Representing Sexual Abuse in Outlander and Spotlight
I spent this weekend in 1740’s Scotland and 2000’s Boston thanks to Starz’s Outlander and Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. These are two very different (excellent) stories depicting two very different times, but they overlap on one key element: they both contain stories of rape and molestation committed by men, on men (or boys). Here’s my attempt to work out how those representations worked, and what they might mean.
Outlander’s male protagonist is the strapping, fearless Scottish Jacobite soldier Jamie Fraser who is married to Claire, a time-traveling combat nurse pulled back to 1743 from 1945 (forgive the premise; it’s actually great). Jamie’s dealings with the Scottish rebellion from the British has left a price on his head, and when he is captured and sent to prison close to the end of the first season, Claire musters up some comrades and cattle (yes, cattle) to break Jamie out before he is hanged. However, it’s not Claire who gets to him first but rather the show’s villain, “Black” Jack Randall, a redcoat gone rogue who has a perverse obsession with Jamie. How perverse? Let’s just say that movie blood hardly ever makes me squeamish, but Black Jack’s brutal flogging — 100 lashes — of Jamie midway through the season made me yelp in protest despite being alone in my apartment.
Black Jack’s goal is not just to torture Jamie. He wants to break him. Tobias Menzies, who plays Randall, has said that he thinks Randall is an exercise in sadism and that some viewers reckon Randall loves him, and he plays the character with just enough empathy for the viewer to feel horror and pity in equal measure. I won’t go into all the details, but Black Jack breaks Jamie down not only by raping him but by inflicting so much shame against his masculinity, sexuality, and love for Claire that he is left staring, unmoving, wishing for death. And we see it all.
Spotlight, on the other hand, relies on testimony by victims of Boston’s priest abuse scandal to represent male sexual abuse. What starts as a seemingly regional story based on a single priest and a few hush-hush settlements begins to spiral as more leads point to a city- and even country-wide scandal. It’s as if all of Boston had been muzzled for decades by the Catholic Church; the abuse was rampant, everyone knew, and no one could speak up. Shame and silencing were everywhere. We don’t see reenactments of these crimes but rather feel their gravity thanks their simple multitude. Numbers speak loudly here — 13 priests becomes 90 becomes 250 — and the breaking down of a few survivors as the film employs them to recount what happened to them as boys is more than enough. We feel those broken spirits multiply as we see the names and addresses of the priests tally up.
Both stories examine what it means to be a victim just as much as they examine what it means to be a predator, especially when those victims are male. For some reason, watching Randall rape Jamie made me more uncomfortable than watching him attempt to rape Claire, which he does earlier in the season. Maybe it’s because I have seen rapes against women on screen before. Heck, SVU is dedicated almost entirely to this phenomenon. Yet I think it’s because seeing an ultra-masculine man who builds his manhood on his strength being broken down into helplessness was as tragic as the thought of pedophile priests singling out boys from poor families with absent fathers. The victims are different but their pain is the same. It’s that of the predators boring shame so deeply into their souls that silence is their only companion. Especially when those predators have incredibly unshakable systems of power to shelter them from justice (the priests were simply sent elsewhere; Black Jack’s got Britain propping him up by his Redcoat).
What resonates most with me when comparing these stories is that we can’t and shouldn’t qualify shame by degree, and that watching a depiction of abuse is just as powerful as not seeing it. We tend to think of masculinity as synonymous with resiliency, as if men should be unbreakable. And if they are broken, their pain must be suffered in silence, lest they betray weakness or invoke systemic abuse. So whether or not a film or TV show chooses to physically show an instance of male sexual abuse, it’s so incredibly moving and sad and important to infuse the subject matter with vulnerability and to show the power dynamics at play. In Spotlight, the Boston Globe must go after the Church and not the individual priests to make the magnitude of the scandal resonate, and that’s what stories about male sexual abuse should do too, if they are approached well; they should go after the system. They can expose the cracks in the power structures that keep hegemonic masculinity afloat by emphasizing the importance of speaking up and being vulnerable. I’m not saying that every show should undertake a rape scene, but rather I am happy that these two stories were able to humanize and empathize with victims while simultaneously exposing the cowardice of the people in power to keep such atrocities under wraps.