Analysis

Outlander Teaches Us How to Disempower Our Heroine

What could be more straightforward than Outlander, a novel published in 1991 about a character from 1945 going back in time to 1745?* This historical fantasy romance blend is so popular, it’s been adapted into a TV series for Starz. It features the adventures of Claire, an English woman who is sent back in time through a tragic standing stone accident in the Scottish Highlands. For some reason, the Scottish Parliament has never mentioned this possibility in its tourism brochures.

The novel has many things going for it, such as using the villain’s bisexuality to prove he’s super evil,* but what it really teaches us is how to take away all agency and power from the main character. In particular, the female main character. Since any genre writer worth their salt is on a quest to disempower women, this is definitely required reading. Outlander has a lot to teach us, so pay attention!

Say (Incorrectly) That Women Aren’t Strong Enough to Use Weapons

We’d all love to have more kickass women in our stories. Unfortunately, we can’t because their weak girly arms can’t hold up our manly swords. Checkmate, feminists! This is an oldie but a goodie, a foolproof argument that will forever keep the ladies out of our fantasy treehouse, and Outlander pulls it off masterfully. Early in the book, there’s a scene where Claire is being taught to fight. Her male companions judge that the smallsword and flintlock pistol are just too heavy for her, so instead they settle on a small dagger.

Outlander understands that the dagger is a perfect weapon for women. It allows them to be feisty without actually being able to win a fair fight. Try using a dagger against someone with a longsword and see how it works out for you.

Now, in a lesser work, Claire might have commented that this was just the sexist attitude of her 18th century teachers. Outlander smartly avoids doing that. The last thing we want to do is show that sexism was a cultural attitude not based in fact. That might imply that Claire’s manly protectors are interested in their own glory and not her best interests.

The only problem with this trope is that it’s completely untrue. The smallsword weighs about 1.5 pounds. The idea of it being too heavy for a woman is laughable. Women also used flintlock guns all the time. In fact, history is full of women who were terrifying fighters, something we must never admit in our fiction. That’s why books like Outlander are so important. It takes a lot of work to convince people of something that is so blatantly false.

Outlander slips up near the end when Claire uses a flintlock without any problems. But by then most people will have already internalized the important message, so no real harm done. The book also avoids having Claire comment on the false nature of what she was told, which might have accidentally taken the story in a more progressive direction.

Give Her a Powerful Background, Then Ignore It

The reason no one writes about historical women is that none of them ever did anything interesting; they were all submissive housewives, bowing to their husband’s every whim, right? It’s odd, then, that Claire is a World War II Army nurse. After all, these nurses were some of the most courageous people in history. They practiced lifesaving medicine on their horrifically mutilated countrymen, often with Nazi artillery raining down around them.

This could have led to Claire being a forceful character who wouldn’t take guff from anyone, but rest assured that doesn’t happen. You can easily forget Claire’s background after the first few chapters. It’s true that she’s portrayed as a competent medic, but the force of personality that should accompany such a backstory is completely absent. She’s always acquiescing to the other (male) character’s demands.

In fact, she’s not even passionate about trying to save lives. She’ll do it, but only if it’s not too far out of her way. In one scene, she wants to save a sick child that’s been left out to die but not if it would mean going against what Her Man wants.

Again, Outlander slips up by having Claire develop a no-nonsense attitude toward her injured lover near the end of the book. Here we see an iron will forged in the field hospitals of the world’s most costly war, and it goes completely against the goal of heroine disempowerment. Fortunately, it happens near enough to the end that it makes the character more inconsistent than empowered.

Withhold Her Opinions on Important Subjects

Outlander is written in the first person, meaning we are watching the action from inside the main character’s head. Our understanding of events passes through her perception. In many books, this means we end up learning a lot about the main character. What she wants, how she overcomes challenges, what makes her angry. That’s a problem because a developed character is more likely to have agency.

This issue is dealt with in a most creative manner: withholding what Claire thinks. Not all the time of course, just over some of the most important things that happen in the book. In one scene, a major character accuses his sister of having the bastard child of an English officer. The officer in question is about the worst person in the world, with rape and murder to his name, so this is very important. The character really lays into his sister about it, and she dishes angry words right back at him. Throughout the exchange, we have no idea what Claire thinks of it. Is she angry that a man would accuse his sister of sleeping with the enemy? Does she think the sister has betrayed them? We don’t know! It’s almost like Claire’s first person narrative is suspended for the argument’s duration.

