‘Outlander’ Is An Extraordinary Case Study For Pleasurable And Nuanced Sex On TV
CC: 'Game of Thrones'.
This article discusses sexual assault and is NSFW. It also contains spoilers for season one of Outlander.
Attention given to the naked body isn’t radical on television. Most shows deal with romance, many with sex, and that sex is often shown onscreen. But which bodies are we used to seeing, and why?
On one of television’s most popular shows, Game of Thrones, characters (mostly women) are frequently naked and presented as objects. They’re regularly leered at and often there are (rarely desired, sometimes violently unwanted) men having sex with them. For many, even some of the show’s most devoted fans, this tiresome dedication to ogling or abusing women’s bodies is becoming a sticking point. As Vulture’s resident Game of Thrones fanatic Nate Jones lamented: “this is one hill I’m getting tired of dying on”.
Perhaps this is why Outlander, which has just started its second season on Foxtel, has become the poster child for a relatively new kind of sex onscreen. This is sex that is dominated by the female gaze both on-camera and behind it. The series, a time-travelling action-romance based on Diana Gabaldon’s supernatural historical romance novels, is often mentioned in the same breath as HBO’s fantasy juggernaut. But Outlander’s approach to sex, and to filmmaking in general, could not be more different.
The Joy Of Sex
In the Hollywood boys’ club, with its disproportionately large numbers of straight male writers and directors, sex on TV has traditionally been geared to titillate straight male viewers. The men (onscreen, behind the camera and in the audience) are doing the looking; the women are being looked at. It’s no surprise then that as the TV landscape diversifies (albeit slowly) the sex has diversified as well, broadening the scope to include sex that engages a female (and increasingly, queer) viewership. Shows run by women, with female writers and directors, are making sex scenes that directly address women’s pleasure — on-camera and off-.
Take Girls: a show that, for better or worse, is analogous to women on TV. In its first season, Marnie (Alison Williams) meets a cocky artist at a gallery opening who gets her hot. She then quickly makes her way to the bathroom and masturbates. It’s at once utilitarian and deeply sensual. Marnie doesn’t need to undress (and bare her body for a male viewer). She doesn’t need a guy. She just needs to get off. The scene understands a rarely-seen female desire that’s entirely separate from male pleasure in a fundamental and powerful way. It’s also written and directed by a woman, Lena Dunham.
In Puberty Blues, the Aussie 1970s-set coming-of-age drama from 2014, there’s a wonderful moment in which Sue (Brenna Harding), on confessing to her mother that she doesn’t like sex, is given a copy of The Joy of Sex. Sue’s mother (Susie Porter) tells her: “Now you’re going to choose one, teach him to listen, and then you tell him where to go”. When Sue and her partner (the gentle Woody) find what works for her, we know, because afterwards she wanders down the beach alone, beaming.
This noteworthy scene was written by Alice Bell and directed by Emma Freeman, and it represents a growing trend of TV made by women, for women. Showrunners are increasingly presuming female audiences want to see the kind of sex onscreen that satisfies them — and boy, are they delivering.
Outlander was always likely to attract a largely female audience, and the series is carefully constructed from top to bottom to cater to that viewership. It stars Caitriona Balfe as the sharp WWII nurse Claire Beauchamp, who is the story’s unquestioned focal point; the writers’ room (run by executive producer Ron D. Moore) is dominated by three female writers (Maril Davis, Anne Kenney and Toni Graphia) and many of the best episodes are directed by Anna Foerster. What results is a show that fully embraces not only pleasure but also a distinctly female “gaze”.
For the uninitiated, Outlander follows Claire and her kindly but unexciting husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) to the Scottish Highlands to reignite their strained relationship after the war. When Claire touches some mystical ancient stones she’s flung back in time 200 years to 1743 amid the impending Jacobite rebellion, fought by the Scottish clans against the British Redcoats.
Claire is in near constant danger here, at once shrewd and naïve about the world she’s been dropped into. Her medical expertise (which some perceive as witchcraft) and her British heritage make her especially vulnerable. She then finds an ally in a strapping, gloriously-maned (virginal) farmer named Jamie (Sam Heughan). Jamie is not only Outlander’s answer to the modern beefcake, but also charming, funny and romantic. In a moment of crisis, Claire agrees to marry him for protection.
