(Sex-Positive Conservatism and Nostalgic Desire)
“Is Outlander just Waverley with boobs?”
A friend posed this question when the Starz show Outlander first premiered in 2014. Both the show and the original novel series by Diana Gabaldon tell the story of twentieth-century nurse Claire Beauchamp who, on a trip to reconnect with her husband after years apart during World War II, is transported through a pagan stone circle in Scotland to the eighteenth century, where she marries and falls in love with (yes, in that order) handsome Highlander Jamie Fraser. Jamie and his clan are fighting for Charles Edward Stuart against the English monarchy in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. After the Scottish were defeated, the English brutally retaliated against both the rebels and the Scottish clan system itself. Claire knows what the Highlanders she meets don’t: that their way of life is ending, and that she must save Jamie from his fate.
An action-adventure historical romance with a woman at its center, Outlander sticks out in the world of cable TV. As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes, Claire is a rare female avatar in a sea of Peak TV’s male antiheroes. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff concurs that Outlander’s foregrounding of Claire’s perspective sets it apart. As such, Outlander builds upon developer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s earlier work in Battlestar Galactica by offering another sci-fi/fantasy project that caters to—rather than excludes—women viewers.
But as my friend’s question suggests, Outlander also recalls a male historical romance: Sir Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley. Outlander is a genderswapped Waverley. Scott’s novel famously tells the story of an English fish-out-of-water in the “primitive” Highlands of eighteenth-century Scotland. The novel’s hero, Edward Waverley, is posted to Scotland with the English army to stop the Scots’ building rebellion. While he doesn’t literally time travel, Edward views Highland Scotland as a feudal hideout in an increasingly modern, centralized nation-state. Edward’s Englishness protects him from the consequences of his eventual defection to the Scottish cause. Where Outlander’s Claire’s loyalties remain divided between Frank, the English academic husband she left behind, and Jamie, her Scottish warrior-with-a-heart-of-gold, Edward is able to have it all by marrying the gentle Rose instead of the militant Flora. Edward and Rose’s union symbolizes a united Great Britain in which Scotland is domesticated under English rule. Marriage represents a relationship to the state: Edward’s symbolizes the union of Scotland and England while Claire’s divided loyalties express ambivalence about the ties, marital or national, that bind.
As such, yes, Outlander is Waverley with boobs.
But the similarities don’t end with their mutual engagement with Scottish nationalism: both texts invest in the workings of nostalgia. The subtitle to Waverley is “‘Tis Sixty Years Since,” although seventy years actually exist between its publication and 1745. Scott sets his novel in between the “coat-mail of our ancestors” and the “triple-furred pelisse of our modern beaux:” close enough for nostalgia but too recent for fantasy. Coincidentally, we are also now about seventy years after Outlander’s 1946 opening scene. Mid-eighteenth-century soldiers are as familiar to us as armored knights were to Scott, but Claire’s Greatest Generation, like Scott’s Jacobite rebels, is still within living memory.
The reactionary slogans “Make America Great Again” and “Put the Great Back in Great Britain” speak to a cultural moment as susceptible to wistful nostalgia as Scott’s. The rhetoric of these slogans invoke the so-called “Greatest Generation”—those who came of age during World War II—and idealizes a period nostalgically recalled as a time when young people made the ultimate sacrifice and everyone “did their bit” for the war effort. The Rosie the Riveters who stepped up to take the jobs men left to fight have afforded a view of the mid-twentieth-century woman as both feminine and independent. Claire is one of many women who entered the professional world during the war, both on the front and back home. Her wartime medical knowledge helps her adjust to eighteenth-century life, becoming a successful healer through her understanding of germ theory, still unknown in the 1700s.
Yet Outlander’s initial setting still limits Claire’s gender transgression. Her war service as a nurse doesn’t threaten any accepted gendered divisions of labor. The 1940s maintained the different dress requirements for the gender binary despite wartime shortages—women famously drew their stockings on with makeup when access to silk and nylon hose was lost. Outlander costume designer Terry Dresbach references Dior’s New Look of the period, which reintroduced hyperfemininity to fashion after the war, in one of Claire’s eighteenth-century French dresses. Even her sexual knowledge doesn’t rock the boat too hard. Outlander markets a sex-positive conservatism: the first sex scene features cunnilingus (still rare for TV), but Claire’s sexual experiences always occur within marriage. Claire may be a twentieth-century woman, but she’s still from a pre-Sexual Revolution and Second-Wave past. Progress is not equated with the passage of time, and much of Outlander’s approach to sex would not be out of place in eighteenth-century media.
Anglo-American nostalgia for World War II imagines the underdog allies fighting against the fascist menace, but this characterization is both inaccurate and disingenuous. Britain ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen. In fact, the Scots were some of the core imperial administrators: English dominance restricted their prospects at home, but career advancement came by enforcing that superiority abroad. Similarly, World War II created space for women, opening employment opportunities in professional work made vacant by men. Postwar ideology tried to make work once again restricted to poor women and women of color. As Claire’s own professional change to doctor later in the series indicates, however, the bell could not be unrung. After more than a century of imperial dominance enabled by Waverley’s romantic vision of benevolent English dominance over the ethnic periphery, the two world wars’ destruction helped people around the globe free themselves from European rule. Imperial nostalgia desires a return to a system of violence and erases this struggle for self-determination, and its vision of women’s autonomy is by definition temporary and limited.
Outlander gives Waverley’s fish-out-of-water boobs but nevertheless concludes that Claire is still a fish who needs a bicycle, a woman who needs a man. Outlander marks its heroine with sex-positive signifiers that postdate its nostalgic past, yet Claire remains a woman who is empowered but not liberated. The danger of nostalgia is not only that it presents the past as better than it was, but also that it frames history as familiar and knowable, as one limited narrative. We’re only now realizing that choosing the side of the Allies over the Nazis is not the universal choice in the present. Who we should identify with in the Jacobite Rebellion is still less secure. Even as the Scots fought against the tyranny of English rule, many felt that they fought for a different but no less tyrannical vision of sovereignty based on the notion of the king’s divine right.
Rather than just surrender an “all sides are just as bad” false equivalency, we should use our distance from the eighteenth century to imagine a progressive narrative of moral complexity. Instead of importing a sympathetic figure to the past with whom we can identify with to give it moral clarity, we should incorporate the strangeness and ambiguity we feel about distant history into how we make sense of our own experiences. We must become fish-out-of-water in our own time. Outlander’s persistent glance backwards to the near and distant past misses the opportunity to turn that gaze back onto the ways in which that past has created the conditions of the present.
Angelina Del Balzo is a PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, working on adaptation in eighteenth-century British theater. Her secondary interest is in solving mysteries in remote country manors.