When it comes to sex and media, women are like designer clothing. They’re constructed like pretty lace-up boots and halter-tops. Sometimes they’re a cute light pink, other times they’ve got a little spice, with bright red lipstick and a simple, body-hugging black cocktail dress. But the problem is this - women aren’t just pretty objects to ogle at.
A lot of the time (actually, according to the New York Film Academy, nearly 30% of the time) the women we see in mainstream film are at least partially, if not fully nude. This is a whopping one-third of the speaking female characters alone.
There’s really nothing wrong with the way women choose to dress; they should dress as they please. But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of writers are male and construct the female gender on television solely for the benefit of the Male Gaze. In other words, the majority of the women we see in media are created by men, for men.
However, with its penultimate episode, the Starz TV show Outlander officially joined the small list of premium TV shows that are Anti-Male Gaze through using its expression of the Female Gaze.
Outlander follows heroine Claire Beauchamp (Caitriona Balfe) who has just finished serving as a nurse in World War II. She finds herself two-hundred years back in time during an expedition with her husband, historian Frank Randall, while researching his family ancestry. It’s there we meet Claire’s primary love interest - Scottish rebel Jamie Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
From the beginning, the narrative is told through Claire’s perspective. We, as the viewers, are familiar with her feelings, fears, passions and desires. We follow how she struggles with both the physical evils she encounters and her own inner difficulties in adjusting to a new time, culture, and relationships with the plethora of characters around her. In other words, she’s an impressively well-rounded character.
The penultimate episode is when she and her love interest, Jaime, consummate their marriage. It’s important to understand that this episode isn’t about Claire’s body or her worth as a sexual being. Viewers know she has had sex before; she was married and trying to conceive a child with her last husband. However, this doesn’t bother Jamie. It’s only relevant to us - as the viewers - because Jaime, a male somewhere in his mid-twenties, is society’s definition of a “virgin.”
The only degree of relevancy Claire’s previous sex life has for Jaime is, as he states, “I reckon one of us should ken know what we’re doing.” It’s the experience that matters to Jaime - a role that the media usually leaves for the men of the relationship. He doesn’t judge her self-worth or worth in relation to him using sex, either; he only mentions her compassion for the wounded and hard work as a nurse.
This, in addition to the audience’s close following of Claire and her feelings for seven episodes, is what makes the show’s expression of the Female Gaze so important. It is a culmination - the understanding of a female character as a lens for the sex that ultimately ensues. Claire’s character is not relevant because of her sexuality, nor is she used as a simple tool for nudity.
This is why Outlander is both Anti-Male Gaze and Pro-Female Gaze: it takes what we usually see in popular media and turns it on its head.
Why is the concept of the Gaze so important in media? First, it is important to understand the significance of the Gaze isn’t necessarily just what is in the work itself; it’s the work in relationship to its audience.
For example: on the list of other bestselling novels adapted into big-budget TV shows, there is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which wrapped up its fourth season last summer. Game of Thrones is notorious for its sex scenes, specifically, sex scenes constructed for the straight Male Gaze. Evidently, there are very few scenes of male nudity in comparison to that of female nudity. As Vulture reports in its season one info graphic, there are significantly more women shown nude than men. Even one of the show’s frontrunners, Kit Harington (Jon Snow) expressed, “it’s only right” to have more male nudity on the show.
What’s important in this conversation is to understand that the Game of Thrones nude scenes depicting its female front-runners were highly sexualized (with a plethora of both female leads and prostitutes), while the few scenes of male nudity were not - for the most part, they’re only used as a tool for humiliation or vulnerability, e.g. the merchant that tries to poison Khaleesi (Emilia Clarke) and is pulled on the back of her husband’s caravan and tied up naked.
While it’s easy to pick apart an immensely popular TV show like Game of Thrones, it’s even easier to see the effect the Male Gaze has had on the writing over time. Using writing as an opportunity to present female characters as designer pieces is a detrimental act on its own, and Game of Thrones’ writing has begun to reach dangerous territory - even casual viewers are aware of the problem. Game of Thrones’ two primary screenwriters, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, for example, have made a habit of changing the existing novels’ consensual sex into rape scenes, the most recent and controversial of which appeared last season.
While not necessarily perfect, shows like Outlander have taken a step in the right direction and have allowed room for a woman’s perspective on issues other than the ones that the male-dominated media have already covered. This includes sex, female companionship, depictions of rape, and the patriarchy present in both her time and in Jaime’s.
But are men even present to see this kind of depiction on TV? According to Nielson, they are: out of the 2.3 million viewers that tuned in to see Outlander’s premiere episode, less than half were male.
If Game of Thrones’ viewership consists equally of males and females, there’s no reason a show like Outlander can’t bring in the same numbers. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, executive producer Ronald D. Moore stated, “[Game of Thrones] definitely opened that door and showed that fantasy and genre material has a strong audience on premium cable. They also showed you can take an existing readership and turn it into an audience and then broaden that audience.” We can only hope that this demand for genre material continues with Outlander - and for the better.
(Image sources: Starz, HBO)
Paige Cober is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major who grew up just outside of New York City in between a prison, train station and a cemetery. Now, going to school in Boston, she enjoys iced coffee, sleeping and copious amounts of TV.