History & Film: The Female Gaze: Outlander
by Bethany Latham
I should probably get something out of the way immediately: I have not read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. They’ve been on the monumental To Read list for quite some time, but the list keeps growing, the number of (doorstop-worthy) Outlander books keeps growing, I have a ton of books I’m already reading, my time is finite and…that’s all I can come up with in the way of lame excuses. So when a friend recommended Starz’s version of the Outlander series to me, I experienced that pang known, perhaps, only to bibliophiles – not wanting to watch it until I’d read the books. Yet still, I took the lazy way out: I spared a few hours to mindlessly binge-watch TV. And you, dear reader, shall experience the fruits of my laziness.
Thus, you won’t find here a comparison of the TV series to the book; the Starz version is examined entirely on its own. In particular, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at it with a view to how this historical series differs from some of its fellows in its perspective on one particular area: sex. (There, I said it. Now I have your attention, yes?) Diana Gabaldon is a favorite at the fun and often hilarious “Late Night Sex Readings” sessions held at Historical Novel Society conferences, and it follows that a series based on her work, especially one created by a pay channel, would feature a respectable amount of sexual content. But Outlander differs in that it possesses what one surprisingly insightful review from the less than scholarly Huffington Post1 called “the female gaze” – the perspective it offers to viewers looking in on that content. But first, a brief overview of the plot.
Outlander is a time-slip series. The Second World War is recently over, and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is feeling its effects. Between her service as a combat nurse at the front and her husband’s turn in the military, a distance has developed between the two. They take a second honeymoon to Scotland, where Claire’s erudite spouse, Frank (Tobias Menzies), explores his ancestry while they work on their relationship and sightsee the local castles and countryside. When Claire, out by herself one morning, places her hands on the stones of the ancient henge of Craigh na Dun, she’s hurled back in time to 1743.
Those who know their history will appreciate that 18th-century Scotland was a complex place, with differing cultures between the Lowlands and the Highlands, which is where Claire finds herself. Whereas Protestantism and other English-leaning concepts dominated the Lowlands, some areas of the Highlands were more hybridized, retaining a use of Gaelic and the Catholic religion, as well as Jacobite sympathies. The Scottish Highlands as portrayed in the Outlander series are both beautiful and brutal, with a singular social structure. Seconds after Claire is transported, she’s set upon by English Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, Frank’s ancestor (Tobias Menzies again). Just as Jack is about to rape her, she’s rescued by members of the Clan MacKenzie. It seems more a case of being scooped out of the fire by the frying pan, as the mistrustful clan members treat her somewhere between guest and hostage, given that she’s English – or, as they refer to her in Gaelic, a sassenach (outlander). Using her wits, she claims to be a widow, conceals her true origins, and proves her usefulness as a nurse to wounded clan member Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), aka Hardbody MacBeefsteak. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable, and Jamie is an appealing mixture of kindness, chivalry, and strength. But Claire loves her husband, and her goal is to make it back to the stones and, hopefully, her own time. Black Jack is now after Claire, however, and to protect her, the clan arranges a marriage to Jamie, a marriage that must be consummated.
I don’t know how Claire is portrayed in the books, but this Claire is often self-sabotaging in inconsistent ways; she’s obviously intelligent enough to read some situations and adapt to her place in an alien landscape, yet she holds forth on certain things when to be silent would serve her much better, and unnecessarily pursues courses of action that have painfully apparent adverse consequences – one of which is to leave the viewer face-palming in frustration. In a nutshell, she’s clever, but that cleverness is often undermined by her passionate nature. Jamie, on the other hand, is refreshing in that he exhibits strength, yet at the same time is not driven by ego, and there’s also naiveté there; Claire is more than a sex object to him. His sexual attraction to her is but one facet of his desire for a relationship and, one is led to believe, not even the most important one. His treatment of her, at times, feels almost courtly, in the medieval sense. And this brings us back to the female gaze or, perhaps more accurately, the female perspective, in Outlander.
