Is Outlander Still a Groundbreaking TV Show?

(first posted at outlandercast in February 2019)
Just to set the scene here — The Outlander story is important to me. I am as much a die-hard Outlander fan as anyone. I have all the credentials: repeated viewings, bingeing, reading all the books and listening to all the audio books multiple times. I visit the Outlander locations and watch the filming on occasion (if I am lucky enough to be in bonny Scotland). And importantly, I am not one to complain and pick the nits from the book-to-screen transition. I understand that it’s a different medium, with different constraints and priorities for storytelling.

All that said, I was aware that after each episode of Outlander Season 4, I found myself becoming sadder and sadder about what has become of Jamie and Claire in the on-screen version of my favourite book-based story. This is not about the production of the show or the look of the show; it’s about the feel of the show. The feel of the story of our central couple, the hero and heroine, has changed so much, and I have a sense of loss from this.

Actually, it’s about two things — sex and feminism.

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Australian TV show Jack Irishhad this take on Outlander.

When Outlander the show was new, commentators and critics used descriptions like “ground- breaking,” “radical” and “progressive.” Outlander was hailed as a cutting-edge TV show. This was essentially because the depiction of the central couple was in fact radically different from anything hitherto seen on television. There was much talk of the female gaze and a feminist perspective. We were shown a relationship where heterosexual sexuality was expressed in an egalitarian fashion. Please note that I am not referring at all to the sexual assault scenes of Outlander(which are about power relationships, not sexuality) but the consensual sexuality of Jamie and Claire.

And they had fun, too.

outlander and the female gaze, is outlander still a groundbreaking tv show, jamie and claire in bed

In the early days the producers, writers and actors alike seemed to revel in this analysis of the show. Ron D. Moore said that the show would not have gratuitous sex, but instead they would show what really happens in a sexual relationship (between a consenting heterosexual couple). And if my memory serves me correctly,  I heard Sam Heughan say that this show is different because we don’t fade to black in the intense, intimate moments. Then, they started fading to black.

Why the change? Some say that with so much material to cover from the books there just isn’t time to focus so closely on Jamie and Claire’s intimate life. To that I would ask, why then is there SO MUCH time to spend on people wandering, stumbling, hobbling or being dragged through the countryside, and feeding goats and horses, doing the washing and passing the potatoes. (ye ken?)

In one interview (maybe at San Diego Comicon?) in response to an interviewer jokingly mentioning that his grandmother liked the sex scenes, Caitriona Balfe said she loves that an old woman finds it thrillingly sexy and hopes that when she’s that age that can happen for her.

More recently, on November 23rd, 2018 (when interviewed by Debra Birnbaum on Remote Controlled) Balfe was asked again about possible upcoming sex scenes in the show. She said that when Outlander first screened, she was shocked that people were lauding their sex scenes as somehow revolutionary, and she discovered that women were starved for representation and for stories told from a female point of view.  “There’s a lot of horny grannies out there,” she said. However she went on to say that it was easier to depict the sex scenes for a couple falling in love and meeting for the first time, that this fits easily with the narrative. But it’s difficult fitting this in to the lives of a couple who have been together for a long time — how to keep it new, fresh and interesting. How to make it part of the plot without just shoe-horning sex scenes into the story is a challenge for the actors and the writers going forward. She said fans may just have to get their titillation elsewhere.

There is surely a shift in attitude as the series has progressed. At the same time, the actors, producers and writers often cite their ability to refer to the source material, Diana Gabaldon’s books. When consulting the source material as a whole (not just individual scenes perhaps?), do they not see that Jamie and Claire’s enduring bond is the molten core of the story? And that they continue to be a couple where sex (and really passionate, intense sex) is integral, and a frequent occurrence in their relationship? And not just the languid, tender moments and longing looks we mostly saw in OutlanderSeason 4, as sweet and lovely as they were. Their sexual relationship is not a plot line for this warrior couple; it is a refuge, a sacred space for the two of them, which underlies and enhances the plot.

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Remember when make-up sex was really passionate?

