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‘Outlander’ and TV’s Sexual Revolution

'Outlander' and TV's Sexual Revolution

Word has been getting around about “Outlander’s” wedding episode and although its first (half-) season ended on Saturday, the Huffington Post’s Mo Ryan suggests that its revolution continues. 

The show, Ryan writes in an incisive and far-reaching essay, “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,” specifically in the way it foregrounds and stays true to the perspective, both figurative and literal, of its female protagonist, Claire (Catriona Baife). “This is new,” she writes, switching to italics for emphasis. “This shift occurring on this many notable shows is new.” (It’s also good business: Ratings for “Outlander’s” wedding up were up 40 percent in the demo.)

The other notable shows include “Girls,” “The Good Wife,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “New Girl,” “Orphan Black” and many others, and if you take a look at that list, you may notice two things: One, that it’s largely devoid of the masterpieces-by-acclamation that dominate much TV coverage (no “Mad Men,” no “True Detective”), and Two, that all of them are built around female protagonists, or at least women who share equal footing with a man. If the revolution led by “The Sopranos” marked a change in “what a protagonist could do,” Ryan says, the last several years have seen a change in “who a protagonist can be.”

Critically, it’s not a simple matter of swapping women into the slots previously occupied by “difficult men,” but of telling stories that reward their characters for pursuing fulfillment rather than punishing them. (Ryan points out that “Mad Men’s” Joan and Peggy “have spent much of the last few seasons doing well at work and enduring disastrous personal lives” — I’m hard-pressed to say Don and Pete have done much better for themselves.) “Outlander’s” wedding episode tells that story in miniature, as Claire and Jaime (Sam Heughan) go from co-conspirators in a marriage of convenience to avid and attentive sexual partners.

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. 

Before their third go-round, 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’ third sexual encounter made the closeness and warmth between these two people almost palpable.

Although she’s mainly in a celebratory mood, Ryan sounds a little bummed out that more people aren’t watching “Outlander,” and that it’s not kicking up the same amount of critical dust as other shows that fit more neatly into the “quality TV” mold. (Airing Saturday nights probably doesn’t help, either.) Her excellent piece may convince a few more people to give “Outlander” a try — not because it’s “important,” but for their own pleasure.

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