The following post is a shortened and abbreviated version of a forthcoming chapter in the Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion series (Palgrave Macmillan)
With the end of a two-year wait for the third season of Outlander (known to its dedicated audience as The Droughtlander), there is a lot for fans to celebrate. The series has, so far, been met with widespread acclaim, and has been renewed for a fourth season. Adapted from a popular series of novels written by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, an English nurse during World War Two, who, on a visit to Scotland, is transported back in time to 1753, where she meets her soon-to-be lover and husband, Jamie Fraser, a Jacobite rebel.
So, what is special about Outlander, and why is it relevant to discussions around rape culture in contemporary society? Described as “unapologetically feminist since its inception,” the Outlander television series challenges mainstream representations of sex, from addressing sexual violence to providing a “rare acknowledgment of the female gaze” through its cinematographic focus on both men’s and women’s bodies.
What has captured particular media interest, however, is Outlander’s treatment of male rape. At the end of the first Outlander novel, and depicted in the final two episodes of Season One (“Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”), Jamie (the male protagonist) is tortured and raped by army officer Captain Jack Randall.
These episodes received much media attention, with many of the show’s viewers praising the sensitivity and integrity with which the oft taboo issue of male rape was portrayed. The violence of the scene was hard to watch, but equally hard was witnessing the way that Jamie’s entire persona – his psychological, emotional, and spiritual self – was splintered in the aftermath of his assault.
I found the episode deeply thought-provoking, not least because it brought to mind another “text of terror” which likewise grants painful witness to a man’s suffering as the result of trauma: the “Man of Sorrows” poem in Lamentations 3. Considering these two texts intertextually alongside each other, I want to suggest that, like Jamie, the Man’s suffering evoked in Lamentations 3 can be read as an expression of the trauma of rape.
The vivid depictions of torture perpetrated against both Jamie and the Man are strikingly similar in both intertexts. Like Jamie, the Man is bound in chains (3:7). His bones are broken, and his skin is wasting away (3:4), just as Jamie suffers broken ribs and “smashed bones” after being beaten by Randall (Outlander, p.748).
The Man feels torn to pieces (3:11); he is made to “cower in ashes” (3:16) and is penetrated with arrows (3:12). Jamie, meanwhile, is burned with a brand that leaves his skin “puckered, reddened and blistered … charred, rimmed with white ash” (p.742); moreover, his hand is pierced with a nail when Randall pins it to the table (p.721), and his body too is penetrated through the brutal act of rape. These shared experiences of violence and suffering connect our two male characters together, allowing us to see them both as victims and survivors of the most dreadful abuses.
An intertextual reading of Lamentations 3 alongside Outlander (a full treatment of which can be found in my upcoming book chapter) highlights the various tropes of male rape that can be discerned within this biblical lament. These include, but are not limited to:
- The trauma of intimacy as the Man struggles to reconcile his suffering with God’s love, and Jamie who, after his rape, cannot be touched by Claire (p.790).
- Humiliation, shame and a perceived loss of masculinity with the Man describing himself as hunted prey (3:10-11) and Jamie telling Claire “I didna use to think myself a coward, but I am. I had no reason to live, but I was not brave enough to die” (p.733).
- Victim-blaming is ubiquitous in contemporary rape culture and features heavily in both men’s experiences. The Man laments that “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (v.42) thus making a direct link between his own actions and subsequent suffering. Jamie’s abuser asks him “How could [Claire] ever forgive you?”; suggesting that Jamie’s rape was something he had done, rather than something done to him, and should therefore be accountable for.
These themes, which are often overlooked in the biblical text, are brought into sharp relief as we view the experiences of the suffering Man alongside those of Jamie Fraser. Although I cannot claim that the author(s) of Lamentations 3 intended to portray the suffering Man’s experience as that of male rape, an analysis of this lament, read intertextually alongside Jamie Fraser’s own narrative, affirms that such a reading is possible. For these two texts share a number of allusions to gendered violence that invites us to at least consider the suffering Man’s experiences in light of male rape.
The possibility that Lamentations 3 gives voice to the experiences of a male rape victim is rarely entertained by interpreters of this text. This may be due, in part at least, to the veil of silence that so often shrouds this particular form of gender violence in both public discourses and popular culture.
In contrast, it is as though female rape has become “enduring and inevitable” within dominant discourses of gender and sexuality, contributing to what Roxanne Gay describes as a “cultural numbness” around female sexual violence (just think of the many instances of female rape in television shows such as Game of Thrones – and even Outlander!) On the contrary, people are less able to cope with (as in Outlander) or even recognize (as with Lamentations 3) any narrative of rape that fails to comply with these dominant discourses, including male rape.
The result is an overwhelming elision of gender violence from our cultural consciousness, either because it is simply “expected” (in the case of female rape) or, conversely, it is deemed too unexpected, or shocking (as with male rape).
This, then, is why the depiction of male rape in Outlander is so important – it refuses to elide or deny the perpetuation of such violence within contemporary rape cultures; moreover, this too is why we need to consider the possibility of male rape in Lamentations 3. For both texts remind us of the violent and brutal reality of sexual violence perpetrated against men; these texts also bear powerful witness to the trauma felt by male victims in the aftermath of their assault, as they face the ongoing battle of re-traumatization.
Finally, these two intertexts also offer a sense of hope that survival after rape is possible – it may be lengthy and difficult, but it is possible nonetheless. After “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” were aired, over two hundred viewers (not just men) posted messages on Gabaldon’s Facebook page, grateful for the overarching message of the episodes: that, despite the uncompromising brutality and torture Jamie had endured, they were left with “hope, catharsis and a sense that healing was possible” for survivors of rape.
If Claire stands as the one bringing healing to Jamie, through listening to him, believing him, and refusing to let him blame himself for his rape, perhaps we can perform this same role for the Man of Lamentations, and for all survivors of sexual violence.
Emma Nagouse is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) researching the phenomenon of rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society. Emma’s research focuses around how biblical and contemporary intersectional gender presentation facilitates rape and disbelief culture through reaffirming oppressive stereotypes and informing perceptions of rape gradations. Emma is Assistant Editor of the University of Sheffield History Matters blog and co-organiser of the Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA).
Image: Outlander [via Flickr]