Late last week I finished watching the first season of Outlander, and quite honestly, I won’t be watching any more. Which is a bit of a shame, since there’s a fair bit to like about the show. The costumes are fun to look at and deconstruct, the acting’s pretty decent, the production values are clearly quite high…
But the LGBTQA+ representation is what ultimately made my decision for me. Which is to say, the very bad representation.
For those who don’t know, Outlander is a popular series of books written by Diana Gabaldon, which was turned into a TV show. The story centres around a woman from the mid-20th century who, though mysterious means, is transported back in time to the 18th century. A time-traveling historical romance, as it were, with a lot of culture clash to spice things up. It’s a concept that is a bit cliche but also has plenty of room for experimentation and progression. And frankly, I enjoy historical dramas quite a bit, so I even though I knew it was going to be heavy on the romantic themes (which isn’t typically to my taste), I figured I’d give it a try.
But I only lasted a single season before finding very good reasons to quit.
Let me clarify. In the first season, there are 2 gay characters. Which, to be honest, is more than I expected. You’d think I ought to be quite happy that in a show set in 18th century Scotland, acknowledged gay characters were present at all. After all, the time and place weren’t exactly havens for the QUILTBAG community. I honestly expected no gay characters at all, because very few people bother unless “being gay” is some sort of plot element.
But those 2 gay characters can be summed up as follows: 1 is a coward and a fop, the other is a rapist and the season’s primary antagonist.
Having no gay characters at all would have been better than that being the only representation.
“But Ria,” I hear the naysayers cry, “Some gay people are like that. It was just accurate portrayal.”
Sure. Some gay people are like that. Some are cowards, just like straight people. Some are rapists, just like straight people. Some are heroes, just like straight people. Some are unremarkable, just like straight people.
Notice which traits didn’t get represented in the show’s 2 gay characters.
Gay people in media have been portrayed, historically, as either the butt of jokes or villains for a very long time. Too long. This show (and possibly the books, but honestly, I have no idea because I haven’t read them — this post is about the show) went all out and fit both negative portrayals into a single season. My anger at the representation isn’t because I believe that gay people are 100% good or that gay people cannot possible have a single negative trait in their entire being. My anger is over the fact that the only representation here was negative representation, as it has been time and time before.
We should have moved beyond having our sole gay characters being antagonists or defined by their negative character traits. And yet…
“But Ria,” I hear the call go up again,” things were different back then. A gay person probably would turn to rape to get what they wanted because they couldn’t get sex openly.”
Ah yes, because nice gay people are solely a modern phenomenon. I’d forgotten that fact.
“That’s how things were back then,” applies to the show’s misogyny. Women being treated shoddily, women being hit, being raped of threatened with rape, women being seen as the property of men, that‘s more accurate. That argument does not apply to homosexuality.
Interestingly enough, plenty of people manage to go through their lives without raping anyone, no matter how much or how little sex they get. And I’d like to take a moment to point out that while the show’s antagonist did absolutely rape a man, we also saw two attempted rapes of women. It was not about sex for him. It was about power. As it tends to be where rape is concerned. “He couldn’t get any,” is a pathetic attempt to excuse his behaviour, just as that excuse would be pathetic today.
But even if that were the case, even if there was even a fraction of a tiny grain of truth to that argument, it still does not negate the previous issue, the issue of constant negative representation of LGBTQA+ characters in media. For so long, stuff like this is all we got. It’s all we got to see of ourselves. We looked into the mirror of media and saw monsters staring back at us, and we knew that was what other people perceived of us. Monsters, villains, jokes.
“But Ria,” you call again, “that character you mentioned isn’t actually gay. He just has ‘a sadistic sexual obsession’ with another guy.”
Okay. So here’s my rebuttal of that. First, I had to mentally have that argument after checking wikis to see if it’s firmly established that the character in question was gay, and all I could find was basically the exactly same words I used above. “Sadistic sexual obsession.” Sure, I guess he might not be gay at all. He might only have a twisted interest in the story’s male love interest.
Here’s the thing, though: the show did not make that particularly clear. The one time we see him attempt to have sex with a woman (which, to be clear, was rape) where the deed was not interrupted, he couldn’t get it up. We see him have no problem getting erections when he’s raping a man. Now yes, rape is about power and not sexual interest, but when you’ve got a character who doesn’t successfully have sex with women and who does successfully have sex with men, you don’t have to read between the lines very much. With those details in mind, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that this man is 100% straight except for his weird obsession with one single guy.
The show’s first season was made in 2014. I don’t care if the book was originally written in 1991. The show and its producers had ample opportunity to learn more about better representation. If that character isn’t actually gay, they sure as hell did a pathetic job of portraying it, and a very good job of portraying him as though he’s largely just a gay rapist and villain.
Which brings us back to the problem of negative representation.
And my completely and utter tiredness of it. I’m done with that. I’m over it. I have no room in my life for things that have no room to afford dignity and respect to those who, for so long, were given none of either.
Honestly, I don’t know if the books have better QUILTBAG representation. I don’t know if the show has better representation from season 2 onward. And I probably will never know. What I saw in the first season left such a sour taste in my mouth that I have no desire to give the show a second chance or the books a first chance. As I said before, no gay characters would have been better than bad gay characters, especially when there was nothing else to balance it out. My anger would be considerably lessened had there been a single solitary example in there of, say, two women carrying on behind their husbands’ backs (because the show firmly establishes that for most women, marriage is about survival, not love, and because plenty of characters have affairs all over the place), or a young man having a tryst with a stablehand, or something. Something, anything, that I could point to and say, “Look, not all of the gay characters were negative stereotypes. There’s one that’s okay.”
But even that, I suppose, was too much to ask.