This happens several times. In a separate incident, Claire’s friend drugs her for an interrogation. This is a pretty serious breach of trust, but we never get a reaction from Claire beyond mild annoyance. She also sees the Loch Ness Monster at one point and has about as much reaction as you or I would have upon encountering a larger-than-normal gecko. It’s difficult to get invested in a character with such bland feelings.

These omissions might seem like bad writing at first, but they’re actually a brilliant ploy to keep Claire as moldable as possible. If she has strong opinions or reactions to what happens around her, then she might develop a consistent character. That would be a problem for Outlander, because then she couldn’t be whatever the story needed her to be at every moment.

Center Her Entire Motivation on a Man (or Two)

This one feels like it should go without saying. Women in real life obviously build their entire identity around men, so why wouldn’t it be the case in fiction? Oh sure, some people* might say that a romance story is most fulfilling when it’s between two fully developed characters, but we all know the truth. What the ladies really want is to neglect every aspect of their lives in search of the perfect man!

In Outlander, Claire has two motivations. The first is Frank, the man she left behind. The second is Jamie, the new man she’s discovered. We know exactly how she feels about these two men, which is good because something has to fill the empty space left by her lack of opinion on everything else.

This is an excellent combo strike. First, make Claire completely nonplussed about what’s happening around her; then give her exceptionally vivid thoughts about her budding romance. It really brings into focus how finding love is absolutely the most important thing in a woman’s life, to the exclusion of all else.

Just imagine what would have happened if Claire had other motivations competing with her feelings of love. If she had seriously missed modern conveniences like penicillin or being able to vote, there would have been conflict with her feelings for Jamie. Alternatively, she might have enjoyed the power that comes with having 20th century knowledge in 1745, muddying her devotion to Frank. Such inclinations might have eventually made the romance more compelling, and that’s the last thing anyone wants.

Surround Her With More Interesting Characters

We’ve already established how important it is to make a bland heroine, and Claire certainly fits the bill. Aside from her competing romantic attachments, we know almost nothing about who she is. The next step is to contrast that by fleshing out the other characters.

Take Jamie, for instance. We learn about his desire for revenge against the English, held in check by his understanding that fighting will only make the situation worse. We find out how much he loves his sister, even as the two of them constantly butt heads over what to do. We see him struggle with feelings of self-loathing at his perceived failures. We know who he is. Jamie is a fantastically developed character, the opposite of our heroine.

Of course, Jamie is the main love interest, so this isn’t terribly surprising. In order to really undercut Claire, there must also be a handful of side characters more interesting than her. Naturally, Outlander delivers. Clan leader Column Mackenzie gets a fraction of Claire’s screen time, yet by the end of the book we know far more about him. For that matter, we learn more about some of Column’s retainers than we do about the protagonist.

Some of these fleshed-out characters should also be women, because the story isn’t sexist or anything. In fact, they should be interesting enough to have been the protagonist themselves. Take Geillis Duncan, a woman of mysterious origin who many believe to be a witch. She has even less screen time than Column Mackenzie, yet in that short time she is shown to be everything Claire is not. She has goals, she has personality, and she is not a woman to be trifled with. All of this is established without even the benefit of a first person POV.

Of course, characters like Geillis Duncan should never actually be the main character because it would be impossible to take away their agency. It’s important to keep them around for contrast though, just to show you could do better if you wanted to.

Make It Clear She Must Obey Her Man

The ‘willful woman who must be taken in hand’ trope is extremely valuable in the heroine disempowerment business. It’s important for the audience to realize that the woman in question is a wild thing who requires the strong guidance of the men around her, lest she do something silly. This should be pushed even if it makes no sense at all, as is the case in Outlander.

Claire’s accidental trip into the past happens very early in the story, and she is almost immediately kidnapped by a gang of Scottish rogues, with whom she spends much of the book. At first, this looks like a rescue because the alternative was some very rough treatment at the hands of the English army. However, Claire does not want to stay with the Scots. She wants to return to her own time and is being held against her will. This is the perfect chance to show how impulsive Claire is for wanting to leave and how her captors are right to treat her like a child. Men who disregard what women want always do it for their own good, after all.

The main character herself must believe this. She might rail against the Scots at first, but she’ll always come around to their way of thinking. If you don’t do this, the reader might come away thinking that it’s only the characters who are sexist, not the story itself.

