Monday Morning Critic: How ‘Outlander’ is Turning the Tables on Sexuality on Television
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
The most vital piece of television criticism this past week came from The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan. In writing about the recent string of ‘Outlander’ episodes, she noted something revolutionary in its storytelling, primarily centered around its catering to the female gaze. It’s an important piece not only for what it uncovers, but also in how both Ryan’s article (and ‘Outlander’ itself) are another piece of the ever-evolving viewpoints that TV can sustain and foster.
When it comes to criticism in any form, it’s often easy to entrench oneself in a certain stance after months/years of discovering an entry point into a particular medium. While that can certainly yield worthy and diverse viewpoints, it can only do so if critics themselves are worthy and diverse. What is often most dangerous when it comes to cultural analysis isn’t willful ignorance, but the inability to even fathom that which one does not know. It’s a benign form of ignorance in terms of intent but equally dangerous and upsetting in actual execution. What’s becoming increasingly clear as the identities of those practicing TV criticism evolve from the predominant archetype of that position (that being “heterosexual white male”) is that while there have never been more words written about television, we still have an enormous way to go in terms of the perspectives deployed in those words.
A quick aside that will hopefully illuminate the problem as I see it: Back in high school, I knew several gay and lesbian classmates. Many of them told me (sometimes in great detail) their own coming out stories. It occurred to me that coming out was something they had to do, but I would never be expected to also perform. I had never thought about coming out as a heterosexual, because it wouldn’t “make sense” to do so. Heterosexuality was the normal vantage point for myself and the majority of those I knew, and as such, wasn’t something that had to be declared but rather something that was passively accepted as the default position.
When I mentioned this observation to some of my straight classmates, I was met with mockery and assertions that I myself must be gay for even thinking about such things in the first place.
What bothered me, and still bothers me, about that incident isn’t simply the ignorance on display. (That’s troubling, sure, but unfortunately not exactly shocking.) Rather, what bothers me was their sheer inability to step outside their own perspective and see things from another angle, even for a moment. The fact that this occurred while discussing sexuality is not surprising and precisely why Ryan’s article about ‘Outlander’ last week was so necessary. It’s been more than 20 years since that high school incident, and while we love to pretend we’re more enlightened about things in the decades since, the truth is we’re still very afraid to have substantial conversations about sex and sexuality due to fear, shame, or simply because we’ve been taught that both are things to suppress rather than celebrate.
The arts (and I definitely consider TV to be part of the arts, since I don’t work for The New York Times) can help foster useful spaces for conversation around difficult topics, but it’s alarming how many times television shies away from topics of sexuality rather than engage with them. Sure, we can see all sorts of gore at 2 pm on a cable rerun, but heavens forbid we see genitalia at 10 pm on a major network. And even when we can see the human form devoid of clothing, the depictions are monotonous at best. Sex in popular culture generally takes the form of the titillating or the victorious: The physical act of sex in TV and movies either exists as low-hanging fruit to entertain viewers or serve as the reward for a hero at a key point in (usually) his journey. Neither form is particularly interested in anything other than the physiology of sex, which is fine but also finite. There are only so many combinations one can portray inside this particular vector.
In other words, television is sometimes interested in depicting sex but rarely in depicting desire. And even when television does depict desire, it does so from the straight male perspective, casting its gaze (via the camera lens) at the female form as the primary object of desire. This isn’t just about the propensity for shows to show full frontal female over full frontal male by an astonishing ratio, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s about the fact that those making the shows are cut from the same anthropological form as those cover the shows, which creates an insanely insular feedback loop in which predominantly straight white men create television shows that are reviewed by predominantly straight white men.
