Friday, August 15, 2014

Woman on Top: Feminism and Subversion of Themes, Roles, Gaze in STARZ’ Outlander Episode 101

[graphic: STARZ via]
Outlander’s overwhelmingly female fanbase has been waiting more than 20 years for the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s eponymous first bestseller. The author turned down a number of opportunities for the book to be realized as a movie, but it was Ron D. Moore’s treatment as a cable TV series that got the nod.

Since the series was announced over a year ago, fans expressed concern as to whether the series would adequately reflect the rich history of two war-shattered periods — the aftermath of World War II, and the ramp-up to Scotland’s 1745 Jacobite uprising. The book had been pigeon-holed as a romance when first published, though it crosses historical, sci-fi, fantasy, and romance genres. Would the series fully realize the breadth of these fiction categories?

But readers also worried about the preservation of the book’s strong female protagonist, Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, and the feminist themes she represents. Feminists point out that the series is helmed by a man, and only one of four directors are female. Could the show tell Claire’s story with so much testosterone on board, and not revert to a male-centric swashbuckler?

Dinna fash, as the Scots might say — not to worry. The first episode demonstrates in subtle but deep detail that this is not the usual fare. We are definitely “outland” of traditional cable series.

Let’s take a fine-toothed comb to this first hour of programming, giving it the deep analysis this long-awaited adaptation merits. It bore the additional burden of establishing canon for viewers not familiar with the book, while adding new reinforcing content to replace the level of detail only the text could provide.


It’s important to remember as viewers we don’t know how much of these details were created consciously or unconsciously. But we can analyze them for what they may say to us at both levels. Details are listed here by the minute:second they appear in Episode 101.

Caitriona Balfe’s name appears first in the cast listed during the title sequence. Modified as the theme for the series, the lyrics to the traditional Skye song, have been changed from 'lad' in reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie, to 'lass' in reference to Claire.

The hour opens with Claire in voice over, looking at a shot of Glen Coe, Scotland — the beauty of which transcends conflict and is beyond time in appearance. Like the book, this story is told from Claire’s perspective — hence her voice first and the lack of a gendered gaze. By way of her voice it’s implied her thoughts are more important than her appearance.

1:50 — Claire looks at a blue vase in store window, expressing her desire in voice over for a stable home life the vase represents.

The blue color of both vase and Claire’s coat, are heightened against otherwise desaturated background. This marks a strong departure from the olive drab uniform she wore as an army nurse. Claire is her own woman now, but she longs to change her life by augmentation — adding a vase and everything needed to support its retention.

The vase, which has a rather uterine shape, may unconsciously represent fertility, and in turn an implicit desire for family life. (We will know in time that Claire is an orphan who traveled abroad during her childhood with an uncle, hence the explicit desire for a stable home.)

2:20 — A flashback takes us to watch Claire in WWII field surgery on VE Day. She gives crisp, urgent orders to two men, over the body of a severely wounded soldier. Her status as a married woman is revealed by way of her wedding ring on hand during clamping. The scene is graphic and bloody; she is saving a man’s life by clamping a femoral artery.

Although the doctor tells her to step aside in order for him to take over, his role has already been subverted. He had given a painkiller by injection while Claire struggled to stop the patient’s bleed-out, inverting the importance of their roles and titles by action taken.

2:36 — Claire is standing in blood. She is wearing flat heels, not stacked heels more commonly issued to women in uniform during that period. In this context she is de-sexualized, wearing pants and tie-on oxfords not unlike male counterparts of the era.

The white apron she wears over her uniform is not for serving, but for her protection against blood, albeit inadequate. It offers no additional identification like Red Cross-issued aprons. Another woman in uniform steps up behind the doctor who relieves Claire, but the woman is clad in a uniform and not an apron, which implies the apron is Claire’s choice.

