'Outlander,' The Wedding Episode And TV's Sexual Revolution

09/29/2014 01:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2014
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It would pain me greatly if critics and viewers dismissed "Outlander" for irrelevant, trivial or condescending reasons.

Don't mistake my purpose: I'm not here to tell you "Outlander" is a perfect show. I like it, I loved a couple of episodes, but I outlined some of my issues with it in my original review.

That said, sometimes a show on the margin of the public's attention does something radically different -- even revolutionary -- and it'd be a real shame if the show's non-trendy status prevented people from recognizing the fantastic thing it has done.

"Outlander" has blown up a lot of the received ideas about sex on television -- how it's shot, who it's for, who it's made by and who it's about. The show's Sept. 20 episode, in which the two lead characters get married and have a lot of sex, was nothing short of revolutionary in its depiction of nudity and intimacy, and in its willingness to entertain the female point of view.

I'm not saying other shows haven't done compelling and interesting things with sex on occasion, or even on a regular basis. As Emily Nussbaum tweeted the other day, "we are living in a dirty honest TV wonderland." I agree, and this development is tremendously exciting.

It's a distinct relief that "Outlander" is not alone. We've now seen two full seasons of the twisted power dynamics that inform those strange, intense hotel-room encounters in "Masters of Sex." "Girls," obviously, has an honest treatment of sex as one of its main goals, and Jill Soloway, partly inspired by Lena Dunham, just unleashed "Transparent," a fantastically complex depiction of all kinds of desires. Thanks in part to streaming options and an expanding array of adventurous creators and networks, shows with sexually unapologetic women suddenly seem to be all over the place: "The Fall," "The Good Wife," "The Americans," "Orphan Black," "New Girl," "You're the Worst" and "Orange Is the New Black" are all part of a seemingly unstoppable wave of shows that treat the sexual activities of their leading ladies with refreshing matter-of-factness and genuine interest.

Even a few years ago, it was not like this. Shows like this cropped up here and there, but they were not thick on the ground.

To overgeneralize, you could say that the post-"Oz," post-"Sopranos" revolution in television was all about what a protagonist could do. The wave of ambitious dramas that crested in the mid- to late-'00s (and still lingers in sizable pockets of the TV landscape) explored the outer limits of the behavior of a complex individual ... as long as that individual was a dude.

The last two or three years have seen a welcome and overdue explosion in who a protagonist could be. "Looking," "Happy Valley," "Borgen," "The Honorable Woman," "The Bridge," "Enlightened," "Broad City," "Top of the Lake," "Sleepy Hollow" and the shows mentioned above -- these and other programs often dominate conversations about adventurous television, and they aren't all that concerned with changing definitions of masculinity, the status anxiety of white guys and all that anti-hero baggage. They often feature diverse ensembles; they're often about how communities and individuals regard each other and change each other. A new set of thematic concerns has joined the big TV party, and that's also exciting.

But almost lost amid this welcome expansion of protagonists is a really important fact: In these narratives, sexual women are not shamed by the shows themselves for their desires. The women own their sexuality and the narratives are interested in exploring their desires -- and in judging their mistakes, carnal and otherwise, without stealthily blaming them for being sexual in the first place.

And in this exciting wave of shows, which includes many different genres, women's experiences do not live on the margins.

Too often in television dramas, especially in the post-"Sopranos" age, women were acted upon; they operated as the vessels of meaning, as delimiters of behavior, as mothers and helpers and victims. We've witnessed gripping moments and tremendous performances over the last decade and a half; we've also seen a lot of prostitutes, a lot of female scolds and so many dead girls. So often women were in the story to present opportunities for the man to demonstrate tenderness or, more commonly, they were the recipients of brutality, verbal and otherwise. In garden-variety broadcast network shows and in dramas chasing the Prestige TV label, the sex lives of women were usually minor elements, if they got to be proactively sexual at all.

How times have changed. "How to Get Away with Murder," which arrived last week, featured an African-American woman who was unapologetically assertive and confident in the lecture hall, in court and with her husband and lover. And that show is a big, honkin' mainstream hit.

Even before Walter White left the scene, things were changing, but it's striking to take stock of just how major this change has been. I love "Mad Men," but it's almost bittersweet to note that when the AMC drama returns with its final episodes in a few months, Don Draper will seem like a mastodon roaming through the concrete corridors of Manhattan. He's a relic of another era.

