Can We Talk About Those Rape Scenes in “Outlander?”

Outlander is a television series based on the beloved epic novels by Diana Gabaldon. It was advertised as a sexy, funny, supernatural-but-relatively-accurate historical romance featuring a witty heroine, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), at its center. It has been billed as “feminism’s answer” to Fifty Shades of Grey and Game of Thrones. That is a bizarrely tall order, but the show managed to make good on every promise—right up until the mid-season finale got seriously rapey. The episode, “Both Sides Now,” had two back-to-back scenes of attempted rape, showing us “both sides” of what happens when a hit TV show tries to portray sexual violence. (Hint: One of those sides is terrible).

The British-American show is an original production for the Starz channel and, like Gabaldon’s books, revolves around a World War II nurse named Claire who falls back in time to the 18th century, where she finds drama, political intrigue, and romance on the Scottish Highlands. A.V. Club writer Sonia Saraiya described the show as a “letter-perfect historical fantasy” that does for 1743 Scotland what Downton Abbey does for 1912 England.

I felt a burgeoning sense of trust in Outlander as I sat down to watch the season’s final episode, which aired on September 27. Earlier in the season, a depiction of two attempted rapes had been handled well: there was no nudity and the scene demonstrated a great deal about the central characters with few words; it didn’t feel graphic or salacious. The sexual humiliation felt real and awful, not titillating, and it demonstrated the complexities of exchanges of power, unapologetically refusing to simplify the situations. If these seem like obvious things to do with a script, I will direct your attention to the sea of failed attempts to depict rape onscreen (Downton Abbey) without exploiting female characters or using a woman’s rape as nothing but a plot point to further the understanding of male characters. 

In Outlander’s mid-season finale, the episode’s first scene of attempted rape takes place when Highlander Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire are having sex in a meadow. The brief love scene primarily focuses on the pleasure on Claire’s face, and it’s her face that stays in focus as they are interrupted at gunpoint. It’s quite a few beats before the camera pans away to show the assailant: two British deserters. Claire looks terrified and vulnerable, but remains covered, holding her shirt together. The assault itself is brief and stark, shows none of Claire’s body (something the show has happily done in scenes of mutual pleasure), and ends with Claire and Jaime both knifing the assailants to death.

Later in the episode, we return to the same scene. The action again stays focused on Claire. She watches as Jamie falls apart and she holds herself together, telling him, “It’s alright. We’re alright,” before looking down at her freezing, shaking hands and realizing, “It’s shock. I’m going into shock.” While Claire and the emotions playing out across her face are front and center, from the periphery, there are important developments: Jamie’s helplessness, her realization that he cannot save or protect her, and the knowledge that she must save herself. These realizations, and not the assault itself, will ultimately lead to a hugely important moment for Claire that drives the plot forward—her attempt to return to her own time, the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, where that moment drives the plot is right off the rails into the second attempted rape scene. Rather than a sensitive portrayal or the well-executed interplay of violence, power, and trauma that we saw in the first scene in this episode, this was an offensive failure. In this second scene, a British soldier, the truly villainous Captain “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies), captures Claire and ties her up in his fort. He holds a knife to her nipple and is about to rape her when the window bursts open—Jaime jumps in and snarls, “I’ll thank ye to take your hands off my wife.”

a white woman with brown hair laying on a white man's chest as he bleeds and another white man stands over him

From left to right: Claire Randall Fraser as Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Fraser as Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies as Captain Black Jack Randall in Outlander (Photo credit: Ed Miller/Starz)

Throughout the scene, the camera pans back and forth: Claire’s face, a soldier stationed outside the door, Claire’s face, Randall carrying a rope, Randall tying up Claire’s hands, words between Randall and the soldier, are all interposed in seconds, disrupting the point of view that has made this show so different and so successful in bringing us into Claire’s experience. The scene is shot wider, making both Randall’s smirk and Claire’s helplessness equally important to the viewer. As Randall ties her up, cuts her dress with a knife, exposes her breasts, drags her by the hair, bends her over a desk and yanks her skirt up to reveal her naked from the waist down. He grabs her by the shoulder, turning her out so that her exposed breast is facing the camera explicitly, and jams the knife against her nipple. 

