The Trouble with Mr. Willoughby

Like so many in the Outlander fanmily, I am crazy excited for season 3. Voyager is far and away my favorite book in the series, and there is a lot to be excited about. We’ve got the print shop reunion, the epic throw down at Lallybroch and the infamous turtle soup. Plus, we’ll meet some new characters who are guaranteed to capture our hearts for seasons to come; Wee Ian, adult Fergus, adult Lord John, and of course Joe Abernathy.

But there are also some things to be nervous about. Will there be bromance level chemistry between Sam Heughan and David Berry? Will the print shop scene be as breathtakingly poignant as we expect? Will we ever grow to have sympathy for Brianna? The thing that I’m most concerned about however, is something that has the potential to generate some controversy around the show and not the kind embracing-the-feminine-gaze controversy that the show LIKES to stir up.

If you’ve read Voyager, you probably already know what I’m talking about. That is the character of Yi Tien Cho aka Mr. Willoughby, Jamie’s Chinese employee/sidekick whose drinking, and antics cause a few problems along the way in this roller coaster ride of a book, but whose acupuncture skills get Jamie across the Atlantic.

Hang out long enough where people are discussing Voyager, and you will almost inevitably hear from someone who is disappointed, uncomfortable or down right infuriated by the portrayal of Mr. Willoughby. His accent, behavior and obsequiousness are cartoonish, and exhibit many uncomfortable stereotypes that were certainly believed in Scotland in the 18th century when his part of the story is set, and sadly persisted well into the 20th century. Willoughby is literally a walking stereotype. And if that’s all there is to the character, then readers SHOULD be offended.  I would be.

However, stopping at the stereotypical behavior of Willoughby and ignoring the character after he sticks Jamie with his acupuncture needles, does him a disservice. As Willoughby gets farther away from Scotland, he begins to shed those stereotypes like an uncomfortable coat. By the time they find themselves in the New World, he’s no longer Mr. Willoughby. He’s Yi Tien Cho, poet, fugitive, survivor.

It’s precisely that survival instinct that leads him to behave the way he does in Scotland. Yes, he gets into trouble occasionally, but by playing the subservient, comedian and occasional trouble maker, he disarms the inevitable racism that he encounters. Instead of hate and violence, he’s met with irritation and sometimes even kindness. He knows that the people in Scotland will tolerate a buffoon of a different race, easier than they will an educated poet of a different race. If he had shown up in Edinburgh with the dignity and sometimes bitterness at his situation that he shows later in the book, I think he would get a very different response, probably a more violent one.

His Willoughby persona is a mirror of the expectations of the people by whom he finds himself surrounded. The metamorphosis from Yi Tien Cho to Willoughby and back shows just how racist and xenophobic society was in the 18th century. This is the same kind expedient duplicity that Claire as a modern woman has to show to many of the 18th century men she encounters or that slaves have to show the plantation owners (including Mrs. Abernathy) that Jamie and Claire will see in the New World. Naturally, Yi Tien Cho finds sympathy among the rebelling slaves and decides to take his chances with them rather than remain Mr. Willoughby.

Let’s be honest, it’s the same kind of duplicity that many people of racial minorities are expected to show to ease their way through what is still (despite what some elements in our society might tell you) a white man’s world. Watch your minority friends smile or even laugh uncomfortably the next time someone makes an insensitive joke around them. How many women do you know who are constantly told to ‘smile’ and ‘be nice’ to get ahead? How many of our mothers told us things like ‘pretty is as pretty does’ and ‘you catch more flies with honey’? Our society is full of this kind of expedient duplicity. Why should the 18th century have been any different?