It bears stating that sex is not the main feature of Outlander. Immersing Claire in a foreign environment where she must learn the rules by observation, how she deals with that disorienting event, her emotional conflict as she admits her love for Jamie while wrestling with fidelity to a husband she also loves but seemingly cannot reach – these are all issues the series explores. Claire is also cursed with foreknowledge: she knows the Jacobite rebellion is doomed, that Culloden awaits a few years in the future, yet she’s surrounded by clansmen who support the Stuart cause and further it at their own peril. All of these concerns and more are examined onscreen, so Outlander is far more than another bodice-ripper. One reviewer2 noted that Outlander falls into that “tricky” genre known as the female-skewing historical adventure. Perhaps the adjective is meant to denote the challenge of a work of this kind effectively espousing a female point of view, when action-adventure dramas are traditionally thought of as male entertainment. There are a great many popular historical series out there right now (some straightforward historicals, others fantasies with pseudo-historical settings); they’ve been proliferating for the past few decades. By and large, series such as this (e.g. Black Sails, Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, et al.) cater to male viewers even when the perception is that historical fiction’s audience is primarily female. The choices may be unconscious, but they are obvious – female nudity is often injected into scenes where it’s unnecessary and even incongruous, and the focus in sex scene cinematography is on heaving bosoms, lithe naked women, the female form, and idealized representations of sex – all of which are directly linked to male fantasy. The males, when they appear at all, are given what I’ll call Men’s Health shots: ripped abs, glistening pecs, the occasional rock-hard glute – a stand-in for how men might view their ideal bodies and would like to be perceived. Women may be seductresses, but they’re seldom in charge, and this really isn’t about their pleasure. It’s about the pleasure men receive, as visual creatures, from watching them and, in the process, objectifying them.
Outlander bucks this from the outset, when Frank and Claire are visiting an abandoned and crumbling Castle Leoch, the long-ago seat of Clan MacKenzie. It is Claire who is obviously in the mood, soliciting contact, and when Frank makes as if to engage her in typical fashion, she stops him, and simply looks downward, communicating without words that she wants him on his knees because this is about her pleasure; she knows what she wants and she demands it. She doesn’t even undress. There’s equality there, and as Balfe has stated, “we want to show that Claire owns her own sexuality.”3 The wedding episode with Jamie is likewise a study in sex that’s both more realistic and more female-centered. While the characteristic mode would be to have Jamie as an experienced lover and the two of them undergoing something earth-shattering from the get-go, Outlander turns this on its head. Jamie is a virgin, there are moments of terrible awkwardness, they must get to know each other first, and it is Claire who does both the looking and the teaching. If anything, it is the male form which is objectified here, and it acknowledges that women’s predilections are as important as men’s when it comes to presentation of sex on film. It feels more realistic than the usual idealized fantasy, and it may be why women are flocking to this series in droves.
There are still decidedly un-feminist elements in Outlander – while not helpless, Claire is often in need of rescue by male clan members, and the series also highlights that her forthrightness, addressing males as equals, is not an effective way to get what she wants in the 18th century. In one scene, she visits Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), a local woman of mysterious background who shares Claire’s knowledge and love of herbs. While in town, Claire witnesses a boy who has been caught stealing. She’s appalled and impotently furious at the brutality of the proposed punishment: that he lose his hand. Geillis’s boorish, flatulent husband is the one who must sit in judgment, and with telling looks at Claire to illustrate that this is how to handle a situation of this kind, she effortlessly sweet talks her husband into a “lighter” sentence for the boy (simply nailing his ear to the pillory). The husband takes his leave, unaware that he’s been manipulated, and the child gets to keep his hand. Her witnessing of this event may be a contributing factor in altering Claire’s approach – rather than march up to the pillory and help the boy unfasten his ear, she distracts the crowd by pretending to faint (what could be more stereotypical than a swooning woman?) while Jamie quickly removes the nail and frees the boy.
The Outlander series has a lot going for it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far by the production value. If for no other reason, take a look and see if you can spot any difference in perspective between this series and its fellows in the historical TV series landscape.
1. Jenny Trout (September 22, 2014). “Outlander and the Female Gaze: Why Women Are Watching.” The Huffington Post. Available from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/outlander-and-the-female-_b_5859154.html
2. Emily Nussbaum (September 15, 2014). “Demographic Art: Genre Trouble in ‘Red Band Society’ and ‘Outlander.’” The New Yorker. Available from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/15/demographic-art
3. Jennifer Vineyard (August 28, 2014). “Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe on Feminism, Fans, and Love Triangles.” Vulture. Available from http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/caitriona-balfe-outlander-claire-chat.html
About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database. She serves as Internet Editor and a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 71, February 2015