Nerds Discuss: Racial Representation in Outlander S3

We are in the midst of a Droughtlander, and for us here at The Nerd League, that means it’s time for reflection on what we love and hate about Outlander. To that end, there will be monthly instalments about all things Sassenach, from listicles to critical essays to rankings. All until Season 4 begins.

And to start this series with a bang, we will begin by discussing one of the many issues and controversies surrounding the third season: racial representation in Outlander. We’re talking the broader lack of diversity and the effect this has had on the show.

Previous PoC in Outlander had stood out for their absence, with the exception of a background character or two. But Outlander’s third season has finally brought more diversity to the genre-crossing series through the introduction of new characters and…well, the change of locale. However, if this inclusion was successful or not is up for debate.

Racial Representation in Outlander S3

[There are spoilers ahead for the third season of Outlander, and Beka is going to try her best to be as vague as possible about all things books-related.]

Joe Abernathy

nerd league Racial Representation in Outlander season 3 joe abernathy poc discussion

© Starz

Maria’s POV 

Now, I want to start off by saying that I expected the third season of Outlander to do better by its characters than the book had done. While I have not read the entirety of Voyager, I have read enough to know that, while Diana Gabaldon did give us characters of color, she didn’t exactly do it in a way that was politically correct.

But out of all the characters that we will be mentioning, Joe is perhaps the one that stands out the most in the book: despite the discrimination he faced as a black man, he was still able to attend medical school at a prestigious university, graduate and become a surgeon in the 1950s US.

I was heartbroken to find how much of Joe’s story was cut from the show (which adds to the constant issue of Season 3’s awkward adaptation of Claire during the 20-year time jump). We did not see these two characters join together as allies in a field dominated by white men. We were never told why Joe called her “Lady Jane.” And what’s worse: the romance novels they ironically read never make an appearance.

But I also wanted the show to do better by Joe. I think the fact that Outlander never mentions the topic of the Civil Rights Movement, with a character like Joe living in this precise time, is unforgivable. I think this is also unforgivable of Gabaldon, of course. At the end of the day, Joe is not the protagonist.

Now, I do understand the show was already trying to fit a lot of information into limited screentime. Yet, considering that a few episodes later Outlander would find itself on a slave market in Jamaica, I think it is twice as unforgivable that the showrunners did not think to critically address race and racism. As the wonderful Mrs. Fitz once put it, “a bit…well… more.”

Beka’s POV

I agree with all of this, Maria. And to your point, I think Joe is the character who got the shortest shrift in the adaptation process. In the books (because *highlight for spoiler* Joe should be returning next season) Joe is Claire’s needed BFF. He also serves as a comedic foil, the best advice giver, and watches out for Bree and her well being. Incidentally, in the book, Frank accuses Claire of cheating on him with Joe, and says some racist things that were, of course, expunged from the adaptation.

Which brings me to a larger issue. I get it, adaptation is hard. And I’m not going to claim to be an expert in it, but I feel that in the current moment, it does the story an incredible disservice to not give the few PoC characters that exist within the Outlander universe to be fully sketched out.

On the pages of Voyager, Joe is a fully fleshed-out character. On screen, he barely existed. And then, as Maria writes, there’s no discussion on the racial politics of the 1950s/60s United States. And honestly, while it’s not great for a novel published in 1993, it’s almost unforgivable for a show produced in 2017.

Yi Tien Cho

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© Starz

Maria’s POV

Part of the reason why I expected more from Joe is because Outlander did show us the writers were capable of identifying and correcting problematic elements of the book. I’m talking here about the adaptation/salvation of Yi Tien Cho (aka Mr.Willoughby). This, of course, may be due to the fact that the book’s Yi Tien Cho had received quite a lot of criticism for being a caricature of Chinese stereotypes. In many ways, Yi Tien Cho remains the same character: a poet exiled from China because he didn’t want to become a eunuch, loves women a lot, and Jamie’s business partner.

But what in the book was disdainful, violent and rude, became sweet and noble on screen. Also, he’s a  major slap in the face to everyone that says “OH, BUT IT’S NOT HISTORICALLY ACCURATE TO HAVE BLACK/ASIAN/INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN THIS” as if transcontinental travel was only possible in the 20th century, or any more impossible than travelling 200 years in the past.

Beka’s POV 

Honestly, this was a case where I knew it could only get better. Yi Tien Cho (or Mr. Willoughby) has a storyline in the book that is legitimately the worst. It’s stereotyped, racist, and pretty gross. On the show, though, the writers and the actor who portrays Yi Tien Cho (Gary Young) created a character that had significantly more nuance and depth than his book counterpart, allowing for him a happier ending than what we see of him in the book. He is Claire’s friend, and she treats him as such (though Jamie not so much) including calling him by his preferred name. Part of this is how times have changed, thank goodness, and that audiences today would be straight up horrified by the caricature that he is in Voyager.

