Outlander, Sexuality, and the “Character” of Black Jack Randall

BlackJack

First of all, I’m going to say SPOILERS if you haven’t read the book or watched the last episode of the television series.

I came across an interesting post on Facebook from Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander book series.

She says:

Well, we seem to be getting a lot of interesting reviews on Episode 12–which is All Good, to be sure. I just want to make _one_ thing clear, before drawing your attention to a couple of interesting ones: To wit, Black Jack Randall is _not_ a homosexual.

He’s a pervert. He’s a sadist. He derives sexual pleasure from hurting people, but he’s not particular about the gender of a victim. (Personality, yes–gender, no.)

I see reviewers assuming that he told Jenny repeatedly to turn around, during their encounter in a flashback–and they assume it was because he’s gay. Actually (and obviously, I would have thought…), it’s because she’s looking at him and laughing, and he finds this unnerving.

If you look at his behavior throughout the book (and I emphasize book, though it’s almost the same in the show), he’s shown as attacking four people: Jenny, Jamie, Claire, and another prisoner at Fort William (who we don’t hear about in the show) named Alex.

Two men, two women–he’s an equal-opportunity sadist. However, given his position (garrison commander) and the structure of the culture he’s in, he has much easier access to male prisoners, whom he can torture at leisure. But he’ll take women when he can get them–_vide_ his reaction to finding Claire wandering around by herself.

At the risk of angering Outlander fans–though it wouldn’t be the first time–I’m going to have to disagree.

I wrote about the “Outlander” TV series back in 2013, shortly after Starz announced it would be producing a television series based on the books, and one of the things I cited as a potential obstacle for adapting the books to screen was the depictions of homosexuality.

There are only two characters in the first book who demonstrate same-gendered sexual attraction: Black Jack Randall, and Lord Sandringham. Sandringham’s sexuality has been downplayed in the show (although I’m a few episodes behind), but in the book, one of the “amusing” anecdotes is about how a teenaged Jamie barely escapes being raped by Sandringham by inducing a bout of diarrhea. So funny! Ha, ha…er…*cough.* Guess I don’t have that 18th century Highlander humor down.

Black Jack Randall is another kettle of fish altogether. Gabaldon calls him a “sadist,” and he is certainly that. But the book itself belies the idea that he’s an “equal opportunity sadist.” When he attempts to rape Claire, and in Jenny’s recollection of her attempted rape, both women state that Randall did not/could not become erect. Meanwhile, he doesn’t have this problem later when his sadism is turned against a male character. If there’s confusion about Black Jack’s sexuality, it’s a confusion rooted in the text.

For what it’s worth, I think “Outlander” is an amazing show, and an amazing book. Watching a show with a strong, well-developed female lead, told from the female perspective, has been great. But just because you enjoy a show, or a book, doesn’t mean it’s beyond criticism. I’m glad that the show is generating this conversation about sexuality, because it shows that we’re seeing things that would have flown largely under the radar in 1991 when the book was first published.

Outlander: Contemplating *That* Scene

Outlander

When Starz announced in 2013 that it would be adapting Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander book series for television, I wrote an in which I voiced some of the problems in adapting the series for television—and in doing so, inadvertently ticked off some of the book’s fans. A year and a half later, I am still concerned about some of these things.

That said, Ron Moore and his team have done an amazing job so far. The season began a little slow for my taste, but more than made up for it during the last few episodes. Moore has, so far, stuck pretty closely to Gabaldon’s story, with one notable exception: the decision to bring Frank, Claire’s husband from 1945, back into the story during the last episode, show how he’s been coping with the loss of his wife, and have Frank and Claire almost but not quite reunite at the stones. It was one of the most tense, dramatic scenes in the series so far, and it was awesome. The television adaptation also shows some of the most empowering, and frank, depictions of female sexuality that I’ve ever seen on television. (How can you leave a husband who goes down on you in the middle of a ruined castle?) Having seen Moore’s representation of this world, I have more faith that the show can weather the time jumps than I did a year and a half ago.

(Also, the wedding episode. Holy hell, the wedding episode!)

But the other stuff…well, my issues there have more to do with Gabaldon’s original novel than the television adaptation of it. They haven’t become an issue so far, because we haven’t gotten that far in the storyline. But we’re about to…

SPOILERS for people who haven’t read the Outlander novel…

 

I am talking, of course, about the spanking heard ‘round the world. And no, this isn’t 50 Shades of Grey here. The first half of the season ends with Claire being abducted by the evil Captain Jack Randall on her way to return to the stones and get back to her life in 1945, and Jamie dramatically (and handsomely) coming to her rescue. BOOM, end of episode, end of first half of season 1. It’s a pretty awesome note to go out on, and practically guarantees that viewers will want to come back for more.

Readers of the book know that Jamie will rescue Claire. Problem is, Claire’s actions in disobeying Jamie have put the entire group in jeopardy, and Claire must be punished for it. Jamie whips Claire with his belt. Claire is angry and humiliated, though she ultimately forgives Jamie when he talks about how his father used to whip him as a child. She also extracts a promise from Jamie never to do that to her again.

I recognize that the norms and mores of 18th century Scotland are a lot different than 21st century America. But I am approaching this book as a 21st century reader, and a 21st century woman…and frankly, the scene bothered me quite a bit when I read it. Claire is his wife, not a child…and furthermore, Jamie seems to enjoy it, admitting later that he was turned on afterwards.

There is always a certain violence to Jamie and Claire’s sexual relationship, and at times this can get more than a little disturbing—I’m thinking of one particular scene, late in the book, when Jamie is traumatized and delirious from fever—so this isn’t unprecedented, or out of character for him. And afterwards, he never breaks the promise he makes to Claire never to beat her again.

But we’re reading the story entirely from Claire’s perspective. Claire is stuck in a time that is not her own, trying to make the best of a bad situation. She married Jamie because she was forced to, but she unexpectedly developed real feelings for him. Claire is keeping so much of herself hidden, and she’s surrounded by people who don’t trust her. Jamie has been, through all of this, her only ally. Though she hasn’t been able to be honest with him about her situation, they’ve formed a deep friendship and trust in spite of everything. When Jamie whips her, it feels like a betrayal.

Yes, you can make the argument that Claire never should have disobeyed him in the first place. But Claire is not a child, but a grown adult. And yes, again, I also recognize that applying 21st century values to an 18th century situation isn’t historically accurate. But when you write a book, you create your own reality. It might have been accepted, even common, for an 18th century man to beat his wife. But I’ve read plenty of historical romances set around the same time where the man would never dare so such a thing.

There’s no right or wrong here; this one is just my opinion. It unsettled me, but not enough to stop reading the book. I ultimately forgave Jamie, but it took me a lot longer to do so than Claire. Even so, I’m not sure how I’m going to react to seeing it on screen.