While Outlander is a Real Winner for Women it Totally Fails Disabled People

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis
Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Outlander is returning to the Starz Network today. It is a popular series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon. I admit I like the show. I read the books first so of course I cringe where the show deviates from the original.

The show is well made and truly entertaining. It has also been lauded for its complex portrayal of women and female sexuality. These assessments are pretty accurate though I take issue with the casting of the female lead. Jenny Trout describes her like this;

“[Caitriona] Balfe is slender, but her stomach isn’t flat and her breasts are natural. The lack of body hair is a bit disturbing, given the time period, but watching the actors together, the viewer sees two people being intimate with each other, instead of two sculpted dolls switching between acrobatic positions.”

So she not totally perfect but she is very slim, which is the standard for women on TV and in movies. In the books however, Claire is repeatedly and consistently described as curvacious. Something Balfe is decidedly not. It might have been nice for them to have diversified the bodies of their female cast but they only non thin women are either extras or characters over forty-five. So I guess it’s only a partial win for women.

The show does however completely throw disabled people under the bus. The story contains the character of Colum MacKenzie who is both disabled and the Laird. The character is in many ways a major step forward for disabled characters in television.

Colum is not a stereotype. His character is complex, his role in the story is not completely defined by his disability, though it is informed by it. He does not fall neatly into the almost universal boxes of being a saint, villain, victim or inspiration. He has both good and bad qualities and none of his character flaws or virtues are a result of his disability.

And yet despite all of that, I cringe every time he is on screen. It is extremely disappointing that the producers of this show opted to cast an able-bodied actor. Particularly because none of the usual excuses for passing over a disabled actor apply.

The character is never shown as able-bodied. There is no transition to excuse the use of cripface.

The actor Gary Lewis is not the major draw to the series and is in fact almost unrecognizable due to the hairstyles and clothing. So his star power is not required for the show to be a success.

His disability is entirely created through the use of CGI and can therefor the portrayal is not the result of acting skill.

In fact as you see in the image above, which I obtained from an episode review, the author added the word Yo in between the bowed legs to draw added attention to them. The author had this to say about the physical presentation of Colum’s disability.

“the Laird shows up at the door, surprising [Claire] with both his abrupt entrance and CGI legs. Seriously, what in the world? The special effects here are maybe a little extreme, but sure. Let’s roll with it.”

The author is presumably able-bodied as she hasn’t indicated why she would have any expertise to judge the reality of the portrayal. So by have an able-bodied actor in computer generated cripface, the show destroys its own ability to claim a realistic portrayal of disability by giving viewers the ammunition to question it.

If a disabled actor had been used, this argument would not exist. You can’t argue with the reality of a person’s actual body. rather than a picture superimposed in post production.

This is a prime example of why there needs to be actually disabled actors cast as disabled characters. Realisn cannot be achieved through imitation or computer generation. It also shows that regardless of how accurate those CGI legs were (and I’m not competent judge), they allow nondisabled people to dismiss the possibility that for someone, that this might be their real body and real lived experience.

8 thoughts on “While Outlander is a Real Winner for Women it Totally Fails Disabled People

  1. Reblogged this on An Autist Human and commented:
    Below is an excellent post by CrippledScholar on Outlander’s portrayal of the disabled Laird Colum MacKenzie (The MacKenzie) – here is a small foreword from me:

    Yes- I had these exact same feelings, all of the exact same thoughts, when it came to Colum’s disability and portrayal in TV – now I talked myself into the idea that “with current medical technology it’s possible that there aren’t all that many actors/people with bowed legs” but frankly that’s a horrific thought process on my half trying to excuse their use of an actor I KNEW wasn’t disabled (because I’ve seen him in “Not Another Happy Ending” and some other shows/movies). I was still annoyed that they used a non-disabled actor for a disabled role – but I tried to rationalize it- and I shouldn’t have- because there is NO rational reason in this day and age to NOT use a disabled actor to portray a disabled character – there’s only discriminatory excuses. Anything people come up with it is a poor rationalized excuse – but not a legitimate reason – such examples as:
    “Oh – he starts out as not disabled so we need to see the transition! So he HAS to be non disabled to portray the first part of the movie!”

    Which asserts non-disabled people are totally capable of acting disability having never been disabled but a disabled actor OBVIOUSLY couldn’t fake being abled/well – no matter how often they go about that in their daily lives because they have stuff to do, while also artfully dodging that it’s just crappy screenwriting to excuse using a non-disabled actor for a disabled character and the script could be rewritten neatly enough if any effort was put in.

    “Well he has this scene where he gets out of his wheelchair and walks/dances normally.”

    Falsely implying and asserting that all disabled people are poor wee lambs that desire CONSTANTLY to be abled people so we should take pity on them – not portraying them as people who might actually be concentrating on dealing with their life as is and finding ways to love/like their life as is and not be constantly comparing themselves to abled people (guess what? Disabled people I know are NOT constantly comparing themselves to abled people in a “Oh woe is me – I wish I was like them.” sort of way – the comparisons I see are “I wish they’d bloody listen to me – they’re ignoring me and making me more disabled by society than I actually am by my disability.”). Stop pressing YOUR narrative onto THEIR story.


      1. ABSOLUTELY – it’s just ridiculous that people seem to think it can only go one way or that it’s only WORTH going one way.


  2. I did a search for “Scottish actor with Pycnodysostosis” and didn’t find one. I wonder if any exist? Considering the amazing casting in Outlander, I have the sense that a disabled actor could have tested for the role, but it makes me wonder, should a disabled actor necessarily get the part if an able actor has a stronger audition? Fans were able to view several uploaded auditions of assorted characters during casting, but I don’t recall ever seeing one submitted by an obviously disabled actor. What are your thoughts on this? Are you looking for CONSIDERATION and equal opportunity to audition, or should a disabled actor ALWAYS have the disabled part even if the audition is not as strong? Personally, it seems to me that it would be so much better to let the best person win the role- and how awesome if that meant disabled actors were playing roles that don’t specify able or disabled!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, a quick Google could have explained why Collum’s legs were done with CGI rather than casting an actor with the disability – with an incidence of 1-1.7/million, there are fewer than 200 people in the UK with the syndrome, roughly half of whom are women. I’m not surprised they couldn’t find a suitably talented actor of approximately the right age with such a rare disability…

      Liked by 1 person

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