"Mad Men," of course, has been interested in the love lives of its female characters, and I do believe that creator Matthew Weiner cares deeply about them. But eight episodes from the end of the show, Peggy and Joan -- smart, compelling women who would be prime catches in any era -- have spent much of the last few seasons doing well at work and enduring disastrous personal lives. It's one of the oldest and most predictable TV tropes in the book, and it reinforced the message I internalized from countless shows from the '80s, '90s and '00s: Women can have juicy intimate relationships, a reasonably varied array of friends, and jobs they're good at -- but don't be daft and think it's possible to craft a fictional TV narrative about an imperfect, interesting woman who juggles all three.

Not that the women on shows mentioned above have easy lives or enjoy universal acceptance -- they sometimes face consequences when their desires run counter to prevailing wisdom or their goals bump up against existing power structures. Like all women everywhere, in any era, they are not exempt from the possibilities of violence and assault.

But these women are not depicted as wrong or misguided for wanting and liking sex and pursuing all kinds of intimacy (and sometimes stopping at friendship, a la Abbie Mills on "Sleepy Hollow"). Many of these women are, if anything, quietly celebrated by the show's writers for being assertive, intelligent and unconventional. Unlike many of the mainstream shows and movies I grew up with, where the women who liked and sought sex were often punished in some way, I don't detect in this new wave of programs an unconscious or semi-conscious desire on the part of the storytellers to bring these women down a few pegs -- or kill them off -- for being independent and unrepentant about their desires.

This is new. This shift occurring on this many notable shows is new. But "Outlander" has taken this welcome trend a step further.

I'd wanted to make this piece about both "Masters of Sex" and "Outlander" and how they're both interested in the ways that gender norms limit both men and women. That plan has two problems: First, it sounds like the topic of a very dry term paper, and second, the Sept. 20 episode of "Outlander," "The Wedding," melted my brain. It was that good -- and that different.

As novelist Jenny Trout put it in a fine essay on the episode, "'Outlander' is a drama crafted specifically for the straight female gaze."

Yup. The episode that chronicled the wedding of Claire Randall to Jamie Fraser was unashamedly and unabashedly about catering to that gaze, which continues to get astonishingly short shrift in most screen-based scripted entertainment.

Last June, Lili Loofbourow wrote a great essay about "Game of Thrones" that contained the unforgettable phrase "sexual scavengers."

"The erotic -- from a female viewpoint -- rarely finds its way onscreen," Loofbourow wrote. "Women are sexual scavengers: we cobble arousal out of things not intended to stimulate us because we're not considered worth stimulating." As she noted, "Game of Thrones," with rare exceptions, all but ignores the gaze of viewers who appreciate the male form.

"I’m used to seeing breast after breast after buttock after breast while understanding that they're not there for me, that my enjoyment of them -- at whatever level I choose -- is akin to whatever Will Hunting felt while looking at equations in the physics department," Loofbourow wrote. "I'm free to look and extract whatever I can from looking, but they really weren't put there with me in mind."

It's really worth reading the whole piece. And I thought about Loofbourow's essay, which could be applied to decades' worth of TV shows and films, when I watched "The Wedding."

Here was a feast for scavengers.

Here was an hour of television that took as a given that the male form is every bit as interesting as that of the female. Here was an hour of television that took as its bedrock principle the idea that curiosity is an essential element of desire.

On-screen sex in mainstream entertainment so often ends up being the protagonist's reward, spoils for the hero. The wedding episode wasn't that. It depicted physical and emotional intimacy developing in real time, and it was dead sexy.

(For the next few paragraphs, I'm going to talk about details of the episode. If you want to skip that part, you can jump back in with the paragraph that starts with "Maybe.")

The episode began with Jamie and Claire being awkwardly shoved into a bedchamber in what looked like a tavern. From outside was much guffawing from other characters about the bawdy times they were about to have. Underneath their hesitant smiles, both looked strained and uncomfortable. The evening had all the components of a unpromising first date.

Jamie and Claire had been attracted to each other from the moment they met, but Claire, an involuntary time-traveler who's landed in 1740s Scotland, is married to and deeply loves a man from her own era. Jamie was a virgin, and in any case he got married in part because he was told to by the men of his clan. Marriage to a Scot keeps Claire out of the clutches of the hated English, and that suited the purposes of those protecting Jamie, who's a fugitive himself. The whole situation -- a marriage of convenience if there ever was one -- was arranged on the fly.

