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Outlandish desires: why Outlander is a feminist romance

Outlander might draw on the conventions of romance, but it’s a mistake to dismiss it as “just” romance. Fox

Television series Outlander made its debut on the small screen in August this year, to the acclaim of both reviewers and fans. Critical tongues are wagging, tumblr gifs abound, and Etsy has been inundated with period-inspired knitwear. Much of the conversation surrounding this series praises its attempts to present a female-lead, feminist drama series.

Based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling series of historical romance novels, Outlander follows the time-travelling adventures of Claire Randall.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a second world war nurse who, in the series premiere, is attempting to reconnect with her husband post-war, on a trip to Scotland. But when Claire visits a circle of standing stones, she finds herself mysteriously thrown back in time to the 18th century. Claire must now rely on her wits and the goodwill of the McKenzie clan, who pick her up and take her home – and then refuse to let her leave.

Trailer from Outlander.

A desiring heroine

Balfe is charismatic as a forthright, self-possessed heroine who is unafraid to express her opinions and her desires. Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post wrote last month that:

Outlander has blown up a lot of the received ideas about sex on television – how it’s shot, who it’s for, who it’s made by and who it’s about.

In this sense, the premiere episode quickly and firmly sets the tone for the series to follow. Its first explicit sex scene finds Claire and her husband Frank (a series-stealing Tobias Menzies) exploring a dark, ruined castle, where Frank happily performs oral sex on a fully-clothed Claire. Claire’s desire is foregrounded while the scene minimises the potential for voyeuristic titillation at the sight of her body.

Throughout the series, Claire’s desires tend to guide the gaze of the camera. In particular, Episode 7 (The Wedding, written and directed by two women, Anne Kenney and Anna Foerster) has generated much discussion over its use of the female gaze.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire. Fox

The male gaze, as originally defined by film critic Laura Mulvey, is the gaze of both the male viewer and the camera itself. This gaze typically eroticises and objectifies the female body on screen. Its prevalence in film and television suggests that women, as both agents on screen and viewers of the screen, are less significant than the heterosexual male audience to whom this gaze caters.

Conversely, a female gaze caters to a heterosexual female audience that gains pleasure from seeing the male body eroticised (as recently outlined by Lili Loofbourow at Slate). In Outlander, the body of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), Claire’s red-headed, 18th century love interest, has been repeatedly bared. In this respect, as Kayla Upadhaya notes on the AV Club, Outlander emphasises the heterosexual woman’s “right to look”.

In The Wedding, in which Claire finds herself married to Jamie for political necessity (thus committing time-travelling bigamy), their first sexual encounter subverts the typical glamorisation of sex on camera. Jamie is a virgin to Claire’s more experienced older woman. Both characters remain clothed in their 18th century shifts. The sex is brief, and after the act Jamie is clearly thrilled while Claire is clearly underwhelmed.

On their second attempt, Claire takes charge, telling Jamie to strip for her. And he does, the camera lingering over Heughan’s muscular arms and bared buttocks. Eventually, Claire’s body is bared too, but the sex that follows is still slightly comical, with Jamie misunderstanding Claire’s orgasm for physical pain. Finally, Jamie confesses, he always assumed that sex was from behind – as seen in the horses he trains.

Jamie’s earnestness and innocence here subverts expectations of the suave romance hero in film and television, showing that openness and intimacy may be just as attractive in a man as the seductive confidence of Casanova.

Outlander’s willingness to break with gender convention, to eroticise the male form and to follow the desire of its female heroine has been hailed as a step towards a more feminist dynamic for television. Yet the series also offers serious challenges to this eager (and ultimately reductive) leap to label it as either feminist or not.

In the first eight episodes, Claire is threatened with sexual violence no fewer than four times. This use of rape as a melodramatic plot device has partly been justified as the reality a woman faced in the patriarchal society of the 18th century.

Yet historical accuracy seems a frail excuse for relying on sexual peril to generate narrative excitement. The question remains as to whether Outlander exploits this trope too heavily – or, conversely, if the series can effectively use the fragile safety of Claire as a commentary on the rape culture that is still pervasive in the 21st century.

Even more problematically, readers of the Gabaldon’s novels will know that the remaining episodes in this season are likely to depict scenes of marital violence perpetuated against Claire by the hero, Jamie. For obvious reasons, this is a troubling dynamic for the lead couple in a romance series. However the series handles these scenes, future episodes are sure to generate controversy.

Just another bodice-ripper?

Perhaps most interesting in the response to Outlander, however, is the paradoxical way that, while critical praise lauds the series’ use of the “female gaze”, it nonetheless has attempted to distance Outlander’s success from the series’ genre status as a romance text.

From leading man Sam Heughan to New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, the claim has been repeated that Outlander is not “just” a romance, that it is “more” than an indulgent bodice-ripper.


Before the series aired, an article by Vanity Fair asked: Does the New Outlander Series Have What It Takes to Be More than Just a Bodice-Ripper?

The article claimed the series was unlikely to succeed because of its “niche genre”, and was:

going to have to find a way to appeal to more than just your dear old mum. In other words, it can’t just be Fifty Shades of Plaid.

Shockingly condescending, this attitude towards the romance genre is all too common.

The assumptions here are strikingly anti-feminist: that all romance equates with escapist fantasies of explicit sex; that romance is a “niche genre” that cannot hold the serious interest of a broad audience (yes, apparently women are a niche demographic!); and that it cannot tackle serious subjects with a real dramatic weight.

In fact, romance by far out-produces and out-sells all other genres of fiction. It is a broad category, with many subgenres that explore many different models for relationships between men and women. Romance is read by women across many different demographics in age, education, class and race.

Yet its readers are unfortunately and unfairly often perceived as repressed and naive mass consumers. As a genre, romance continues to be denigrated, largely due to its cultural associations with women, femininity, emotional intimacy, and women’s sexual pleasure.

But unlike for the critics, the success of Outlander does not come as a surprise to romance readers. Romance readers already know that female-lead drama, drama that takes seriously the desires of women, is in demand and worthy of our time and critical consideration. Such readers perhaps are only surprised that it has taken so long for television to catch on to this.

In Australia, Outlander airs on Foxtel’s SoHo channel. SoHo will be rerunning the first half of season one from November 7; the series continues with new episodes on April 4 2015.

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