How Outlander is flipping typical TV dramas on their head


Danielle Binks

Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in the Starz series Outlander.

Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in the Starz series Outlander. Photo: Nick Briggs

“We’ve got a boner to pick with you!”

So began a College Humor video last year, HBO Should Show Dongs. This CH short made the social media rounds both because it was freakin’ hilarious, and painfully true. These comedians were pointing out the abundance of disturbing male-gaze in our TV shows: “From the brothels of Game of Thrones, to the brothels of Boardwalk Empire aaaaaall the way to the brothels of Deadwood … and don’t forget the strip-clubs in The Sopranos!” They kindly requested that HBO (the US premium-cable channel that has the biggest ‘sexposition’ quota of any other television network) give women a little “dude-tube” on our boob-tube: “For every topless background extra. For every actress that bears her bouncies, but doesn’t even get a line. Every minute that we have to sit through this dumb double-standard: you owe us an inch of grade-A man-meat!”

Crude, and rude but true.

Claire Randall is a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743.

Claire Randall is a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743.

The sentiments expressed in that College Humor video may go some ways to explaining why new TV show Outlander has started to make waves in television-land … namely for presenting a (heterosexual) female-gaze. Or, as feminist blog Jezebel put it: ‘Outlander Is the Historical Smut of My Dreams’.


From the SoHo channel website: Outlander follows the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world where her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate affair is ignited that tears Claire's heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Outlander is based on the best-selling (and ongoing) book series from American author Diana Gabaldon. The books have sold more than 20 million copies, and graced the New York Times bestseller list. The television adaptation has been created by Ronald D. Moore (best known for his work on Star Trek and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica TV series) and produced by Left Bank Pictures for Starz, which has already renewed the show for a second season. In Australia, it’s fast-tracked and appears on the Foxtel SoHo channel.

The show is praised for having a lot of sexual energy, instead of just sex.

The show is praised for having a lot of sexual energy, instead of just sex.

The first book in the series was published in 1991, and has amassed an impressive fan-base with each new installment – the fandom is made up of majority women, with the books often marketed on a fantasy, historical romance bent.  So it’s no surprise that the TV adaptation has amassed a similarly impressive female fanbase. Though don’t expect author Diana Gabaldon to be flattered by the ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ praise, in reference to her WWII combat nurse Claire. At this year’s Comic Con, Gabaldon simply said: “I don’t like stupid women, so why would I write one?” Touché.

Since its release, many have been making connections between Outlander and Game Of Thrones – although similarities are really less to do with plot. Gabaldon and Martin are friends, and both are writing ongoing fantasy series. With the release of Outlander they’ve also been thrown together on numerous convention panels, and both their book adaptations have found homes on premium cable channels. But one difference between the shows is being made again and again, and that is the casual male gaze found on Game of Thrones (there are countless gifs and memes tallying the number of boobs-per-episode) versus the female gaze of Outlander.

Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, was surprised and delighted to discover that Outlander was not the historical romance bodice-ripper she expected it to be. She praised the show for having a lot of sexual energy, instead of just sex: “And this struck me as both very restrained, and very refreshing for cable television - which has unfortunately gotten into the habit of providing graphic sex scenes every 25-minutes or so, in a slightly numbing, contractual sort of way. It feels a little bit like porn with purchase.” Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya writing for AV Club notes that Outlander is the opposite to Game Of Thrones, which frequently objectifies and exploits women: “Not only by the male characters, but by the camera and direction, which marginalises female viewers.”

Outlander showed its flip-side on “sexposition” in the latest episode – ‘The Wedding’ – which sees Jamie and Claire married in a non-linear storyline depicting the circumstances surrounding their union and consummation.

Praise where it’s due: Diana Gabaldon did not write your typical romance in Outlander (time travel aside). For one thing, Jamie is a 22-year-old virgin when he marries, while this is 27-year-old Claire’s second marriage (technically she’s a bigamist). The wedding scene depicted in the novel spans 20 or so pages and is titillating – particularly because it’s told from Claire’s point-of-view, and includes the beloved line: “He made love with a sort of unflagging joy that made me think that male virginity might be a highly underrated commodity.” The Outlander adaptation is likewise positioned from Claire’s POV (sometimes with clunky voice-over, but for the most part it works!) and maintaining Claire’s perspective is key in ‘The Wedding’ episode.

In the beginning Jamie is fumbling while Claire is resigned. The first time they come together it’s awkward and quick; Jamie asks if Claire enjoyed herself and the truth is all over her face. Then we watch as Jamie and Claire start talking, sharing their memories of the day leading up to the ceremony … they begin to laugh, and become comfortable with one another. The next two times they come together everything is changing and changed between them – Claire takes control, she tells Jamie to take off his shirt and takes a good, long look at his impressive form. She teaches him a thing or two about foreplay and the female orgasm (this, particularly, blows his 18th-century male mind). Perhaps most interesting of all, the camera stays on Jamie for the majority of these scenes: the viewer watches his orgasm (as though through Claire’s eyes), and while we do see Claire naked we don’t linger on her breasts or backside … but we do get a loving panning shot of Sam Heughan’s bottom, which is already spawning fan-art.

No, we don’t get any of that grade-A man-meat the College Humor comedians were clamoring for, but the episode was still progressive and unique enough to be drawing some serious praise from fans and critics alike. “There is a distinct focus on female pleasure,” says Vulture, while Vanity Fair proclaimed it, “Some of the year’s sexiest television.”

I have no doubt that part of Outlander’s sex-success in this episode is thanks to the fact that it was written for the screen by Anne Kenney, and directed by Anna Foerster. And they’re not the only women involved in the behind-the-scenes of the show – apart from Diana Gabaldon, of course – Anne Kenney is not only co-executive producer, but she has written two of the seven episodes so far, while Toni Graphia has written one and I expect we’ll see more female writers and direction before the 16-part series is done. Compare this to the recent revelation that Game Of Thrones season five will have all-male writers and directors. 

I don’t want to present Outlander as perfect, feminist television. For one thing, Claire is often the lone female in a cast of majority men. Many have also aired their concerns about problematic aspects of the book being bought to the screen, most notably spousal abuse and rape. I don’t know how the show will handle these storylines – but I hope sensitively, and maybe with more clarity than is offered in the books – and without relying on the old “but it’s the 18th-century! This was situation-normal back then!” reasoning. But I do know that Outlander is offering a critical counter-point to the sexposition seen on Game Of Thrones, Banshee, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire … even Girls and Orange is the New Black are not without their male-gaze issues! For that reason, Outlander is something to get very, very excited about.

Danielle Binks is a regular columnist for Kill Your Darlings literary journal, and a book reviewer on her personal blog Alpha Reader.

You can Tweet her: @danielle_binks