For those who are not book readers and may not know the intensity of this attachment between Claire and Jamie even as they grow older, here is an excerpt from ‘An Echo in the Bone’ when Jamie and Claire are around 60 years old. It’s a scene in the chapter ‘Transverse Lie’, where Claire is returning home exhausted after attending a difficult childbirth … Jamie comes out and meets her on the path home ….

“I need you, please,” she whispered, her mouth against his, and without reply he took her up in his arms … and kissed her deep, then put her down and led her down the hill, the light snow seeming to melt away from their feet as they walked.

It seemed like no time at all to reach the barn …. It was too cold to undress, but he laid his cloak in the straw, her upon it, and lay upon her, both of them shivering as they kissed, so their teeth clacked together and they drew back, snorting.

“This is silly,” she said. “I can see my breath, — and yours. It’s cold enough to blow smoke rings. We’ll freeze.”

“No we won’t. Ken the way the Indians make fire?”

“What, rubbing a dry stick on a ….”

“Aye, friction.” He’d got her petticoats up; her thigh was smooth and cold under his hand. “I see it’s no going to be dry, though — Christ Sassenach, what have ye been about?’“He had her firmly in the palm of his hand, warm and soft and juicy, and she squealed at the chill of his touch, loud enough that one of the mules let out a startled wheeze. She wriggled, just enough to make him take his hand out from between her legs and insert something else, quick.

…. He wanted to simply let go at once .. (but) A dim sense of obligation reminded him that she’d asked him for this; she needed it. He couldn’t go and leave her wanting.

And so it goes on … and on ….. and on … until ….

He pulled out the finger and guddled her, light and quick, all along the slick deep parts, feeling his own cock under his fingers, big and slippery, stretching her ….

He made a terrible noise himself — like a dying cow — but was too happy to be shamed.

“Ye’re no verra peaceful, Sassenach,” he murmured a moment later, …. “But I like ye fine.”

To show a scene like that on television, an ‘older’ couple married for many, many years having sex like that, would be quite a challenge to our society’s youth culture, and would indeed be ground-breaking.

Executive Producer Maril Davis said that the scene in Outlander Episode 401 where Jamie and Claire have sex in the woods (after shaking off Stephen Bonnet), was a “nod” to a very sexy scene in the book. In the book, Jamie happens upon Claire who has decided to have a bit of hot sex with herself while waiting for him to turn up! The scene in the book is wondrous, because, harking back to the wedding night when the naïve young Jamie did not know women could have orgasms, here, the much older Jamie did not know that women could masturbate. This is an example of how in the source material Jamie and Claire are always discovering and enjoying new things about each other, often reflecting their different perspectives and understandings from different times. The TV scene, which opened with Claire dabbing Jamie’s naked torso with some kind of damp cloth, does not really evoke the intent of the book. To show that scene would’ve been radical, like the good old days.

So, what did some of the commentators say back in those good old days?

In her 2014 HuffPost article “Outlander and the Female Gaze: Why Women Are Watching,” Jenny Trout wrote:

‘Outlander presents a fantasy that doesn’t seek to appease the pornography-influenced tastes of a straight male audience…
Outlander is a drama crafted for the straight female gaze…Instead of painting female pleasure on the male terms of the virgin/whore dichotomy, the audience is shown sex as a normal, matter-of-fact piece of the relationship puzzle.”

“Female sexuality isn’t demonised, and engaging in sex doesn’t diminish Claire as a character,” she continues. “Outlander is the rare television drama that shows us a woman who is sexually experienced without being the villain of the piece, and a man who sees her desire and pleasure as a participatory experience, rather than an object to edify his own importance.”

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“It’s far too easy to suggest that the repressed desires of bored housewives are driving Outlander’s success,” Trout notes. ”Women know better. When presented with a complex, emotionally engaging plot and sensual content that doesn’t degrade or shame female sexuality, they’ll tune in, gladly. If the growing fan base is any indication, Outlander is the show that television has been needing for a long, long time’.

In the online literary journal, Overload, Jodi Mcalister added her take on this phenomenon in her 2014 article, ‘The Radical, Romantic Female Gaze of Outlander’.