3:47 — Claire swigs deeply from a champagne bottle offered by another woman in uniform, while clearly separate from celebrating men. There’s no waiting for a glass; she’s earned this drink without fussy finesse. In this scene she is clearly separate from the men in uniform who celebrate the end of the war just revealed. Bloody and exhausted, Claire is a woman apart.

4:30 — The scene returns to Claire looking into the store window at the blue vase. The vase symbolizes stability offered in a home, but it also symbolizes an empty vessel, the vagina accepting/receptive/submissive. She asks in voice over what would have happened had she chosen to buy a vase and make a home for it, but ultimately affirms she would not change her ultimate choice.

Sense a theme here? Claire is independent, able to evaluate and act with personal agency, not relying upon a man in the process. Pro-choice is not only about reproductive rights, but personal autonomy which we see in Claire's deliberation.

6:34 — Claire is the subject of her husband’s gaze as Frank wistfully watches her while driving. However, Claire does not return his gaze, watching the countryside instead. The female gaze at this time is not centered on a man, but watching Claire being watched by a man, upending the male gaze.

7:14 — After Frank asks, "You sure?" about red smears across door jambs upon arrival at the bed and breakfast, Claire is terse and firm about her certainty and expertise on blood.

Take that, Frank, and stick to your history. We are sure she knows her stuff, having seen her already up to her elbows in blood. Women are pretty familiar with the site of blood by adulthood even before medical training and years of field experience as Claire must have had.

8:00 — The bed and breakfast is Mrs. Baird's — a woman-owned/-managed business. Though women-owned businesses may have been common during the war, this place is well-established and neither Claire nor her husband bat an eye at a woman owning and operating their accommodations. It’s a given.

10:40 — Claire teases husband about sex in order to encourage his participation, then initiates sex. You go, sexually empowered woman, you!

12:37 — Frank says, "Claire..." as if to ask a question as she continues to draw him into sex. This may be a subtle cue about infidelity during wartime, but we never get a chance to see the question fully developed as Claire is determined to have her way.

12:39 — A lamp’s slow movement over Mrs. Baird’s head — in contrast to the more rapid swinging when Claire and Frank were jumping on the bed moments earlier — implies sex in progress. It may also imply gentler female-led sex under way. Mrs. Baird smiles gently in knowing approval.

14:27 — In a flashback to childhood, a pants-wearing teenage Claire takes initiative to light and offer a cigarette to her uncle Lamb. This is not food as traditional offering from a subordinate female, but an oral, her-mouth-to-his-mouth offering of a semi-illicit phallic object by a minor female to an mature male authority figure. His pleased acceptance connotes approval of her behavior.

In this scene as she offers the lit cigarette, Claire stands while Lamb squats over an archaeological find; there is no change in their respective elevations during hand-off as there might be in more formal settings where an older male and a young woman interact during this time period. She is an equal in spite of her age and gender.

10:08 — Returning to post-WWII Scotland, Claire follows Frank into their hotel room. Approving of the accommodations, she says, “Beats an army tent and a cot in the mud,” referring to her service and not her husband’s service in intelligence offices in London. She’s clearly had to be of tougher stuff than Frank.

10:06 — Claire is wearing a svelte maroon dress with long sleeves and in a solid color, not a floral, flirty dress. She’s serious and professional in appearance, not a girl.

12:06 — Frank discusses drawing her hand, his male gaze entranced by her palm as he holds her hand like a treasured possession. He kisses her palm as if in worship, connoting the power of her grip over him.

15:33 — Now at Reverend Wakefield’s residence where Frank indulges in genealogical research, there is a reference to Frank being buried in history. This reference parallels comments exchanged about Frank’s obsession with history revealed in his man-splained knowledge of St. Odhran’s voluntary sacrificial burial. In short, Frank is and will be history, another sacrificial burial in the future-past as Claire forges on.

16:06 — Claire initiates affection, touching Frank’s shoulder and kissing his cheek. The gesture is almost maternal rather than wifely.

