Jen- The Spanking

We just watched Episode 109! Live chat will be up tomorrow.

I’ve been ruminating on my post for this episode for a while. The Scene. The Spankening.

I consider myself to be a pretty serious feminist. I took a bunch of gender studies classes in college and was thinking about going for a master’s degree in it (instead opting for the much more lucrative field of library science, ha ha). I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about feminist stuff. So when I see someone deriding the “knee-jerk feminism of very young women” my ire is already up.

Here is what Diana had to say about the scene and the anticipated reaction:

    What sort of reaction do you think that that will get from viewers?

    There will undoubtedly be a certain amount of knee-jerk feminism from very young women. Anybody over the age of thirty-five will appreciate both the cultural conflict in that scene—it’s one of my favorite scenes, in fact, because each person in it is completely right according to his or her own view of the situation, and yet, in this untenable situation, they aren’t both going to get their way. When push comes to shove, he outweighs her by eighty pounds. Most people, as I say, above a certain age will appreciate it for the inherent ironies and also for the considerable humor in the situation.

    In terms of feminism generally, what sort of relationship would you say you have with feminism? Would you describe yourself as a feminist? What do you think about that?

    No, I wouldn’t describe myself as that, but I try to avoid describing myself by any sort of label, so to speak. I’m a Roman Catholic and a Libertarian, but that’s as far as I’d go in description. No, I can’t help but be a de facto feminist merely by virtue of when I was born and what I do for a living. But that does not mean that I’m agenda-driven, let’s say. I sort of think agendas are detrimental to art.

    Link to full interview (warning: spoilers for kind of the entire series in the interview)

Now, I don’t worship at the shrine of Gabaldon; I often find what she says in panels and in interviews messy, contact embarrassing, and cringe-inducing. I appreciate her storytelling skills, and I appreciate the handful of really interesting characters she has written about (but there are like dozens of boring characters and at least one really terribly racist stereotype character…), but I’m not willing to give her a pass on problematic stuff just because I love Jamie and Claire.

I think it’s disrespectful to cavalierly dismiss people’s feelings and reactions to a domestic violence scene because that reaction doesn’t fit in the author’s worldview. Just because you don’t share the feeling doesn’t make it less valid. I totally get that some people are offended and disgusted by the spanking scene. Dismissing and mocking genuine personal reactions to an upsetting scene rubs me the wrong way.

My own feelings about the spanking- well, I was really young when I read the book and didn’t question it or react strongly to it one way or the other. At the time I first read this, my favorite book couples were Heathcliff & Cathy and Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler, so it’s not like my reading tastes have ever been unproblematic. I’m over 35 now, and I don’t find any humor in it the scene at all, despite D. Gab’s assertions above. It doesn’t personally offend me because I suppose I have read it in the historic context where life basically sucked for women most of the time, and I’m willing to look past it to the character development arc beyond. But I can understand where people are coming from when they object and say that regardless of the historical context, an author writing from today’s point of view could choose to not write a scene like that, and I can understand the valid argument that this authorial choice is questionable. Sure, it’s historical fiction, but it is a time travel fantasy novel, time travel is made up and doesn’t exist, and an author makes active choices about the scenes they choose to include in their work. I find it disingenuous when authors claim that they have no control over what they write, and Gabaldon has always played the “I didn’t do it, the characters have thoughts/lives of their own, I am just a vessel of ink that writes everything down” card. Some of the wording in the book during this scene is also just clumsy, like, I don’t think she intended to convey the level of brutality and violence that the line “he beat me within an inch of my life” brings to mind. I also think the historical romance writing context of late 1980s is also a factor- tropes in books were different back then. This book was written a couple of decades ago, tastes and opinions have changed markedly since then.

I also do think it’s possible to view the scene through the lens of Jamie’s character development. This is what he knows, this is his culture and his time period. This scene eventually leads to Jamie describing his upbringing to Claire, which helps to ground her a little more in the reality of living in the past (and, arguably, grounds the reader in this as well), and leads to him learning, growing, and adapting to Claire’s worldview. Now, could we have gotten to those points another way? Yeah, I think so. But I can squint and see the authorial intent there.

So, can a feminist reconcile herself to enjoying the book and the episode despite finding the spanking morally reprehensible for both the characters and the author? Well, I think it really comes down to every viewer/reader’s personal thoughts and feelings. I feel comfortable giving the spanking an eyebrow and wishing for a more tasteful turn of plot (if only so it wouldn’t turn off potential fans who can’t get past it), but ultimately it does not drag down my overall enjoyment of the book/show/series.

Can a fan, feminist, and general person find it disrespectful and obnoxious when the author dismisses “knee-jerk feminists”? Hells yeah.

In the show, I think they actually handled the scene decently enough. I think portraying the whole episode from Jamie’s point of view made it more palatable, and it felt like they moved through it pretty quickly, where in the book it’s a really long, drawn-out scene. It was conveyed more sensitively in the show than in the book. Wow, this was a dissertation. I will have more thoughts on the whole episode later this week!


2 thoughts on “Jen- The Spanking

  1. Jen, thanks for taking a run at a difficult subject. I agree with you in general.

    What moved me to comment, though, is the remarks you made about Diana Gabaldon. You took the words out of my mouth. I have two issues with her, and the parts of the interview you quoted hit both of them:

    First, a successful woman is foolish if she doesn’t embrace the term “feminism”. A feminist is someone who believes that men and women should have equal rights. Is DG saying she doesn’t think she should earn as much as men colleagues? Does she want to give up her right to vote? I’d be surprised to hear her say that. Women who reject the feminist label are surrendering our term of professional and political empowerment to the Rush Limbaughs of the world who’d make feminism a dirty word.

    Second, DG is among the worst offenders among authors who are afraid to let their books stand on their own merits. She seems compelled to explain and excuse her work. And she should just stop. Once a book is published, the author’s opinion is no more valid than a reader’s opinion. By commenting so frequently and at such length DG fosters the notion that we should be more concerned with her opinions than our own reactions. And that’s dangerous stuff.

    Again, thanks for the early and thoughtful post.


  2. Thanks! That interview in particular really got to me. I completely agree with your thoughts! It really bugs me that feminism has become a dirty word, especially among women. Like, powerful men fed everyone the idea that feminism equals man-hating, and then tons of women got on board that train? That is one of the reasons why feminism is still so important!

    I’m with you on letting the books stand on their own merits, too. I really wish she would at least stop belittling people who don’t approach her work from her viewpoint, because it really turns some people off of the books/show who might otherwise become fans. It seems like it’s inconceivable to her that people with different life experiences pull different meanings from her work, and she thinks anyone who doesn’t completely agree with her is wrong. In a way, that is having an agenda in her art, despite what she says at the end of that interview clip.


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