Outlander, she writes, shows us a “relationship which is radically egalitarian, given the power dynamics inherent not only in the heterosexual relationships of the eighteenth century but also those we frequently see on screen. Jamie does not want to just look at or sleep with Claire: he wants to know her, to talk to her, to listen to her, to understand her. He is anxious to know whether she enjoys sex — ‘did you like it?’ he asks Claire immediately following their first sexual encounter.”

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‘Their communicative, caring and mutually participatory sex life, governed by a romantic erotics of talk, is a welcome contrast to both common male gaze-driven scenes elsewhere and to the scenes of sexual violence within the show, where male aggressors attempt to treat the female body as an object to overpower and use. In ”The Wedding,” in Outlander Season 1, “without the threat of sexual violence, the female viewer can be content simply to take pleasure in looking,” Mcalister writes.

More recently, on October 23rd, 2017 Carly Lane wrote a piece for SYFY called ”It’s No Coincidence that the Sexiest Episodes of Outlander Were Written By Women.“This was written ahead of the much anticipated print shop reunion of Jamie and Claire.

The Wedding, … was hailed back in Season 1 for its unapologetic representation of the female gaze on-screen; it felt revolutionary in a sea of ill-conceived and lazy depictions of sex on television, many of which aired within that same time frame. A. Malcolm feels primed to garner similar praise for a lot of the same reasons. It’s what both episodes share, however, that should be a leading focus among critics: the perspective of a female filmmaker. When episodes like these are demonstrating the potential of sexual representation on-screen and the consideration afforded to female desire, anything less feels like table scraps. Outlander may not be for every fan, but the statements it’s choosing to put forward about sex are proof of a positive shift in the realm of genre television.”

Unfortunately, those days seem to have disappeared.

Outlander is no longer spoken of as radical, ground-breaking, revolutionary and/or progressive. Even though it has the most amazingly wonderful production values and fabulous actors, it has become, in many ways, another historical drama. The show is brimming with adventures, cliff hangers, great characters and performances, social commentary and lots of sentimentality. It has lost touch, however, with the thrust and depth (puns intended) of the writings of Diana Gabaldon, who shows us a relationship like nothing we have seen before on television — an egalitarian relationship where the joy, intensity, fun, playfulness and excitement of being a couple never stops for Claire and Jamie, despite the passing of years and all the dramas that develop and revolve around them.

outlander and the female gaze, is outlander still a groundbreaking tv show, jamie and claire having sex season 1

outlander and the female gaze, is outlander still a groundbreaking tv show, jamie and claire having sex season 1

I will always watch Outlander, and will wait for each season with bated breath to see my favourite characters and stories brought to life in such a magnificent production. And I will always hope that some of the flames of OutlanderSeason One may be rekindled. That thrill and newness is never lost in the books. But right now, for me, sadly, Outlander the TV show has lost its beating heart and its cutting edge.

P.S. In a post OutlanderSeason 4 finale interview with Julie Kosin of Harpers Bazaar, Sam Heughan said that he and Caitriona Balfe are “hoping to have a lot more influence in the characters and the storyline, and be part of that creatively” for OutlanderSeason 5. He said they want to “influence the journey and the story and also to be the guardians of our characters and to protect that,“ Let’s hope that is the case, and that these two can reclaim their original authenticity, their presence, and let their juicy chemistry flow into the show once again. As we all know, together, Balfe and Heughan are a sensational tour de force.

 

 

 

 

Andrée Poppleton

20 comments

  1. This was brilliant! Thank you.

    Now that S6 has been seen and they’re busy on S7 I think we’ve seen more information come to light. For one – times have changed. Me Too came along and I think really altered the course of the way sexuality is treated as a whole on the screen. Much more care is taken with the actors and their level of comfort. Before, they just had to “put out” as it were. That’s a good thing.

    Sam & Caitriona have talked about how they were thrown in at the deep end by being sent to a room for a week by themselves to pretty much block a lot of the sex scenes. (I think they did a brilliant job, btw. I’ve never seen such honesty and raw vulnerability depicted in scenes of this nature. Not salacious or leering, not gratuitous, but pure and absolutely beautiful. So real I felt like a fly on the wall.) But it was apparently at some cost to them. They were under a lot of pressure to keep that up time after time. They didn’t want to become repetitive, were running out of ideas and they really didn’t know how the camera would depict them.

