Why Outlander is the gift that keeps on giving

It is a truth universally acknowledged* that Droughtlander is a thing. This past month, yellowing paperbacks have been dusted off while many-a-thousand Kindles, Kobos, iPads and Androids have been powered up to read or re-read Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and/or Voyager novels after the Starz TV series season 2 finale aired on July 8. At the same time, streaming services all over the world have noticed spikes in the viewing of Outlander seasons 1 and 2 online.

In 1992, the year that Diana Gabaldon first published Outlander, I began studying for a degree in English Literature. I was pregnant with my first child. The publishing of Outlander caused a general ruckus in my school and I recall thinking at the time that the unbridled reaction of excitement from my lecturers was both startling and somewhat disconcerting. First year classes were virtually abandoned for behind-closed-door negotiations about who would get research funding and how to incorporate this new phenomenal multi-genre masterpiece into the syllabus.

As a first year, I wasn’t feeling it. I thought I was there to read Shakespeare and Dickens and learn where to put commas.  That was, after all, “proper literature.” So I bucked the trend and managed to get through the first year of my degree without engaging with any text that was remotely suggestive of science fiction or romance.

Oh how I lament. The phenomenal masterpiece that I dismissed as unworthy of my study time was the first in a best-selling series of 8+ books, has been the focus of countless critical essays, and has been adapted to a very polished television series that just finished its second season of production.

Like many others, I have been playing catch-up. I have read five of the books, kicked myself repeatedly, and watched the son I gave birth to back in 1992 independently emerge as a dedicated follower of the TV series – without having read a word from the books. Outlander, it seems, is uniting generations and so I feel there is value in further examining the cultural importance of this force majeure.

I think it is fair to say that any adaptation of a book to TV/film will have some degree of abridgement, and no-one close to the Outlander book publication or TV production could honestly argue that there hasn’t been a type of relationship “fragmentation” between book readers (Readers) and TV viewers (Viewers). Of course, this is not unprecedented, as Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings readers will attest. As will Shakespeare.

But the discussion around this needs to consider the amount of time that has lapsed between the publication of the first book and present day: 24 years. That is longer than the interwar period between WW1 (1914-1918) and WW2 (1939-1945) and is just short of the common definition of a generation – 25 years: from the birth of a parent to the birth of a child. It was technically last century. I think most people accept that the world changes over time and therefore so does the interpretation of cultural texts like Outlander.

I have observed recently that some Readers have almost felt the need to apologise for their knowledge of the Outlander subject matter and urging of attention to detail. They have been referred to by some Viewers as “smug”, “nerds”, “crazy”, “fanatical”, “obsessed.” A little unfair I think, because most seem to be generous with time and information to help string together parts of the narrative for Viewers.

My take on it is that back in 1992, and the years since, a vast number of people made a significant financial, emotional and time investment to the reading of Outlander. I also think that these books have been a source of great comfort to people who, given the demographic, are likely to have suffered through terrible illness, loss, grief, divorce, incapacity, inequity, abuse, depression – all the painful things that happen to millions of people over the course of their lives. I think the books have been a positive place to escape for those who needed it. So given the investment made, it is not unreasonable to expect a degree of attachment and ownership over the content.

On the flip side, we see people who are new to Outlander coming to view the series with blind enthusiasm, excitement and passion. These new arrivals seem to be quite diverse in age and gender, and appear to be prepared to let the narrative take them anywhere unchallenged and uncontested. The demographic has expanded – we see young fathers talking about how they want their daughters to grow up with role models like Claire Randall/Beauchamp/Fraser. They want them to be valued leaders, fearless articulators, loved and respected contributors. I think this energy is powerful. For many Viewers, there is little desire to read the books because in watching the TV series, they are essentially reading the 2016 interpretation of the books. And that is how culture works.

One argument of modern literary theory is that an author is a product of their “time and place.” That is to say that as well as having uniquely developed intent and imagination, the author is also a representative or agent of the culture that he/she writes about. So when putting pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, they either consciously or sub-consciously draw on their interpretation of history, ideology, politics and world experience to lay down the telling of their story.

We know that Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser was inspired from a character who appeared in the 1966-1969 version of Dr Who, and we know that in 1992 Ms Gabaldon was in the process of raising a family, had achieved academic qualification and worked in the field of behavioural and biological sciences. But when Ms Gabaldon was developing Outlander, she chose to invoke multiple genres, insisted on the perspective being a female point of view and then shaped the development of Claire Randall into a beyond stereotype character. This was the beginning of her own contribution to changing history and I argue that these narrative decisions would have been somewhat informed and driven by the social and political discussions in play at the time.

