I first heard about the Outlander books through my best friend: She had read them all through high school, reveling in the narrative, passing them down to her sister, never saying a word about just how incredibly hot all the sex scenes were. She admitted that it was impossible to describe without sounding ridiculous: “A World War II-era woman time-travels back to 18th-century Scotland,” she said, “but it’s much better than I’m making it sound.” Plus, as she averred, “The sex scenes are hotter than anything you’ll see on TV.”
My friend was right: The sex scenes were super hot, and much hotter than anything on television in the early 2000s, when the only sex you could really see on television was the awkward, neurotic type in Sex in the City, or the violent, exploitative kind on Deadwood and The Sopranos. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen sexual explicitness spread from network television (The Good Wife bathroom scene) to extended cable (American Horror Story, The Americans, Nip/Tuck, and basically everything on FX), and “sexposition” — using naked bodies, often engaging in sex acts, as a backdrop for other characters to reveal crucial plot information — has become ubiquitous.
But with rare, poignant exception (The Good Wife, The Americans, Masters of Sex) that sex is almost always about gratifying the male gaze, which is another way of saying there are a lot of boobs and very little by means of female agency. In Game of Thrones, Jon Snow may “know something” about performing oral sex on Ygritte, but in a show mostly fixated on sex as a dangerous and powerful tool, it’s the exception, not the rule. And as Salon’s Lili Loofborrow points out, this issue “isn’t just about penises vs. breasts … it’s about situation and camera angle. It’s about who has the right to be turned on. It’s about whose genitals are worth catering to.”
Having now watched the first six episodes of Outlander, I feel like my genitals are, indeed, being catered to. They were catered to in the luscious, if somewhat bizarre, book, and equally catered to in the television adaptation of that book — headed up by Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore — which begins its first season on Starz on Saturday, Aug. 9. (You can now stream the first episode for free here.) But so was my intellectual desire to see a complicated, self-actualized female character in the “quality television” adventure landscape.
This “catering to” women is at once Outlander’s largest asset and biggest challenge. The text is firmly in the adventure mode — with a bit of romance, sci-fi, and historical fiction woven together throughout. But back in 1991, it was marketed as a romance — a designation, as author Diana Gabaldon told BuzzFeed, to which she agreed to only at the urging of her agent, who told her that a science fiction best-seller was 50,000 copies…while a romance best-seller was more like 500,000. But Gabaldon, who worked as a scientist while crafting complicated, genre-bending narratives in her spare time, exacted a promise from the publisher: If the book became “visible” (e.g., it made its way to the New York Times best-sellers list), then they would re-situate it as “general fiction.”
Outlander did, indeed, make the best-sellers list — and the first book, along with its seven sequels, have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Today, you can mention Outlander in a group of women, no matter the age, and chances are at least a quarter will have read it. From the beginning, they were known as “word of mouth” books, meaning that people read them not because of some marketing campaign, but because friends told them to. And it’s been in this mode that these books have spread through generations and continents, weaving a web of shared narrative experience that can anchor families, friendships, and relationships. When you find someone who’s read Outlander, in other words, you’ll always have something to talk about.
Describing this book and its following recalls another literary phenomenon: George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the first five books of which have sold 24 million copies in North America alone. Like Outlander, A Song of Ice and Fire is complicated to explain and market: While Outlander takes place in historically accurate Scotland, Ice and Fire spans a sprawling world with no semblance to our own. Outlander follows one woman’s narrative; Ice and Fire changes from one corner of the kingdom of Westeros to another with every chapter. But both are members of otherwise denigrated, “pulpy” genres — even if we call Outlander an adventure novel, it’s still mass market, “popular fiction,” “not serious.”
All of those designations are taste culture bullshit, but that sort of thing matters when talking about what becomes fodder for a television or movie adaptation. Or does it? The record-breaking success of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent prove that YA, an equally denigrated genre, is now the engine of Hollywood. Good stories, read by millions of people, make good (and blockbuster) movies.
