In this podcast, Rachel Berryman and I discuss the many problems and pleasures of Outlander season two. Topics include: adaptation, the romance genre, and narrative; the female gaze and spectatorship; and the shifting construction of Jamie as an object of desire. We hope you enjoy it and thank you for listening!
CONTENT NOTE: This podcast includes a discussion of rape tropes and rape narratives in Outlander.
In this podcast, Carmel Cedro and I discuss the female gaze. Topics include: the difference between a male gaze and a female gaze; the importance of this gaze in popular cultural texts; the potential for a fluid female gaze; and the representation of sex, desire and eroticism in contemporary screen media. This podcast ended up being a double episode because we just had so much to discuss! We hope you enjoy it x
Several months ago, I wrote a brief blog post on tumblr about the female gaze, and recent television series that allow that gaze to look at male bodies as objects of desire. I wrote about how this gaze is not necessarily the inverse of the male gaze, which is predicated on domination and reduction of the female figure, but rather exploratory, looking for a subjective position to take in relation to the male body. I wrote that how throughout history, media made about men, by men and for men has denied a place for women to hold a subjective, agentic gaze because it primarily caters to male agendas and desires. I noted that in instances where a female gaze is stitched into the structure of the text, the looked-at male characters do not suffer the kind of humiliation, passivisation or domination associated with the male gaze. Many women responded thoughtfully with some challenging questions and comments, and that was really wonderful.
Fast forward many, many months later. I started receiving notifications about this old post; comments from angry, self-proclaimed conservative men. I realised they would have had to scour tumblr for feminist tags in order to find my post – on Christmas Eve, of all days, which was sort of sad. They were angry for a few reasons: firstly, that my title was ‘Doctor’ and not ‘dumb bitch’ – they did not like my authority on this matter or that my field of expertise even existed; one man was angry that I was even allowed to continue to breathe.
It was a violent reaction to a woman claiming a space for her own erotic contemplation. They all started yelling ‘OP THINKS WOMEN SHOULD BE ABLE TO HARASS AND MOLEST MEN IN THE STREET! MISANDRIST!’ I was stunned. Nowhere in my piece had I suggested women should do this and of course I would never say this; in fact, my post was explicitly focused on cinematic visual conventions of representation (shot structures, editing, camerawork etc.). It interests me greatly that a discussion of the female gaze led these men to immediately jump to assume this is what I meant; is this because this is what they do with their own gaze? Is this the violence they want to do when they look at women? Is this why they assumed I would want to do this as well when I claimed an active position in relation to a desiring gaze? Women do not, will not, sexually harass or molest a man in the street, because we do not have the kind of structural power that would allow us to get away with that (you know, the kind of power that men have). Furthermore, we don’t see men as simple objects that we can manipulate and touch whenever we want. That would be the male gaze. The female gaze is something else entirely.
One poster asked ‘what the fuck do women know about “male gaze” and all that fucking rubbish you wrote? You aren’t a man. You have no fucking clue what men want or need.’ I know what it’s like to be terrified and ashamed as an eleven-year-old girl who gets catcalled by a car full of middle-aged men wagging their tongues and calling me a ‘pretty little slut.’ I know what it’s like to watch films and television shows where women are not only actively excluded from the subjective field but also treated like objects to be violated, fucked, and brutalised without a second thought. I know what it’s like to be terrified of male violence all day every day, being told that this is an overreaction, and then when something does happen, being told it was because I wasn’t careful or fearful enough. I know what it’s like to be a woman on the Internet who, when she writes about her own gaze, is sent threats and incessantly harassed. So yeah, I know the male gaze. I know it intimately. I live with it every day, just like every other woman. Our whole lives have been structured around catering to what men ‘need and want.’
These men also took issue with my argument that dominant media produces images of women that are pure objectification – I cited the paucity of speaking roles for women who are presented as objects for the male characters throughout film history. To this, Angry Men of Tumblr responded that in fact it is feminists who reduce these women to objects, that we don’t allow them to be more than to-be-looked-at spectacles. The statistics were ‘Made Up’. I’m unclear as to how feminists control the presentation of these female characters’ bodies, their stories or the amount of dialogue given to them.
