Outlander — Starz’s popular time-traveling period drama based on the doorstopper book series by Diana Gabaldon — has ignited the cultural conversation about how female desire is represented on television, ever since “The Wedding” in Season 1. Now that Season 2 has begun, it’s once again sparking think pieces about sex and the female gaze on TV. We decided to distill this conversation down to a kindergarten-level question: Is Outlander a girl show? And does it matter?
First, a disclaimer: The notion that any form of pop culture is “for girls” or “for guys” is silly and gender normative. Our preferences have far more to do with our personalities than whether we use a bathroom marked by a skirted stick-figure or one in pants. That said, Outlander has a widespread female fan base and contains many elements that are traditionally considered on the “girl” end of the gender spectrum: A romance at the center of the story, an acknowledgement and use of the female gaze. But does all this make it “a girl show?”
Lauren Sarner: Most of the shows I find compelling are what people who categorize these things would consider “guy” shows. I’ve carved out a niche writing about the uber-specific genre of “dirty men running around stabbing each other with swords.” Game of Thrones is medieval bearded-men stabbing each other and Black Sails is gritty pirates stabbing each other. You get the idea. On the other hand, most of what people who categorize these things consider “girl” shows do nothing for me. I was never charmed by Sex and The City or anything in the Shonda Rimes oeuvre.
But I like Outlander. I’m not actually into violence and gore; I am in the “dirty men stabbing each other” niche for the intrigue, the immersive worlds, the attention to detail, and the characterization. Outlander contains all those in spades — though if you’re looking for men running around stabbing each other, it’s got that too. One of its best episodes, “The Garrison Commander,” even has an arguably unnecessary bonus gore scene (When Claire must amputate that man’s arm and the camera lovingly zooms in).
What do you think, Emily? If we’re using simplistic dude-bro definitions of “girl stuff” and “guy stuff,” does intrigue and the occasional amputation (and whipping…and hand-crushing) outweigh the love story and the female-gaze sex scenes?
Emily Gaudette: Well, I agree that it’s complicated. Let’s say “girl show” means marketed and intended for a straight female audience. I’ve enjoyed quite a few “girl shows”, by that definition, including Jane the Virgin and stuff like Teen Wolf and pseudo-soaps like Empire and Parenthood.
Unlike you, I’m also a gorehound, and I’ve been into straightforward action films since I was a kid. That being said, I think Outlander appeals to both my typical-masculine and typical-feminine interests. I think it’s undeniable that the show is filmed using a feminine gaze. Since most of contemporary media still uses a male gaze to frame its subjects, we can’t really call all of those shows “guy shows” yet. Some stuff is clearly marketed toward male viewers because they focus on specific cis-male experiences. I’m thinking of Entourage, and maybe Louie. The trick with Outlander is that its narrative isn’t feminine per so. No woman I know has been transported through time, I mean. The show isn’t trying to be relatable to women, like Girls attempts. It’s just portraying sexuality and adventure through a female character’s eyes.
I’m thinking specifically of the first oral sex scene in the show. You and I discussed this once. It’s sad that I was taken aback when I saw it — the lead’s husband gets on his knees to initiate sex, and the shot of her receiving oral is actually pretty long — but that’s just so unusual for modern television. It’s not, however, unusual to the feminine experience, so that, I think is the key here. Outlander is trying to speak to a female audience, while using fantasy imagery to get its voice across.
It’s only a “girl show” because men are not trained as media consumers to accept and empathize with female-centric stories. Most of the classic film canon is male-centric, so women are accustomed to identifying with male protagonists. I’d say Outlander is a girl show as much as Alien is a girl film. Does that make sense?
Lauren Sarner: Absolutely. And although “The Wedding” episode is practically unheard of with regard to the way it lingers on Jamie’s body, inviting both the viewer and Claire to admire the male form, it’s not as if it excludes the female form, either. Unlike early seasons of Game of Thrones, when men were clothed and women were nude, Outlander is all about equal opportunity. We’ve discussed this — when I saw the “The Wedding,” my first thought was, “Is this what it’s like to be a straight guy watching Game of Thrones?”
But there’s definitely an element of female fantasy to it. In the first episode of Season 2, “Through A Glass Darkly,” Claire returns to Frank in the 1940’s after having been missing for two years. When she tells him her time-travel story, he’s accepting, and when she tells him she’s carrying another man’s child, he’s hesitant but ultimately cool with it, too. Though I did appreciate how the baby issue threw him for a loop — he almost strikes her, then has a tantrum in the shed, both of which ring as authentic emotional reactions — in the end he seems almost a little too understanding of everything.
The same goes for Jamie: Later in the episode, Claire makes a nuisance of herself (as usual) by failing to understand local customs (chasing after that smallpox victim) then utterly failing to read the room and realize this is not a situation to speak up in. When Comte St. Sneer (real name: Comte st. Germain) enters, his sneering is glorious, but Outlander has never been subtle about its villains. He might as well have been wearing a sign, “Bonjour, Je Suis Le Bad Guy!”