17:04 — We are watch Frank from beyond Claire's perspective, his back to us as she laughs at his efforts to open door at the tumble-down Castle Leoch. She takes initiative and steps in and counts down to help him force door. We know who’s the boss and who’s the real muscle in this couple.

17:08 — Frank looks to her as if for approval to continue his search in the castle’s remains.

18:20 — Claire sits upon a table as Frank talks, easing up her skirt. She flashes her garters and the tops of hose, legs akimbo.

18:39 — She flicks Frank’s hat off his head as if knocking him down to size. Running his hand under her skirt he notices and remarks she's not wearing underwear. Claire avoids his attempt to kiss her mouth, implying she wants his attention much lower. Frank takes the hint and kneels down to perform cunnilingus, placing her legs over his shoulders. There is no further notice taken of the hat, lying on the dirty castle floor where it fell; it’s simply not as important to Frank as serving his spouse.

No additional clothing is removed in this sex scene, either. Claire remains otherwise fully clothed, no flesh revealed save for a couple of inches above her left stocking and only for a couple seconds.

Claire has planned ahead to ask for sex, as evidenced by the lack of panties. She clearly enjoys herself, too, her head thrown back as the scene fades out. A number of articles written about this episode take note of her empowerment and her pleasure. But what hasn’t been pointed out is that Claire is enjoying sex of a non-reproductive nature, and the scene gives us no indication as it ends that she will reciprocate. This scene is all about a woman’s sexual pleasure — how novel and nontraditional.

It’s also important to note this sex scene is not included in the novel. Its presence in this first episode emphasizes Claire’s empowerment, threats to which are key conflicts in the course of this series. Fans of the book acquire understanding about Claire’s independence that series viewers may not otherwise have; this single scene encapsulates neatly that Claire derives much satisfaction in her personal freedom and status.

20:37 — Mrs. Graham serves tea, but without an apron; her role in Wakefield’s residence is more than servant, or her identity is not bound up in servitude to a man. Claire’s invitation to kitchen by Mrs. Graham for tea is not for gossip, but subversive "witchery” in the form of palm and tea leaf reading. This is women's craft passed down through women (as Graham says, “Like my grandmother taught me, and her grandmother before that.”), arts that are typically discouraged by male-hierarchical western religion, denigrated and punished as witchcraft.

Though aprons are not always indicators of servitude, the omission of an apron says something given the amount of research that costumer Terry Dresbach put into attire. Note that Mrs. Baird, a business proprietor, is wearing an apron. Dresbach may foreshadow Graham's status as a druidic leader by omitting an apron.

22:40 — In reading Claire’s palm, Mrs. Graham notes her pronounced Mount of Venus, describing it to mean, "Yer husband isna’ likely to stray far from your bed." Graham has already described the similar feature in men’s palms to mean, "He likes the lasses.” These are not at all the same thing, as a man compelled to stay close to a woman sexually implies she is in control in the relationship. This is very different from having a strong appreciation for the opposite sex.

It could be argued that Graham’s reading refers to a man’s fidelity, but it is Claire’s palm as it appears at that moment which is being read, and therefore it is Claire’s attributes about which Graham speaks. It is Claire’s hand as well — the means by which she realizes physical power is under evaluation.

24:06 — Mrs. Graham orders Reverend Wakefield to leave the tea set alone. This is not a request. Claire and Mrs. Baird are not the only women with power in this episode.

24:38 — Claire kisses Frank as she leaves Frank with Rev. Wakefield, showing initiative in the offering of affection; Frank is once again the submissive.

25:00 — Again with the vase, which may seem repetitive to some viewers: Claire’s longing is apparent on her face as she once again looks at the vase in shop window while walking back to the B&B. She’s still thinking about Graham's prophetic words. This third visit foreshadows a choice she must make out of the conflicts hinted at in her palm and tea leaves, yet again exercising personal autonomy.

