tv The Troubling, Subversive Promise of the New Show Outlander
IT’S A GOOD time for fantasy. Thanks in large part to the spectacular success of Game of Thrones, “genre” stories once relegated to cult status are getting green lights and mainstream attention on screens both small and large. But as the popularity of the HBO show continues to grow, so have criticisms that it often leaves its women viewers wanting. Despite an audience that is more than 40 percent female, the omnipresent sexuality of Game of Thrones remains relentlessly focused on the desires of its male audience, despite outcry from both fans and even the stars themselves.
Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander—which debuts on Starz Saturday night, with Battlestar Galactica director Ron Moore at the helm—is a difficult series to label. With elements of fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction, it’s a bit of a genre mutt, but above all it’s a romance. Its core conflict lies in the heart of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a headstrong, fiercely intelligent Englishwoman from the 1940s who falls through time into 18th century Scotland. Trapped between times and cultures, she finds herself torn between her love for her temporally estranged husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), and her attraction to a handsome young highlander named Jamie (Sam Heughan).
Outlander is a fantasy story that engages in the sorts of fantasy we so rarely see on television: the kind that dares to put a woman, her experiences and her sexual desires at the center of the story—and lets them run the show. Where Game of Thrones‘s penchant for “sexposition” has catered almost exclusively to the sexual tastes of heterosexual men, Outlander not only acknowledges that women’s desires exist, but indulges them just as unabashedly.
Claire herself is a memorable heroine, a very capable former World War II nurse who grew up digging at archaeological sites with her uncle and learning skills typically deemed “not suitable for a young lady of gentle birth.” Even for the relatively modern times of the 1940s she is an unusual woman, intelligent, stubborn and passionate. During a visit to the isolated ruins of a Scottish castle, we see Claire lift herself on to a table, turn to her husband, and open her legs provocatively. “Why Mrs. Randall,” says Frank, “I do believe you’ve left your undergarments at home.” When he leans towards her to kiss her, she leans back, guiding him to his knees to give her…well, you get the idea.
The sex scenes in Outlander are undeniably hot, and it’s telling that the very first sex act in the series is so woman-centric. Suddenly—and in the context of mainstream television, surprisingly—it’s the female view (and libido) that guides the camera, which now seems far more interested in the interplay between the couples than simply posing and lingering on female anatomy. The show’s refusal to marginalize female arousal has even raised doubts as to whether men could possibly be bothered to tune in at all.
At first blush, that might sound like a feminist fantasy, but that’s not how Gabaldon herself sees it. Indeed, she had some rather discouraging comments to make about feminism. “Claire is from World War II, and the ladies of World War II were very strong women,” she says. “Feminism didn’t enter into it. Feminism enters into it when you don’t feel strong and you feel like you need… an ideology to hide behind. If you’re confident in yourself you don’t do that.”
It’s a bit of a shocking statement, not only because it comes from the female creator of such a powerful and fascinating heroine, but because it suggests that strength alone is sufficient to conquer sexism, in any time period. And as Claire herself demonstrates throughout the series, it’s far from true. Still, the contradiction reflects part of what makes Outlander so interesting: It stands proudly at the epicenter of today’s discussion about sex and gender in modern entertainment, and it refuses to be categorized.
Outlander is also a return to form for director Ron Moore, whose work has felt hit or miss since Battlestar Galactica ended in 2009. But where his sci-fi thriller Helix left me cold, Outlander is hot in more than one sense of the word: erotic, emotionally charged, and provocative. It also manages to be both sweepingly epic and personal in some of the same ways that makes Game of Thrones compelling, albeit through a dramatically different lens: rather than rotating through a kaleidoscope of characters, it remains focused on a single woman.
Unlike Battlestar, it’s an adaptation rather than a reboot; Moore says he and Gabaldon consulted often over the filming of the series, which “doesn’t need reinvention.” It’s also set in a very real time period, one that both Gabaldon and Moore have done a great deal of research to represent correctly. The Outlander set has a classroom and a full-time language coach to assist the actors in speaking Gallic—which is different from the Irish dialect Gaelic, Moore adds—and he even runs edits past the instructor “so even if we’re truncating it or editing it down, it still would make sense to someone who actually spoke the language. It’s a living language.”
Although they’ve taken creative license and added some small anachronisms, “we really tried to capture a sense of truth to it, which I think is crucial,” says Moore. “For any fantastical story, it’s really incumbent upon you to make it seem as real as possible so the audience is willing to take the leap. If you’re going to tell a story where a woman touches a stone and goes back in time, if you can make the audience believe that that period is real, they’re more willing to go with you emotionally and risk themselves and cry when this woman is hurt, laugh when she’s funny.”
Much like Game of Thrones, Outlander doesn’t shy away from violence; gruesome murders, whippings, beatings, and other brutal physical punishments occur with regularity. This, too, stems from Gabaldon’s commitment to showing the unpleasant sides of history in her historical fiction. “There’s always a temptation, I think, among some historical writers to shade things toward the modern point of view,” Gabaldon told Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, citing the umbrage taken by a fan about a pregnant female character drinking wine. “You know, they won’t show someone doing something that would have been perfectly normal for the time but that is considered reprehensible today.”
It’s a truism as eternal as it is appropriate for the subject matter: It was a different time. As is often the case in period pieces, the distance between the past and the present offers plenty of room for social commentary. And by juxtaposing a (relatively) modern woman against the past, the sexism stands out in starker relief, even as it remains invisible to the people of the time. It is Claire, the chronological interloper, who seems to “create” problems, simply by insisting, over and over, that she is a person worth respecting.
And then there’s the rape.
Literally the very first thing that happens to Claire after she falls through time into 18th century Scotland? Yup, it’s an attempted rape. Sexual assault, or the threat of it, is deployed early and often as a plot device, looming as omnipresent and troubling as it does in Westeros. The quickest defense to the story’s more troubling moments—from both fans and Gabaldon herself—has been its insistence on unflinching “realism.” It’s the same banner that has been raised in defense of Game of Thrones more than once, and not in ways that fully resolve or explain the preoccupation with rape or its impact. (As one critic noted, “the realist position falters if one accepts that hemorrhoids, measles, miscarriages [and] pinkeye… were all probably more common than orgies, brothels and rapes, and yet they play a considerably smaller role.”)
Indeed, when we tell stories about antiquity (or pseudo-antiquity) we inevitably pick and choose the parts we want to focus on, and the way we frame them. Those aren’t neutral or objective choices, by any stretch of the imagination: they are itself an intentional form of storytelling, and one that demands close analysis and inevitably conveys meaning.
It’s also worth noting, however, that the show’s sexual complexity isn’t confined to women. Although it traffics heavily in stereotypes about dashing, hypermasculine warriors, it also subverts them in fascinating ways. Set in a time when masculinity was steeped in violence and dominance over women, it contains surprisingly complex representations of male sexuality, where male characters—even male romantic leads—are portrayed as virgins, and even rape survivors.
While it’s difficult to label neatly, there’s much to both enjoy and analyze in the complexity of Outlander, even as that very quality is likely to earn it foes. Its feminine focus and occasionally disconcerting sexual politics may earn it rejection from both sides of the gender discussion—some because it is “too feminist,” others because it’s not feminist enough. Others, however, will, just as understandably, find it intoxicating for what it offers: the balm of seeing themselves and their desires reflected in media, given worth and weight, and treated as something just as relevant (and consumable) as the experiences of anyone else.