Why Outlander is the gift that keeps on giving

Read why the Outlander books and TV series have such repeat appeal

It is a truth universally acknowledged* that Droughtlander is a thing. This past month, yellowing paperbacks have been dusted off while many-a-thousand Kindles, Kobos, iPads and Androids have been powered up to read or re-read Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and/or Voyager novels after the Starz TV series season 2 finale aired on July 8. At the same time, streaming services all over the world have noticed spikes in the viewing of Outlander seasons 1 and 2 online.

In 1992, the year that Diana Gabaldon first published Outlander, I began studying for a degree in English Literature. I was pregnant with my first child. The publishing of Outlander caused a general ruckus in my school and I recall thinking at the time that the unbridled reaction of excitement from my lecturers was both startling and somewhat disconcerting. First year classes were virtually abandoned for behind-closed-door negotiations about who would get research funding and how to incorporate this new phenomenal multi-genre masterpiece into the syllabus.

As a first year, I wasn’t feeling it. I thought I was there to read Shakespeare and Dickens and learn where to put commas.  That was, after all, “proper literature.” So I bucked the trend and managed to get through the first year of my degree without engaging with any text that was remotely suggestive of science fiction or romance.

Oh how I lament. The phenomenal masterpiece that I dismissed as unworthy of my study time was the first in a best-selling series of 8+ books, has been the focus of countless critical essays, and has been adapted to a very polished television series that just finished its second season of production.

Like many others, I have been playing catch-up. I have read five of the books, kicked myself repeatedly, and watched the son I gave birth to back in 1992 independently emerge as a dedicated follower of the TV series – without having read a word from the books. Outlander, it seems, is uniting generations and so I feel there is value in further examining the cultural importance of this force majeure.

I think it is fair to say that any adaptation of a book to TV/film will have some degree of abridgement, and no-one close to the Outlander book publication or TV production could honestly argue that there hasn’t been a type of relationship “fragmentation” between book readers (Readers) and TV viewers (Viewers). Of course, this is not unprecedented, as Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings readers will attest. As will Shakespeare.

But the discussion around this needs to consider the amount of time that has lapsed between the publication of the first book and present day: 24 years. That is longer than the interwar period between WW1 (1914-1918) and WW2 (1939-1945) and is just short of the common definition of a generation – 25 years: from the birth of a parent to the birth of a child. It was technically last century. I think most people accept that the world changes over time and therefore so does the interpretation of cultural texts like Outlander.

I have observed recently that some Readers have almost felt the need to apologise for their knowledge of the Outlander subject matter and urging of attention to detail. They have been referred to by some Viewers as “smug”, “nerds”, “crazy”, “fanatical”, “obsessed.” A little unfair I think, because most seem to be generous with time and information to help string together parts of the narrative for Viewers.

My take on it is that back in 1992, and the years since, a vast number of people made a significant financial, emotional and time investment to the reading of Outlander. I also think that these books have been a source of great comfort to people who, given the demographic, are likely to have suffered through terrible illness, loss, grief, divorce, incapacity, inequity, abuse, depression – all the painful things that happen to millions of people over the course of their lives. I think the books have been a positive place to escape for those who needed it. So given the investment made, it is not unreasonable to expect a degree of attachment and ownership over the content.

On the flip side, we see people who are new to Outlander coming to view the series with blind enthusiasm, excitement and passion. These new arrivals seem to be quite diverse in age and gender, and appear to be prepared to let the narrative take them anywhere unchallenged and uncontested. The demographic has expanded – we see young fathers talking about how they want their daughters to grow up with role models like Claire Randall/Beauchamp/Fraser. They want them to be valued leaders, fearless articulators, loved and respected contributors. I think this energy is powerful. For many Viewers, there is little desire to read the books because in watching the TV series, they are essentially reading the 2016 interpretation of the books. And that is how culture works.

One argument of modern literary theory is that an author is a product of their “time and place.” That is to say that as well as having uniquely developed intent and imagination, the author is also a representative or agent of the culture that he/she writes about. So when putting pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, they either consciously or sub-consciously draw on their interpretation of history, ideology, politics and world experience to lay down the telling of their story.

We know that Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser was inspired from a character who appeared in the 1966-1969 version of Dr Who, and we know that in 1992 Ms Gabaldon was in the process of raising a family, had achieved academic qualification and worked in the field of behavioural and biological sciences. But when Ms Gabaldon was developing Outlander, she chose to invoke multiple genres, insisted on the perspective being a female point of view and then shaped the development of Claire Randall into a beyond stereotype character. This was the beginning of her own contribution to changing history and I argue that these narrative decisions would have been somewhat informed and driven by the social and political discussions in play at the time.