Symbolic use of the number three here is likely unconscious on the part of our production team. Three, however, has ancient and deep meaning in many cultures and religions, including Catholicism, Wicca, and the Druids. Claire mentions her faith at this point as well, saying, "...My Catholicism’s nominal at best," while sharing a sense of foreboding at the possibility that Graham’s words were prophetic. Does Claire’s skepticism not only set up her rare-for-fictional-women time travel, but delineate her identity from less progressive/more traditional females, while identifying with ancient goddess-worshipping pagan culture? Perhaps by way of time travel this rare woman represents the duality of ancient and modern modes of feminism.

We have also experienced another level of consciousness with these three views of the vase. We have looked at this matter from multiple sides, from over Claire's shoulder into the window, from behind the vase through the window at Claire, and shifting from the view of both during which Claire must see herself reflected literally in the window's pane and symbolically in the vase, to a view of Claire into the next scene in which we look at Claire looking at herself in a mirror. We are deeply engaged not in a male gaze, but the female gaze now, considering not the form in front of us to take pleasure in her physical attributes, but for the purposes of intimate examination of the Lacanian
objet and the evaluation of privation. The objet, though, is absolutely non-phallic, representing a woman's as-yet unrealized choice in Claire's case.

Further, we as the audience are at eye-level with Claire as she looks upon the vase-objet. We are not superior or inferior, but with her in this process of evaluating the choice ahead. As the camera looks toward Claire from behind the vase, we are at a similar degree of remove from the objet, on this side of our screen-as-window, and she on the sidewalk, on the other side of the window front glass. We process with her the meaning of the objet and events that shape whether it will be possessed or not; meaning is not simply given to us.

25:16 — Swearing over her static-filled and uncooperative curly hair, Claire acts very much like our contemporary as she brushes her hair. She will be scolded for her verbal freedom by an Englishman and Scots males ahead when she falls through to the past.

26:28 — Frank is unsettled in this scene, not Claire. He may have seen a ghost, which rattled him. Claire, in contrast, is collected in spite of the abrupt loss of power and haste to light candles. One of these two is far more in control of themselves.

27:08 — Questioning Claire about the possibility the Scot he thinks he saw may have been a former patient of Claire’s, Frank accepts there may have been men with whom she had sex during her war-service history. What is not addressed is the implication behind Frank’s understanding; he asks for forgiveness, but it is not exactly clear if only because he's asked about her sex life. Again, there’s a possibility this is a subtle hint at sexual infidelity on his part, but he’s offered his acceptance of her personal sexual empowerment and agency.

29:06 — Claire takes the initiative again, either as equal partner or as initiator, undressing Frank before sex.

29:14 — During sex, Claire is on top first, then Frank, with virtually equal time given to both on top. We see as much of Claire nude as we do of Frank from the waist up. She is not well-endowed like popular pin-up art of the age, but lithe like an active woman. We don’t see her breasts for long while she is on top as Frank rises up to meet her, mouth to nipple, to give her pleasure. He does not pull her down to him, nor do we see any more of their bodies below the waist apart from her leg while he is on top.

In contrast, during an episode of another cable series on a different network, the program revealed nearly the entire female body while on top of the male protagonist, and for far longer than the 12 seconds we see Claire on top of Frank during intercourse. The revelation of the woman’s entire body in the act of sex did not further the story arc, as communicating the couple’s relationship could have been achieved with far less flesh.

29:16 — “Sex is our bridge,” Claire says in voice-over. It’s used not purely for procreative purposes as ordained by Christian dogma, nor as a means to appease and keep a man. It’s a modern form of communication which she expects as her due in this marriage.

From a contemporary perspective, sex may seem like a ready tool for renewing connection between partners after a loss of intimacy for a protracted period. But our perspective is shaped by a more secular life with greater physical control over reproduction, as compared to mid-20th century when western culture was still profoundly shaped by Christian tenets combined with few effective methods of birth control. Sex is easy for us; Claire’s sensibilities about sex more closely align with ours today than with those of the mid-20th century.

30:05 — Claire protests Frank’s desire to set an alarm in order to see the “witches” at Craigh na Dun for Samhain; he almost caves. But Claire yields to his interest, adopting a more submissive role for once.