After Jaime slams open the window, the camera pans from his face to Randall’s, then back again to his. The fight is left between two men. The last image of Claire for this season is also the final image of the scene: her head is cheated out to Jaime, looking helpless. The first scene felt like an intense, immersive experience; there was a sensitive art at play in showing without telling without exploiting. The second scene was a cheap rip-off, a conflation of pornographical camerawork (deliberately cheating out to maximize the camera’s access to the nipple) and love-scene direction (tear open bodice, expose breast, bend over desk, expose buttocks), irresponsibly and hastily applied as representative of sexual assault. Even if the scene was filmed “as written,” the book tells the story from Claire’s perspective. Here, that is visually disrupted, robbing Claire of any agency and even of the experience itself, making it about the two male characters’ feelings and interplay.

It turns out those two scenes feel like they were shot by two different people because they were. The episode’s primary director, Anna Foerster, was responsible for only the first. “Her reunion with Black Jack I unfortunately didn’t get to film because they had to shoot it before I moved over there… something to do with the set,” Foerster told The Hollywood Reporter. Unfortunately is right. Richard Clark directed the final sequence. At least I know where to point my helpless rage: at the director that had no idea what he was doing and filmed a pivotal sexual assault scene anyway, and at the producers who thought so little of letting him do it.

I’ve read review after review after review of the finale, and the consensus is, “Sure, those two attempted rape scenes, oh my!” The A.V. Club’s Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya writes:

It is somewhat disappointing, then, that weeks after shaping my theory that Outlander has reversed the damsel/hero dichotomy, the episode ends with an all too familiar shot: Claire, helpless, stripped, trapped by Captain Jack Randall, and Jamie swooping in at the last minute with all the gusto of a noble knight to save the day… I think it’s somewhat cruel that the last image we’re left with is one that’s so dark and disturbing, one that positions our hero as a victim. But it also speaks to the fact that Outlander isn’t just romance novel escapism. The series oscillates tonally from one scene to the next: sexy, fun, feminine fantasy in one moment, only to be followed by terrifying darkness. “Both Sides Now” epitomizes that balance for the series.

But two extremes don’t come out in the wash as balance, and that last image of our heroine undermines the audience’s trust and of the best this show has to offer.

The reviews overwhelmingly ignore the problematic finale scene in favor of, “Dat cliffhanger tho,” and many reviewers emphasized the terribly long wait until the show returns in April. Personally, I’m neither excited nor prepared for this show to come back. The source material has still worse things in store for the characters, including some truly horrible sexual abuse, and in the wrong hands, this will quickly become unwatchable. I’ve stuck with them so far out of hope in that burgeoning trust, but that trust has been violated, and won’t be easy to win back.

by Kaitlyn Soligan
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Kaitlyn Soligan is a writer from Boston living in Louisville, KY. She writes about that at and tweets @ksoligan.

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33 Comments Have Been Posted

I don't think of that scene

I don't think of that scene between Claire and Black Jack as being worrisome to the character of Claire or the show's handling of rape and sexual assault. Even the strongest of women, those perfectly capable of saving themselves from a multitude of situations, can be overwhelmed and overpowered. If Jaime was ALWAYS there to swoop in and save Claire, if Claire swooned in the face of danger and was never able to help herself, there would be a problem.

Claire and Jaime take turns saving each other. And I think that's really special and amazing.

Hi Seanna! I totally agree

Hi Seanna! I totally agree that any woman can be overpowered and overwhelmed. I don't think of the scene itself - or its writing - as problematic. My issue is purely with the direction. I feel very strongly that the direction and camerawork specifically are used irresponsibly and serve to undermine the core values of the show and the characters. If I didn't value the relationship between Claire and Jaime and the way they are always, as you point out, saving each other, I wouldn't have so many opinions!