In 1992, the concept of women (a) contributing to conversations of national and global importance and (b) making life choices other than marriage and motherhood was still relatively implausible. I lived it. The majority of us were receptionists, beauticians, teachers, nurses, librarians, secretaries, mothers and wives. Critical services. But we didn’t run the race, we drove the support vehicles. This was especially true of women from lower socio-economic backgrounds or minority ethnicities who may have had limited tertiary education opportunity or motivation.

At that time, fictional texts that described strong, powerful women with in-demand skills, an intellect and a plan for the future were usually relegated to genre writing – predominantly science fiction. Why science fiction? Because it was hopeful and futuristic, but never a reality. In 2nd year, I gave in and embarked on studying the classic Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) where Connie Ramos learns that she is living at an important time in history, and that she herself is in a critical position where her actions and decisions will influence and define the future. Whilst Piercy’s novel is largely utopian speculative fiction, there are some thematic comparisons that can be drawn between it and Outlander.

To me, it is no coincidence that Outlander starts at the end of World War 2, a period in history when women were called upon to take up traditionally male roles – engineering, manufacturing, intelligence, arms distribution and logistics to “fill the gap” while the men were away fighting. It turns out they were exceptionally good at it. Then when the war finished, the men returned and women were asked to step down, return to domesticity and recommence the anxieties over body image. This was Diana Gabaldon’s starting point for Claire Randall’s story – a woman who had just made a major contribution to a bloody war and was being asked to put aside all she had learnt and achieved and take a step back to assume her place beside her husband. Claire appeared to accept this fate with some hesitation, though little resistance. But Ms Gabaldon forced her down a different path, at least for a time.

1992 was also around the time the second wave of feminist theoretical non-fiction hit the world arguing that there had been a “backlash” against the feminist movement of the late 1960s. The discussion was most prominent in texts like Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), Gloria Steinham’s Revolution from Within (1992), Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990), and Marilyn French’s The War Against Women (1992) which all argued that the 1970s and 1980s was a negative period in terms of reclaiming female subjectivity and objectification that was being defined by men for men. This came 24 years after the first-wave feminist movement (so-termed by Martha Lear in 1968) and I would suggest that we are currently living through another anti-feminist backlash 24 years later.

There are positives though. Despite history tending to repeat – and in 2016, way too many people trying to address problems of the world using less than 140 characters – we are on the brink of having at least four women: Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel running the race and earning the right to lead the developed world. Their politics may differ but their common purpose is progressive as it is the beginning of some degree of naturalisation that is more accepting of women having significant roles of global leadership and influence. And I argue that texts like Outlander and Woman On The Edge Of Time, along with other feminist fiction and non-fiction, have done the hard work over the past 50 years to edge us closer to this position.

But it is not only about feminism – the Outlander series has great social depth and value and lends itself to a number of readings: psychological, socialist, masculine identity (especially around the characterisations of Black Jack Randall and Lord John Grey), and also in the exploration of the “Other” which will become particularly interesting in the upcoming season 3 (based on Voyager). It is so incredibly rich and there will always be a lot to say.

So hopefully Readers and Viewers will agree on one thing: that Outlander is a gift. Regardless of whether we spend our time reading or watching, or both, it is the storyline that looks ever forward and subversively asks questions about possibility that generates the recurring appeal. We read, watch, re-read and re-watch. While Diana Gabaldon is writing and Ron D. Moore is producing, Outlander is expanding in presence and is being set up to reinforce a more positive view of the world that brings us closer and closer to a better reality.

If I live long enough, it is plausible to think that I may be watching a remake of Ron D. Moore’s interpretation of Outlander in another 24 years time.

Right now, I can’t see how it could get any better – but I do accept that it will almost certainly be different.

Notes:
* Opening phrase of Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

© 2016 Michelle Glasson

Game of Thrones (23), Outlander (2): behind the 2016 Emmy nomination imbalance

Learn what the GOT and Outlander Emmy imbalance is really about

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He said it himself, so it must be true. “Outlander was robbed.” Not my words – but comments made by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones writer/creator on the outcomes of the July 14 2016 Emmy nominations. There have been a lot of post-Emmy articles reporting snubbing and outrage appearing online in the last few days. Outlander doesn’t seem to rank, but Game of Thrones advocates are incredulous on account of only receiving six acting nominations – Sansa Stark/Sophie Turner missed out and is now being referred to as “the Leonardo Dicaprio of the Emmys.” Welcome To Our World.