31:00 — Their arrival in the dark at Craigh na Dun, marks a transition, in that they are both observers of other women as a group of local women — druids, not witches, as Claire corrects — dance around the stone circle. Mrs. Graham is their leader, her rank and role in contrast to her daily job.

32:00 — "They should have been ridiculous," Claire says, but they aren't, as she recognizes the druid women's power as a collaborative creative force, "something ancient and powerful."

35:05 — After the sun has risen and the druids’ dance ends, Frank touches the center stone without result. He takes notes as Claire looks at forget-me-nots next to a peripheral stone. Neither are yet affected by the circle they have entered and now leave.

36:18 — We see Claire in white dress, barefoot, reading a book on botany. Frank kisses her goodbye before he heads off to work on his genealogical history; she pulls him down for a second kiss to which he yields. Again, he submits to her, uxorious for the last time.

Going forward, the use of the white dress, deliberately designed to appear as a shift to 18th century eyes, helps focus the viewer's attention on Claire in every frame she appears after the fall through time. It stands out in stark contrast even when soiled against the increased saturation of color post-time shift. Costume designer Terry Dresbach (also Ron D. Moore's spouse) has shared her thinking about this particular costume's design on her blog. We know what this modern woman was consciously thinking, but the unconscious is also at work. Claire is once again a woman apart, not dressed to 18th century social norms, standing out like a sore thumb against the Scots' dull hunting plaids and in relief against the brilliant excess of British military uniforms.

38:12 — After driving herself to Craig na Dun and entering the stone circle in order to take samples of forget-me-nots, Claire hears noise emanating from the center stone. Upon touching the stone, she falls through time. The description of the experience is likened to a car accident which plays out as a slow motion flashback; she and another woman are passengers with a male driver who took a bridge at a high rate of speed. This sickening sensation of falling mirrors a time when she was dozing, having yielded control to a man.

After landing in the 18th century, Claire tries to find her way back once it appears her car and the road next to which it was parked are gone. We follow her easily in her white dress through a saturated landscape as she tries to make sense of men in period uniforms and several gun shots.

41:34 — She tumbles, losing her belt and watch, signifiers of her past life and the control she possessed. Her dress now more closely resembles a shift, and she cannot orient herself in time.

42:38 — Claire has become completely unmoored by the time she comes upon Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall as she flees from British soldiers firing live rounds behind her. Randall looks nearly identical to her spouse Frank Randall, who is believed to be Captain Randall’s great-great-great-grandson. Her unhappy disorientation suggests the degree of struggle she will have ahead, trying to survive in this regressed world where dark male characters are rewarded for their “blackness” with political stature.

44:07 — She has the presence of mind to fib about her name and that of her husband, but her temper gets the most of her as she rebels under Captain Randall’s restraint, spitting in his face as she calls him a bastard. He turns her around and tears at her garments in an attempt to sexually assault her from behind — it’s a marginalizing, dehumanizing move to take her without having to look at her face. This is not sex but violence; in this we note some things don’t change across centuries for women.

The assault is stopped by a Scottish clansman, Murtagh, who knocks out Randall and whisks Claire away, although not before knocking her unconscious in order to assure she does not give away their position to the British patrol.

From here on out, Claire now must meet with conflict whenever she asserts herself. This is no longer the world in which she has had nearly unconditional support and unfettered access for whatever she chose to do.

Before the end of the episode she manages to make herself heard and obeyed in spite of cultural resistance from the Scots.

She jumps in and insists on resetting Jamie Fraser’s arm back in the socket; her knowledge of the wrong and right way combined with the clansmen’s reluctance to cause further damage work in her favor.

Her knowledge about a British ambush location gleaned from Frank Randall is accepted readily by Jamie and with skepticism by his uncle, Dougal MacKenzie; that the Scots were able to avoid the ambush and overtake the British instead won favor with the lesser members of Dougal’s team.

