We've been gifted with two episodes of Outlander so far. Is it too early to draw conclusions? I say no, let's conclude away: Outlander is, so far, employing an explicitly female gaze.
This shouldn't be a surprise since its main character is Claire Randall, who falls through time and drives the story through her fish-out-of-water experiences. Her frustration and powerlessness at being a woman in the 1700s, a time when women carry little value, make up a great deal of the first book and, presumably, the first season.
Not only does the show employ a female protagonist, but so far, it seems to be filmed for the non-male gaze. And here's why that's notable.
So. I've written before about the idea of the prevailing male gaze in our film and television entertainment. Suggested by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s, it's a theory that says (and I'm hugely simplifying here), filmmakers assume that the viewing audience is male and heterosexual, and they create images to please that heterosexual male gaze. As such, women are treated as sexual objects, designed to be looked at by an appreciative male audience. This is why you have, say, Alice Eve stripping to her skivvies for no reason in Star Trek Into Darkness while shots of Benedict Cumberbatch showering and Chris Pine sans pants were removed from the the film. Those making the editing decisions assumed the audience wanted to see an unclad woman, but the sight of an unclad man would make them uncomfortable.
This is obviously hogwash. But it's pervasive hogwash. And it's why the two episodes of Outlander that we've seen so far have raised my eyebrows.
Sure, we saw actress Caitriona Balfe's goodies on screen in the first two episodes. In the pilot, she has a sex scene that shows her naked breasts and butt. The butt shot lingers a bit, but her breasts are in motion and mostly obscured by her partner, as opposed to being the centerpiece of the scene.
In episode 2, Claire's breasts are seen briefly in a scene in which she's getting dressed in 18th century garb. But the point of that scene, as I read it, was the stripping down of 20th century Claire to make her over into an 18th century woman. We see the cumbersome layers that are fitted to her body, which sharply contrast the simple dresses she wore in the 1940s. The morning light is almost harsh on her skin, and again, she's moving and active, and the camera doesn't linger on her naked chest.
Now, compare Claire's brief moments of undress with the episode 2 scene of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). In it, he doffs his shirt so Claire can clean a shoulder wound. He remains shirtless for the whole scene, complete with flashbacks, while the glow of the fire bathes him in a warm, mellow light. Certainly, a bare male chest doesn't carry the same titillation factor that a bare female chest does, but it's definite eye candy that's explicitly on display. Jamie becomes the object of a desiring, sexual gaze in a way that could perhaps be off-putting to a straight male viewer.
Compare that to Game of Thrones. (A quick interjection: People keep comparing these two shows, and I don't really know why. Both are historical and based on popular, dense novels with hints of magic in them, but that's really where the similarities stop. Yet here I am, about to do the same thing.) Anyway, in GoT, when you've got a woman in a sex scene, she's probably pretty openly displaying her assets, and the camera is caressing those curves. Many, many women are nude for the purpose of set decoration, only there to be looked at. Yet you don't see the same types of shots for the male members of the cast. (The word "member" here is intentional.)
In addition, I'm curious what this could mean for straight male viewership. Will Jamie's fire-kissed pecs scare off men? Much has been written about the alleged struggle to recruit male viewers who are turned off by the whiff of romance surrounding the show. Will the lack of base T&A combined with handsome, shirtless Jamie be an extra hindrance to male viewers? I hope not; I, for one, don't think that straight guys are such neanderthals that they need naked boobies to tune in. A compelling story and intriguing characters should be enough for us all, men and women alike.
If you'd like to read Laura Mulvey's original essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," you can find it here.