by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Okay, admittedly, I mixed my movie references in the title, but I’m of the opinion that there’s always a reason to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, along with Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and often The West Wing, to name a few off the top of my head. I’m hardly going to pass up the opportunity now.
Here be spoilers about Outlander the book and the show. Proceed at your own risk.
We’re mid-way through the first block of eight episodes of Outlander on the Starz network. It’s been a marvel of a show that’s staying true to the book, often lifting lines and passages straight from its pages, while inserting new scenes and making adjustments to others for the television medium that yet fit seamlessly into the ethos of the novel. It’s been a slow build of the Life and Times of Highland Scots as seen through a displaced 2oth-century woman, but there’s been no less tension for all that as Things Are Revealed and players moved into place. It helps that the actors are flawless and compelling in their roles, from the gobsmacking perfection of Sam Heaugan and Caitriona Balfe as Jamie and Claire to the pitch-perfect secondary players of Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish), Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix).
The slow burn of Claire and Jamie’s courtship is hotter than any sexposition scene in Game of Thrones. The looks Jamie gives Claire when she’s not watching him (and sometimes when she is) could scorch down the castle. Their growing friendship is faithfully and charmingly rendered, lovely to watch unfold with subtle facial tics, loads of subtext, and tons of non-verbal goodness. It offers the rare opportunity in a TV show to see two people with extraordinary chemistry behave honorably as to their social circumstances even as they’re repeatedly drawn together and form a strong friendship based on respect and just flat-out liking one another that will be the foundation on which their tumultuous future rests.
And yet…we’re waiting on the good stuff.
That would be The Wedding, slated to happen in episode 7, followed by The Bedding, which is sweet and funny and a little sad and helluva romantic. Alas, that is soon followed by The Spanking, which is…something else altogether.
The Spanking is one of the most controversial sequences in Outlander. I know of several women who refuse to have anything to do with the series mostly because they’ve heard about The Spanking. For those of us who’ve read the novel, The Spanking hovers over every episode of the show, certainly over all of Jamie and Claire’s slow courtship. We know it’s coming, we’re waiting to see how it’s rendered with near equal anticipation of The Wedding and The Bedding. It has far-reaching implications on their relationship too, but we’ll come back to that.
Part of the appeal of the historical genre in romance is the chance to subvert the domination of and submission to the authority that existed in those periods. The bluestocking who refuses to be forced into marriage by her father. The witty, spirited ingénue who must marry the mysterious duke to save her family only to heal the wounded beast with love. The beautiful captive who steals the pirate’s mercenary heart. The feisty bookworm who charms the handsome, dissolute duke. Some of that is placing modern feminist ideals onto period plots, but I’m increasingly surprised by how often it’s more about bringing to light documented ways women asserted themselves within the confines of, say, Regency or Victorian societies. In Outlander, a “modern” woman is being submitted to the male dominance of 18th-century society and she instinctively rebels (quite forcefully and vocally) against it.
Many of the objections to The Spanking is the flat-out physical abuse of the heroine by the hero along with the patriarchal notion that a man has not only a right but a duty to chastise and punish his wife. The show (and the book) touched on this 18th-century mind-set in the first episode when Claire swears and shouts at Jamie as she bandages his bullet wound. The Highlanders, unused to such impudence from a women, chide Claire that her husband needs to take her in hand. No doubt accustomed to handling sexiest behavior from soldiers and officers in a battlefield hospital, Claire rolls her eyes and snaps for them to “mind their own bloody business.” As modern women, we cheer her response and attitude, but the point has been made that the Highlanders expect Claire’s husband to discipline her for any untoward behavior, the likes of which, to their minds, she displays on a regular basis. And Jamie is soon to become that husband.
Violence permeates Outlander like a character all on its own. This is a rough era where survival came hard and lifespans were short. It’s also a tumultuous time historically with tensions between the Scots and the English that made any untoward action possibly life-threatening. From her first arrival, Claire is exposed to a skirmish between the English soldiers and the Highlanders. The fact that Claire knows how to behave in a war zone being so recently on the front lines of World War 2 is one of the main reasons she adapts so quickly to her new environment.
Violence is in everyday life at Castle Leoch, particularly toward children and women. The boy is nailed to the pillory for theft. Laoghaire is brought before the laird to be beaten for presumed loose behavior with no more proof or witness than her disgruntled father’s word. When Jamie steps up to take her punishment, it’s not because he objects to the idea of beating a young woman–that is nothing new in his world–but because he wants to spare her pride at having it done before the crowd. Violence is the expected consequence for disobeying or rebelling, particularly (though not exclusively) for women and children.
In the novel, author Diana Gabaldon takes some pains to lay out Jamie’s reasons for spanking Claire based on actions she took that landed her, him, and the rest of the Highlanders with them in mortal danger ultimately because she disobeyed Jamie’s orders.“‘There’s such a thing as justice, Claire. You’ve done wrong to them all, and you’ll have to suffer for it.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I’m your husband; it’s my duty to attend to it, and I mean to do it.’” (Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander: with Bonus Content p. 251 Kindle Edition.)