In 1992, the concept of women (a) contributing to conversations of national and global importance and (b) making life choices other than marriage and motherhood was still relatively implausible. I lived it. The majority of us were receptionists, beauticians, teachers, nurses, librarians, secretaries, mothers and wives. Critical services. But we didn’t run the race, we drove the support vehicles. This was especially true of women from lower socio-economic backgrounds or minority ethnicities who may have had limited tertiary education opportunity or motivation.

At that time, fictional texts that described strong, powerful women with in-demand skills, an intellect and a plan for the future were usually relegated to genre writing – predominantly science fiction. Why science fiction? Because it was hopeful and futuristic, but never a reality. In 2nd year, I gave in and embarked on studying the classic Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) where Connie Ramos learns that she is living at an important time in history, and that she herself is in a critical position where her actions and decisions will influence and define the future. Whilst Piercy’s novel is largely utopian speculative fiction, there are some thematic comparisons that can be drawn between it and Outlander.

To me, it is no coincidence that Outlander starts at the end of World War 2, a period in history when women were called upon to take up traditionally male roles – engineering, manufacturing, intelligence, arms distribution and logistics to “fill the gap” while the men were away fighting. It turns out they were exceptionally good at it. Then when the war finished, the men returned and women were asked to step down, return to domesticity and recommence the anxieties over body image. This was Diana Gabaldon’s starting point for Claire Randall’s story – a woman who had just made a major contribution to a bloody war and was being asked to put aside all she had learnt and achieved and take a step back to assume her place beside her husband. Claire appeared to accept this fate with some hesitation, though little resistance. But Ms Gabaldon forced her down a different path, at least for a time.

1992 was also around the time the second wave of feminist theoretical non-fiction hit the world arguing that there had been a “backlash” against the feminist movement of the late 1960s. The discussion was most prominent in texts like Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), Gloria Steinham’s Revolution from Within (1992), Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990), and Marilyn French’s The War Against Women (1992) which all argued that the 1970s and 1980s was a negative period in terms of reclaiming female subjectivity and objectification that was being defined by men for men. This came 24 years after the first-wave feminist movement (so-termed by Martha Lear in 1968) and I would suggest that we are currently living through another anti-feminist backlash 24 years later.

There are positives though. Despite history tending to repeat – and in 2016, way too many people trying to address problems of the world using less than 140 characters – we are on the brink of having at least four women: Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel running the race and earning the right to lead the developed world. Their politics may differ but their common purpose is progressive as it is the beginning of some degree of naturalisation that is more accepting of women having significant roles of global leadership and influence. And I argue that texts like Outlander and Woman On The Edge Of Time, along with other feminist fiction and non-fiction, have done the hard work over the past 50 years to edge us closer to this position.

But it is not only about feminism – the Outlander series has great social depth and value and lends itself to a number of readings: psychological, socialist, masculine identity (especially around the characterisations of Black Jack Randall and Lord John Grey), and also in the exploration of the “Other” which will become particularly interesting in the upcoming season 3 (based on Voyager). It is so incredibly rich and there will always be a lot to say.

So hopefully Readers and Viewers will agree on one thing: that Outlander is a gift. Regardless of whether we spend our time reading or watching, or both, it is the storyline that looks ever forward and subversively asks questions about possibility that generates the recurring appeal. We read, watch, re-read and re-watch. While Diana Gabaldon is writing and Ron D. Moore is producing, Outlander is expanding in presence and is being set up to reinforce a more positive view of the world that brings us closer and closer to a better reality.

If I live long enough, it is plausible to think that I may be watching a remake of Ron D. Moore’s interpretation of Outlander in another 24 years time.

Right now, I can’t see how it could get any better – but I do accept that it will almost certainly be different.

Notes:
* Opening phrase of Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

© 2016 Michelle Glasson

8 thoughts on “Why Outlander is the gift that keeps on giving

  1. This is a really fascinating article. I’m somewhere in between – I only heard of the books when the series came out (despite being Scottish!), and only then got around to reading them as I caught up on Season 1 late last year. So while I enjoy both – there are some things that will always be better in the books, there are a few things I think the series has improved – I’m not really a ‘book fan’ or a ‘TV fan.’ The only downside I’ve experience fan-wise is that once or twice I’ve jumped into an online discussion only to be a bit shouted down by those with, shall we say, much greater knowledge than me?! Not that I think any of them mean any harm, it’s just tough to enjoy a chat when you’re being corrected all the time (though maybe that’s as much down to my memory as anything!)

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    • Thanks Claire. I agree with your point on some of the online discussions – some can, on occasion, feel a little harsh. There is so much to absorb in the books and TV series and I can never remember who-did-what-when. I think I’ll always be catching up! Your thoughts are much appreciated.