    Also, in the male rape scene Sam lost trust in the director. He felt taken advantage of. He fought the frontal nudity that they were requiring. He found it gratuitous. Thankfully those moments were cut. But it did leave him with a bad taste in his mouth. Trust is paramount for those scenes.

    Then Caitriona became engaged and married. I saw a real difference after that. Even in the A. Malcolm episode there were already new obvious boundaries in place. Some of it seemed unnatural to me. Sam was clearly no longer allowed to touch her nipples for example. He could circle them but not get too close. Other blocking changed as well. She was far more covered up. She no longer touched his buttocks. It all seemed far more careful and choreographed than before. In some ways they didn’t strike me as two people reuniting after 20 years. I liked the shyness and the sense that they were having to get to know each other again. But when it came down to it – their time in bed showed the awkwardness, yes, and urgency, yes, but within very set parameters which got in the way for me. The way he moved on her body was not as real as we had seen in earlier seasons.
    Even so – should her marriage be respected? Of course. But it did change things.

    In ensuing S3 episodes there were some wonderfully romantic scenes that were far more suggestive than explicit. I enjoyed them. But it was different.
    I’m not saying we have to see everything all the time. It just lost that wholesome abandon that was so startling and refreshing. And sometimes it no longer seemed real.

    In S4 I saw what you said so eloquently.

    In S5 there were some astonishingly powerful scenes between Sam & Cait. But the whole tone of their sex life was on a different path. I understand that Jamie & Claire are aging. But to your point, they have a real opportunity to do for aging what they did for the female gaze.

    When he became a producer Sam brought on an Intimacy Coordinator in S6 to help them liaise with the production team. It helped them a lot. But Cait was pregnant which made things awkward. We did see in the finale a return to some of that old passion we saw at the beginning – within the limitations they were dealing with.

    Who knows what will happen in S7. Sam says the IC has given them tools to help them explore those scenes even more. All within a stronger respect for the safety and comfort of the actors.
    I’m looking forward to it. But I have the sense that what we saw in early Outlander is a thing of the past. I have mixed feelings about it. I want the actors to be comfortable. But something has been lost as well.

  2. I think most of the Outlander fandom is a little disappointed in the evolution of the intimate scenes between Jamie and Claire. While you want the actors to feel safe and comfortable, you don’t want the core of Jamie and Claire to be sacrificed. The actors have repeatedly stated that they are very comfortable with each other and completely trust each other, so I feel like some of the changes have been unnecessary. I also feel that the actors have repeatedly stated that they are like brother and sister and that pops in my head every time they have any physical contact. Even their kissing has diminished to either unnatural puckers or gaping mouths that I find repulsive. I love Outlander and will faithfully watch it for as long as it lasts, but the flame is no longer there.

    1. Since they hired the IC I have been disappointed in their intimate scenes. They seem to lack the passion in previous seasons. When a couple are intimate they touch each other everywhere. The man kisses the woman’s nipples and their kisses are more passionate. The couple French kiss (which I know they can’t do) but in previous seasons it was implied. I hope we see more of previous seasons than we have since she hired. I wished they would get rid of her or she needs to review previous seasons and adjust.

    2. I agree. I miss the actual kissing. The open mouths with no contact seem sad to me. As well as the kissing the other between the nose and mouth with mouths closed.
      Like you, I understand the reasons but it looks like they don’t want to kiss. And these characters would want to kiss.
      A.Malcolm fell flat for me, too, for the same reasons.Theirs eyes and bodies show intimacy, their lack of kissing makes things less than they were.

  3. I was a late bloomer and saw Outlanders in October of 21. I found out how different streaming was to cable and was glad I no longer had kids at home. Season 1 put a spark back in my Heart, of how much I missed the soulmate of a man. What’s the chance of finding a Jamie tho? The power of Love ( yes a song) filled the rooms of my home again, after divorce. When the episodes began their travels in history, I was really enjoying the story. Yes, we always go back to season 1 and watch again, and that should tell us what we are really missing in our lives..too bad , but true. We need to get back to soul searching together as lovers , families and our lives. TY Outlander/cast, Sam, Cait, Diana.