Unfortunately, some readers react to Willoughby’s stereotypical behavior, and write the character off missing the main point.  Sadly, when you write thousand-page books centered around an epic love story side plots tend to be the parts that readers skip. That’s where I hope the show can improve on the Willoughby situation. It’s much easier in a visual medium to show that kind of subtlety from the start, rather than dragging readers through hundreds of pages of painful stereotypes for the big payoff at the end. I can only hope that the show’s writers thought of this when writing Yi Tien Cho’s scenes in season 3.  So far, the casting of Gary Young seems a step in the right direction. They have cast someone who is ethnically Asian (I’m not being intentionally vague there. His IMDB and NZ On Screen profiles don’t give much biographical information.) and is a talented actor. Have a look at his demo reel. I'm sure he's up to the kind of complexity I would like to see from this character. I hope the writers have given him the opportunity to shine with this character.

While I don’t think this character is the racist crime that some critics would have you believe, there is plenty about the character that is problematic as this astute Redditor points out.  The more we get to know Yi Tien Cho, we find out that he’s not just an acrobatic drunk with a foot fetish, but he’s also a poet with a back story that sounds like it was directed by Yimou Zhang, an acupuncturist, and a pelican trainer. It’s as if a few National Geographic articles on historic China got smashed together into one person and it does a disservice to the overall point that the character makes by the end of his arc.


Many commenters when it comes to Mr. Willoughby point out that the book was written in the 1990’s, a time when people were less conscious of racial stereotypes at least when it comes to portrayals of Asian characters. Admittedly, I have noticed a generational divide among readers reactions to Willoughby. Older readers (And I simply mean older than my 43 years.) tend to find Willoughby’s stereotypical antics amusing. Whereas the readers who usually find them offensive, are mostly younger. At this point we are seeing this character through not one but three prisms of time and culture; 1) The portrayal of an Asian character living in 18th century Scotland, 2) Viewed through the eyes of an English woman solidly in the mid-20th century, 3) Written by an American woman in the late 20th century. That’s a difficult terrain to navigate, and it’s not a surprise that we find early 21st century readers getting caught in some potholes along the way.

Diana Gabaldon isn’t alone in this by any means. I have spent the last week and a half researching an Indian character for one of my own books and trying to build a character that is more than a stereotype. The handling of Asian characters is something writers and Hollywood struggles with still. Think about most of the portrayals that you see of Asian men in films and television. While Asian women are frequently fetishized for their otherness or stereotypical submissiveness. Most of Asian male characters fall into one of three categories; gangsters, mystics, or lovable buffoons. Of course, they all know martial arts, right? We laugh at Jackie Chan’s Legend of Drunken Master. We fear the scary Yakuza and Triad characters on Daredevil. And we see guru/monk-like characters dispensing wisdom and punches to Anglo main characters.’s possible to be grateful for the opportunity and have respect for your colleagues and still maintain a steadfast sense of your self-worth.
— Daniel Dae Kim

What you don’t see very often is an Asian leading man. Or when we have Asian leading characters, especially in film, we end up with non-Asian actors playing them or the character’s ethnicity being written away before it ever makes it to film. The recent controversy over the pay for Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park who left Hawaii Five-0 after producers refused to pay them as much as non-Asian actors in similar roles, highlights another challenge. There is a reason why I’m using the term Asian rather than Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean, and it’s not because I don’t know the difference. It’s because Hollywood doesn’t differentiate.

Fortunately, we are now seeing a market that pushes back against issues like this. The overall reaction to Kim and Park’s departure from Hawaii 5-0 was supportive of their decision. The kind of whitewashing that has been prevalent since film and television began is meeting resistance from audiences and critics. In the last few years, films like Aloha and Ghost in the Shell have tanked at the box office, largely because audiences didn’t like that Anglo-American actresses were cast to play Asian characters. The controversy around Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange started a valuable conversation about opportunities for Asian actors.

I have no doubt that the conversation will continue when viewing audiences meet Mr. Willoughby. Let’s hope that this increased awareness filtered into the writer’s room and they made the effort to give him more depth than we see when he’s introduced in the book. I fear that if they didn’t (past tense because those episodes are already written) it’s going to reflect very badly on the show that we all love. This is obviously not just an Outlander issue. We need Asian characters who are more than the stereotypes that we have had before. We need to stop expecting the actors who play them to resort to the kind of necessary duplicity that Yi Tien Cho does when he becomes Mr. Willoughby.

Additional reading/viewing