The problem was the tropes ...

... not that a woman was over-powered. After so artfully and decisively avoiding the lazy simple dramatized rape-as-clich often seen in media, they served us up a classic doozy as their closing scene.


I agree! I mean, seriously,

I agree! I mean, seriously, she literally saves herself from rape not 20 minutes before this scene. I think the second rape scene was meant to be graphic and terrifying and make you REALLY detest Jack and see how dangerous he can be. Does the camera pan between Jamie and Jack's faces? Um yeah, the last time they saw each other Jack was whipping Jamie to near death, I should think this would be an intense moment between them.


Anyone read book three, cause...

Claire is a feminist icon of modern fiction

I've read the entire series, and I can assure you, that as a feminist--these books are chalk full of feminist leanings and strong, complex female characters.
The scene with Jack Randall at the end of episode 8 is "as written" as you note (minus the nipple thing...I don't remember that..?), however, it is moreso to show how sadistic he is. This incident is absolutely nothing compared to what he will do--but, spoiler, to Jamie--not Claire! I won't give too much away for those who haven't read, but Claire does some extremely bad ass stuff to basically save Jamie from that situation--and by save him, I mean physically, mentally, and emotionally.
And as far as having rape in the books, and subsequent show: it's accurate to the time period. DG never sugar coats history for us.
Additionally, DG's writing surely does not rely on tropes or bodice-ripping go-tos as some may have you believe. The entire series is filled with Jamie and Claire continually working together, as well as continually saving each other from dicey situations. These situations demonstrate their marriage as an equal partnership.

One very important thing to keep in mind while watching this show, and reading the books for that matter, is to not look at it with a presentist view. There are things that will happen that people won't like, and people are going to no doubt freak out about Claire's upcoming punishment...which no, I wasn't comfortable with....but it is ACCURATE TO THE TIME PERIOD.

More key things to consider: the book series is written by a very blunt, intelligent woman with a PhD in the science field. The show has female writers, producers, and directors. DG is very involved in the process of the show, and she is not afraid to let them know when she doesn't approve of something. I.E. this adaptation is in good hands! Don't worry!

Thank you, Nikki, for your

Thank you, Nikki, for your clear-headed response to this article.
It is unfair to pull out one instance in a series and condemn the entire thing because that scene wasn't played out in a PC manner. It appears presentism is alive and well and living a life within the reviewer.
DG's power is in crafting a story of a relationship where both partners portray equal measures of courage and do what is needed to "rescue" the other in times of great duress. That is a wondrous thing to behold and the reviewer would be well-served to do some reading.

Hi Nikki and JoyceAnn, thanks

Hi Nikki and JoyceAnn, thanks so much for reading! I fully understand that Gabaldon wrote something incredibly special. I believe the people charged with filming it have a huge responsibility to the material and to the audience. My interest here was in how that material was handled in two very different ways within the same episode. I sincerely feel that one of those ways was a gorgeous representation of the work and a credit to the intelligence of the audience, and one was careless. This is purely a critique of the representation, and not the source material.

Well said! I couldn't have

Well said!

I couldn't have said it better!


Why must every discussion of romance novels including slams at Harlequin romances or romance novels in general? And I would ask if the author of this article has ever actually read a Harlequin romance novel? Usually those who insult us have never read one....

As a Harlequin author, I am so disappointed when intelligent women discussing feminism must insult a part of the publishing industry that is written by women and is written for women. And are stories about empowered women in trying and challenging circumstances, facing all sorts of conflicts and problems....

So, please stop calling anything you don't like in a romantic situation or discussion 'cheap Harlequin romance'....and yes, please do not insult us by calling them 'bodice rippers' or other terms that are offensive to the women authors who create Harlequin stories.