Old news now, but Outlander received just two Emmy nominations for Production Design and Costume Design. However, it missed out completely in the Drama, Acting, Writing and Directing categories. Whilst it was well assumed that the incredible work of Terry Dresbach and John Gary Steele would be recognised, I can’t help thinking that this is the least condescending way to say that while we don’t rate your concept, perspective, vision, narrative, writing, acting, direction and execution, you did a worthy job of interior design and dressmaking.

You do feel for the actors particularly. Caitriona Balfe’s extraordinary “Faith” episode, Tobias Menzies in that complex dual role and Sam Heughan holding the line whilst transforming from trauma victim to powerful leader. Also a vast list of exceptional supporting and guest actors including Duncan Lacroix, Stanley Weber, Simon Cowell and Andrew Gower remained unnoticed.

At least we can throw out the myth that the Television Academy does not recognise genre shows in the Drama category that are accompanied by a fandom. If that was accurate, the Game of Thrones nomination tally would be closer to three, as opposed to twenty-three. So how do we get to the bottom of the bias against Outlander?

Let’s start with this. I recently noted this comment:

Betty

So much for democracy and free speech. Not only was Betty bullied and abused for her recommendation, but she was tracked down and intimidated to the point of withdrawing her vote. If “Betty” was a “Bill” or “Ben” or “Bob”, do you think the vitriol would have been the same? Despite this being a “mock” vote where people could submit personal predictions for the Emmys, the messaging can be replicated a thousand times over and speaks to a broader backlash against women vocalising that is reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s (and back beyond).

To me, there is one very clear distinction between Game of Thrones and Outlander and it is all to do with point-of-view. Kelsey McKinney recently wrote a very reasoned, well researched article on how the representation of women on Game of Thrones comes through the perspective of male writers, backed up by some telling statistics. The female roles are written by men, and so speak and act through an unwavering masculine point-of-view which has full control over the character arcs.

The article also pointed out that women’s contribution to GoT tends to be that of production support as opposed to the creative thinking/directional roles. This has trended differently across seasons, but take note of the ground-breaking commentary that ensued:

William

How Shakespearian.

Outlander is almost the opposite. The base perspective is unequivocally female but is always open to shift and is exclusive of no-one. The writing, directing and production roles seem to be balanced and shared between men and women. Outlander has a very humanistic interpretation of the past and vision for the future that is informed by a real history. And I think, ironically, it is the positivity of Outlander – perpetuated by a significant number of women – that has so many Television Academy members disengaging from it. Is it because other productions are so bleak in their outlook that despair has almost become part of the selection criteria?

Rewind to 1859. George Eliot was an English novelist in the Victorian era. Except George was actually Mary Ann Evans. She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot’s life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women only writing lighthearted romances. Sound familiar? I’ve always thought that with the advent of online commentary that enables anonymity, it would be an interesting social experiment for women to assume male identities online in order to be taken seriously. If Outlander supporters vocalised via a male pseudonym, would it make a difference? Sadly, yes.

And how do we interpret the recent emergence of male voices speaking up in support of Outlander? We’ve started to hear George R. R. Martin, John Doyle and notable other men publicly comment on the quality and authenticity of the Outlander production. A welcome relief to be honest, because one male voice seems to equate to one thousand female voices and it is exhausting. Thank God there are some people around to provide balance and authority because I for one feel destined to assume stereotype, take a valium and a go for a good lie-down.

The #BlackLivesMatter campaign captured a great photo (courtesy Afro News) from the protest in London last week:

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I feel much the same. Frankly, I would rather be spending my time writing on other projects but I also find it hard to turn my back on the politics of this issue because the poor behaviour is symptomatic of an industry with a terrible gender bias, severe lack of accountability and no appetite to invoke basic protocols and guidelines.

It is not about trophies, or individuals, or production companies – it is about challenging the well documented blinkered thinking of Hollywood and taking on the cowardly online assassin that is the modern day aggressor against women speaking up and registering their thoughts. Don’t tolerate it. Never let anyone mess with your vote, regardless of what it is for.

All this prejudice because Outlander is simply a story told from a female point-of-view.

Shame on you Hollywood.

© Michelle Glasson 2016

 

Why Sam Heughan has not found an Emmy under that blade of grass?