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  2. I think your article and the replies help me understand why the show and books are so compelling. And now we also have the fandoms around the cast, design staff and producers and we share in their journeys. As for the women with agency normalization process in our society I like your notes about the how the matches of character traits w historical context and fiction genres like sci fi, time travel Etc bubble up in the real world zeitgeist. We certainly have had strong female leads but often their highly developed competence in one area is offset by trade offs in their private life a la Murphy brown who was single. Claire manages to have it all- altho there is a point in book 3 or 4 if I recall where she decides not to have more kids for a combo of work and personal reasons.
    As a 1979 college grad, 1983 business masters, and mother in 1989 & 91, and corporate exec until the first time the glass ceiling wore me out in 1994, your points about the phases of feminism really hit home. My gen drank the Gloria Steinem koolaid conveniently forgetting she didn’t have kids. We thought we could magically have it all at once like any guy. So after I was first knocked off the track (i returned for 3 more rounds until I realized I needed a serious rethink about my career/life equation), I blamed myself needlessly but relentlessly for not being good enough at work. 2 decades later I finally saw it, and your article is the first validation I’ve read (not being so connected to feminist lit/thought as I could be) as a socio/cultural/anthropological thing that I couldn’t fight and could never win. Most women my age didn’t/couldn’t in the high earning careers w/o exceptional twists of fate.
    Now my 24 year old daughter has a much more realistic view and much more self awareness and confidence than I. And w fictional and real life role models like Claire Fraser and Hillary Clinton etc her examples are even more practical. Thank you.

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    • Thanks Edie. So interesting to read about your experience. I can certainly identify – I think we lived through the same time period! For me, virtually everything I watch or read gets a social/cultural/political interpretation which drives my family nuts! So I usually get relegated to watching TV on my own. But writing about it helps me make sense of the world. The more awareness, the more progress – and hopefully this will eventually translate into more diversity in mainstream TV/film. There is a lot of good stuff already out there in fiction/literature but they don’t always make it to the screen. Another reason Outlander is so exciting. There is a book I refer to a lot when I try to explain interpretations – “Literary Terms: A practical glossary” (Brian Moon, 1992, ISBN: 1 875136 17 7 – http://www.brianmoon.com.au). I found out recently it is still in print and has been revised. It explains the concepts so well. Thanks for your thoughts. Really appreciate it.

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  3. I love your thoughts and take on Outlander. Thank you for sharing them. You forgot to mention Nicola Sturgeon – the Scottish First Minister. here in Wales the national party, Plaid Cymru has a leader who split the vote for first minister.and amazing role models.

    As you know I’ve been researching role modelsin Childrens literature used in education, and I am fast coming to the conclusion in that in order to reduce the gender gap in attainment in wales there are no effective female role models in the literature used in the classroom. I too missed outlander on 1992 and in a way I’m glad. i wonder if the reseurgence in popularity, the interest in Claire as role model also has a connection with austerity measures, pay cuts and freezes, zero hours contracts. – the brunt of which are borne by lower paid women. So if we want to find effective role models in literature, they are more likely exist in time slip/historic/dystopian genres and in the library stock with ubiquitous feminine covers and given the reductive targetted approach measurable results approach to education will be increasingly unavailable in literature classrooms

    thank you for your bibliography btw it gave me a great starting point.

    Anne

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    • Thanks Anne. You’re right – Nicola Sturgeon is very impressive. Have updated. Unaware of Plaid Cymru but I will look it up. Yes, we tend to find historically that positive female characters start out in science fiction. The closer to mainstream a female character like Claire gets, the more progressive the role model as long as the character does not become a watered down version of itself to “fit in”. I agree that the key to teaching these concepts, at least so kids can recognise, is in the middle-school classrooms – actually when they need it most!

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      • Yes, but what I’m finding is that in a system which is measured and managed, texts are reduced to being taught and memorised rather than interrogated. This is different in top sets where the candidates are more capable of abstract thinking and interrogation, but where there are reluctant readers of lower reading age and ability they are more likely to view as text as concrete expressions of real life and thus we are (in pursuit of reducing gender gap in attainment in Wales) reinforcing gender stereotypes in the classroom, while undermining them in libraries and private reading : Curley’s Wife, Eva Smith/Daisy Renton,Nicole Renard, the kids mother and sister in ‘Boy in Striped Pyjamas’the mother in ‘Millions’by Boyce all succumb to stereotypes and are portrayed through male narrative eyes. I wasn’t actually for daring to use Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses but it didn’t go down very well!

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