I didn’t want to watch Outlander. Bodice-rippers generally make me roll my eyes.
Then I learned that Diana Gabaldon, who wrote the book series that inspired the Starz drama, wasn’t a huge fan of romance either. Gabaldon recently told Buzzfeed that her agent encouraged her to bill the first Outlander book as a romance novel, even though it also dabbles in historical fiction, science fiction, and other genres. The idea was that a science fiction best-seller usually sold around 50,000 copies, while romances could reach 500,000. So Gabaldon reached a compromise with her publisher: she’d agree to file it under “romance,” but if the book did well, they’d recast it as “general fiction.”
I totally understand the impulse: unfairly or not, “romance” seems to imply that the book belongs on the shelf alongside this guy. Therefore, it probably doesn’t appeal to the most intellectual readers.
So imagine my surprise when a sex scene was what actually made me take Outlander seriously.
The scene opens in 1945, just after World War II has ended. Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) are busy trying to put their marriage back together. They both have scholarly backgrounds—she’s a botanist, he’s a historian and a former intelligence officer—and they’ve just endured a long wartime separation. They attempt to rekindle their romance by researching Frank’s ancestry together, visiting historical grounds in the Scottish highlands that might tell them more about his family. While exploring an abandoned castle, Claire jokes that “a troll or two” might’ve lived there, though Frank argues that trolls don’t live in pairs, because they’re solitary creatures. “Pity,” says Claire, smiling flirtatiously. “All this, and no one to share it with.” He looks at her, catching on. “You’re a bit dirty,” he says, in the most blatant double entendre ever. “You can give me a bath,” she replies.
What happens next? Frank hikes up Claire’s skirt, teasing, “Why, Mrs. Randall, I do believe you’ve left your undergarments at home.” And then, let’s just say that, as the New York Times so tactfully put it, they engage in a sex act that’s “not necessarily the one you’d expect in a scene set just after World War II.” (You can watch it here, by fast-forwarding to somewhere around 18:33.) According to the Times, the women are loving it: At a preview screening in New York, Mike Hale writes, “the women in the audience loudly expressed their approval.”
Outlander’s writer and producer, Ron D. Moore, knew what he was doing with the scene. “I’m guessing that I wanted to show Claire as empowered sexually as a person and having her own appetites and desires,” he told Zap2It. Which makes sense: she’s the one who makes the first move, telling Frank what she wants (even removing her own underwear ahead of time!) so she’s also the one we get to see enjoying it.
Obviously, sex scenes that focus on women getting off are still generally seen as taboo. In the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, Kimberly Pierce, who directed Boys Don’t Cry, reveals that the MPAA pressured her to cut a similar sex act from her film to prevent it from earning an NC-17 rating, even though the brutal murder at the film’s end was acceptable under an “R” rating. Pierce believes the MPAA was particularly uncomfortable with a shot that featured no nudity at all—it was a close-up that lingered on Brandon Teena’s ecstatic expression—because it was such a clear departure from more traditional sex scenes, which have a clear endpoint as their goal, and tend to finish whenever the guys involved do. Maybe that’s why it feels somewhat radical that the camera pans upward during the Outlander sex scene so that we can see Claire’s face.
Did I mention that the whole scene happens without Claire removing a single item of clothing? It’s a far cry from the great cavalcade of bouncing boobs on Game of Thrones. This might be about her body, but we’re equally focused on her mind. It’s no accident that, right before Frank hikes up Claire’s skirt, he asks her who lived in that castle. She’d have to have some knowledge of 18th century history to answer. Her intellect is the primary turn-on here. This is a love story between equals. And that’s particularly relevant since Claire is about to get beamed back in time, to a misogynistic society that existed long before women got the right to vote—or, for that matter, the right to demand a bath.
Of course, Claire’s brain might be important here for a different reason. As EW’s Amy Wilkinson writes in her recap: “What makes this moment even more intriguing is that it isn’t included in Gabaldon’s source material. In fact—and without getting too spoilery for non-book readers—the author reveals in a later chapter that Frank never performed that particular sex act on Claire.” Now, Gabaldon seems to dispute that reading, and I’ve never read the book, so I could be wrong. But is it possible that the scene exists only inside Claire’s head? If so, that feels like the ultimate radical move. We’re not only viewing the scene from Claire’s perspective; we’re actually viewing something that was entirely created by her imagination. It’s a sex scene where the man involved doesn’t even need to participate! What better sign of a female independence do you need?
I’m not arguing that all sex scenes should be fully-clothed feminist treatises. I can appreciate old-fashioned brute-snoggings like anyone else, and I suspect that Outlander might dabble in more traditional kilt-liftings later this season. All I’m saying is that I have a new appreciation for this so-called “romance,” and a new distrust of the idea that any drama that makes you fan your heaving bosom can’t also be smart. As my fellow TV critic Jeff Jensen noted in his great review of Outlander, this drama is good enough to merit overthinking. Also: Who knew that fully-clothed feminist treatises could be so hot?