But at the heart of it, I could see their incredible discomfort at the thought of women claiming a subjective desiring position that might shake the foundations of the conventional representations they get off to. That women might refuse to be simple objects for consumption, demanding a place in the scene of desire that is active and in control, demanding pleasure rather than being placidly pleasurable. I could see their fear at the thought of the gaze, that they have wielded with such authority, violence and entitlement, being turned back on them. They felt threatened. They felt like a thing they are ‘entitled’ to could be challenged or taken away from them – silent women, passive women, women who only desire when/what/how they are told to desire. We have a rise in media that is slowly shifting this representational field; furthermore, we have a lot of women actively discussing this shift in representation and what it means for their own structures of desire – they are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking, fangirling about it. Women are getting louder about what they want, and how they want it; they are demanding more from the media they consume. And this is a threat to the dominant culture that wants to keep us quiet, uncritical and compliant.
About seven minutes into this magnificent film, Channing Tatum’s character, ‘Magic’ Mike, starts dancing to the song ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine. He’s in his workshop, sawing and melding while sparks fly out around his body, glittering across his exposed, greased-up, and obscenely muscular arms. Mike dances and grinds for several minutes, directly performing to the camera, before suggestively and languorously smiling at the spectator as he writhes and reclines on a table. It’s all very phallic and performative. My sister turns to me and exclaims ‘oh my god he’s so hot, I can’t handle it.’ This early scene sets the tone for the entire film – it is pure and often outrageous spectacle, performed to glorious excess. And this performance is gleefully engineered for the female gaze. It is a celebration of that gaze, its importance and its potential power. I spent the entire film grinning and laughing with absolute delight at its extreme pleasures, its nonsense, its intensity of affective engagement.
In another equally insane and spectacular sequence, Richie enters a gas station and breaks into a spontaneous performance. Cheetos hail down upon him (yes, really) and ice water streams down his body as he strips for a rather surprised female gas station attendant.
As you can probably tell from these brief summaries, this is not a film heavy on plot or about narrative action; rather, it is about the performative excess of male bodies presenting themselves for a variety of desiring gazes. These perfectly sculpted men, slicked with sweat and often covered in glitter, and clad in diamante-encrusted g-strings, present their bodies for masses of appreciative women in various settings (the expected strip clubs, but also women’s homes, the gas station, workshops etc.). Furthermore, they perform for all sorts of women – women of different shapes, ages, and colours – and we see this wonderful variety of women’s bodies experiencing pleasure, being thoughtfully attended to, and respected. I love this. It says: you don’t have to conform to this strict set of rules of ‘ideal’ femininity (i.e., white, slender, dressed in ultrafeminine accoutrements) in order to be granted permission to assume a desiring position. You can be whoever you are and our performance is for you and your pleasure, however you take it.
These women are referred to as ‘Queens’ throughout the film, and the characters constantly remind us of their aim to ‘worship’ women. Mike even exclaims, ‘yes, my god is a she!’ Ken advises one woman that ‘if [your husband] isn’t gonna worship you, there are plenty of guys out there who will.’ The men reiterate that women are to be ‘worshipped’ and ‘exalted.’ I 100% question this whole discourse of women needing to ‘be reminded how beautiful they are’ (direct quote) as some kind of magical antidote for dealing with living in a woman-hating culture, but in the moment of my viewing, I have to admit that found it refreshing. Perhaps this is because we are so overwhelmingly bombarded with messages about everything that is wrong with our bodies, what we must tame, manage, cover up, get rid of/supplement etc. in order to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ or even worthy of simply being represented, acknowledged, and seen. Andre remarks that he thinks about how the women he performs for ‘have to deal with men in their lives who, every day, don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we gotta do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.’ These men take it upon themselves to listen to and then perform for women’s fantasy and pleasure. While the film calls us to light-heartedly laugh at this hyperbolic claim of being ‘healers,’ there is nevertheless a sense that this fantasy and spectacle at least temporarily alleviates the sense that we live in a culture that is actively disinterested in our desires and what we take pleasure in.
Furthermore, and very obviously, they present themselves for a desiring female gaze. The mise-en-scene and cinematography engineer the possibility of this gaze: hot pink spotlights shine on their figures, drawing attention to them; the framing is often in close-up or extreme close-up, encouraging a close intimate mode of looking; and the camerawork deploys a lot of panning shots back and forth across their figures, which I think promotes a caressing, tactile form of viewership. I also think it’s important to note that the film doesn’t really turn that gaze back on the women characters: there are no lingering, eroticising shots of women’s bodies. These are reserved solely for the ‘male entertainers.’ While the male characters certainly remark upon the attractiveness of some of the women they encounter, it is never really taken much further than that. Zoe, the character positioned as Mike’s potential love interest, is bisexual and ‘not really going through a guy phase.’ I was so pleased to see that the film did not try to recuperate her orientation for a heteronormative outcome by having her end up in Mike’s arms at the conclusion of the film; she certainly enjoys his obscenely erotic display in the final dance number of the film, but this is as far as it goes. This was so surprising and refreshing, because we usually see mainstream media either fetishising, chastising, or ‘redeeming’ women characters who do not conform to heteronormativity. Even more love for this excellent film as a result. This is a sublime work of visual excess that turns many sexist tropes of erotic display on their head to create something very pleasurable and very entertaining, and in many ways, very refreshing in terms of its sexual politics.
