I have been on hiatus from blogging for some time, mainly due to two factors. First, I launched a public anthropology podcast, Anthropologist on the Street (huzzah!), which has been a fabulous excuse to spend hours talking to brilliant, and often funny, anthropologists and to force them to explain in plain English why their work is important. It’s like free college, but with fewer exams and hangovers.
The second reason is because I recently discovered the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Eight books and 7500 pages later, I popped my head up to observe that my children had outgrown all their clothes and had resorted to eating grass, as mommy hadn’t bought groceries because MOMMY WAS READING. After feeding the darlings and reenrolling them in school, I dragged my husband into watching the Starz series, which just completed its third season. He now roams the house saying things like, “I dinna ken, Sassanach” and planning a family trip to Scotland.
It’s a popularly circulating question among fans as to why we are so, well, fanatic. The books themselves are impossible to categorize. They are historical fiction, romance, natural history, mystery, and science fiction. The story begins [and yes, there are minor spoilers ahead] with a WWII English nurse, Claire, who is on a post-war vacation with her husband in the Highlands of Scotland, when she walks through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. Claire stumbles through the past, trying to survive encounters with British redcoats and their chilling blend of civilized barbarism, as well as encounters with the hierarchical, brutal, and yet somewhat more humane Scottish clans. Along the way she forms a deep romantic attachment with a young Laird, Jamie, whose character now stands as the perfect man in the imagination of millions of women (and many men).
The television series is as engaging and adventuresome as the book series, capturing most of the complexity, along with some of the best dialogue, of the novels. The exceptional replication of historical detail, along with the casting of two magnificent actors to play the lead characters of Claire and Jamie, has only stoked the fires of fans’ obsessions.
But why? It can’t all be about Sam Heughan’s ass (although that should be considered a national treasure). In The Outlandish Companion, author Diana Gabaldon relates that, “by far the most common element that people enjoy in the books is simply the characters—readers care for these people, are interested in them, and want to know more about them”. There is no doubt that Gabaldon is an epic storyteller, and her characters live and breathe in their kilts and corsets.
But stories have to connect to ongoing social and cultural elements to be germane, and Gabaldon excels at that like a trained anthropologist. So here is my take on why so many of us find the Outlander Series to be so darned relevant to us right now:
In a time when we are rewriting the politics of gender, traveling the world at the speed of Skype, and struggling to stay afloat in a world gone mad, the Outlander books give us more than food for thought, they give us a possible roadmap for our modern landscape.
ME TOO, CLAIRE, #METOO
From its first page, Outlander is a series about the modern woman in unmodern times. Starting in the 1940s, skipping back to the 1740s, and then jumping between the 1730s and 1980s, it’s about striving for respect while being pinched on the bottom and generally fearing for your life and safety. It’s about knowing more than anyone around you, but still bearing the role of perpetual minor, at the mercy of your husband’s or laird’s or father’s discipline.
In the sixth book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Claire meets another time traveler who approaches her after hearing her favorite disynchronous curse, but who said he recognized her as out of time well before her reference to a future American President.
“I shoulda known what you are…even before you said ‘Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.’”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” I snapped.
“…you don’t act afraid of men. Most of the women from now do. You oughta act more afraid.”
His advice, which surely would help Claire avoid (even more) assault and abuse, falls on deaf ears. She will not be less than she is, regardless of the consequences.
Claire and her daughter Brianna are strikingly talented in their chosen callings, but face the endless, often life-threatening, task of repeatedly proving themselves. Whether in 1770s North Carolina, 1950s Boston, or 1980s Scotland, the women doggedly display their competence, which often only stokes the rage of the men who seek to put them in their places. It’s the experience reflected in the lives of so many women politicians, police officers, actors, surgeons, and business leaders today. It’s the #metoo movement before Twitter was invented.
But the Outlander ladies are having none of it. And, importantly, neither are the men in their lives.