This applies double for the main romance interest. Jamie has very strong beliefs on who should obey whom, and he doesn’t hesitate to dish out commands. This isn’t too surprising for a man in the 1700s, but some people might expect Claire to have her own free will or whatever. Readers can be unreasonable like that. To compensate, Claire occasionally disobeys, but then the story immediately punishes her. Twice she doesn’t do as she’s told and is captured by bad guys. Of course, she must be rescued,* and receives a thorough talking-to on why she done a bad thing.

Remember, it’s not enough for male characters to be overbearing and domineering. The heroine must internalize it, realizing they were right all along.

Just about the only place that Outlander stumbles in disempowering Claire is in the last few chapters. Near the book’s end, she actually takes charge to some degree and does things without the direct approval of her beau. She finally displays a spine, standing up to Jamie when he wants to do a number of stupid things. This is strange and goes against the theme of heroine disempowerment, but no one gets everything right. If nothing else, those chapters can be used as a defense against people who complain that the book is sexist.

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Comments

  1. Betty Noir

    I’m in complete agreement with everything you’ve posted here but I’m surprised that you don’t mention the scene where Jamie spanks Claire for her disobedience to his commands. It’s such a great way of showing that he knows best and that she is far weaker than him physically. Doesn’t every woman want a cave man?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I debated a lot about discussing that scene. In the end I decided against it because as uncomfortable as it is, that’s also perhaps the only time that the story acknowledges that Jamie actually did something wrong.

  2. Caitlin

    Positively scathing and brilliant analysis. Something always bothered me about these books but I never put in the time to analyze what it was.
    Kudos to you.

  3. Sam Victors

    Thank you for this. I myself am writing a time-traveling romance with a Heroine, but I put more care into this, its modeled after the myth of Hades and Persephone, with Jungian themes of the Terrible Mother and the Great Mother archetypes, Shadow selves, death and rebirth. The Heroine has a goal more than just romance; to belong to a world of her own and to have her individuation.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Glad it was useful. Just don’t say a 1.5 pound sword is too heavy for your heroine, and you should be good.

  4. Indigo

    Yes, every one knows that 1.5 pound weapons are far to heavy for women to use and control. Of course, how silly of me. Let me crawl back to the kitchen with my 9 pound baby in one hand and my 12 inch 8 pound frying pan in the other.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Tangled did teach us that the frying pan is the ultimate weapon, so that tracks.

  5. SunlessNick

    They practiced lifesaving medicine on their horrifically mutilated countrymen, often with Nazi artillery raining down around them.

    But of course that cannot then be taken to mean that it’s *Claire* who has seen war and death on a scale the *Scots* couldn’t imagine (which, seriously, could have been a very interesting reversal of the usual assumption in time displaced stories).

  6. TazCat

    Hi Oren,

    I loved this analysis. This series bothered me for many reasons and you pinpointed them perfectly and with great humor. One aspect that I wish you would have talked about was the “historical fiction” aspect of this story. Gabaldon never goes into any detail about the Stuarts, why they matter, who they are etc. or even how the Laird system works. For a cause that the clan is willing to die for, she spends precious little time in explaining the motivations outside of “because Scotland” or “England is bad” etc.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you liked it! I don’t know a whole lot about that historical period, but the research certainly didn’t seem very deep.

      • TazCat

        Thanks for the reply Oren. I suppose my question was more about world building and getting the reader invested in the scenario laid forth, something I think Gabaldon failed to do.

        Anyway, one more question if I may. Could you recommend a fantasy/historcal fiction book or series that myself as a guy would enjoy? I read GR Martins books and liked them for the most part but fell off in Dance of Dragons due to, well various reasons.

        Thanks.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I don’t read a lot of historical fiction myself, but from what I have read, I highly recommend the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novak. I didn’t realize how much I needed aerial dragon combat in the Napoleonic Wars until I read that series.

          • vvwedding

            Agreed on Temeraire series. Some of the best historical fantasy out there. IMHO, Outlander isn’t really fantasy or history. It’s more like John Jakes’ (North and South series) version of history

            Have you read Julian May’s Pliocene Saga? Numerous issues with it, but definitely interesting.

            I think that poor research when writing historical fiction (or fantasy based in our world) is a common problem. Just the other day a friend was complaining about JK Rowling’s version of wizarding in America, and how just a little research into Native American history/beliefs could have made it so much more realistic. I write historical fantasy myself and I spend nearly as much time/energy researching as I do actually writing the stories.

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