Claire’s ability to clean up and patch Jamie’s gunshot wound, her terse rejection of the Scots’ patronizing, misogynistic attitude about women’s expected behavior, and her treatment of Jamie as a soldier elevate her stature with him.

It’s conveyed to viewers in many different ways that Claire is liberated — more so than most post-WWII woman. We’ve had a taste of how very ugly it must have been in the 1700s for women in Scotland, and can only imagine what horrors will confront her in the next episode.

But it is definitely Claire’s story, not Jamie’s, Frank’s, Jack’s, or Dougal’s. We are now invested in the loss of her autonomy and the clawback surely ahead as we now identify with Claire.

What also lies ahead for the audience is the importance of Jamie Fraser to Claire’s story. While we have been watching Claire as she is watched by male characters, the female gaze of the audience may objectify Jamie Fraser. Book fans know Jamie has been objectified in other ways by male characters in the story, but as viewers, Jamie will become the subject of the female gaze, subverting the expectation of the omnipresent male gaze in entertainment. The audience will not identify with Jamie but with Claire, and not for her attractiveness, but for the power she wields, waxing or waning through the course of their relationship. Jamie represents the results of history’s flow, but Claire will be our proxy contesting the inevitability of its course.

To revisit criticism that Outlander is not gender equitable, implying it is not feminist, we might do a raw body count. It’s true as noted previously that the show runner is male, and only 25% of the directors are female. The latter is still an improvement over Hollywood’s percentage of female directors by a handful of percentage points.

Comparing the overall gender equity by pitting STARZ’ Outlander crew against HBO’s highly-acclaimed and male-led True Detective, we see greater equity in Outlander by nearly 10%.

Outlander’s total production team = ~140 persons, with ~33% female (16 episodes)

True Detective’s total production team = ~370 persons, with ~24% female (8 episodes)

Of course there may be limits on the ability to shift gender in the production team; drivers may be subcontracted and those available in Scotland might be male-only, for example. It’s interesting to note the productivity of the much smaller Outlander team while working on period fiction overseas; one might wonder at the returns on budget and what it might say about investing in increased gender equity in future production teams.

The low percentage of female directors on Outlander’s team may also be offset by the retained power of the author Gabaldon as a credited screenwriter and consultant across the 16 episodes of this season. Further, many of the visual details shaping the story’s feminist perspective are in turn the products of women — costuming and set decoration, for example, responsible for the white shift-dress and blue vase..

Moore also acknowledges he was persuaded to tackle Outlander by two women in his life — his wife, Terry Dresbach, and a producer with whom he has worked on programs Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, Maril Davis. Without their prodding he may never had considered producing Gabaldon’s story about a woman lost in time.

Would it have been a feminist story at all if Gabaldon had optioned it for adaptation to film years ago, rather than sit on it until a treatment honoring its themes was presented, regardless of the executive producer’s gender?

An additional element outside of the flatscreen frame subverts the norm of male gaze. The audience is more female than male, and it is an active, participatory audience as measured by social media. They are not passive, accepting meaning tossed to them, but seekers of context within and without the limits of the camera. There have been numerous activities and exchanges in the run-up to the series premiere, let alone the massive co-watching shared via social media concurrently with the premiere’s release. This same audience also communicated with members of the production team, from the books author to show runner, to producers, directors, actors, even the drivers — all before this first episode aired.

This is not the submissive feminine audience of the past, any more than Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser will be a doormat. This is a feminist series founded upon a female protagonist, whose existence arose from a woman’s imagination; its fans have expected nothing less for decades.

The challenge for the audience going forward, though, will be remembering Claire’s modern sensibilities, more progressive than many of her counterparts in the 1940s. Will they still focus on her personal struggle to survive a male-centric world once the characters around her increase in size, number, and testosterone? Or will they lapse into their traditional roles as passive receptors of male imagery?
Author's note: A special thanks to @dariachenowith for her time and feedback, which made this a more complete analysis.

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