Friday, September 12, 2014

In Outlander, It's the Man's Bodice That Gets Ripped

by Sara N.

I've written before about the predominantly female gaze that the showrunners are employing on Starz's Outlander. In short, it's Jamie's beautifully illuminated chest on display for the audience's viewing pleasure, rather than the salacious parts of the female body, as is most common with the prevailing male gaze in television and film.

Anyway, the most recent episode, "The Rent," doubled down on this perspective by turning the most hoary of romance novel cliches upside down. While our band of heroes/possible villains/definite annoyances are traveling the gorgeous Scottish countryside collecting rent, they stay in different villages every night, where they hold meetings with the locals. At these meetings, the laird's brother, Dougal McKenzie, speaks in passionate Gaelic to the crowds, and his speech culminates with him ripping open Jamie Fraser's shirt to display the whip scars left on his back by British redcoats.

When I saw this scene last Saturday, I almost gasped and clapped my hands in glee. Dougal literally ripped Jamie's bodice! There's nothing sexual about the act — it's intended to motivate the villagers to donate to the Jacobite rebellion — but nevertheless, Jamie is the object, the one being acted upon, the one with the ripped shirt.

Most modern romance novel readers — whose sisterhood counts me as a member — cringe at that sneery phrase: bodice-ripper. It's an old-fashioned term from an early era of romance novels, when it was more common to read scenes of rape and "keep going until she says yes" scenarios. But feminism has advanced, culturally acceptable female sexuality has evolved, and the heroines in our romance novels are allowed to express desire and actually enjoy sex without any stigma or forceful coercion, and thank goodness for that. With today's heroines, in the hands of today's authors, if any bodices are getting ripped, the heroine's ripping them herself — maybe her own, maybe the hero's, who knows?

Again, this isn't a perfect parallel as there's nothing overtly sexy about this scene (except, of course, for Sam Heughan's fire-kissed chest). But I'm still immensely tickled that Outlander hasn't strayed from the early indications that it was placing Claire squarely as the main actor, with her gaze as the defining view that takes in the world. (In other words, Jamie knees get more love than any of Claire's assets.)


Those who've read the books know that there are some scenes coming up, either this season or the next, that were hard for today's modern female readers to digest in the novel. I cannot wait to see how the show deals with them in a format that makes explicit the gaze, the actor, and the acted upon.
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