With the touch of skin on stone, Claire Randall travelled through time. She’d gone up to the standing stones almost by accident; herbs dotted the hillside, the perfect place to find a particular plant that had caught her eye. As she climbed the hill, the sun streamed down around her slantwise, and small puffs of wind pushed her short, shoulder length hair about her face and her flower sun dress around her knees. Upon stepping into the circle of standing stones, everything seemed ordinary. It was only through her brief encounter with the stone, as her hands ran along and settled on its surface, that Claire became an extra-temporal entity, a historical disruption, and, through touch, she was opened to the potential of other affective lived experiences which ultimately shaped her in and throughout all times.
I read this book some time ago, in the summer of 2013. Working at a restaurant in DC, I was introduced to the book by two regulars. Outlander,by Diana Galbaldon, was about a strong female character, Claire, who owns her nursing knowledge and is open about her sexual pleasures: exactly the type of summer read I was looking for. When the show came out in 2014, the series brought to my attention certain aspects of sexuality which – at least to me – blurred the boundedness of the self and challenged conceptions of what it means to live in a “time”. This review of Outlander will discuss this blurring, as well as other themes of the performance of gender and sexuality through social interactions, from the perspective of Claire. I will focus on the first season of the series and hopefully will not give too many spoilers. Instead, I will engage with examples which highlight the character, rather than the plot.
In her present time of 1945, Claire is a nurse, a wife, a plant enthusiast, as well as a curious, independent, and driven woman. The show narrativizes a 1940s in which women could enjoy certain liberties of expression, demonstrated by Claire’s walking unaccompanied wherever she pleased, her ability to drive, her unabashed sexual drive, among other actions and practices. However, when she touches the stone and goes through time to 1743, Claire’s ability to be “herself” goes through a series of transformations, shaped by the environment of the time, and the relationships Claire makes in her everyday interactions.
This sense of self is exactly what I want to draw attention to. Studies of gender and sexuality have pushed against conceptions of a stable subjectivity; through various fictions, ethnographies, and journal articles, we can see that people occupy multiple positions, and those positions are dynamic. The dynamism is due not only to how we live the “categories” we inhabit – whether that is gender, race, sex, class, religion, etc. – but also to how in the moment, our practices are constantly emerging in an environment – both social and material – which affects us and that we affect. That back and forth destabilises our sense of self, so that we can imagine that our skin, something often thought of as the boundary of the self, is no longer necessarily were we end. We begin at the interaction, and we become us through our everyday encounters. Think about how we are asked on a daily basis to identify with a category – whether it’s a health insurance form, a school roster, a dating profile. That logic assumes that, if you take everything you check off as your “identity” and put it together, it can explain the all of you. But we are so much more than that. This show, through the phenomenal medium of fiction, allows us to see a character in play, and how her everyday experiences and encounters shape – and blur – her sense of self.
One of Claire’s strongest connections is with a woman, Geillis Duncan, the wife of an important politician in the MacKenzie Scottish highland fiefdom. Geillis is a perceptive and provocative woman and healer. Much of the series is devoted to the efforts Claire takes to hide her “true time identity” from Geillis, whose sharp wit and frank observations always seem to be on the verge of discovering. This, coupled with Geillis’ hints to cheating on her husband with other sexual partners, necessitates Claire to perform a femininity which is tempered by what she perceives to be appropriate of 1743. Femininity at that time in the Sottish Highlands is portrayed as a mixture of deference to male power and leadership, along with a rugged resilience that is often called upon to survive the constant threat of English invasion. When confronted with Geillis’ seemingly flagrant disregard of her marriage and open declarations of desires for another man, Claire finds herself defending the 1740s Scottish perspective of spousal responsibilities and gender roles. However, even in defending the status quo, she herself struggles to perform according to these norms. This is reflected in her situated position between various social forces and traces – 1) her own upbringing in a different time, with different norms, and her own relationship to those norms, 2) the social environment she found herself in in this time, and the subterfuge she had to maintain, which included a complicated relationship with a man – Jamie, and 3) the actual everyday experience of living in a present which was becoming familiar through small encounters – the crushing of herbs, the walking of the path to town, the banter with Geillis who, in many ways, was similar to herself.
By these various social forces, I want to problematise notions of time which conceptualise it as static. In school, we are asked to memorise dates, figures, civil movements, based on the “context” of the time, which is easily summable by a list of qualities. These teleological rationalities assume an order and inscribe through discourse that a “time” can be knowable, predictable, and productive of certain types of subjects (who embody a specific and “natural” sexuality or gender). To what degree Outlander troubles static notions of “time” is up for debate. But, at least in the figure of Claire and her ability to time-travel, we are exposed to a character who is, in a way, timeless. In other words, as she continues to live in 1743, she becomes more of a 1945/1743 hybrid entity, who is extra-temporal, a historical disruption. Her character opens up space to question teleologies of time and normative subjectivities based on a “time”. As will be further teased out in the following example, through Claire’s relationship with Geillis, and in this instance of dissonance as she reinscribes the position of women within patriarchal systems of sexuality and intimacy, Claire seems to inhabit an in between, which deeply affects her actions and how she is moved to feel in other moments of intimacy and devotion.
