Timeless, Outlander and the unruly women who get labeled as witches

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May 16, 2018, 7:05 PM EDT

What comes to mind when you think of witches? There’s obviously the more well-known symbols that tend to crop up in October—a long dress, a pointy hat, and the oft-used mode of transportation, the broomstick—but over time, what we describe as particularly witchy has become more nuanced and less reliant on those surface-level identifiers. More often than not, modern witches come by the name of their own choosing—and what a witch looks like today is as varied an expression as anything else.

Looking back on history, though, we’re now uncovering that those who were labeled as witches didn’t necessarily earn it as a result of performing spells or casting curses on their enemies. They were called witches because they refused to follow the rules, because they were unruly women, and because society didn’t know how to reconcile with the desires of the unconventional. 

Nowhere is that more apparent in fiction lately than in two genre shows about women who travel to the past—and the consequences they face for behaving improperly. Both Timeless’s Lucy and Outlander’s Claire are modern women out of time, women who are suddenly thrust into a world centuries earlier than their own. For Lucy, at least, the time travel aspect is intentional. She’s accepted her role as part of the team tasked with maintaining the balance of important historical events. Claire, meanwhile, doesn’t have any choice in the matter—at least initially within the show’s first season. But the quality that links both of these characters is their refusal to act passively while the women of the era they find themselves in are unfairly oppressed, and the price they often pay for speaking out.

In Outlander, Claire faces accusations of witchcraft early on, most of them a result of her ability to administer invaluable medical treatment in a time when most remedies were insufficient and ultimately futile. As a nurse (and later, doctor) from the 20th century, Claire’s skills are somewhat hindered by the limitations of 18th-century Scotland, but even with what she has access to, more often than not, she's able to save lives—and this, eventually, rouses suspicion, not just from the extremely dogmatic Father Bain but a woman named Laoghaire, whose jealousy over Claire’s burgeoning relationship with Jamie Fraser prompts her to eventually accuse Claire of witchcraft. In the Season 1 episode “The Devil’s Mark,” Claire is forced to stand trial, though an intervening rescue from Jamie and a confession from Geillis Duncan (a woman who is revealed to be another time-traveler) both exonerate her from the charges. 

In later seasons, however, Claire has come to accept the witchy label that’s been hurled in her direction—and even to wield it herself, when the situation calls. Season 2 sees several characters referring to her as “La Dame Blanche,” or the White Witch, a moniker which has historically differentiated those witches who intend to use their powers for good. Given that she devotes herself to healing others to seemingly miraculous results, it’s not surprising that her reputation would eventually evolve into someone who practices “white magic”—even if all she’s really using is her advanced knowledge of medicine. When other characters refer to Claire as “La Dame Blanche” now, it’s a name that’s uttered with more reverence than fear, more respect than apprehension. While Claire initially bristles at the title, she eventually learns to embrace it to her advantage.

On this season of Timeless, Lucy has had to reconcile her modern ideologies with her knowledge of regressive history—especially as it pertains to the treatment of women. In episodes like “The Salem Witch Hunt” and the more recent “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” women’s rights are front and center. When the Time Team travels to 17th-century Salem, both Lucy and Rufus wind up arrested after Lucy’s mother Carol (a member of the secret organization Rittenhouse) names her a witch, but as Lucy begins to speak to her fellow women-in-chains we learn that they’re only guilty of one thing: marching to the beat of their own drummer. “You’re not like the other women, and that makes people uncomfortable,” Lucy says, later adding that she feels honored to be among them. Whether it's because of their outspokenness or their strangeness, it’s ultimately their refusal to change that leads to the accusations leveraged against them—because women who are too different are too dangerous. 

It’s a sobering scene, especially because history reminds us that the end result for many of the women and men accused wasn’t freedom. Presented with a choice of either making a false confession or execution, many chose to die by hanging rather than admit to something they weren’t actually guilty of. The events of the Salem witch trials have often been referred to as an end result of mass hysteria, or religious frenzy, but regardless of the root cause, the common denominator for the individuals who suffered most was that their inability to conform was conflated with witches and the superstitions swirling around them.

The accusation of witchcraft against women is a thread that has persisted throughout time, from the Book of Exodus in the Bible (“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) to the modern women of rural China. These days, at least, women wear the mantle of "witch" more proudly than their ancestors, embracing the image for what it represents in today’s society: self-sufficiency, independence, and most importantly, power. As Timeless and Outlander have taught us, when we call a woman a witch it’s not an insult anymore, it’s a badge of honor.

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