Jamie got it loud and clear, but where he would have talked Claire down a few episodes ago, he just laughed it off with a, “It’s so cute how you always get us in trouble and never learn! I love that about you!”
Granted, he probably learned his lesson from “The Reckoning” and didn’t want to go a long time without getting laid again, but he was a little too understanding here, just as Frank was earlier.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with female fantasy — Fuck knows there’s a lot of male-fantasy on TV (True Detective, Ballers, Vinyl, Billions) and everyone just calls it “TV.” But I find it curious the way the Outlander fan base tries to distance themselves from that notion. Do you agree that it’s female fantasy? Why do you think so many try to remove themselves from that term?
Emily Gaudette: It’s definitive female fantasy, yes. All of your examples are totally valid, because Claire and Jamie’s changing power dynamic is intriguing to a female viewer. I mean, I’ve already read a million think-pieces about the sex Claire has in Outlander that were published over the weekend, but one moment in particular comes to mind for me.
In that one episode where Jamie is going down on Claire and someone knocks on the door, Jamie was the partner who shrugged off the interruption and decided to finish what they were doing. I don’t mean to say that’s unrealistic, I just think that the scene was crafted for the enjoyment of female viewers, specifically. Jamie’s interest in Claire’s pleasure isn’t a cartoon. He’s not Magic Mike. But he is notably more engaged with helping his partner achieve orgasm than any other male character on television right now. There’s cathartic television about sex for women: Girls comes to mind, because all of the male characters are disappointing in bed, and viewers really seem to enjoy those plotlines, like picking at a scab, I guess. But Outlander is feminine and fantastic, which makes it unique.
Why do fans try to remove themselves from that definition? Because female-focused fiction has been disrespected since people began telling each other stories! Outlander isn’t a chick flick, meaning it wasn’t written by a team of male writers hoping to attract a female viewership, but it’s a “girl show” in the same way Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is a book for women, about sex, without being a paperback romance novel you get at a bodega. The distinction is in Outlander’s gift for language, and its lyrical, sweeping cinematography.
I think audiences and marketing execs are still trying to figure out how Outlander is supposed to fall in the contemporary television canon. We’re living in an age where adult women still try to figure out whether they’re a Carrie or a Samantha, and Sex in the City stopped airing in 2004. How do you write a television show about fantasy, for grown women who still take Disney Princess quizzes on Buzzfeed?
I know quite a few men who watch Girls and feel like they’re learning something secret and precious about young women our age, which is unfortunate because none of those characters seem to enjoy sex or their daily lives. Outlander is absolutely enjoyable no matter your gender identity, but it has a special draw for straight women, one that isn’t really exploitative of its male characters. James Deen rocketed to fame in the porn industry, not because he was a giant, masculine, roided up spectacle, but because he seemed engaged with his costars, and was what most women search for when using porn: vocal, sweet, passionate. Granted, I know he’s an alleged rapist, we learned that after a while, but I think theres something to be said about his rapid career arc. The female viewership for adult films was so starved for a realistic looking, interesting star that nobody did a background check on the guy.
That’s why the confusion around Outlander frustrates me. I feel like I’ve read so many talented female critics pushing this show since it began, saying, “no seriously, it’s one of the sexiest series on TV,” and yet to some degree it’s still flying under the radar. It reminds me of all the fans clamoring for male nudity on Game of Thrones, which I think is an off-kilter request. I mean, I wanted to see Jon Snow with Ygritte as much as anyone else, but female audiences don’t just want to see male celebrities naked. The female gaze isn’t a mirror image of the male gaze. It’s like if you took the male gaze (a basic telescope) and cracked it open into a broken kaleidoscope, and there’s all these tiny little factors adding up to pleasure.
Feminine desire is more complex than that; cis-women tend to enjoy experiences more if they’re embedded into pleasurable contextual narratives, like Jamie wanting to protect Claire, and Frank (in this most recent episode) deciding he can raise another man’s baby if it means keeping Claire in his life.
Outlander isn’t a girl show because we get to see Jamie’s abs a lot; it’s a girl show because the driving relationships in the show are built on adventure, problem solving, healthy conflict, and mutual admiration.
Lauren Sarner: You’re right that the knee-jerk reaction around “female fantasy” and “girl stuff” is because previous examples of it haven’t exactly been material to be proud of. Outlander is a “girl show” in that it respects heterosexual female desire in its writing and framing, which is exceedingly rare. And yes, it often takes a step beyond that to give Claire two preposterously understanding love interests who will support her no matter what boneheaded thing she does. But the male antihero with the long-suffering wife (and/or hot young sidepiece) has long been a staple of prestige TV. Outlander is opening the door to that story from a female perspective — and whether that time is in the 1940s, the 1740s, or today, it’s about time.