To Maria’s point, it makes sense that Yi Tien Cho exists in the world of Outlander because PEOPLE LIKE HIM EXISTED IN SCOTLAND in this period. Something that frustrates me during most period dramas, time travel or otherwise, is the presumed whitewashing and the assumption that spaces are always white. Yi Tien Cho is a small step in the right direction, but a step nevertheless. Which is much more than I can really say about other aspects of the racial representation in Outlander Season 3.

The Jamaican Slaves

nerd league Racial Representation in Outlander season 3 african slaves jamaica poc discussion

© Starz

Maria’s POV

In the last episode of Season 3, Claire and Jamie accidentally crash a slave ceremony. The slaves are all dancing in a pattern that Claire quickly associates with the dance of the Druids in Craigh na Dun. However, this scene turns nasty real quick. As Claire and Jamie begin to understand that their daughter is in danger, the slaves begin to drink the blood of a chicken. This act is promptly followed by the murder of a white character.

Now, for the sake of this being a fantasy show about time-travel, I can suspend all expectations of historical accuracy. But I can hold the story accountable for being consistent within its own universe. Why is there killing in the ritual of the African diaspora and not in the Celtic one? Of course, the only explanation an audience member could have for that would be that the rituals of the slaves were far more barbaric, violent, and quite literally bloodthirsty than the Scottish ones. And I personally don’t think one needs to be an expert on critical race theory to know how incredibly racist that statement is.

Beka’s POV

You are way more willing to suspend disbelief about historical accuracy than I am, Maria. The show prides itself on being historically accurate, with the production team making sure that each set and costume that the audience sees is as faithful to its time as it can be. So, it makes me want to scream that as the show headed to Jamaica, there were two scenes that show enslaved people in Jamaica. There was the market scene, which was accurate to a degree (though both Maria and I disagree that any slave would have just been freed without a letter of manumission) and the ceremony scene.

I can’t claim to be an expert of ceremonies of enslaved peoples in the Caribbean in the late 18th century, but the ceremony scene, to be frank without that expertise, was horrific. Drawing the connection to the Druid ritual from the beginning of the series is fine, but there is no question that we, the audience, are supposed to see this as strange and foreign, and concerned about the safety of our protagonists in a way that we were not back in Season 1. That is clearly racially coded.

Adding in the drinking of chicken blood and the murder-as-sacrifice of a character goes way beyond what was necessary for driving the story forward. To have a scene where the majority of characters are of color and then paint them as barbaric is frustrating as hell. Especially when it comes to the historical conditions of enslaved people in the Caribbean, where some of the most horrific acts of cruelty and suppression were practiced upon the enslaved populations by their white masters.

The immense problem of slave-owning  time travelers:

nerd league Racial Representation in Outlander season 3 african slaves jamaica Temeraire poc discussion

© Starz

Maria’s POV

A lot of cool things can happen by virtue of time travel: Claire and Jamie having sex, someone from the future witnessing major historical events, and Claire and Jamie having more sex. Unfortunately, a lot of un-cool things can happen by virtue of time travel. In Season 3, we get to one of the most nauseating instances: Claire and Geillis, women of the 20th century, becoming slave owners.

Of course, the circumstances for Claire are very specific. She unintentionally becomes the owner of the slave Temeraire and she is appropriately horrified and uncomfortable. Claire and Jamie both agree that they have to free him, but Jamie claims that they can’t do it in Kingston because he would be recaptured, ignoring the fact that the manumission of slaves was a thing.

The reason this doesn’t simply happen in the show is for #theplot. I think the main issue here is that the writers did not have the forethought to think that owning a slave was something far too meaningful in the context of Claire’s century-hopping life but ultimately irrelevant for the larger plot of show and season. This is one of the parts of the book that needed to either be cut in adaptation or explored further.

And if Claire’s unintentional slave owning is not the best, then I can’t even begin to talk about Geillis’. We do not see Geillis becoming the owner of a plantation, so we can give her a bit of “benefit of the doubt.” But Geillis still remains a ‘radical’ woman from the 1960s that became a Caribbean plantation owner and who invested quite a lot of resources in the transatlantic slave trade as either the owner/patron of a slaving ship.

My final project for my undergraduate history degree was about the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Part of the research I did was related to the philosophical process by which white Europeans (Spanish, in the case of my research) justified the enslavement of black Africans. This essentially consisted in creating and justifying the belief that slavery was the natural and appropriate state of black Africans.

By having Geillis be a slave owner, the show and book are telling us that this woman, who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the UK (where slavery was abolished in 1833), would not only happily live in a society where this belief is the status quo, but would actively be one of the people to uphold it.