And Game of Thrones proved that similarly “pre-sold” (an industry word to connote a preexisting fandom) books can be translated into television ratings. Granted, Game of Thrones also benefits from a monumental budget (an individual episode has a reported budget of around $6 million), but its ratings, which topped 18.6 million for Season 4, made it the most watched HBO series of all time.
Which is another way of saying that ornate, complex, pre-sold properties are hot. It’s thus no surprise that Starz, under the advisement of Chris Albrecht (who, as chairman and CEO of HBO, ushered in the so-called “golden age” of television in the early 2000s), has been attempting to establish itself as a premium cable powerhouse.
Previous attempts have mostly fallen flat; Spartacus is the only Starz series to last more than two seasons, averaging, in its first season, a little over a million viewers per episode. Along with other Starz original programming Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons, Spartacus always felt like the 21st-century version of the classic Hollywood B-movie: derivative conceits, hokey plot lines, clunky dialogue, and production values that only look shiny from a distance.
I don’t mean to rag on Starz so much as identify its production strategy, which, broadly defined, was to emulate the “quality” markers of premium cable on a smaller scale and make the brand visible as a viable competitor. But Starz will never beat HBO at the game that Albrecht himself created: With seemingly infinite resources, HBO’s productions will always be lusher, better promoted, and enjoy the “quality” connotations that accompany the HBO brand. (Starz, by contrast, struggles to shake the fact that it has a Z at the end of its name).
Outlander, however, marks both an adoption of HBO’s Game of Thrones strategy and, I’d contend, an intelligent deviation from it. As showrunner Moore told BuzzFeed, “[Game of Thrones] blazed the trail in terms of, ‘Hey, you can take a series of books, and successfully translate that fan reaction to a general television audience. So absolutely, we all owe a debt to them … but we made a conscious decision early on that we’re not going to play in their backyard … They own that property,” Moore continued, “so we’re gonna do something that’s specific to ours over here.”
Put differently, Outlander is not a Game of Thrones also-ran. Sure, it takes place in a location with keen resemblance to the once-Stark-dominated kingdom of The North, and both Outlander and Thrones escape neat genre delineation, mixing fantasy, romance, action, and sci-fi. But the similarities stop there. In Outlander, honor is paramount; in Thrones, honor signals the swiftness with which a character will meet their death.
But the most compelling difference between the two series is Outlander’s committed, complicated portrayal of women. Game of Thrones is often celebrated, somewhat dubiously, for offering “complex” female characters — who then are killed, objectified, sexually abused, or otherwise stripped, at least in the televised adaptation, of the power and agency that rendered them compelling. Westeros is a man’s world; the women do their best to scheme within that patriarchal domination, but even a trio of dragons doesn’t make them pass the Bechdel Test.
But you know what Outlander has? A woman at its center. That woman, Claire (Caitroina Balfe), is neither hapless nor incompetent. She has a job and we see her doing it. She has complicated thoughts about love, duty, and honor. She argues; she’s obstinate; she’s unruly. She’s passionate and sexual but not sexualized: Halfway through the first episode, there’s a sex scene in which she not only receives oral pleasure from her husband, but clearly revels in it. While not completely disrobed! “Her sexuality is part of who she is,” Balfe told BuzzFeed. “She is a very passionate woman, with such a zest for life, and her sexuality is very integral to that. She controls that; she has desires. Quelle horreur, women have desires, oh my god!”
Part of Claire’s competence stems from her pre-time travel experience in post-war Britain, where a nurse like Claire was given the sort of freedom and responsibility usually reserved for men during peacetime. She’s also alone for much of the war — surviving, apart from her husband, who’s part of MI6, while she’s on the war front — and, as such, incredibly self-reliant. Within years, Britain, much like America, would begin to recoil on the feminist advances necessitated by the war, but in those weeks and months immediately after the armistice, women were still empowered by their role in the war: They might not have been fighting on the front lines, but they were treated as capable of the same skill, labor, and intelligence as men.
