignore it? Do you not notice it? There’s a very long, very damaging history of homosexuality being tied to deviancy and villainy in fiction. This is textbook homophobia at its worst and it’s not okay.
Don’t come at me with Diana Gabaldon said Black Jack isn’t gay! She said he’s just an equal opportunity sadist. Well, that’s bullshit. She goes out of her way to make it clear that Randall is physically incapable of raping women because he’s not attracted to them (he struggles physically before Jenny starts laughing, and has the same issue with Claire), and she makes a point of having him say this at the climax of the novel:
BLACK JACK RANDALL: “I may have what are called ‘unnatural tastes’ myself, as I imagine you know by this time. But give me credit for some aesthetic principles.” (715)
Because heaven forbid he do anything evil without first reminding us that he’s gay. Then of course he rapes Jamie, which is portrayed as considerably more disgusting and violent and evil than any of the other rape. Which it isn’t. Rape is rape, regardless of who does it and to whom it’s done. Black Jack being attracted to men is not unnatural. Rape is an unnatural taste, but Outlander bends over backwards to try to convince the reader that gay men are evil predators and that rape is sometimes okay if the rapist is straight, handsome, and physically good at sex.
If you’re writing about a time period that was deeply –phobic or–ist towards a group of marginalized people, leaning into that bigotry is the worst way to do it. From best to worst, here are a few other ways to deal with it.
- Write fully realized minority characters, and let their stories directly engage with the bigotry they face without being entirely defined by it.
- Ignore the bigotry; give your characters anachronistically progressive/accepting values.
- Ignore the issue; if the only way you can include a gay character is by playing into the most damaging queer stereotypes, just don’t do it. It’s better to have no diversity than diversity that is going to reinforce dangerous biases that might result in hurting actual, living people.
Black Jack Randall is clearly intended to be gay, and Outlander is blatantly and exuberantly homophobic. I’ve heard that there is a non-evil gay character later in the series to balance the scale (but apparently he’s also in love with Jamie because of course he is) and that’s fine. Good, I guess. Maybe Diana Gabaldon realized how horribly she screwed up with Outlander and tried to fix it later down the road. I don’t know now and I will never know because you’d have to pay me to keep going with these books. I absolutely hope that things are better from book two on, but I wish Gabaldon would acknowledge that Outlander is homophobic and then say that she later course corrected instead of acting like there’s nothing wrong in the first place.
So that’s a lot. Is there anything else bad about Outlander?
Yeah, but this is already a really long, really ranty post, so we’ll do the rest of this quickly. In addition to being sexist and homophobic, it’s also ablest. Neither Colum nor Ian can be described without unnecessary attention being drawn to their disabilities, and Jamie specifically describes Ian as being less than he was before he lost his leg.
Then there’s the actual plot of the novel. Claire decides to just… abandon her old life and forget about her husband bizarrely fast. Not to mention how joyously Claire goes into the whole having-sex-with-Jamie-while-married-to-Frank thing; the first time, sure. She was basically forced into it. After that… she didn’t think twice even though she supposedly loved Frank and still felt very much married to him.
I already talked about how Gabaldon is so in love with Jamie that everyone forgives him everything. She does the same with Claire, albeit in a different way. At the end of the book, Claire meets a priest and confesses her bigamy and murder and the priest is just like, God says it’s cool! And that’s just disingenuous. Claire was basically forced to sleep with Jamie the first time, and several of their other encounters were rape, but there are definitely lots of scenes where she happily and enthusiastically goes into the sex even though she still considers herself married to Frank and has every intention of finding a way back to him. It’s fine if Claire herself believes that she is in the right, but I can’t imagine any priest would.
What’s the verdict?
It’s just… eurgh. Outlander is just one gross thing after another. I’m skeptical of romance as a genre because of books like Outlander that romanticize abusive partners and male dominance. Outlander may be historical fiction, but it is being widely read and enjoyed by modern readers which worries me because of its dangerously backwards treatment of women and LGBTQ+ people. It has a few enjoyable moments, particularly in the first half, but by the time I hit the halfway point the rampant sexism and homophobia were too heavy for me to ignore and I spent the rest of the time repeatedly asking myself can I hate Jamie any more than I do at this point? The answer, by the way, was yes. Every time I thought Jamie had maxed out on repulsiveness he managed to outdo himself.
Maybe Outlander the TV show is less sexist, less homophobic, and less obsessed with justifying Jamie’s every abusive thought. I hope it is.