The buzz in the press and on social media about TV costume dramas Poldark and Outlander has been formidable. Adapted from hugely popular novels, they have drawn fans of the books (and, in the case of Poldark, of the original TV series) as well as newcomers. The shows aired within months of each other. Both are set within the 18th century and both occupy peripheral, Celtic territories – Cornwall in Poldark and the Scottish highlands in Outlander.
Much of the talk around these programmes has focused on their display of the naked male body. Poldark in 1975 was much more intent on the corseted female form, but most of the media around the 2015 adaptation has been generated by the swimming and scything scenes. These shows have been original and refreshing in their foregrounding of the female gaze. But there’s something else going on here: the male body and desire becoming central to questions of regionality and nationhood.
In scholarship on literature, films and television programmes, the female body is frequently understood as the recipient of a desiring gaze in which landscape, sexual desire and ownership converge. Whether caught at the window between inside and outside, gazing longingly at a landscape which offers a freedom not available to her, or the object of a desiring colonial gaze which maps territory onto her body, it has always been the woman’s body which has been at stake.
In Poldark and Outlander, the central female characters retain this association with the landscape. The design of costume, hair and make-up, as well as performance, tie both Claire and Demelza visually, through colour, texture and gesture, to their context. However, they also experience certain freedoms within their respective landscapes; Demelza is frequently seen at work within the fields or picnicking on the cliff edge next to the mine owned by her husband Ross.
Similarly, Claire Beauchamp, later Fraser, is also active within the highland geography of Outlander. She travels on horseback or on foot, fights off danger with a dirk she has just been taught to wield, and has sex with her new husband en plein air. While connected to it, Claire is always also a Sassenach, an outlander, within the highland landscape. While these programmes retain such conventional constructions of femininity in relation to nature and place, they also break new ground.
Atypically, though, it is the male bodies, and not the female, that bear the symbolic weight of representation in relation to landscape, region and nation.
In Outlander, the marking of Scotsman Jamie Fraser’s body through physical and sexual abuse by English Redcoat “Black” Jack Randall is a powerful and symbolic expression of the rape and conquer of Scotland by England. Randall’s sadistic desiring gaze upon, flogging, subjugation and branding of Jamie Fraser’s body is a literalisation of the English violence towards and colonisation of Scotland as a territory. The bloody trenches that Randall mercilessly tears into Jamie’s back, the lines of scar tissue which he lecherously licks and his repeated rape signify not just violence and desire but a remapping of flesh which is made symbolic of Scottish territory.
That Jamie is emphasised as a “Highlander” points to the importance of the regional in this marking of territory. The Highlands are the site through which the most enduring imagery of Scotland has been constructed – the space of “Tartanry”, mountains and mystical wilderness (to be conquered). Like Ross Poldark, Jamie is “landed gentry”, and their bodies do more than “represent” the regional (and national) landscape, because they own it. Jamie, Laird of Lallybroch, embodies the regional landscape, in the colour of his hair, his costuming, his physicality: they are part of each other.
And so Jamie’s “consent” to submission to Randall carries a different kind of weight here. The filming of the most disturbing abuse scenes on the eve of the (failed) referendum on Scottish independence resonates powerfully. It’s no wonder that the potential political importance of Outlander to stir resistance to England at the time of the indyref was recognised and feared by David Cameron and government unionists.
Body as territory
While the display of the male body as symbolic territory to be conquered is an available reading of the source novels in Outlander, the same is not true of the Poldark series. The shirtless display of Aidan Turner’s body is more about the success of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and an apparent desire to recreate the popularity of the first adaptation, where Robin Ellis became a national object of desire (without removing his clothes).
But Ross is also shown to be intimately connected with regional landscape, in a way which is also politically resonant in relation to Cornwall’s relationship with Britain. The 2015 Poldark opens with Captain Ross, dressed like Captain Randall, in his redcoat uniform of the British army. He is ostensibly a facilitator in British colonial aggression, having just returned from fighting in the American War of Independence. Yet it is immediately made clear in the first episode that he’s an anti-establishment figure, questioning the cause he must fight for. He fights not through choice or desire, but to escape the gallows for brawling, free-trading and assaulting a customs officer.
His return to Cornwall, although still in his redcoat uniform (in the adaptation but not in the book) is a homecoming, not an invasion. He quickly divests himself of the uniform, replaced by garments in blues and browns which visually embed the character within the seascape and rural landscape on screen. It is a landscape which he owns, scythes, rides across, and mines beneath.
While the much-hyped naked sea swimming scene may have come about as a Darcy-esque piece of titillation for the viewers, it too contributes to the connection of the male body to this particular landscape, at one with it, claiming it in a number of ways. This physical connection solidifies Ross’s position as defender of the Cornish from the encroaching law of the state and his fight against plunder of Cornish mineral wealth by outsiders.
Ross Poldark and Jamie Fraser are, then, the literal embodiment of contested Celtic territory. Across their bodies, we can read the playing out of the politics of region and nation in a period of regional and national instability. So: there’s more to the naked male body in these shows than just the desiring female gaze.