Now, as one of those straight white men, I should theoretically have no problem with this. All these shows are in my wheelhouse, right? And yet, I have found myself increasingly bored with the output over the past few years, even if I was unable to put a finger on why. What Ryan’s article demonstrates is why I was unable to pinpoint the locus of my increasingly gloomy attitude: I had no idea what I was missing until it was put in front of my face in the form of television that explored the world from perspectives outside of my own, including (but certainly not limited to) sexuality. These shows took the form of 'Spartacus,' 'Penny Dreadful,' 'Orange Is The New Black,' 'Enlightened,' the recent show 'Transparent,' and yes, 'Outlander,' just to mention a mere handful of programs that realized television could provide an outlet for more than the same stale stories.
What my so-called high school friends didn’t realize is the same thing many television viewers currently don’t realize: Stories told outside of the “normal” viewpoints are as much for them as for those depicted onscreen. The best television makes universal points through specific examples, and while I can’t say I know a damn thing about life in a woman’s prison or in 18th-century Scotland, I know a hell of a lot about the characters that 'Orange' and ‘Outlander’ depicts in those spaces. Those portrayals demonstrate just how closely related those experiences are to my own, or more specifically, how these experiences touch my own in ways I hadn’t consciously realized. The shows above are about “connection” more than anything else, the desire to not feel alone in a world that seems hellbent on fostering isolation, separation, seclusion, and silence. These show don’t speak truth to power. They simply speak, in and of itself a form of supreme bravery. In doing so, they call attention to issues, perspectives, and lives that have heretofore been muted. They have been as muted in real life as they have on the small screen as well.
But mercifully, they are silenced no more.
What’s so bracing about shows as those listed above lies in knowing there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of shows percolating in the minds of those empowered to either write or greenlight such programs. To embrace shows which celebrate the female gaze such as ‘Outlander’ means embracing more shows that are interested in desire as a partnership as opposed to a conquest. Putting Claire as the experienced sexual partner in the same room as virgin groom Jamie was interesting and unique enough. But the ways in which the show demonstrated that Jamie’s naiveté was something to admit rather than hide was downright revolutionary. That admission simply doesn’t happen very often in pop culture, if at all, except in terms of mockery. Jamie is normally the object of scorn. Here, he’s the damn hero, absolutely worthy because of, not in spite of, his status.
I refuse to believe there weren’t many men watching ‘Outlander’ that were sympathizing with Jamie’s plight, which made Claire’s reactions and adjustments to this fact all the more compelling. Rather than shame Jamie’s innocence nor mock Claire’s experience, the show took these two and placed them on equal footing through respect, humor, and yes, desire. Their bedroom was the safest space in all of Scotland, one in which honesty yielded beauty, and yes, some hellacious orgasms. By refashioning “curiosity” as a source of strength rather than weakness, ‘Outlander’ turned the tables on normal sexual tropes on television.
But it’s important to note that the majority of the episode centered on conversation, not coitus. What made the pair comfortable was not that the sex got better, but that they started to get to know one another more. And while it’s wholly pretentious to take that and apply it to the notion of small-screen sexuality in general, I do think it’s important to draw that connection all the same. When people are afraid to ask a question, they are unable to learn. “Outlander,” and the other shows above, excel at asking the very questions on the tips of millions of tongues. But only these shows seemingly dare to utter them. And the results of those questions not only improve the lives of those onscreen, but those off as well. People respond to these shows because they are anxious for these conversations to happen. They just need the right push. (In this arrangement, we are Jamie, and ‘Outlander’ is Claire.)
Once you start watching shows like these, it’s impossible to be satisfied with those that do not engage in these kinds of conversations. These programs cast light on a brand new world that sits not only adjacent to, but enveloped within, the very one we already know. Understanding that overlap is the key to the very kinds of connection that these fantastic programs depict. There’s nothing more vital the medium can do that tell us stories that entertain as well as educate. We’ve been re-learning the same lessons for decades. It’s not about learning something we don’t know. It’s about learning something we didn’t even know we needed to know.
Being open to those kinds of lessons doesn’t just make you a good TV viewer, but a better person. It’s not about understanding who we are, but who we want to be.