The Politics of Fangirling: On Watching Outlander

Fangirling, for the uninitiated, is a practice of fervently loving something, usually a text like screen media, music, an aspect of celebrity culture, writing and so on. There is a kind of rapturous involvement with the loved text, an envelopment in its pleasures and an unashamed expression of delight in this. A lot of mainstream discussions of fangirling deprecate this experience through a sexist characterisation of girls/women as hysterical, excessive, obsessive, and expressive of ‘abnormal’ desire – think of the disparagement of One Direction fans, or Twilight afficianados, or girls/women expressing desire of any kind, really. In essence, fangirling is really a way girls and women have found to express some measure of desire and pleasure within the public discourse, and to me, this is always a good thing because we need to claim more spaces for this. Within my own experience of fangirling, there is always an enormous amount of enjoyment and delight. But at the same time, this delight is always compromised by aspects of the text that represent women in ways that disturb, offend, and sometimes disgust me. After all, these images are created within patriarchal visual culture, so even ‘well intentioned’ texts will inevitably twist towards sexist clichés, tropes and narratives that rely on the subjugation of the female figure. The fangirl, then, is confronted with a very complicated experience of visual culture and the pleasure she takes in it.

A few weeks ago I fell deeply in love with Ronald D. Moore’s television series Outlander. A kind of historical romance/science fiction hybrid set in the Scottish highlands, the series presents spectators with a lush landscape, a strong and complex heroine, and a variety of hot Scotsmen in kilts (and out of their kilts). In other words, perfection. Jamie Fraser, man of all Outlander fan’s hearts, is first presented to us half-naked and injured, his muscles licked by golden firelight and candlelight. The representation of this wounded, exposed hero is not evidence of the male body being subjected to a sadistic gaze. Instead, I think that it creates a space of openness to a desiring female gaze. Challenging the hardness and impenetrability that usually constitutes representations of hegemonic masculinity, women characters and viewers of Outlander are invited to gaze upon Jamie’s body, and to enjoy it.

Claire tends to Jamie’s injuries (again).

I devoured the first eight episodes and eagerly awaited the series return a fortnight ago. And then, a kind of unforgivable thing happened. In episode nine, Jamie pins Claire down on the ground and beats her with a belt as ‘punishment’ for her disobedience. This is not consensual play, and it’s certainly not sexy — it’s straight-up domestic violence. Disturbingly, he excitedly pants in her ear that he is enjoying hurting her. What is a woman viewer supposed to do with this scene, which is obscenely played for laughs, as if this is kind of funny? Do we reject Outlander, for its bullshit portrayal of violence against women? I am a feminist screen theorist, and I know that this retrograde representation of sexual politics is worse than terrible. It’s not excusable (don’t get me started on the ‘but it’s historically accurate’ line of reasoning, because lol no). While Jamie does recognise the grave error of his actions and begs his new wife’s forgiveness, viewers cannot just forget that the beating happened. And yet, I like many others, kept watching. In the next episode, luscious imagery of Jamie tenderly caressing and hungrily going down on Claire nevertheless made me quiver with absolute delight. Furthermore, I was very impressed when Jamie realised the full horror of his actions in episode 11 and began examining his privilege and how it has hurt his wife. This is good, and it’s very important — it demonstrates that the show is willing to reflect on oppressive gendered power relations and call them out in meaningful ways.

Outlander, season one episode nine.

Oscillating between my outrage at aspects of this text, and my love of its clever moments that undermine gender expectations, its visual textures and sensuousness, I (and many other women, I suspect) struggle with how to approach this narrative. I don’t really have an answer as to how to approach it – sometimes I think ‘boycott! Death to the patriarchy!’ But other times I think if I do that, I will literally have nothing to watch.

If images of women and the position of women spectators is always compromised within patriarchal visual culture, then perhaps it is the gaps, the moments, where another possibility can be perceived and occupied, if only fleetingly. Is this what fangirling is? Perceiving and occupying those intervals of resistance and potential where things could be otherwise? For me, it seems that this may be so. So, in amongst Outlander’s sometimes-disturbing representation of sexual politics, I think my delight lies in its little pockets that turn those politics on its head. My pleasure is in the moments where an alternative, even oppositional representation of gender relations is offered. This is a complex terrain to navigate as a woman, and as a feminist. Fangirling as a politics of resistance, even micro-resistances, is important because it can push against the boundaries of patriarchal visual culture and bend it towards alternatives. Perhaps it is small, gradual, even imperceptible if we’re not paying attention – could it, or is it, creating change for girl and women spectators?

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Other K says:

    Oh goodness I love this topic. Here’s the thing. That scene was very close to what was in the books, written by a woman. In fact there is a lot of rape and attempted rape in the book series, an aspect that has been heavily criticised.

    This is a great read on the politics of it:

    When you think about it, to ignore patriarchy in 18th century Scotland would be ridiculous. And in fact the entire series is rooted in a (forced) marriage, which at that time (and in Clair’s reality) made women the actual property of their husbands and he owned everything that was hers. It’s a bit rich to get offended at a ‘spanking’ (hate that word) if we are going to give the institution of marriage a pass.

    Clair suffers coercion on every front. She stands up for herself but never has any real power over her own life. This power is instead held by men. She is repeatedly sexually assaulted and the threat of violence hangs over her. She is forced into marriage to be ‘protected’ from the whims of other men. Her limited source of power (as a healer) is used against her. Essentially, and this is my argument about 50 Shades as well, everything she experiences is collectively experienced by women in various forms right now. And that’s why it resonates so strongly with women. It’s not about the fact that it’s right or wrong, it’s about the fact that this shit is real for women.

    Her marriage to Jamie is the perfect illustration of this dichotomy: the “position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men” (from the article linked above).

    I could go on forever but I’ll stop there!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. athenabell says:

      Dear Other K,
      Thanks for your fabulous and thoughtful comment! I totally agree with you on this – it is a potent act for a woman artist to represent women’s oppression, how it works, and how it harms women in patriarchal culture. Absolutely! I guess my qualm is when it is not interrogated by the text but rather used as a plot device and then we’re just meant to move on like nothing happened. I haven’t read the Outlander books but the beating scene in the TV series appeared to me to be played for laughs, at least partially, and that makes me a little uneasy to say the least. If their intention was to expose/interrogate systemic violence against women in the 18th C, why try to make us laugh about it? It’s such a rich and complex issue, and I think this conversation is really important to have so that we can enjoy the text but also critically engage and debate! Loved your link to the Salon article, too 🙂 Athena


      1. Other K says:

        I agree the tone was a bit off for me too. There seemed to be a very big concern that it would make Jamie unsympathetic – hence the whole episode and that scene in particular as Jamie’s POV.

        Personally I understand the reasons for Jamie POV but it didn’t work for me. It’s particularly interesting that it was introduced in part to deal with this problem in particular – it’s like.. OK, now that we have something really problematic to deal with (in terms of audience reaction), we’ll just solve it by silencing the woman’s POV.

        I don’t feel like they moved on like nothing happened so much though. I think it was shown as having a big impact on them that could be fixed by both of them making it clear that it would never happen again.

        I think the producers’ intention is to just to tell the story and stick to the book as much as possible, and this episode would have been extremely tough to adapt. In the book the spanking/beating happens from Claire POV and it’s definitely not humorous, but then it’s followed by a long explanation which puts it in context. Then there’s a whole other power struggle over consent that is kind of similar (ie interesting but unquestionably problematic).


      2. athenabell says:

        We’re definitely on the same page, Other K! I love exploring the intricacies of the narrative and our responses to it


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