While I can certainly believe that she would be prejudiced or racist, I don’t think the true horror of this reality is really dealt with in the show. This is perhaps the main reason why I find Geillis incredibly despicable. And let’s assume that I’m wrong: that the story is trying to imply that despite being from the 20th century, Geillis is still more than comfortable with upholding the belief that people of a certain skin tone were intended to be slaves. If this is the case, then this is most definitely an element of the story that SHOULD NOT BE BRUSHED OVER.

Beka’s POV

I don’t have much to add, Maria, except to say that as our protagonists continue to adventure in the British colonies in the New World, they are going to be confronted with slaves. The story of Temeraire is a little different in the book, and a character scrapped from the adaptation from book to screen eases the negotiation of Claire-as-slave-owner in a bonkers way, but it also means Temeraire comes back during the ritual ceremony scene.

Geillis is also her own can of worms, and while the argument could be made that Geillis is essentially just trying to survive in her new environment, it is messed up that she seems totally cool with owning other human beings. Claire and Jamie have their qualms and are opposed, but also somewhat act as white saviors within the storyline, denying agency and acting as if freedom is something for them to bestow rather than a basic human right.

Where it stems from: a lack of diversity in the room

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Maria’s POV

I honestly believe all of this was due to a lack of voices of color in the writing room. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the writers needed to incorporate new, more diverse writers (I mean they should…just not exclusively because of this).  I am, of course, only assuming here, but I think that the reason behind the show’s portrayals of characters of color came from a desire to avoid discussions of race and racism in the story.  

I believe that any neglect Show!Joe suffered from his writers had more to do with time than anything else. However, it is important to note how his being a man of color is never discussed on screen, even when it was a fundamental reason why he and Claire became med school besties. But, when the show landed in Jamaica, we see that Claire is horrified by slavery and that Jamie that understands it as something of his time that is meant to die.  Yet as humane and forward-thinking as the Frasers might be, the show still presents slaves as either completely disenfranchised individuals rescued by white saviors or as creepy evil savages.

Now, this is content that is coming from the book, just as Yi Tien Cho’s original character. But why did one change and the other not? It seems to me that several conversations were skipped in the writers’ room regarding race and how to it in the show. For Jamaica, they needed to talk about how to represent individuals under slavery in a way that was both accurate but not dismissive, condescending, or offensive. That conversation was not needed for Yi Tien Cho because every single article written about him before Season 3 aired began with the words “controversial character.”

I think the writers were reluctant to question racial aspects of the story beyond what was being already vocally criticized by fans. And I’m confident that a more diverse writers table would have done away with that reluctance.

Beka’s POV

I think that there is a fundamental disconnect when it comes to the adaptation of characters of color within Outlander. I am not going to speculate on the current writers’ room, but all of the writers and directors for Season 3 were white. There should have been a discussion, as you say Maria, of how slavery was going to be handled, not just as a narrative device, but a real part of the world they are portraying on screen. Claire is horrified, sure, but did that stop her or Jamie from playing the hero part? No. There is a more nuanced approach to race that can be done (i.e. Yi Tien Cho) but the effort has to be made.

And I understand the impulse to keep the story focused on Jamie and Claire, but they are directly interacting with this giant system of enslaved peoples, and they will be continuing to do so. And the best, and perhaps only way of ensuring that narratives of characters of color have the necessary nuance is to have people of color in the production, from the directors to the writers, in all aspects of production, which should be a no-brainer.

What comes next

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Maria’s POV

Now, even those fans that have not read the book have been able to put two and two together: In the next season, Claire and Jamie will be settling in colonial North America, and will continue to interact with characters of color because #colonialism.  Season 4 has most likely been written at this point, but going forward, I believe that the writers need to listen to and incorporate diverse voices. At the very least, they should be more conscientious about their representation of  PoC.

Beka’s POV

I’m nervous, I’m not going to lie. The only bright spot regarding racial representation in Outlander‘s latest season was Yi Tien Cho, which was an essential change from the source text, and now we’re heading to the North American colonies. (Highlight for mild *spoiler* for Drums of Autumn (aka Season 4): There’s not only a significant number of enslaved characters joining the cast but there will be many a subplot involving Native populations within the United States as well. And what adds to this nervousness is the casting announcement of one of the enslaved characters, one that referred to him as a servant, which is categorically untrue unless they’ve significantly changed that plot.

And yet, I have to hope, in the end. Maybe these stories will be told with nuance, as the stories of sexual violence and assault on Outlander. We will just have to wait and see.

#Droughtlander continues, but Maria and Beka are dedicated to providing some content to tide us all over. Come back soon for some rankings, ravings, and discussions of what it means to be a good historian, and why Frank Randall isn’t one.

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