Read why Sam Heughan’s portrayal of Jamie Fraser continuously fails to earn him critical award nominations and wins

When analysing problems, incidents or significant failures in the world of manufacturing and heavy industry, a methodology called a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is often employed. This methodology invokes the “5 whys” meaning that if we step back and ask 5 “why” questions about the things that didn’t go as expected, we will start to see a reason or explanation emerge.

The same methodology can be applied to help understand reasoning behind conscious and subconscious decisions made by television executives, filmmakers and writers who tend to have oversight on the cultural messages presented in modern film and television. This same group also seems to have power of authority over who is valued highest when it comes to rewarding production teams and individuals when award season rolls around.

Well award season is here. The 2016 Emmy nominations opened last week and so the scrambling for putting your best men and women forward has begun. But to understand the cultural politics at play here, we need to apply the “whys” to an important question from last year.

Why was Sam Heughan snubbed in the 2015 & 2016 TV award season rounds?

For the uninitiated, Sam Heughan plays Jamie Fraser in the Starz TV Series Outlander. The show has run for two seasons now – based on books Outlander (1991) and Dragonfly In Amber (1992) of Diana Gabaldon’s multi-genre series. It has just been renewed by Starz for two more seasons.

The books and show have a massive following (yes, that is an understatement). Many blogs and websites dedicate themselves to discussing the line-by-line interpretations and goings on of Outlander episodes, comparisons of books to TV series, as well as the interpersonal relationships of its stars. This site is not one of them.

But we do take note of cultural politics and how certain texts and performances are valued more highly above others. And we ask questions about why that is.

Lets start with the competition. The way 2016 is shaping up, it seems the 6 Emmy frontrunners for Lead Male Actor in a Drama currently trending (at time of writing) seem to be: Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Kyle Chandler (Bloodline), Damien Lewis (Billions), Rami Malek (Mr Robot) and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) with outliers Wagner Moura (Narcos) and Bobby Cannavale (Vinyl) nudging into the six here and there. All great series, all great actors, all great performances.

But would it be fair to say that these leading contender programs are telling unwavering stories about drugs, war, politics, espionage, money, power, sex, control and the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our “managers of humankind” – narrated from the ever-so-familiar male point of view?

So where is the subversive narrative? What counter stories are at play where these programs are saying something else about the world other than we must all aspire to be ambassadors of hatred, violence and intolerance and do our best to double-cross, outsmart, murder and take revenge upon others? Apart from perhaps the dark family dynamic in Bloodline (which does deserve further exploration), I am struggling to find anything. For any of these programs to have cultural significance, they need to be doing something constructive to bridge the ever-expanding chasm in humanity.

Outlander addresses this through workarounds that are very clever. Whilst part-prescribing to the popular narrative of war, revenge and violence – necessary it seems to get a seat at the table of dominant thought – it actually has a stronger subversive thread running through that teaches the value of tolerance, patience, peace, humility, honesty, love, equality, family, camaraderie, brotherhood, friendship and commitment. 

This becomes apparent as viewers and readers work through the contradictions of Outlander – last week I watched Murtagh cut off the Duke of Sandringham’s head and this week I watched Claire Fraser administer palliative care to two dying men. But the brilliance of the production lies in the ability to tell a very positive humanistic story whilst reluctantly chopping, slashing and gouging with the efficiency of an 18th century kitchen appliance. 

And this is where the complex characterisation of Jamie Fraser comes into play. Amongst the ambiguous traits of this textbook hero is this incredibly open-hearted, willing to learn, willing to believe, emotionally intelligent young man who (after an initial hiccup) comes to genuinely believe his wife Claire is his soul mate and equal. He is also the object of sexual desire from both his wife and an extremely conflicted English Army Captain to whom he was forced to submit to physical and sexual abuse.

In Outlander Series 1 Episodes 15 and 16 we witnessed Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies play this out in all the graphic detail over two of the most harrowing episodes of television ever screened. Both actors received wide acclaim, but Sam’s performance in particular stunned audiences to the point of speechlessness. Heralded by everyone, everywhere. But when awards season rolled around…nothing.

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Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser after being tortured and abused by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) Series 1, Episode 16. Photo by Starz.

I suggest that this omission says a great deal about how critics really respond to challenging subversive material, especially when it is the conundrum of seeing an archetypal male lead graphically raped and tortured by another male. My point is that because Outlander first prescribes to – then undermines – just about every genre, those assessing it have been quick to lump it into the “melodrama” or “soap opera” classification which is often conveniently and derogatorily dismissed as “women’s shit.”