Hence the discomfort when these two near-strangers were finally alone after being more or less commanded to have sex. Not surprisingly, they drank a lot. Jamie told stories. Claire was charmed by his sweet openness and gift for yarns. They figured out that, physical attraction aside, they actually liked each other. You could see the relief creep across their faces; you could see it in their unfolding postures.

Eventually, they had sex for the first time, and the whole act was amusingly devoid of cliche: no "sexy" camera angles, no golden light, no instant nirvana. Jamie wondered if they should do it like the horses in the fields; later, Claire stopped things at one point to tell him he was accidentally crushing her. It didn't last long. It was awkward first-date sex, and it was achingly, amusingly real.

And that was as refreshing as anything else; for decades, many sex scenes on TV and in movies have come across as more preposterous and unreal than any supernatural scenario on "Game of Thrones." "Outlander" may have fantastical elements, but the fact that Claire traveled through time does not mean magic has an impact on Claire and Jamie's daily lives. The time travel was a device to get these two dissimilar people into the same room, and that's about it so far. Executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore does not seem interested in the fantastical beyond that device. "Outlander" is more committed to the emotional realities of its characters than to the magical per se, and it certainly hasn't been concerned with propping up shopworn cliches about intimacy, power dynamics and sex.

The decision not to do the usual, boring thing was reflected in how the couple's three sex acts were shot over the course of the hour. It wasn't the chain of the predictable sequences that we typically see; it wasn't about the male's confident conquests of the compliant lady-prize. Jamie's inexperience was absurdly charming: He thought he'd hurt Claire when she had an orgasm, and she introduced him to pleasures he'd never seen the horses partake of. The whole night gave Jamie new layers of humanity by acknowledging the truth that sex can be nerve-wracking for guys, even if they're deeply attracted to their partner.

The key to the episode's success was its curiosity about the couple's mating dance, and the curiosity the characters had for each other. They didn't know where the evening was going, and neither did we. A clever series of flashbacks to the wedding-day preparations added to our insight into their emotional states: Jamie had taken a lot of trouble to get Claire a special ring, and she'd prepared for the nuptials by getting extremely drunk. By slowly revealing how they felt about this contrived marriage, they gained each other's trust. They got to know each other, and the progression of that knowledge was reflected in their increased appetite for each other every time they had sex. It was more comforting, and more sexy, each time.

It's worth noting here that the episode was directed by a woman, Anna Foerster, and written by another woman, Anne Kenney. This absolutely made a difference, as part of the reason the female gaze isn't catered to is because directors and DPs are overwhelming male. What they don't want to see usually doesn't get shot.

But in "The Wedding," both characters' points of view, and both bodies, were equally important. The camera was interested in everything -- in both characters' mental and physical states, in every curve and every limb. (Side note: The way Foerster shot certain moments in the Sept. 27 mid-season finale made a big difference in how those events came across -- we saw things from Claire's perspective and entered into her emotional states, and that was crucial. I'm interested to know how others viewed the episode, but I thought it worked well.)

Scrupulous attention to detail and consistent, empathetic delicacy marked Foerster's work (and that of John Dahl, who directed the gorgeous pilot and second episode). One of the most important moments in "The Wedding" occurred while both characters were clothed. After an extended period of keeping Jamie at bay in the middle of the episode, Claire reached out and stroked his arm. It was her way of saying she was ready -- not just to have sex again, but to trust him.

The sex in the wedding episode told a story. Foerster, Kenney and Moore made sure the events created a very careful progression of, well, hotness: The first act was about getting it over with and about Jamie and Claire giving in to the physical attraction they'd long felt toward each other. The second time they had sex, it was with relief: They realized they liked and respected each other.

Toward the end of their first night together, Claire asked Jamie to strip for her. He did. She walked around his body, appraising it, getting to know it, appreciating it. By that point, both Jamie and Claire were about as physically and emotionally intimate as they could be. Jamie enjoyed being seen; Claire's appraisal reflected desire, curiosity and her general ease in the situation. Foerster's choices leading up to and during the characters' later sexual encounters made the closeness and warmth between these two people almost palpable.

I've watched a lot of TV, and I cannot recall any show that has done what this hour of TV did. Ever.

Oh, it's worth noting that Jamie asked Claire to strip for him, too. But her gaze came first. As Roxane Gay put it in her review, at that point, "I objectified Jamie along with Claire and millions of viewers."

