Sadism and Homosexuality on TV

So I was watching Outlander’s first season finale last Sunday (don’t laugh, New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum recommends it), enjoying its general gender bending approach to the fantasy genre, when I realized “Houston, we have a problem.”

The show’s supervillain? The one who gets off on torture and rape? He specifically gets off on men. Well, I thought that cliché was long since played out: the evil one is gay.

Outlander, a “mainstream-ish” show from Starz, is about Claire (Catriona Baelfe), a World War II combat nurse who accidentally travels back in time to 19th century Scotland. She falls in love with Jamie Fraiser (Sam Heughan), a Scottish warrior, and decides to stay and adapt to life there.

Sure, the show has the plot of a bodice-ripping Harlequin romance,  but at the same time it’s turning around the general gendered approach found on TV. Which can pretty much be summed up thusly: male hero carrying the story, women there as plot device.

Claire is the classic hero. Like men, she’s allowed to be a flawed lead: a strong woman who makes mistakes, which is not something the show punishes her for. She’s also constantly depicted as wanting and enjoying sex. (Which is new).

As I mentioned in the beginning though, this supposedly sexually liberated show has its flaws.

First, there is only one homosexual character, Jack Randall (played by Tobias Menzies), known on the show as the brutal Black Jack. Sure, there are shows, like The Vampire Diaries or Breaking Bad, that don’t feature homosexuality at all. But from Outlander, a show that has such a modern approach towards depicting female sexuality, I was expecting better. Second, Black Jack is pretty much the worst sadist in the world. Rape, torture, flogging are just some of the things that get him going.

Black Jack Randall

That, combined, these things are problematic was, eh, hammered home last Sunday, when Black Jack’s constant infatuation  with Claire’s definitely heterosexual husband Jamie (though who can blame him) culminated in a horribly awful to watch season finale wherein Black Jack rapes and tortures Jamie. It was gratuitously and graphically portrayed.

Such a violent episode is painful to watch, no matter who is in it. I covered my eyes for half the scenes, to be honest. For a 2015 sexually liberated audience this scene is painful to watch for another reason as well: having the one gay character on the show be the sadist can be construed as being downright offensive.

For a TV landscape that does not often show graphic depictions of male on male sex (not even Game of Thrones can boast an exclusive on that one)  it’s terrible to have one of the first, mainstream available, scenes of male on male sex be one that revolves around torture. Jamie, who’s about as masculine a character as one can get, is indeed broken. How? By having, in the end, sex with another man. Oops.

The show really goes there: not only does Black Jack torture Jamie physically, he breaks him psychologically. The breaking point for that? Jamie hallucinates he is with his wife. Black Jack capitalizes on that, and Jamie derives pleasure from having sex with a man.

Jamie’s response after he is recued? He wants to kill himself. Not because he was humiliated and tortured, but because he gained pleasure from having sex with Black Jack and now no longer deems himself worthy of living.

Jamie Fraser in Outlander’s season finale

Who better to comment on that than gay bloggers and TV critics TomandLorenzo. They say they experienced “a mild discomfort (as gay men) watching the only non-heterosexual in this lusty little tale turn out to be a twisted horror of a human being whose attractions wind up practically destroying a character. Yeah.”

But let me also defend Outlander’s depiction of their one male gay character here. The majority of gay characters in TV series derive their identity directly from their sexual orientation. Think of Jack, from Will&Grace, who is the culmination of male gay stereotypes. Everything he does and says ties in to his identity as a gay man.

Throughout the story Black Jack’s “love” or his “infatuation” with Jamie is the driving force of his actions. What it’s not though, is a part of his identity. He’s just a sadist. Who happens to be attracted to men. And that’s what makes this depiction of homosexuality in line with the groundbreaking tone this show has taken towards the depiction of sexuality on screen.

I will definitely watch the second season, if only to see whether this reading of Black Jack continues to hold up.

By Maria van Loosdrecht

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