Hi Terri. Thank you so much

Hi Terri. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I take your point completely. As a reader of Harlequin romance novels - as a reader of every kind of romance novel - let me first apologize. I don't mean to be dismissive of that genre. I love that genre. I was trying to point to Gabaldon's work as something complicated. It's sci-fi/supernatural, accurate historical fiction, romance, horror, and more, and it has often been noted that there is nothing else like it. I shouldn't have resorted to a throw-away line about a kind of fiction that is also often complicated and genre bending. I believe the director reduced the final critical scene to a "bodice ripper," which is different than a romance novel, and I sincerely apologize for conflating the two. Thank you again for your thoughtful critique.

Could you not edit your post

Could you not edit your post and remove that cheap and sexist pot-shot you took at women's fiction?

This post has been updated.

Hi all,
Thanks for your critique. Kaitlyn and I decided to swap out a line that described the camerawork in this second rape scene as similar to a "cheap Harlequin romance" for this language:

"The second scene was a cheap rip-off, a conflation of pornographical camerawork (deliberately cheating out to maximize the camera's access to the nipple) and love-scene direction (tear open bodice, expose breast, bend over desk, expose buttocks), irresponsibly and hastily applied as representative of sexual assault. "

I think that's more accurate and a better representation of what happened in the scene.

What Terri said, basically.

What Terri said, basically. I'm sick and tired of it too.

Last rape scene and missing the point

I read the post and I read the comments. I didn't get what it was that struck me off about that last rape scene and Kaitlyn, I think you nailed it. After reading the comments, at least the one showing right now, I truly feel as if every one missed your point about how it was done as I read no acknowledgement of it below. It truly was the exposed flesh, the turn of Claire's exposed breast to the camera, the need to get that close nipple shot, the blatant butt shot. These things were in stark contrast to the other scenes for sure. I do get that days of old period pieces seek to portray more the actual grittiness and bluntness of harsh actions, however no one said here that the the director needed to make the rape scene tasteful, what was said however is how the director of the moments chose to focus in on body parts for the viewers titilation in watching this awful scene.

Hi SB - can I call you SB?

Hi SB - can I call you SB? Thanks so much for your comment. I was really hoping that if I wrote this, some other viewer who genuinely felt the same confusion that I felt at the starkly different way those two scenes were filmed would read this and feel understood. In other words, SB, I wrote this for you, and I'm super glad you dug it. Thanks!

Scene serves to highlight the sadism of Cpt. Jack Randall

I don't know if any one has mentioned this but speaking from a directorial point of view I think the contrast between this scene and the others was intended. I think the scene was filmed this way to highlight the sadistic nature of Black Jack. In all the other rape attempts its seems the perpetrators are just acting on their base nature and taking advantage of an opportunity but for the captain raping is not about the physical dominance/pleasure it is about him inflicting as much pain, discomfort that he possibly can and dehumanizing the person he is violating. So I think the direction fit the necessary tone.

Upon further review

For the most part you head the nail pretty incredibly on the head.
This has nothing to do with the source material or even the show itself.
I loved the book, I love the show.
And I've rewatched the season a few times already.
I always fast forward through the last rape scene.
Not because it's disturbing as a "rape" but because it feels exploitive.
The earlier almost rape scene is incredibly disturbing as well. But it has impact beyond the particulars of the rape.
The first scene gets it.
Rape mostly isn't about sex. And argument could be made it definitely is not about sex with BJR.
It's about power. And in the first scene I felt Claire's powerlessness.
It was heart wrenching.
In the last..I felt embarassed for the actress. It sexualized the rape.
So. Yeah...excellent point.
Please don't give up on the series though.
If that scene was filmed early on in filming maybe nobody really realized how powerful not showing so much can be.

Hey AP, thanks for your

Hey AP, thanks for your reply! I'm grateful to be at a point in the cultural conversation where we can assess what constitutes responsible storytelling when filming scenes of sexual violence, and always glad to have smart shows with badass women at the center driving those discussions.

I think because BJR is a

I think because BJR is a sexual sadist for whom power, humiliation, and sexuality are inexorably intertwined, it's not entirely correct to say that his attempted rape of Claire wasn't about sex. Therefore it made sense to me that the scene was filmed from the perspective of him sexually degrading Claire. I think we were meant to feel her humiliation and powerlessness as if we, too, were his victims.


