The past month has changed my mind about many things. I feel differently about video calls. I have a new opinion on people who brag about sourdough starters. I’ve also changed my mind on screen time for kids, yoga, Animal Crossing, what constitutes “being productive,” how much I care about the inside of celebrities’ homes, and my standards as a parent. I was prepared for many changes in the middle of a global pandemic. But I was not prepared for the novel coronavirus to change one of my least important but most strongly held beliefs: that the protagonist of Outlander is kind of a ninny.
The world is different now. I am different now. And suddenly, for the first time, I think maybe Claire from Outlander has a point.
Starz’s Outlander, adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s series of novels, has always had a lot to recommend it. There’s the female gaze of its sex scenes, its particular attention to experiences including birth and breastfeeding, the comforting domesticity of its focus on gardening, homesteading, candle-making, and fence-building. There’s knitwear. There are the very attractive leads, who resolutely resist aging in any kind of realistic way given how much time is supposed to have passed on the show. Outlander also has some significant detractions, especially how often it relies on rape as a mechanism to make something interesting happen to its characters. For me, though, the most minor-yet-obnoxious thing about the show has always been Claire Fraser’s persistent inability to read the room.
Fraser begins the show as a nurse who trained during World War II, who’s shuttled back hundreds of years to 18th-century Scotland. At that point she’s still Claire Randall, married to her 20th-century husband (sort of?) and trying to survive in a social system that finds most of her behavior highly suspicious. She doesn’t know any of the norms, and keeps speaking out rather than meekly holding her opinion to herself. She scoffs at their superstitions. She does basically anything and everything she can to make them assume she’s a witch, especially when it comes to exercising basic 20th-century medical knowledge.
It doesn’t always go badly for Claire. Occasionally her medical knowledge makes her indispensable to those in power, especially when she’s able to help some of the higher-up Fraser lairds with their own ailments. But she just cannot keep her modern ideas to herself, like, for instance, that there are no such things as fairy changeling babies. Eventually, inevitably, Claire gets accused of being a witch and is nearly burned at the stake.
I can understand that Claire couldn’t just leave a defenseless infant in the woods, even knowing that none of her new 18th-century friends would get it. The thing is, though, Claire never learns. Season after season she refuses to get with the times for the sake of her own survival, perpetually alarming people with her expertise as a woman doctor and accusing her neighbors of murder when they insist on addressing medical problems with bloodletting and treatment with mercury.
Some of the more extreme examples of Claire’s medical meddling make sense. Obviously when her friends and her own family get hurt, she does everything she can to help them. This season, Claire’s been hard at work growing endless varieties of bread mold so she can reinvent penicillin, and although that sounds like a futile experiment to me, as long as she keeps it to herself, there’s no harm done.
Except, Claire being Claire, she does not keep it to herself. She continues to perform autopsies on her deceased neighbors, even though she’s once again alienating her suspicious new friends — and even though it’s pretty clear how these people died! Claire’s also distributing pamphlets full of medical advice as a doctor, under a pseudonym, including everything from good hygiene to how to avoid getting pregnant. The pamphlets get written up in a newspaper, and at parties Claire can overhear women whispering about the rhythm method. Gee, I cannot imagine how this could go badly!
This behavior has frustrated me for years. How can Claire not recognize the world she’s living in? Why wouldn’t she tone down her medical ahistoricism for her own sake? It’s the 18th century. Everyone’s going to die of infections and childbirth and malnutrition. Claire can’t change everyone’s mind on her own, surely.
All of this hits me differently now. I’m newly aware of public health as a collective project that only works when everyone’s operating from the same information. I’m also suddenly aware of how much I would probably behave just like Claire does, even when I knew it violated social niceties. Along with everything else, the last month has brought home my deep capacity for barking “wash your hands!” at impolite-but-crucial moments, and also my inability to sit on my hands when I see health misinformation floating around. In the 18th century, Claire has the women’s gossip circles. In the 21st century, I have parent Facebook groups. Neither of us can keep our feelings to ourselves about, say, the efficacy of essential oils.
I’m also newly charged up by Claire’s righteous fury. She’s right! She’s not less right because she’s in a century where everyone’s superstitious about their bodily humours or whatever! Wake up, sheeple! Flatten the typhoid curve!
There are still plenty of Outlander things for me to be mad about. There’s the reliance on rape plots in particular, and the show’s continuing confidence that I have any interest in battle scenes or political machinations. Claire’s rightness about medical knowledge doesn’t change how goofy it is that there are apparently only 20-ish people in the entire world, or how silly it is that the Frasers keep running into them so often, regardless how many hundreds of miles they travel. For this one thing, though, I am willing to admit I was wrong. Claire Fraser is a public-health hero just trying to do her best in an upside-down world. My heart goes out to her.