Which brings us to…
JAMIE * EMOJI WITH HEARTS FOR EYES * FRASER, THE KING OF MEN
The Producer of the Outlander television series, Ron Moore, has famously referred to the character of Jamie Fraser as the “King of Men”, and it’s no wonder why. He’s phenomenal. Tall, beautiful, heroic, relentlessly competent at hunting, farming, fighting, conversing in foreign languages like a native speaker, building houses with his bare hands and an axe, quoting authors from Ovid to John Donne by heart, swinging through the window of a well-defended English fort to rescue his wife from a sadistic redcoat—what Jamie can’t do isn’t worth doing. But all of that would leave me bored with its unrealism if he weren’t also empathetic, funny, emotionally aware, and flawed enough to make his relationship with Claire ever evolving.
The television series makes what I think is a grave error in trying to heighten the on-screen tension by, for example, having Jamie show resentment over Claire’s work in a hospital in Season 2. Not only is this tension absent in the books, but later in the series Jamie is concerned when they move to a remote location, worried that Claire won’t have enough interesting work to keep her happy.
The book is breathtakingly romantic, and Jamie is established early as the ultimate male lead, but Gabaldon rewrites the hero-rescues-maiden trope in an unexpected way. Jamie does rescue Claire. Over and over again. But Jamie doesn’t rescue her to defend her virtue (well, mostly. He’s 18th century Scots, so that’s a bit complicated). Mostly, though, he defends who she is.
Claire’s forthrightness, irreverent attitude, and general lack of subservience repeatedly gets her in trouble, and Jamie saves her (sometimes in heart-stoppingly dramatic ways). But Gabaldon does not write Jamie as saving Claire from a bad man just to restore her to the arms of a good one; rather, he is her ally, protecting her from the expectations and the reactions of society, even when he might wish she would conform a bit more for her own safety.
An example of this dynamic plays out through books 5 and 6 over Claire’s refusal to wear a cap, the symbol of modesty and a marker of older women’s respectability. When she is recovering from a terrible illness, a well-intentioned helper (and one who is constantly harassing Claire to for-heaven’s-sake-please-cover-your-head-decently) shaved Claire’s head. Claire is horrified by how it looks and Jamie tentatively asks her if she’d like to wear a cap. She stubbornly refuses to allow circumstance to dictate her decision not to wear one, and Jamie is visibly relieved, seeing it as a sign she is back to normal. He knows who she is, revels in it, sometimes regrets it, and will die to protect it.
Jamie has his work cut out for him, because Claire’s very existence challenges cultural gender norms no matter where she goes. Infuriating powerful men through her insistence to speak truth loudly and her refusal to cower, Claire becomes the target of violence by British soldiers, French aristocrats, and American settlers. And that’s the twist: the hero rescues the maiden, not because she can’t do it herself but because the weight of the misogynistic social structure is too much for her to bear alone.
It isn’t about women being the weaker sex, it’s about women being the more vulnerable sex.
CLAIRE, THE RELUCTANT ANTHROPOLOGIST
Perhaps one of the main reasons I find Claire’s journey so fascinating is because her wit and curiosity land her in the role of accidental anthropologist. I am amused, and not surprised, that her character was raised by an archaeologist uncle, who dragged her around the globe in the 1920s and 30s, exposing her to a multitude of cultures and living contexts.
As the narrator, Claire makes the strange familiar, taking us through the daily life of eighteenth century Scotland, France, West Indies, and America. So often when we read history it is written in a form that focuses on the Big Events of Big People, but Gabaldon’s work, while fictional, is also deeply ethnographic. She wrote in The Outlandish Companion that, after years of fan feedback, one element that stands out is that “Many of them enjoy the sense of ‘being there’; the vicarious experience of another place and time.” (She has done such a good job with this, along with the producers of the television series, that Scotland is currently being flooded with Outlander-inspired tourists.)