It will be interesting to see how some upcoming (far worse) scenes between BJR and Jamie will be handled, and what the response to those scenes will be. Will the level of outrage be the same? More? Less? Or will it put this scene into some kind of perspective? No way to know until the end of May...

Here is one of the big

Here is one of the big problems IMO, the show has been touted so much as a romance that people who don't know the books are going to be shocked at how dark the second half gets. It's not that you have to read the books to get it, it's more that you have to ignore all the junk about it being a "romance". I am not dissing romance books, but this story is so much more than romance that it does a disservice to the audience and to the show to have just called it a romance. People watching shows on HBO and Starz and Showtime are not squeemish about violence either, I think it's the shock that they are seeing something more than they expected.

The reviewer obviously has

The reviewer obviously has not read the books or she would know what comes next. Come April strangers to the books will see that Claire is far from helpless. I won't say more since I don't want to spoil the coming surprises.

Normally, I would agree with

Normally, I would agree with the analysis of the second attempted rape scene. Knowing what comes further down in the story, though, makes me wonder if the direction wasn't, in fact, spot on. Don't read further if you don't want a spoiler, and I'll try not to say too much, but as soon as Jamie shows up, he is the desired victim (that seems like a strange way to say it, but I'm not sure how else to express it). In that context, it makes sense that the camera flashes from Jamie to Jack. Once Jamie shows up--and particularly after he tells Jack that Clair is his wife--the violence is directed at Jamie. Does that make any sense?

Hi Marley! I'm aware of the

Hi Marley! I'm aware of the upcoming events you're talking about, and I take your point. However, that wouldn't explain a few of the huge issues I saw with the scene. First, the camera didn't stay focused on Claire, as it did in the first scene, even before Jaime opened the window; instead, it shifted to a number of other places - random soldier dude! hands! rope! - and did a lot of back and forth between that random soldier guy and Black Jack, making, in the moment that Claire was being sexually assaulted, random soldier guy every bit as visually important as she was to the scene. Second, the gratuitous and exploitative nudity (gratuitous nudity I am highly in favor of when it's to celebrate a character, not humiliate them). Third, aside from the violence, the scene was shot like a love scene - throw against wall, rip open dress, bend over desk, grab by hair. You'll notice the first scene wasn't shot in that way at all, which visually emphasized that what was happening wasn't sex, but rape. I actually think if they had shot the scene the way the first one was shot, Jaime's entrance and that sudden camera shift to him would have had more impact. With all the shifting and jump shot, one more - the break to him at the window - wasn't as arresting as it otherwise would have been. I hope that makes sense!

In reading this review and

In reading this review and the comments (I know I'm MONTHS behind the thread) I found myself very interested. I too noticed the difference in direction but...I actually liked it. To me, taking the focus off of Claire, making the camera go back and forth, and even the nudity, made me even more anxious, uncomfortable and disturbed. I wonder if it was filmed in this different and more "gratuitous" way on purpose to make viewers physically uncomfortable?
At the time I watched, I hadn't yet read the books and so I didn't know what would happen next. I think your assessment of the direction is really interesting, and not necessarily wrong. But I wonder if some of it has to do with taking us away from "Claire's perspective" to highlight even more her helplessness in that situation. She had a means to defend herself in the first rape scene- here, that defence is taken away from her (when he gets her knife). The nudity... I didn't find it sexualized so much as I found it disturbing..the knife against the nipple, his pulling apart her clothes and leaving her exposed- seemed more shocking and violent than the first rape, because of the direction.

Again- I don't believe you're necessarily incorrect! Just wondering if that other side had occurred to anyone else while watching?