    1. I, like you, did not become familiar with Outlander until January of 2021. I’d just lost my “Jamie” to a brief, painful and devastating battle with pancreatic cancer. I am a nurse and after years of an unfulfilling marriage, and several years alone, literally stumbled upon my true soulmate. We had 2 unbelievable years together and then suddenly, unbearable loss. As I watched Outlander, I felt a kindred spirit with the character Claire. As she experienced the loss of her life (as she’d known it), fear, uncertainty of her future, I cried for her and for myself.

      The love story, intimacy (non-sexual and sexual) between the characters of Jamie and Claire, tracked so closely to my own experience over the previous two years. As I watched their story unfold, I celebrated with them, grieved with them and as I did so I realized that this Outlander story, this outstanding production in all it’s beauty, splendor, pain and suffering was given to me at a time when I needed it most. It helped me cry, grieve, ask questions about life, exactly at a time when I’ve most needed it.

      Tomorrow marks one year since my handsome, strong, intelligent, funny, adventuresome “God’s gift to me and to the world” passed through the veil.
      He is so very missed…

      As fans of Outlander, we may miss the young, early days of Jamie and Claire. I prefer to leave the actors personal lives out of the discussion,in respect for the lives that they live away from the screen. I don’t know them, but have tremendous respect for their skill as actors.

      I commend the writers, actors, myriad of staff who bring this beautiful story to us. It’s as perfect as life can be as it winds it’s way along, with it’s twists and turns and I cannot wait for Season 7!

      I hope that you continue to enjoy the series and character development as much as I do. Here’s to love stories that last forever!

  4. Many good points although I love Outlander as much for the love Claire and Jamie bear each other as for the wild passion between them of the early seasons. This story is bigger than their beautiful sex scenes although like all young love, it’s hard to watch that early passion wane. But I think that too is real, perhaps even more real than it continuing status quo.

    The evolution of this exceptional cast of storytellers has grown so beautifully and I know that I am still longing to see more of them as the relationships have deepened. With or without the sweeping love scenes, Outlander, so spectacularly portrayed by Claire and Jamie remains one of the greatest love stories of all time. And I will never get enough of them whether I see more intimacy or not. If the price of losing more intimacy is safety and respect for the actors, I’ll take it just as it is.

    The epidemic of objectifying our stars is so rampant and so damaging to so many, especially when we consider the young people subjected to so much of it, more care is worth whatever it takes to protect their collective psyches and these amazing actors who empty themselves to reveal everything and bring us the truth of the story.

    So let’s take a breath and enjoy them while they are still here to inspire and transport us. As it is, we are on the eve of Season 7 and soon, as the cast of Outlander, they will all be gone from our lives.

  5. An IC- intimacy coordinator’s job is expected to ensure that:

    1. All staff and actors are AWARE of the context of the intimacy as part of the story,

    2. COMMUNICATION about the intimacy takes place among participants and avenues for reporting harassment are available,

    3. Actors continually CONSENT to all scenes of intimacy,

    4. All scenes of intimacy are PERFORMED according to a PREVIOUSLY AGREED-TO CHOREOGRAPHY,

    5.Actors are ENCOURAGED to MARK THE END OF EACH INTIMATE SCENE with a moment to SIGNAL THE RETURN TO REAL-LIFE INTERACTION.

    The role of IC-intimacy COORDINATOR is not to be confused with that of an “intimacy CHOREOGRAPHER”, who specializes in the techniques of staging intimate scenes.

    IMO S6 was less intimate, maybe due to Caitriona being pregnant & I seen a disconnect in their acting, possibly cuz covid shoots, pregnant or her husband etc…

    The point is that after S5, it lost something, I don’t see the character connection or chemistry as before. It seems distant and not extremly special as prior. Regardless of intimacy or not.

    Starz also represents P-Valley, you think they have an IC there?? They have various actor/actresses doing way more then what OL has done.

    As long as all parties are aware, communicate prior, consent & agree to an intimate scene and all that it entails, its all good.

