Note: This post contains spoilers from book one of the Outlander series, and also for the first half of season one of the Outlander television show.
Recently, I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and watching Star’s accompanying television adaptation. I’m ashamed to say that, despite the book’s popularity since its publication in 1991, I hadn’t even heard of it until long after the first season of the television show aired in 2014.
Bad Librarian-slash-writer. Bad!
I read the first book in the series and watched season one volume one of the television show in order to listen to this seminar series from Storywonk. I read the book first, and I have to say, I did not like it much for the first two-thirds. It’s a whopping 900-pages, which is insanely long, and it took me about five months to finish reading it because I kept switching over to other books that held my interest more. Part of the reason for this is that the structure is all over the place and a good portion of the middle is dedicated to several gratuitous sex-scenes that do nothing to move the plot along, but another reason was how the book seemed to be glorifying the subjugation and objectification of women.
But is it? A large part of the book seems to, and I plan on writing about that in a future article about the problems with Outlander. But I do have to admit that there are some things that it got right when in comes to gender roles in historical fiction. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
It’s true to the time-period.
It used to bother me when I would read a story where the women (almost always supporting characters) would stay at home watching children and cooking and the men (the heroes, duh) would go off and have adventures. A story like Outlander, where a woman from the 20th century is sent back to deal with the relatively restrictive gender roles of the 1700’s, would have bothered me even more.
But my views on the matter have altered slightly.
For much of human history, there were very good reasons for gender roles. It was a more dangerous world then, and it was much easier to die from illness or accident. Men are naturally stronger than women, so they did work that required more strength, while women – the only ones able to have children – stayed home, cared for children, and other domestic work. For most men and women, defying these roles could have endangered their whole family.
I’ll take a moment here to say that throughout history, rigid gender roles have not been the bigger problem. That would be the tendency for women, and by proxy, ‘women’s work,’ to be demeaned and made to seem less important in certain times and places throughout history. It’s also the reason that many writers’ answer to gender inequality in fiction is to give the hero’s love interest a phallic weapon like a sword and slap some midriff-showing armor on her. (forget the vital organs – the most important thing to protect on a woman is her boobs. But I digress.) In effect, to make them more ‘manly’.
Of course, advances in technology have not only made the strength differences between men and women less relevant, they’ve made our world safer, giving women and men more opportunity to live the lives they want, rather than have their choices dictated by survival.
In our writing, it is important to stay true to the culture and time period in which our stories are set. Not only is it more authentic, it gives billions of women who have embodied traditional gender roles the respect they deserve but are often denied. Of course, there are many historical instances of women bucking societal expectations, but for every woman warrior, there were hundreds of women who lived the life that was best for them in their time period and culture (and that extends up to today), and to not write about them because it makes us uncomfortable (or because we want to promote equality) is to make them seem, well, less. Less important, less valid, less interesting. Which is completely untrue.
Not only that, but your readers are trusting you to show them an accurate representation of the world you’re writing in. This doesn’t mean you have to show every detail – we never see fictional characters go to the bathroom, right? – but if it’s something that should realistically affect your story, you should at least mention it tangentially.
Is it possible to include realistic instances of historical/cultural misogyny without endorsing them?
Unfortunately, history has included many (often systematic) misogynistic practices that are less tolerated today, if not less practiced.
One moral dilemma surrounding this is that if you are not careful in how you include instances of misogyny in your writing, you can give the impression that you or your work think(s) it is ok.
There are two scenarios that you should consider before deciding how to remedy this:
The reader already knows the act is wrong
There are certain types of misogyny that are almost universally accepted as wrong in Western culture, including child marriage, dowry killings, wife-beating, and violent rape. Let’s call these the ‘hard’ examples.
In these instances, your reader already knows that the events happening in the book are morally wrong, so you don’t have to worry as much about not endorsing it. You still need to make sure that your characters’ reactions are appropriate. If they’re not, it will make readers angry and possibly make your book seem inconsistent.
Sadly, this is one area where Outlander book failed (note – I’m talking exclusively about the book – the show managed this marginally better).
In one scene, Jamie beats Claire – he even tells her that he enjoyed it. She resists, of course, and is angry with him (the appropriate and consistent response)…for all of the next three pages. Then everything is hunky-dory again and Claire and Jamie return to their previous state of perfect marital bliss.
Not only is the beating out of character for Jamie, Claire’s reaction is inconsistent for a woman from 1945, especially one who is empowered as much as she is. Now, I have no doubt that Claire would have continued to travel and live with Jamie (where else would she have gone?), but their relations should have been strained for a long, long time.
Plus, why include the event at all if it doesn’t change anything?
The reader may not realize the act is wrong
Now we get into slightly murkier territory. What if you have examples of things that are easier to ignore, things that not everyone believes are misogynistic? Examples include sexual harassment, victim blaming, date rape, cat-calling, and sexual discrimination.
Our world is currently in a period of change – the ‘hard’ examples of misogyny in the previous section have already made their way from ‘acceptable’ to ‘unacceptable’ for most people. These ‘soft’ ones, however, are now in a gray area of transition. Believe it or not, how we treat them in our writing greatly affects how quickly they become universally considered ‘unacceptable.’
You can and should include soft forms of misogyny in your writing, but you need to be very careful how your characters react to them. If your female protagonist experiences cat-calling, for instance, and her best friend acts like it was compliment and no one at all objects, you run the risk of implicitly endorsing this view. And that is a dangerous thing.
An example of implicit endorsement can be found in season 2, episode 20 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, titled Go Fish. In the episode, a member of Sunnydale High’s swim team attempts to force Buffy to have sex with him, and when she reports it, the school principal and the team coach both imply that she caused the assault because of how she was dressed. Later, as she is explaining this to Giles, Willow, and Xander, they all ignore her and look away, as though she is overreacting.
What? Not only are they her friends, they are the heroes of the story – the prototypes for just and moral behavior. And they act like being blamed for sexual assault is no big deal? Think of the effect that had on younger viewers in the 90’s. I expected better of you, Joss Whedon.
Female characters don’t need to be warriors to be bad ass.
This point’s been hit a lot, so I won’t go over it too much. Let’s just reiterate that a women does not need to wear revealing armor or know how to fix cars to be a ‘strong’ character.
But how do you make a character bad-ass without having her literally kick ass? Simple. You give her a skill.
In Outlander, Claire’s power comes from her ability as a healer. Without it, she may not have been welcomed so readily into Castle Leoch. Everywhere she goes, she proves her intelligence and shows her worth with her nursing skills.
That’s not to say that the ‘warrior woman’ is an invalid archetype. Just make sure that she is more than a token. Make sure that she is well-rounded, with secondary character traits. All characters – female or not – should have strengths and weaknesses. That’s what makes a strong character.
In fact, I’m tired of this whole ‘strong female character’ business. Please strike the term from your vocabulary. Instead, focus on writing strong characters, male, female, or otherwise. Period.