Of Outlander, Sex and the Female Gaze

I finally got around to watching the first few episodes of the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

I was rather sceptical, when the series was first announced, partly because I’m not the world’s biggest Outlander fan and partly because I’m still angry at Ron D. Moore for what he did to my childhood favourite Battlestar Galactica.

Ron D. Moore has allegedly promised to remain more faithful to the source material with Outlander than with Battlestar Galactica (well, it’s hardly possible to be less faithful to the source material), since his wife is apparently a fan of the books. And at least based on the first few episodes, he kept that promise (with one notable exception), because the Outlander TV series follows the novel quite closely so far.

Talking of which, I was surprised how much I still remembered about the novel, considering I read the book more than ten years ago under the UK title Cross-Stitch and didn’t even like it all that much. But even though I didn’t particularly care about the book or at least don’t love it as much as many others do, it was clearly memorable enough for me to remember details about the plot after more than ten years.

Outlander, the TV series, is clearly the sort of well-made production we have come to expect from US “quality” TV drama. Catriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies are all fine actors and fitting for their respective roles. The Scottish landscape, shot on location in the highlands, is lovely. The historical anachronisms aren’t too bad – never mind that the novel has its share of those as well. The Gaelic dialogue snippets are supposedly quite accurate – not that I could tell.

However, Outlander is broadcast on an American cable channel, a HBO wannabe named Starz, which seems to be mainly known for historical dramas low on the history and high on blood, guts and bare skin. They broadcast the Spartacus TV show, the pirate show Black Sails, of which I couldn’t watch more than ten minutes, a Mad Men wannabe named Magic City that I found equally unwatchable and a Camelot series that I’ve never seen, but that looks pretty dreadful. Coincidentally, Starz also resurrected Torchwood for its final, Americanized season, which managed to surpass even the low points of the previous two seasons (since I actually liked season 1).

In this company, Outlander actually looks pretty good, plus it fits in with the historical drama focus of the broadcaster. However, we’re still talking about an American subscription cable channel here. And that means we’re getting what I’ve once jokingly dubbed HBO sex, since US pay-TV cable channels like HBO inevitably seem to use more or less gratuitous sex scenes as a means to lure in new subscribers. For even though the public image of HBO is that of a haven for high quality TV drama, the sex scenes are actually a large part of the appeal for many viewers, as the fact attests that the above-linked post is frequently found by people typing variations of “HBO shows with lots of sex” into Google.

Starz is no HBO, so they probably have to resort to the “sex sells” ploy more than its more highbrow rival. And so, barely ten minutes into episode 1, we get a scene of Claire Randall receiving oral sex from her 20th century husband Frank on a random table while exploring a ruined castle. It’s a scene that’s not in the book (or at least I don’t remember it being inside the book, since I don’t remember any explicit sex scenes between Claire and Frank in the first book) and that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. At any rate, I’ve never felt the desire to have sex while exploring ruined castles – and trust me, I’ve visited my share. There’s another sex scene between Claire and Frank later in the first episode, though this time at least they choose a comfortable looking brass bed in an B&B in Inverness over a hard table in a drafty castle ruin.

Now as anyone who’s read the novel can attest, there’s actually quite a lot of sex in Outlander, but it only occurs well into the novel from about the halfway point on. The TV show, on the other hand, dumps two sex scenes into the first thirty minutes or so.

It’s pretty much the same tactic used for True Blood, the TV adaptation of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (and True Blood actually was on HBO). Frontload the first half hour or so of the first episode with sex to grab those viewers. At least, the sex in Outlander looks more pleasant than the usual joyless, furniture bumping HBO sex, though both I and the friend I watched with rolled our eyes at the oral sex scene and the absurd setting for it.

Once Claire travels back into the 18th century, the sex takes a backseat (for now, at least) and the plot begins in earnest. We do get a brief scene of Claire undressing and several scenes (which actually do fit into the plot) of the camera lingering on Jamie’s impressive physique.

“He’s handsome”, my friend, who hasn’t read the books, said.

“Well, that’s the point”, I replied.

In the US media, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the sex scenes in Outlander, especially compared to the sex scenes in other pay-TV cable shows such as Game of Thrones, Masters of Sex, Girls, etc… Jenny Trout points out that the sex scenes in Outlander are largely rendered from and for the female gaze, hence also the camera lingering on Jamie’s impressive body. Jodi McAllister calls Outlander a show featuring a female gaze that’s both romantic and radical, while Maureen Ryan views Outlander as part of a whole wave of shows featuring sexually unapologetic women that according to her also includes Girls (which I dislike), Masters of Sex (ditto), Transparent (which I haven’t seen) and Orange is the New Black (which I have zero desire to see, because we’ve already had ten seasons of a women’s prison TV show in Germany, so I’ve literally been there, watched that).

I agree that Outlander caters to the female gaze a lot more than the usual US “quality” drama. For comparison, view the fact that Game of Thrones features a lot more random boobs in the back- and foreground than random abs, let alone the by now infamous sexposition scenes where people talk about worldbuilding details while having sex, usually focussing almost exclusively on female bodies. And Mad Men often deliberately shoots scenes so that the viewer never gets the chance to admire the rather handsome form of Don Draper, which may be due to the fact that actor Jon Hamm was allegedly uncomfortable with such scenes.