    1. I kinda see there relationship differently – do not kill the messenger here ladies – just my opinion and my observation. In the beginning season one and even season 2 / I believe that there was something else at play with Sam and Caitriona.. IMO and not to be debated .. I saw true feelings being emoted on screen . And when they realized the series was gonna keep going – one of them or both – pulled the plug .. that’s when you saw the gradual decline and when she met Tony .. undeniable. And that’s ok . Just my take ❣️

      1. Agree 100%. During S1, they appeared so many times together outside the show-always with looks at each other that seemed more than brother and sister. We don’t see that anymore either!

  6. Tatiana,
    I agree with you that the connection between Jamie and Claire in season was missing something. I felt like their lack of communication was hard to watch. I haven’t read the book that season 6 is based on so I don’t know if the series and book were different in that aspect. Let’s hope that they get reconnected in season 7.

  7. The show has a loyal following though no longer a groundbreaking show. The lower ratings have shown that and this has been shown that it’s indeed of the reasons the show has not been extended beyond a season 7.
    I do not personally think that the main co stars Caitriona and Sam Heughan have lost the spark of the early seasons, in my honest opinion their connection has grown to show a mature and more adult relationship with less of the playfulness of the younger days, but strongly connected no less. The intimate scenes in season 6 have shown a real affection and comfort with each other and for me is not simply based on fewer intimate touches. I never saw it that way. I actually saw an awkwardness to the sex scene in the Malcolm episode in season 3, snd I thought that the showing of Sam (Jamie) falling on Cait’s nose made it terribly awkward and comical. I must say though that the sex intimate scenes of the earlier episodes looked very theatrical and stage like. Perhaps it was meant to be that way given the personal situation of the actors. Whatever their personal lives were I feel should not have to affect the performance given that an actor is well aware of that. Caitriona in a relationship and Sam’s own sexuality should not have affected that. I am now gravitated towards the beauty and natural erotic scenes of the new Lady Chatterly’s Lover on Netflix. It was so beautiful and moving and powerful.

  8. I do agree in a change of intimacy in Outlander but a comfortable change. The newness of young love and sex is more animalistic (sorry for that example) but that desire of having that person everyway and all the time takes your breath away and your heart skips a beat. In S3 Claire comes back to Jaime and I can relate to the awkwardness of the older body and the movement in bed (getting your hair pulled or getting a cramp) it definitely happens as you get older but there is a comfort with the intimacy that comes with age. So, yes there is a change but a natural aging change that is a comfort of respect that only comes with maturity. There might be a time when they just think about having sex and that will be enough. I know, that’s me. Kutos to Claire and Jaime for bringing it to the screen in a realistic fashion in both decades. They are so good.

  9. There was definitely a change in chemistry between Sam and Cait in s6. The spark from before was no longer there. I can understand why though. Cait is in love with her real husband and now child. Before she married she was free to express herself with handsome Sam, there were distractions..
    Sam has also mentioned in the pass that he and Cait have a brother and sister relationship…I have to admit, knowing this takes away from the show for me….Maybe Sam said this to reassure Cait’s husband that he has no real romantic feelings for Cait, maybe I’m wrong but I just don’t think it was wise for Sam to have said this..But I will still watch the show because it’s so much more than just that, and Cait and Sam are just incredible actors.

  10. Outlander- ALL of the episodes are awesome to me in their own way. I get the lovemaking isn’t as sexy as the episodes have progressed. To me that is much like real life- we get more comfortable.
    Yes!! I would like to see more action, but with each book, the main stars are ageing. I have read all the books 3x and love them all as the characters age, some die, more are born, like mine and my loving husband’s life has matured!!

  11. I have to say, I am very disappointed with the writers, implying that with age , you lose the desire and passion for eachother.. my husband and I are in our 70’s , and still enjoy making love..just as much as when we were young and just as often.
    I do realise that there are those who give up on intimacy and can’t be bothered anymore.
    I believe the show is now lacking the spark that drew us all in..in the first season, and has declined eversince..
    Both Caite and Sam still have beautiful biodiesel, So let’s see them more often..

  12. To me Outlander is more than just the sex scenes. It is a story about the love between two people and how life can affect it. If they are true soulmates as I believe the characters of Jamie and Claire are, they can survive anything as long as they stick together no matter what things are thrown at them.

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