Jamie and Claire’s relationship and interactions reveal another layer to Claire’s sexuality and performance of gender. Galbaldon writes Jamie to be a compassionate and passionate man who would give his life to protect the ones he loves or fulfil a duty. There is one scene in particular that stands out, which defines this relationship, as well as elucidates how selves blur in (social) encounters. Soon after their marriage (which was done to protect Claire from being taken by the English), Claire contradicts Jamie in front of other Scottish men. Jamie is embarrassed and feels obligated in his role as husband (and to stop the men’s joke at his lack of control), to teach Claire a lesson by giving her butt a tanning (beating). Despite her vehement protests, Jamie beats Claire to show both Claire and the men that the “natural” gender dynamics had been restored. Perhaps a few nights later, Claire relents her sex-sanction, and allows Jamie to make love to her. In the heat of passion, she takes out his dagger and presses it to his neck, swearing to him that if he ever lays a hand on her again, she will slit his throat. One take away from this scene could be that Claire is asserting herself and, using the weapons and show of force effective for the current time, to demand that Jamie follow 1940s norms of spousal physical contact.
However, this is also another instance of blurring, specifically of how we identify ourselves amidst the space of intimacy created by engaging in sex. Take this scene. Directly after the beating, Claire refuses to have sex with Jamie; she is too angry, and he is too stubborn to apologise. While their relationship at this point is only just blooming (they don’t really know how they feel about each other beyond of a sense of duty and responsibility), through sex, they have found pleasure. When she relents that night, it can be interpreted in many ways. Yes, it could be a ploy to put Jamie in a position where she can overpower him, and yes, maybe she is using sex as a means to make Jamie agreeable. But regardless of those intentions, the sexual act itself also comes to express the negotiation of how each of them views – and more importantly feels and is affected by – the other, outside of or in textural detail against the gender norms assigned to them. As Jamie and Claire’s intimacy deepens throughout the show, it is through their access to the other’s body and the intimate violation of their bodies by other people that they both come to be defined as neither just masculine or feminine, but as a dynamic, entanglement of various types of femininities and masculinities. Touch and their pleasure of the other’s touch in the act of sex opens both Claire and Jamie to understand themselves through their affective relationships with each other, tempered and in tension with the norms of their times.
We all, in our own ways, travel – perhaps not through time – but certainly through spaces. Especially due to the ease at which we can be hyper-connected across continents, we encounter difference in a way which may make us feel like we have travelled in time, or even off the planet! I most resonate with Claire in the moments when her sense of self seems to come into sharp relief, and she is reminded again that her blurry existence does not easily fit into temporal or spatial categories.
I have felt this while working in the restaurant and when visiting my family in Mexico. At the restaurant that summer in 2013, I had to grin and bear an inordinate amount of judgment and critique, by patrons who were only concerned with their dining experience. There were times when I felt like a robot, animated by the desires of others. It was through the interactions I had with other staff and regulars who offered book suggestions that I was reminded of my humanity and in which I realized – like Claire – that I am more than my visible gender/social position. Also, when I visit my family in Yucatán, Mexico, I am doubly reminded of my out-of-place-ness. In a city that I feel at home in because of the deep love and belonging I feel when with my family, in public, I am frequently asked, if I am from the US. Now, that question is not necessarily jarring, and I expect it. What is off-putting, however, is the surprise expressed by people when I answer in Spanish (a language I have spoken since I was a child), followed by exclamations that I (an American, Spanish speaking, woman of colour) don’t fit the image people have of the US, and isn’t that odd! In these moments, I feel like Claire when Jamie tells her that she must be a proper, obedient wife. I enjoy not fitting in with mainstream “American culture”, and I celebrate my resonance with the black-Latina experience in the way I act, dress, and relate to others. Like Claire, I will do what it takes – though perhaps not threaten people with daggers – to be the person I am. Therefore, in these two spaces – the restaurant and public spaces in the Yucatán (in this case) – I most resonate with Claire in how I act and react to being placed. Particularly, I can relate to those moments when Claire is asked to draw a line in the sand and actively engages the world as a temporal, hybrid being. In those moments, Claire honours herself and attends to what makes her feel like her.
Time and time again, Galbaldon asks us, through the character of Claire, to remember that we are travelers, we move and are moved by the interactions and environments around us. We are blurry. We are disruptions. We are always already situated in between.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Galbaldon, Diana. 1991. Outlander. New York: Bantam Dell.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the
Privilege of. Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.
Foucault, Michel. 1978 (Eng trans.) History of Sexuality. New York: Random House, Inc.
Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Cover Image: A still from the the TV series: Outlander