This is precisely what Clifford Geertz’s famously argued that anthropologists should convey when writing their ethnographic field experiences: a sense of “Being There”. Cultural Anthropologists frequently describe our job as exactly what Claire does—immersing ourselves in the strange until it becomes familiar, then translating that insider or “emic” perspective into an outsider’s “etic” perspective so that others can understand it, too.
Gabaldon excels at taking us through the most startling aspects of ethnography in a foreign place: What is the “smellscape” of this new place? What do you use for toilet paper? How do you accomplish basic hygiene? What do you eat when there are no Whole Foods? When women invite you to waulk wool with hot urine, what should you do? How do you avoid being burned as a witch when you literally have no idea what’s going on?
The flip side of ethnographic fieldwork is that it often leaves anthropologists questioning their own cultural practices. As Claire moves deeper into daily life, she begins seeing her familiar cultural norms through others’ eyes as strange at best. When visiting Paris, Claire is thrilled to wax her legs and armpits, saying “First time I’ve felt entirely clean in months”. The resulting conversation with a shocked, bewildered Jamie is thoroughly amusing, as it becomes clear to her that he is in turns horrified and offended at her explanations for why she would do such an unnatural thing. The tv series takes a lighter hand, with Claire going so far as to wax her pubic hair bare, and with Jamie finding it unusual but intriguing. But the book, Dragonfly in Amber, makes it clear that Jamie is thoroughly mid-culture shock, disgusted that (as he says) any woman would want to look like a “young lass”.
Claire even experiences that most common of ethnographers’ illnesses, reverse culture shock. Returning to the 20th century, she is overwhelmed by the noise, by the intrusive and somewhat unnecessary technologies, and by the isolation of nuclear family life.
But no matter where she is, Claire lives in the anthropologist’s world of simultaneously inside and outside the culture. She adjusts to the chaos and difference of each time and place, deeply empathizing with people she’s living among, while still never quite fitting in. Claire’s unusual cultural behaviors and unnerving powers of observation set her apart again and again—as the witch, la Dame Blanche, the Outlander, the auld one, the anthropologist.
REBEL, REBEL, YOU TORE YOUR SHIFT
Being there is amazing, but why do we want to stay? The same reason we were Princess Leia for Halloween three years in a row: everyone loves a righteous fight against an evil empire. Despite Claire’s English heritage (which marks her from the start as an outsider, and therefore deeply suspicious, in Highland Scotland), at heart she is a nomadic ex-pat. She comes to sympathize with the Jacobites, struggling against the vicious unjust persecution of the British army.
Because of these attachments, Claire becomes invested in changing history, to save old Scotland from its inevitable destruction by any means possible. Later, as the stories progress through time and place, her role returns again and again to anti-imperialism, humanism, justice—regardless of the personal consequences. Whether as the only woman in medical school (befriending the only black student), as a physician for the American revolutionaries, or in any number of ethical quandaries (could she buy slaves to free them, risking their recapture and reenslavement? Should she warn the Cherokee about the upcoming Trail of Tears, when there is almost no chance of altering the devastating future?), she confronts the uncomfortable realities others are content to ignore.
Claire is a model for living in hard times, as she jumps back and forth between some of the worst of them. Always her training as a WWII combat nurse surfaces: you cannot save everyone, but with luck and hard work you may be able to save the person in front of you. Her youthful goal of changing the world fades to a more realistic, and more productive, life of working relentlessly to change the life of the person in front of her.
She is a women who has seen the worst of everything and keeps healing others, who has lost faith and found it again, who faces terror and stays true to herself, and who
Just. Keeps. Going.
And Jamie is a model for masculinity that is not diminished in the face of feminine power. He knows who he is and knows there is room in the world for others as well. He is a leader because he is born to it, but he takes his role seriously, living not for himself but for all those who rely upon him.
Jamie is a man who has seen the worst of everything and keeps others laughing, who has fallen into darkness and clawed back out again, who restrains his own power to protect the power of others, and who
Just. Keeps. Going.
Aren’t they the inspiration we need right now?