As for the Jamie/Black Jack shots and all, that makes way more sense having now read what comes next, as other commenters pointed out.

season's final rape scene

Oh, dear, I saw that episode six months ago--some of the details are eluding me.
Emma Lew, I feel you're right. That scene did disturb me more, because Claire really was helpless. It was demeaning to leave her in dishabille, with bodice torn and skirt hitched up; she was absolutely exposed. It demonstrated his depths as a sadist and psychopath (as though we needed further examples). He took all dignity from her, and did it so matter-of-factly that there was no question as to who was in power in that situation.
And the soldier outside the door did have some significance--BJR directed that no one was to enter the room, no matter what kinds of strange noises emanated. By Jack's own order, Jamie's safety was ensured and the escape could be made.

About the scene being filmed almost like a love scene

It is interesting that you mention it was filmed like a love scene because many times Claire mentions her conflicting feelings towards BJR because he resembles Frank so much. I think in the book she mentions in this scene that he smiles in a way that (would normally) turns her on because it reminds her of her husband but this feeling is quickly overridden but her fear and disgust towards BJR.

So what is going here is a whole lot more than voyeurism/bodice ripping titillation.

I get your point. I know it's

I get your point. I know it's incredibly problematic for all rescues to be man-to-man. It suggests that the woman has no agency in the scene, and she becomes property instead of a living being. That's challenging. And I occasionally do get frustrated with Claire getting into dangerous situations and needing Jamie to save her, because she IS presented as such a strong character initially.

But that challenge didn't come up for me initially, and never occurred to me in this particular scene. You're right, this scene is different from the other, but I don't think it's entirely for the reasons explored in this piece.

Without getting too much into the story for those who haven't read the books, I think this scene is different for two reasons. First, Black Jack is a, and I can see why we'd see his assault in a more sinister, more humiliating context. Second, he has a relationship with Jamie, which we've already seen some hints of. The scene is about those dynamics, too, and the emphasis on Black Jack and Jamie makes sense through that lens.

You are spot on...

I just posted a similar statement this scene was not just about Claire. Jack Randall is not just some random Highwayman or Deserter he is a whole other animal. I think the direction was spot on for all the underlying dynamics between the three characters.

This show is extremely well written, directed and enhances the novel. I hate to be one of those read the book people but labeling this scene as problematic, without taking into context the interplay between the characters, just makes me want to chuck the book at this article's author.

Final Rape Scene

I don't know if it's because I've grown up watching Law&Order: SVU or that I just understand that rape is more then a frigging punchline, but I'm intensely critical of how rape scenes are portrayed and how the victims are treated afterwards. Let's just say on that final scene o had to fast forward through the final rape scene. All why going through my head "is this fucking necessary?" Like the rape was the main showcase not Claire. I'm just glad I read this so I'm know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Completely agree

Thank you. The series, up to the last episode, fulfilled my desires for a fascinating, character-rich, travel-worthy setting that compelled me to joyfully watch. For me, the tension implied by Dougal's interest in Claire was enough to create apprehension. I could not get through DG's books-although I tried, but the series and the actors have gripped my attention. I will get the Blu-Ray and fast forward through the horrible scenes that are promised. I am disappointed that I must do that.

episode 9 Claire's rescue scene.

I don't have any problem with the scene and how it was played out.Black Jack is a sadist who gets his rocks off by degrading, demoralizing, and scaring the hell out of people. Threatening to cut off a wwoman's nipples is something he very well could do. And that actually happened to women back then as well as forward ib time. Exposing someone, as in buttocks, is also more of the same,denoralizing, humiliating Claire. It portrays BJR as some twisted individual who will hurt, maim, anything to give him the thrills he craves. It also sets his image for the awful things he does later. I viewed it as such. Perhaps BJR could have done that with awful verbal recitations. But visible is shocking and I thought it emphasized the utter truth that BJR has no redeeming qualities when he is in his wvil groove.

Not what you think.

I've just finished the book. SPOILERS BELOW!

So It does , in fact, utterly reverse the hero/damsel in distress dynamic. It actually rips apart the fabric of what a romance novel is. Not in a nice or progressive way though. Honestly its not something I want to see on TV come April.

You see...Black Jack


Doesn't rape Claire in the end he Rapes Jamie and Claire has to save him.

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