May 18, 2015

Hoist by My Own Petard: The Suffering Male Body in Outlander

I don't even know what a petard is, but I bet it's something they use in Wentworth Prison.

Wentworth Prison is where the latest episode of Outlander takes place. The beautiful hero Jamie Fraser has been imprisoned by the sadistic British officer Jonathan Randall, who intends to abuse him before sending him to his death. Randall had flogged Jamie five years before, and the incident has haunted and delighted Randall ever since:

Now Jamie is back in Randall's hands, shackled in his dungeon. Randall wants to break Jamie, wants to feel Jamie's surrender to his own power and even charisma. At one point in the show, Randall gazes on dirty, brutalized, but still handsome face of Jamie as he talks about his obsession, and I thought to myself, This is where obsession can lead. And then I thought, That's a good lesson. And then I thought, Didn't I just blog about how, in film, a purported "lesson" based on plot is less important than the message communicated through images? Petard: hoisted.

This episode, called "Wentworth Prison," is being rightly hailed as a masterpiece, heartbreaking to the point of tears. The writing, direction, acting . . .  just look at Caitrona Balfe as Claire, absolutely breaking apart as she sees Jamie's torture:

Balfe was amazing in this episode. True sobbing is hard to fake because there are involuntary physiological responses that kick in when you're that emotional: your airways constrict, your voice is lowered or elevated. The deep, gruff sobbing that came out of Balfe's throat in this episode was so terribly authentic.

Actor Sam Heughan is equally amazing as a strong, masterful man being slowly mastered. The power and beauty of Sam's body is really the lynchpin of the series, carrying so much of the emotional weight of the show, not to mention so much of the plot. Fans are enthralled by shots like this:

And this:

And this:

But equally by this:

And this:

Yes, that's his back, after the flogging.

And this:

Scottish pieta.

And God help us, this:

The spectacle of the suffering male body has always been powerful, from The Dying Gaul:

"Dying Gaul" by BeBo86 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

To the dying Christ:

(pending attribution)

These images are powerful because we project onto them our desire for endurance. They are battered and yet somehow resistant to battering. There is an almost God-like ability to sustain and not break, or break but not be destroyed.

But it's confusing to feel my own craving for these images and wonder if they're just as exploitative as Ex Machina's naked Asian automatons (see blog post here). Ex Machina's use of those images feels less honest, especially contrasted with the type of romance art women create and consume, where the desire for male beauty is unabashedly The Point. But perhaps Jamie Fraser in Wentworth is just a bit too close to torture porn for comfort, even if the craving is not for pain or control (like true torture porn) but for the portrayal of male endurance and the promise of female comfort. The image of Claire hovering over the broken Jamie above evokes the Pieta, the ultimate image of female succor:

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It offers a proposal that is deeply appealing: As a woman, I can offer you a healing that no other can. And recognizing that provides an unsettling feeling. In one of the episodes best moments, Jamie's back is turned to Randall, and Randall reaches out with his hand in a shot that mimic's Randall's POV. As a viewer, you feel eerily identified with Randall at that moment, wanting to reach out as well.

Ultimately, I believe in that instinct to reach out. Art serves some deep needs, even if the delivery is as complicated as in Ex Machina. It's also been interesting to read fan reactions to the Wentworth Prison scene, which of course has existed in book form for years. I had always wished that Randall's subjugation of Jamie had not existed, so total was Randall's triumph. But in the week leading up to the episode, several fans wrote about how this story line helped them deal with their own sexual assault. It sounds simplistic to say it this way, but as they read, they thought, "If Jamie can survive this, so can I." Those who have read the book series know that recovering from Wentworth is a long process for Jamie, but even the lastingness of the pain may give comfort to those who feel like the nightmare keeps coming back.


  1. Astoundingly perceptive article. Well done, good observations.

  2. I subcribe to the theory that less is more.

  3. I really like the note your review ends on, with survivors of sexual assault using Jamie’s storyline as a narrative for their own survival and recovery. To relate this to another post of yours, I read an article about how one of 50 Shades’ saving graces was that it became okay for women to discuss/explore certain sexual issues in the context of the movie, though they would have been taboo in almost any other situation.

    The definition of exploitation (when applied to people) is something that is for another’s benefit, profit, or pleasure. When it comes to film, I consider exploitation to be when something is shown solely for the audience’s benefit or pleasure, rather than to benefit plot, character development, or other elements of the story. But, as you’ve pointed out with the case of Outlander (and previously in Ex Machina) what is “necessary” vs. “gratuitous” is up for interpretation.

    It sounds like Jamie’s torture and recovery is a big part of the story. The question is, what is necessary to show? Could the message/impact have been delivered as effectively without all those “suffering male body” images? And is reading that torture sequence significantly different from the experience of viewing it?

    On a related note, while there are some cinematic torture scenes that are just repulsive and hard to watch, I think most have an element of titillation or pleasure for the viewer. The example of Spike in season 7 of Buffy comes to mind, or Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (who for some reason has to be *completely naked* even though the extent of his torture involves being hit in the balls).

    In your argument about Ex Machina, the medium was directly contradicting the message (stereotypical sexy-but-vacant female beauty vs. female empowerment). But in Outlander, are Jamie’s endurance and the effects of Randall’s obsession really contradicted by the (potential) glamourizing of Jamie’s torture? What do you think?

  4. It's a tough question. And here's my first, very cop-out answer: The treatment of Jamie in Outlander doesn't feel exploitative to me. Maybe there are legitimate reasons for me feeling that way (e.g., we so rarely are confronted with male victims of sexual violence), and maybe I just like having access to this view of him as the suffering male body. I don't think the narrative would have been as effective without those visuals, for sure, but "you really feel the agony when you see it explicitly" wouldn't sway me if the victim were female.

    But here's an additional consideration: I don't think that straight women generally have fantasies about good-looking men getting raped. The situation being portrayed isn't feeding the fantasies that most readers or viewers would have about this character. Just the opposite, I think. Most readers don't want to have had this happen----I didn't until I read the comments by the female fans who had experienced sexual assault themselves. BUT when a woman in raped on screen, it does feel like it's feeding a fantasy for some portion of the male audience. I remember going to a screening of A Clockwork Orange in grad school and hearing some male audience members cheering while a woman character was being raped. That makes it unsettling for women in a way I don't think it is when the cinematic victim is male.

    On another note, I feel like I might define exploitation differently than you do. As you say, necessary and gratuitous are hard to define. I think the sex scenes and the violence in Outlander are not gratuitous. But every time there's an explicit sex scene on the show, some portion of the female fandom (usually older) rails against it and asks if it's really necessary. And I always think, "Necessary?" Why does it have to be necessary? Can't it just be pleasurable?"