PS Channing Tatum is a cinnamon roll and I love him.
Declarations of ovary explosion, uterus throbbing, and being ‘PREGNANT, LITERALLY PREGNANT!’ are part and parcel of the online fangirl lexicon. These ecstatic utterances often refer to the enjoyment experienced at the sight of a text’s handsome protagonist in a state of undress, or doing something completely adorable like weeping silently by a campfire about his lost love a la Jamie Fraser of “Outlander”.
These declarations of fangirl feeling are also present in non-heterosexual representations of love, sex and desire, and I’ve noticed this happening particularly in relation to both slash and femslash fictions. Within the imaginary zone, women viewers and readers have crafted a language that allows them to speak with one another about their erotic imaginations, sensuous responses to fantasy, and their sexual desire.
Wherever this energy is directed, whatever object it takes, fangirling is so belittled because it is an often unruly expression of women’s desire, which patriarchal culture regards with contempt. Because patriarchal culture is dedicated towards fulfilling the needs, desires, and agendas of men, women are given far less space to articulate anything that challenges this prioritised language of desire. The unruliness suggested by coupling women’s pleasure with words like explosion, throbbing, pulsating, dancing, smouldering etc., gives this fangirl language a resistant edge that creates an alternative space of articulation. Resisting cultural prohibitions against women expressing desire (because it makes you look like a slut, because it’s not feminine, because it speaks of a desire that patriarchal culture does not approve of/want to fulfil and so on), this online communication seems to be looking for ways to push against or exceed the bounds of acceptability. I think this is why the language is so gleefully excessive, aggressive, playful, exuberant, and celebratory. It provides an oppositional counter to the idealised feminine sexuality that is demure, compliant, accommodating, and secondary to male desire. It puts women’s desire and a female gaze front and centre, without shame, and allows us to express things that ordinarily go unsaid.
In this podcast, romance scholar Jodi McAlister and I discuss fangirling as political practice, feminism, and women’s pleasure on “Outlander.” Topics include: women’s spectatorship and fan practices; the representation of sex, desire, and love; sexual politics and violence; patriarchal visual culture; representations of the wounded male body; why Jamie Fraser is the ultimate TV boyfriend. Have a listen and let us know your thoughts!
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.
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.
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?
My first TV boyfriend was Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He had that magical mix of brooding darkness, a troubled and shadowy past, and a righteous heart. Plus, he was a total babe. It might seem oxymoronic to suggest he possessed the qualities of ferocity and chivalry, evil and goodness in equal measure. But the TV boyfriend manages to balance these extremes in ways that make him deeply attractive. I’ve had many TV boyfriends, these wonderful male characters whose emotional depth and array of black leather jackets that seem to speak to me in interesting ways. What is it about the fantasy man, so contradictory yet at his core, constant, loving, and wounded? His appeal to the everyday fangirl, who witnesses his intensity and complexity, his erotic faculties, his faltering attempts to make known his emotional depths, is immense. In conversation with girlfriends, I can understand the intimacy that this emotional availability the fantasy man provides for our imaginaries. When I think about my favourite TV boyfriends – Angel, Tim Riggins, Damon Salvatore, Eric Northman, Oliver Queen – I think about how profound it is that these male bodies and minds are made absolutely available to the heroine’s and female viewer’s gaze.
He is open to us, he is allowing us in, he is relinquishing control over his image, status, and persona. He is ours, in this sense. Not in the sense that we must dominate him with a controlling or cruel gaze. But in the sense that we are invited to freely look, intimately experience him, without the burden of objectification turned back on us. Our relief at not be observed in turn by the male gaze that contemporary patriarchal culture enforces in ways that regulate and govern our status as objects, as well as the way we see ourselves. So the appeal of the TV boyfriend is, for me and for other women I’ve spoken to, in the freedom to look, to fantasise, to come to know him in intimate ways. And nothing is demanded from me in return.