The arrangement carries with it a great deal of conflict: Claire is attracted to him, but she still loves her husband, Frank. Also marriage in 1743 means consummation, and so Jamie and Claire approach their wedding night, midway through the show’s first season, with a sense of duty to keep one another safe.
If this sounds like an odd romantic scenario for a 21st-century TV show, it is (though for romance novels it is pretty standard). Thankfully, in the deft hands of Foerster and Kenney, the episode, ‘The Wedding’ is, as Roxane Gay puts it: “perfect, poignant, and perfect”. Claire and Jamie talk and laugh, getting to know and care for each other; then, finally, they consummate their marriage. The first encounter is rushed and desperate and Jamie wonders whether Claire has enjoyed herself as much as he did. So the next time (and the next) Claire directs Jamie to maximise both their pleasure.
“Take off your shirt,” she commands. “I want to look at you.” Jamie does, and Claire circles him, running her hands across his sculpted body (while viewers everywhere explode with joy). The camera clings, but it doesn’t leer. It appreciates Jamie’s nakedness and vulnerability and it looks at him, unquestioningly, with Claire’s desiring eye. (Just as, when Claire later undresses for him, the camera gazes with Claire’s own directive empowerment.)
From ‘The Wedding’ on, Jamie and Claire’s relationship is defined by the tender bond they forged in the bedroom; as their love for each other grows, so does their ability to deliver pleasure. When Jamie finally learns that Claire is from the future, his acceptance of that strange fact only brings them closer together.
This attention to a kind of intimate sex that’s equally focused on a woman’s pleasure as well as a man’s is so rarely seen that even small moments like Marnie’s self-pleasure on Girls are radical and rare enough to be analysed at length. However, on Outlander this radical sex isn’t just a feature; it’s the essential theme on which the entire show hinges.
TV And Trauma
Though Outlander is often a celebration of the exquisite joy that can match sex with love, the series doesn’t shy away from the darker, violent side of sex. From the moment Claire arrives in 1743, the spectral possibility of rape hovers over Outlander. Then, at the end of the first season, in one of the most horrific and violent scenes ever put to a TV screen, Jamie is captured and raped by a Redcoat (the sadistic Black Jack Randall) who threatened Claire in the show’s very first episode.
The rape is sickeningly violent, and the camera doesn’t shy away from the torture. To add to the violation, as Jack attacks Jamie, he drugs him and conjures memories of Claire that are destined to haunt Jamie through his recovery. In these scenes, also directed by Foerster, the perspective switches to Jamie, and we experience his pain through an attentive camera that clings to his broken body as viscerally as when it lovingly gazed on him in ‘The Wedding’.
The scenes, which are impossible to ignore in any examination of Outlander and sex on TV, are harrowing, and though there’s a compelling argument against the filming of sexual torture that seems routine on contemporary television, Moore is adamant of its worth. “This is part of the story that is absolutely necessary to the book. There’s really no way not to do it. This is a horrific situation, so it should be horrific.”
Jamie and Claire eventually escape, not just from Jack but also from Scotland. When season two begins they have arrived in France, determined to quell the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion. Playing courtier spies at the palace in Versailles, one would think that the tone of Outlander has returned to its usual, roguish self. But Jamie is still traumatised from his encounter with Jack, and his intimacy with Claire has eroded. The series allows Jamie time to grieve, and in these opening episodes we see things from his perspective as well as hers.
It’s rare for a show to give so much attention to a character’s recovery from sexual violence. In fact — as any Game of Thrones fan will know — the persistent violation of bodies (both male and female) is rarely given much attention beyond the initial act of violence. Sex is not always for fun, and sexual trauma should never be used for shock value. The writers and directors of Outlander understand this, as well as Melissa Rosenberg whose exploration of the aftereffects of trauma refined her excellent first season of Jessica Jones.
It’s significant, on a show that relies heavily on steamy sexual encounters, that the first few episodes of season two are missing sex between its leads. But Outlander’s nuanced understanding of sex and intimacy (and how deeply affecting it can be beyond mere male titillation) is now allowing the show to grow. Sex brought two soulmates, separated by 200 years, together; sex has compelled a couple to change history; and no doubt sex, which has betrayed Jamie, will also be the thing that bonds him back to Claire.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Outlander airs 8.30pm Sundays on Foxtel’s SoHo.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.