We’re also seeing more filmic catering to the female gaze in general of late, though the examples I’d name aren’t Girls or Masters of Sex (both of which make sex look singularily unpleasant) but the current superhero movie and TV boom. Now women make up a huge part of the audience for Marvel’s and DC’s superhero movies and TV shows and IMO a large part of the reason for that is that for all their issues, today’s filmic superhero offerings are a lot more female-gazy than similar works in the past. Witness how often Thor or Steve Rogers or Oliver Queen or Tony Stark find excuses to take off their shirts, whereas in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman Michael Keaton’s only shirtless scene takes place in the semi-dark. The female gaze in superhero films is quite blatant, too, at times. Thor literally blinds Jane and Darcy with his muscles, our first glimpse of post-transformation Steve’s impressive chest is from Peggy’s POV (and don’t forget the lengthy butt shot that’s our first glimpse of Steve in The Avengers) and we often watch Oliver training from Felicity’s POV. Another really blatant example of the female gaze in film happens in Pacific Rim, where Mako Mori’s first encounter with Charlie Hunman’s character (it’s probably telling that I can’t remember his name) has Mako clandestinely watching “Charlie” undressing and training with the camera taking Mako’s POV.

So I’d argue that the female gazy scenes in Outlander are not quite as revolutionary as some of the commentators I linked to above claim, but rather part of a larger trend, though given the male-centric world of US pay-TV cable drama, Outlander is still a step forwards.

I also wonder at whom the two sex scenes between Claire and Frank in the first episode were really aimed. Because no one who’s read the books was all that keen on watching Claire and Frank have sex – indeed, there is a reason why the books don’t go into a lot of detail regarding Claire’s and Frank’s sex life. Plus, frontloading the first episode with sex to hook viewers also strikes me as a tactic more aimed at male than female viewers. As for that oral sex scene on the table in the castle, maybe there actually are viewers who have this fantasy, but my friend and I, both of us heterosexual women, found it rather eye-rolling and uncomfortable looking, though at least it was tastefully shot.

If anything, it seems to me as if Outlander is trying to hook both male and female viewers – not that there’s anything wrong with that. And one thing I have noticed is that a lot of men, who’ve never read the books and likely won’t ever read them, seem to be watching and enjoying Outlander, which is a good thing IMO, because Diana Gabaldon is one of those hugely successful female SFF authors who don’t seem to be on the radar of the largely male-dominated SFF sphere at all.

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4 Responses to Of Outlander, Sex and the Female Gaze

  1. Laran says:

    I am wondering: Why is the terminus technicus “female gaze”? Wouldn’t it more precise to talk about sexualising male bodies? For whoever watching? “Female gaze” seems to be a heterosexually exclusive term and might especially in this context mislead the discussion.

    This thought can stand on its own. But the reason it came to my mind is personal: all this so-called “female gaze” seems totally alien to my female self. Watching scenes like you describe makes me cringe inside, instead of feeling any spark of attractiveness. Same in books with descriptions of the supposedly sexy male physique. What do I care about abs? Maybe I am weird, maybe the focus on powerful bodily attributes is. Powerful meaning emboding upper social strata, culturally formed ideals – unconnected to the person’s individuality/personality/ownness. Empty.
    [Do you remember the passage in A Civil Campaign, when Ekaterin thinks about the bodily attractiveness of Miles? That rings true, personal, her thoughts at that moment, which the reader might follow into (or not).]

    All in all it seems to me like the wrong tactic to raise womens’ status in sexual gaze politics by lowering that of men – while sticking to male superiority as essence of the objectifying at the same time.

    I hope this makes any sense – my English seems nearly absent at the moment. Maybe my brain, too.

    • Cora says:

      I think the terminus technicus “female gaze” is used as an analogue to the well-established term “male gaze”. And you’re of course right that it is a heterosexual gaze that sexualizes the bodies of the opposite sex.

      I also agree that this “heterosexual female gaze” seems to focus on particular physical attributes – abs, muscles, butts – that not necessarily do it for every heterosexual woman. For example, in this house the Avengers actors who elicit the most swooning are not Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, though both are certainly attractive, but Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, because they’ve both got lovely dark eyes with bonus points for the also lovely dark eyes of Clarke Gregg who is not conventionally attractive otherwise.

      I think we’re in a transitional period at the moment. At least, pop culture finally acknowledges that straight women actually do care about physical attributes and are sexually aroused by them. One thing I have been noticing for approx. fifteen to twenty years now is that male actors are getting more attractive. Even in the 1980s, I rarely found male Hollywood actors physically attractive (with a few exceptions). If you go back even further into the 1950s and beyond, you get the phenomenon of unattractive craggy faced male movie stars playing often unpleasant characters and yet getting paired up with screen goddesses half their age. There certainly were handsome men in 1950s Hollywood, but they were usually gay (and deeply closeted due to the pervasive homophobia of the time) and often played villains. Compared to that, pop culture accepting that women do feel attracted by physical attributes is a big step forwards.

      Though I’d still like to see more achnowledgement that not everybody goes for the same physical attributes. For example, I don’t really like waxed male bodies at all and actually prefer a bit of body hair. You do sometimes get this in fiction. The Vorkosigan books are a good example, since neither Miles nor Aral are attractive in the conventional sense. Another example I’ve recently run across is Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, where the heroine is clearly physically attracted to the hero, but mainly goes for his long silky hair, his accent (likely Russian, though it’s never explicitly stated) and the fact that he’s nurturing and supportive. There’s a scene where she breaks him out of prison after he’s been tortured and is horrified to discover that those who imprisoned him have cut off his hair. I really liked the way that relationship was described, because while there was clearly phsyical attraction, it’s also a lot more complex than Jane Foster being blinded by Thor’s godly muscles.

  2. Laran says:

    thanks for the clarification!

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