When Claire is thrust into pre-feminist 18th-century Scotland, she’s still that same empowered woman; as a result, she abrades nearly everyone around her, insisting, in Gabaldon’s words, “on being taken at her own worth.” Her Scottish existence is neat allegory for what Claire would’ve experienced if she stayed in 1950s Britain: As a “modern” woman, she would’ve had access to electricity and penicillin, but like the women of the 18th century, she would’ve been expected to return to the home and bear children. “If she’d have stayed [in the ’40s] and became the professor’s wife in Oxford, I don’t know what she would’ve done with that,” Balfe explained. “She would’ve felt completely trapped.”
In this way, Claire rails against the gender politics of 18th-century Scotland the same way that she would’ve railed against the gender politics of 1950s Western culture. She’s a woman attempting to negotiate patriarchy and her own sexual and emotional desires — why, when described this way, does it sound like such a narrative innovation?
Maybe because it’s feminist one. When asked whether Outlander is a feminist text, Gabaldon smartly explained that it depends on one’s definition of feminism: “[Outlander] is about a woman, who is quite confident in who she is as a woman, and that’s one definition of feminist — you take yourself at your own worth, and you demand that others take you at your own estimation.” And the guiding love story of the text is, in many ways, the story of a man becoming a feminist as well: Surrounded by patriarchy, Jamie (Sam Heughan) is nevertheless forced to “take [Claire] at her own estimation”; when they fall in love, it’s because both realize themselves as the other’s equal.
A female and feminist protagonist, an original text that was once labeled “romance” — clearly, Starz has a lot to work against in de-gendering the text female. “The female audience for Outlander is there,” Starz head Chris Albrecht told BuzzFeed, “now we’re simply expanding that fan base [to include men].” And when asked whether men will watch the show, Moore was adamant: “Look, I read the book, I loved the book. When my wife and producing partner gave me the book, they weren’t like, ‘Oh, here’s a romance novel. See what you can do with it.’ They said, ‘Here’s a really good book.’ I don’t see any reason why men won’t watch this show.”
Moore’s right: There’s no legitimate reason why men wouldn’t watch Outlander.
But that doesn’t mean that they will. Because the way that popular culture has developed, there’s an abundance of content for white, straight, middle- and upper-class males, narratives with which they can directly identify or identify aspirationally, while people who aren’t male, white, straight, middle-class develop modes of “negotiation” to place themselves in narratives that otherwise ignore, mistreat, or symbolically annihilate them. Put differently, white men are rotten with options for narrative identification; as a result, they (often) ignore or dislike narratives that force them to step out of their subject position. (See: Rebecca Mead’s excellent argument concerning “the scourge of relatability” in the New Yorker).
In some ways, it makes sense: These men have been groomed to always expect that they will be not only represented, but as the main character. Watching a show like Outlander (or Orange Is the New Black, or Girls, or Real Housewives of Atlanta) is labor — but labor that most audience members have been doing for decades.
Outlander isn’t a perfect show — it’s fun the way Game of Thrones is fun, and it can be similarly over-the-top. The scenery is delicious; the leading man is, let’s be very, very clear, incredibly handsome, and his accent is legit. Claire has some elaborate knitwear that rivals Katniss’. There’s complicated military intrigue and scheming; there are visceral action scenes; there are men being men and living the sort of simple life of honor that, according to Gabaldon, has attracted droves of military servicemen to her books. There are even witches and beautiful interludes that look only slightly as if they belong in the video for Enigma’s “Return to Innocence.”
It has the ingredients of a hit, and the sort of surprising take on genre for which Moore has received well-deserved accolades. But if men avoid this show, it’ll be out of their own lack of adventurousness and reticence — dare I call it cowardice — to engage with a mode that they would otherwise love, simply because a woman is their guide.
A previous version of this story mislabeled Battlestar Galactica as Battleship Galactica. The story has been revised. Thanks to Patricia Chuson for pointing out our mistake in the comments.