Maybe the truly revolutionary thing about this hour was how unapologetic it was. Everything that occurred felt wonderfully right, and yet the whole thing almost felt offhand, as if the show were saying, "We all know this is how it goes, right?" But it's not how it goes, not all that often, not on screen. The show's goals and intentions are still rare, or more rare than they should be.

Critics and viewers protest the most overt, exploitative nonsense, but the industry churns out so many predictable, poorly conceived and lazy depictions of sex and sexual assault that it's not possible nor advisable to get angry every single time something demeaning, insulting or dumb gets on the air.

So we tolerate the dewy sex lighting, the primacy of the male gaze and the objectification of female bodies. We grimly put up with violence conveyed without insight or compassion. It's too exhausting to ask constantly why so many scenes take place in strip clubs and brothels, and why so few depict a woman simply looking at a man.

"The price we pay for excellent television is catering with strange and unrelenting specificity to the fifteen-year-old straight male demographic." Those are the words of a commenter quoted by Loofbourow, but it's likely a sentiment you've heard before. I mean, watching Starz's own "Magic City," "Black Sails" and "Boss," you can practically see the boob quota numbers right there on the screen. You can change the channel, but it's still there.

Here's a radical idea: It doesn't have to be this way, and it never did. Here's another radical idea: I'm betting male viewers found "The Wedding" super hot too. Why wouldn't they?

Part of what made it work was that neither character -- and by extension, the audience -- had their reactions or vulnerabilities mocked or belittled. Why shouldn't Jamie be nervous? What groom doesn't wonder if his presents -- and his performance -- will be acceptable? Why wouldn't a man be turned on by a woman's willingness to teach him new things? Why shouldn't Claire want to look at him -- and why wouldn't Jamie appreciate being seen? Why wouldn't he appreciate her body right back? Why wouldn't the camera want to see all of that? Isn't it weirder for the camera not to look?

Every choice "Outlander" has made regarding its depiction of sex has made those moments sexier. I can't think of a reason that a large percentage of men wouldn't agree. In any event, Moore certainly isn't making the show just for straight ladies.

"Look, I read the book, I loved the book," he said in an interview with Buzzfeed. "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."

It is an adventure tale, and that might be one reason for the people who don't watch it to dismiss it. More reasons some critics and viewers might shove it aside: It's on Starz; it's based on a book that women like; oh no, someone said the word "romance" (that last one may be the dopiest reason of all).

People also used to dismiss the word "fantasy" in the fancier realms of cultural critique, but viewers and critics were able to see the serious intent of "Game of Thrones," which has, deservedly, been taken seriously as a work of art.

It may not have the HBO imprimatur, but what "Outlander" is doing, especially with regard to sexuality, also deserves to be taken seriously. The very first sex act in the pilot depicted a clothed woman receiving oral pleasure, and that felt very much like a statement of purpose. The wedding episode proved that "Outlander" has no intention of backing away from that subversive agenda. In "The Wedding," it reinforced the idea that desire is worth exploring, wherever it originates, and that the female gaze has something to offer all viewers who are willing to look. Moore has even said that "the full monty" for male characters is a possibility for future episodes.

"Outlander" is not for everyone, and that's fine. But it's among the shows doing something revolutionary in their depiction of how adults relate to each other, in bed and out of it. A few decades after the actual sexual revolution, they're revolutionizing how female sexuality is depicted -- even honored -- on TV. By being conscious of women's desires, these shows make it clear that they are conscious of women's humanity.

We're not in living in a paradise, of course: Gay and bisexual characters are still criminally underrepresented on all kinds of TV. The kinds of bodies we see on TV are generally a certain shape, size and color. But I keep gathering bits of proof that things might be changing. One more scrap of hopeful news: Mindy Kaling got Chris Messina to be her private dancer on "The Mindy Project" (and oh, how the Internet approved).

When I tweeted on Friday about how the wedding episode of "Outlander" had broken my brain in a good way, my mentions instantly filled up with dozens of excited replies. People, especially women, felt seen and recognized by this hour of television. It helps that the show's stars, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, are incredibly attractive (not to mention the greatest gift to Tumblr since "Orphan Black"). But I've been writing about TV for a long time, and the passionate response was prompted by more than that.

"It's far too easy to suggest that it's the repressed desires of bored housewives driving 'Outlander's' success," Trout wrote. "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."

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