My hackles rise just typing “Jamie’s orders” or even with the idea that a husband has any right ever to physically punish his wife. Hell, I vehemently objected to corporal punishment from my parents–being spanked enraged me. But again, this is something that has to be taken in the vein of the culture of that century. Not excused, mind you, much like we don’t excuse the abuse of black men and women during the era of slavery by recognizing it did indeed happen. Depicting such abhorrent actions in, say, Twelve Years a Slave, is no less an accurate rendition of time and place then Jamie spanking Claire for her “offenses”. No one’s approving it by reading or watching it.
In the pages and pages and pages post-spanking during which Jamie and Claire find their way through its after effects and consequences on their very new and very raw marriage, Claire’s fury and outrage boil over at the realization that her husband enjoyed it to which Jamie heartily admits guilt. The notion that he would get painfully aroused when beating her is the last straw, worse the idea she should be grateful he didn’t act on it by forcing her afterwards. On my first reading, it was at this point when I went “oh hell no”. I get the cultural mores; I may not like them, but as an historian, I get it. But for the hero to admit that Claire’s pain, resistance, and ultimate subjugation, something she clearly was in no way enjoying, got him off? Oh hell no.
Claire responds in much the same way and Jamie gives her back that which he stripped her of through the spanking: her agency. His value of and love for Claire outweigh any disciplinary power his culture and time give him over her. He takes a solemn vow never to raise his hand to Claire again and by doing so, honors her agency, the very thing he violated by spanking her, above his cultural norms. For a man of his time, this is a revolutionary declaration. To Jamie, such a vow is sacrosanct and it elevates Claire to a reverence and commitment that is given only to men of high position. Jamie refused even to give such a vow to his Uncle Colum, Laird of the Clan MacKenzie, as it would violate the one given to his own clan. So by giving it to Claire, he raises her above any loyalty or oath to his clan and family. In effect, Claire has become Jamie’s laird. But she is also his wife, his partner and equal in a way women of the 18th century did not typically enjoy.
The Spanking sequence stands in contrast to the frank and earthy sexual pleasure Claire and Jamie discover together in their marriage bed. On their wedding night, Claire introduces the inexperienced Jamie to a little rough sexual play and later, back at Castle Leoch, before Jamie leaves her for a journey, he most definitely takes those lessons to heart.
“You’re mine, mo duinne,” he said softly , pressing himself into my depths. “Mine alone, now and forever . Mine, whether ye will it or no.” I pulled against his grip, and sucked in my breath with a faint “ah” as he pressed even deeper. “Aye, I mean to use ye hard, my Sassenach,” he whispered. “I want to own you, to possess you, body and soul.” I struggled slightly and he pressed me down, hammering me, a solid, inexorable pounding that reached my womb with each stroke. “I mean to make ye call me ‘Master,’ Sassenach.” His soft voice was a threat of revenge for the agonies of the last minutes. “I mean to make you mine.” (Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 279). Kindle Edition.)
And Claire, strong, speak-her-mind, “modern” Claire who was, more often than not, the sexual aggressor in her marriage to Frank, Claire not only submits to Jamie’s rough dominance, she viscerally responds and is an active participant.
Beads of sweat ran down his face and dropped on the pillow and on my breasts. Our flesh met now with the smack of a blow that was fast crossing the edge into pain. My thighs were bruising with the repeated impact, and my wrists felt as though they would break, but his grip was inexorable. “Aye, beg me for mercy, Sassenach. Ye shallna have it, though; not yet.” His breath came hot and fast, but he showed no signs of tiring. My entire body convulsed, legs rising to wrap around him, seeking to contain the sensation. I could feel the jolt of each stroke deep in my belly, and cringed from it, even as my hips rose traitorously to welcome it. He felt my response, and redoubled his assault, pressing now on my shoulders to keep me pinned under him. There was no beginning and no end to my response, only a continuous shudder that rose to a peak with each thrust. The hammering was a question, repeated over and over in my flesh, demanding my answer. He pushed my legs flat again, and bore me down past pain and into pure sensation, over the edge of surrender. “Yes!” I cried. “Oh God, Jamie, yes!” He gripped my hair and forced my head back to meet his eyes, glowing with furious triumph. (Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander: with Bonus Content (pp 279-280). Kindle Edition.)
“Oh, aye, Sassenach,” he answered a bit ruefully. “I am your master … and you’re mine. Seems I canna possess your soul without losing my own.” (Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander: with Bonus Content p. 280). Kindle Edition.)
I don’t know how the show will present The Spanking. I hope they give it the time and consideration to make it more than just “they beat women back then, didja know?” That they show the watershed moment it was in the early days of Claire and Jamie’s marriage. But until then, at least there’s this:
Enjoy some rough play with your sexy times?
Check out the Big Book of Submission. Our own C. Margery Kempe’s short story The Rhino is between its pages. Click on the picture to learn more.
Follow Lady Smut. Spanking optional.