Lets spell it out again using the 5 whys:

Sam Heughan was snubbed by 2015 & 2016 TV award programs despite receiving overwhelming acclaim for his performance in Outlander Series 1.
Why?
Because Sam’s portrayal of Jamie Fraser was seemingly not endorsed by voting members.
Why?
Because the rape, torture and domination of a lead male hero by another male undermined normalised perceptions of “strong men” and suggested that the lead male was weak, exposed and vulnerable.
Why?
Because the mixed genres of Outlander enabled an ambiguous interpretation and so the content was conveniently dismissed as melodrama (usually associated with the feminine and so perceived as having diminished or lesser cultural value).
Why?
Because mainstream culture is unsettled with a leading man being emotionally exposed, a subject of sexual abuse and the object of female desire – it diminishes power, authority and control.
Why?
Because these types of events challenge the dominant narratives around masculine identities and gender roles and that makes everyone shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.

I would argue that Sam’s incredible portrayal of a brutalised Jamie has so deeply unsettled critics and peers it has perhaps worked against him. And I think the season 2 writers have worked hard to help reclaim any diminished masculinity by highlighting the more mainstream male aspect of Jamie in the latter stages of season 2. Although to be fair, much of this is just accommodating the narrative shift post-Paris and preparing for the upcoming climactic battle of Culloden and this does necessitate focus on the historical events of war. This is where Jamie puts his PTSD to one side and reluctantly leads Team Fraser into battle.

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Sam as Jamie Fraser in Season 2, Episode 4 – La Dame Blanche. Photo by Starz.

Prior to this, season 2 of Outlander continued the physical and emotional rehabilitation of Jamie which achieved some closure in Episode 4 “La Dame Blanche” when Claire demanded he open up. And he did:

“There was this place inside me. A place I think everyone has that they keep to themselves. A fortress. Where the most private part of you lives. Maybe it’s your soul – the bit that makes you yourself and not anyone else.
But after Wentworth, it was like my fortress had been blown apart. The thing that once lived there was suddenly exposed out in the open – without shelter.
That’s where I’ve been ever since Claire. Naked, alone – trying to hide under a blade of grass…

For me, this was the best Jamie monologue in Season 2 (so far) – and I will declare my bias – because I am drawn to any discussion around vulnerability on television that is articulated by a male. This week (Episode 12 “The Hail Mary”) we also saw Dougal, Colum and Black Jack Randall all open up about the feelings of both love and resentment they have toward their respective brothers – the latter having a particularly venomous way of expressing it. All the actors in these scenes did an incredible job. This sort of dialogue amongst males is so important because it is the beginning of self-acknowledgement, reflection and potential for growth that just seems to be so absent from the life of everyday Mr Television.

I just hope we are not at risk of frightening away male actors willing to take on courageous roles that do ask important cultural questions – especially around normalised masculine identities. It is clear that Outlander appeals to women because it’s a way they can collectively engage – through the characterisation of Claire – in a hostile masculine world and in a history they were suspiciously absent from.

But don’t we also need to be talking about the disenfranchisement of men and how they feel about the world? I feel Outlander does an incredible job of this because I see it as relevant to any person trying to seek validation from outside a dominant narrative which places value on specific ethnicities, incomes, educational backgrounds, gender, sexuality and a load of other criteria. I would argue that there are plenty of men who feel this pain alongside women not to mention all the “others” out there that don’t make it into the script.

The narrative choices naturalised for mainstream TV do contribute to this and so there is a responsibility to support, encourage and reward alternative threads that teach more about connectivity and tolerance – and not dismiss them as melodramatic when called on to engage the grey matter to figure out the genre. Lean into the discomfort.

For me the real heroes are the Sam Heughans of this world – out there on the fringes, taking on important roles they know many of their established mainstream counterparts will refuse to sign-off on. Isn’t that what “Man in the Arena” is all about? This makes the likes of Sam a good human in my book who has the courage and emotional intelligence to play a man with zero anxiety about engaging with marginalised groups if it means helping to shift the world out of despair.

It is only fair that we afford these breakthroughs the right to be equally rewarded alongside their peers when they present soul-baring offerings (as Heughan did in Outlander episodes 115 and 116 last year and again consistently throughout season 2) that challenge the norms and shows “above and beyond” commitment to their craft.

And he did it without having to say “fuck” once.

For your consideration.

© 2016 Michelle Glasson