Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
I hadn't actually heard of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels before Starz dropped the show's pilot online ahead of its premiere earlier this month. The new series, which is adapted from the books, is repeatedly heralded as the feminist answer to Game of Thrones, so I felt compelled to tune in at least for one episode.
At first, I just wanted to see if "feminist" had become the buzzword-centric way of saying that a show has a female protagonist. The "I am woman, hear me roar, and please represent my interests on television" warrior within didn't want this to be the case. Luckily, it's not. Outlander won't be burning any bustles, but it's a welcome relief from GoT, the show to which it's most comparable.
If you haven't read the books, here's a quick primer: The series starts in 1945. Claire Randall and her husband Frank are on their second honeymoon in Inverness. They're trying to reconnect after the second World War, which saw Claire serving as a nurse and Frank as an intelligence operative for MI6.
The couple has spent only a mere 10 days together in the past five years, and finding their way back to one another has been challenging. They're also struggling to conceive. After their Highlands vacation, they'll relocate to Oxford, where Frank will be a history professor.
While traveling through the highlands, Frank shows Claire various places where his ancestor, an English soldier, staged raids on castles and villages. She studies botany while her husband traces his genealogy.
One morning, they clandestinely watch a Druid ceremony, and Claire is intrigued by a flower she spots among the runes. She returns to the stone circle later to find the flower, places her hand on a rune...and is transported 200 years back in time.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
When Claire finds herself alone in the woods in 1745 wearing nothing but a see-through white shift, she has no idea where she is or what year it is. She has to use all of her knowledge gained from nursing during the war, studying botany, and her trip through the highlands with Frank to figure out how to present herself to the people she meets.
As an Outlander, or "Sassenach," the Scots she encounters are incredibly wary of trusting her. Meanwhile, the English redcoats — starting with Frank's ancestor, a cruel army commander — just want to rape their lone countrywoman. It isn't a time for anyone to be traveling alone and unaffiliated — male or female.
Then, of course, there are the sex scenes. The bodice-ripping element may be the hook for many fans of the book and show, but it's how the sexual acts are portrayed that makes them feel like they're written and filmed in a way that's much less skewed towards one gender's enjoyment.
Game of Thrones is famous for its "sexposition" scenes, and when the sex isn't gratuitous, it's often violent or a means of exerting power. Even consensual sex between loving partners is shown through the male gaze.
Take, for example, when Jon Snow and Ygritte first connect in the famous cave scene. Jon takes the initiative to go down on Ygritte, and then the camera stays on her, immediately lost in ecstasy, as Jon Snow performs oral sex. She's shown fully naked in the scene multiple times; we only see Jon Snow's butt once.
In a similar scene in Outlander, it's Claire who initiates. She pauses on a table while she and Frank are exploring the ruins of a castle and pulls her husband in for a kiss. He notices that she's not wearing any undergarments, and then she pushes him downward to pleasure her.
In a later sex scene, the camera is an unbiased observer, showing both partners equally. In a voiceover, Claire points out that, "Sex was our bridge back to one another. The one place where we always met."
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Still, the way the steamy scenes are choreographed and filmed isn't the only argument for Outlander being a feminist show. Watching Claire, a smart woman with a strong personality (and a penchant for swearing "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ"), navigate her way through an extremely dangerous time and completely novel situation is what really makes Outlander worth watching.
As a child, I loved time-travel books (Switching Well by Peni R. Griffin was a personal favorite). I'd try to put myself in the characters' shoes and wonder how I would respond to the completely new situations they encountered. How would I earn the trust of strangers or adapt to the limited technology available in past eras?
The fact that I'm a female never actually entered into my time-travel thought process when I was younger, but now I'm an adult in a hyper-aware-of-gender-agency-and-experience age. I can see how a female traveling back in time versus a male creates an entirely different scenario and extremely divergent story paths.
I can't wait to see how it plays out in Outlander. And no, I don't mind a little bodice-ripping along the way. I mean, have you seen Jamie Fraser? (You should really check out Jamie Fraser.)
Outlander airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on Starz. Watch the first episode right here.