Outlander, and What Makes a “Good” Rape Scene?
In the last couple of years, it feels like there’s been a lot of talk about the depiction of rape and sexual assault on TV. Yes, okay, a lot of this stems from the wildly popular Game of Thrones and it’s controversial use (and use, and use, and use again) of rape, but other shows- such as The Newsroom and House of Cards and countless, countless others– have come under fire for the way they’ve handled rape-related subplots.
Many people threw their hands in the air and gave up after Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken (spoilers ahoy!)- the Game of Thrones episode featuring the rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton- aired, with several critics quitting their reviews of the show and the whole series garnering major backlash over what many perceived as an insensitive and gratuitous story line that used rape as a shorthand for drama and intrigue.
But it’s worth being clear here. The problem is not with including rape in pop culture. Rape is, unfortunately, something that affects many people in real life, and art has every right to reflect that reality. The problem is the way rape has been trope-ified over the years, even as the rest of the TV landscape around it evolves constantly to involve more complex storytelling techniques and more original character arcs. It is tiresome to continually see rape worked into TV shows because it’s a quick way to stir up some scandalous interest, a heavy-handed trope that is usually used as a shorthand for disempowerment for the victim and unspeakable evilness for the perpetrator. It’s overly simplistic, and that’s the problem- that’s what pisses me off. So, if you’ll excuse the enormous oxymoron, what constitutes a good rape scene?
Well, for one thing, it should be more than simply one scene. I recently finished the first season of Outlander (SPOILERS ON THE WAY) for the second time. And that, despite what people may be telling you, is not the softcore, cheesecloth romance it’s sometimes sold as. The last two episodes of the season revolve around the brutal rape of one of the leading characters, and I would say it’s the only time I’ve seen rape dealt with with genuine nuance. In it, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is raped repeatedly by his long-time tormentor Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).
And make no mistake, these scenes are explicit. They’re violent, bloody, painful, protracted scenes of sexual assault, and they make for some of the most deeply uncomfortable viewing I’ve ever sat through (thanks in no small part to the amazing performances from Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies-seriously, the series is worth watching if you can stomach the heavier stuff). Some people even went as far as to call it torture porn. The final episode, where we actually see the majority of the rape scene, is told in flashbacks from the point of view of the victim as the people around him try to comfort him.
Roger Ebert, in his review for The Lonely Lady (yeah, me neither, but I never get tired of going through his archives), talked briefly about a scene where the leading character is raped. He bemoans the scene in the review, writing ” (a) couldn’t they have thought of something other than rape by a garden hose?; and (b) shouldn’t such a traumatic event have had some effect on the character?”. And I think those two concepts are actually pretty important when it comes to dissecting whether or not a rape scene is justifiable or required in the context of the show.
In Outlander, sex is intimately woven into the story. The final episode, with the flashbacks, is a reflection of an episode earlier in the season that’s set around a consensual sexual encounter. The subversion of that reflects Jamie’s relationship with both his wife, with whom he had the initial consensual encounter, and Jack, the man who has constantly been pulling the strings in the darkest times of his life. Both relationships are laced with sexual overtones from one side or the other, so when it came to Jack entirely breaking Jamie’s spirit, it makes sense in the world the show has built for it to be violently sexual. Are there other ways they could have done this? Possibly. But with sex, sexuality, and consent such an important part of the Outlander universe (admittedly, not always handled as well as this), contextually, this scene fits. This makes sense as part of this show- it doesn’t feel cheap, or a grab for drama or “issues” TV.
And, in reference to the second part of that Ebert quote, Jamie does not simply bounce out of there and get on with his life. Even after he’s saved, he’s traumatised- refusing to eat, to talk, humiliated and suffering from post-traumatic stress that will undoubtedly plague him for the rest of his life (if the series continues to stick reasonably closely to the books). This matters- this isn’t simply dumped in there for shock value. We go through Jamie coming to terms with what has happened to him, even though we know it’s not getting wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end of the episode.
Instead of simply marking it in a box marked “empowering” or “victimising” or whatever character beat many shows that use rape quickly box up the act and the recovery in, it’s a sprawling, messy thing. And that, to me, is what makes this stand out, and what other shows that handle rape and sexual assault should go for-treating rape and the recovery from it with a little nuance, as opposed to chucking out there for some cheap backstory or whatever. Not only does that make for some compelling, intensely moving TV, but it’s proof that there are room for stories about rape and sexual assault on TV-but like the rest of the televisual landscape, many of them still have some evolving to do.