An Outlander Community
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There’s undoubtedly a sensationalism and often thrilling fantasy in the display of beautiful bodies in film and television, a fantasy Starz and fellow premium cable channels HBO and Showtime have a long and sometimes problematic history in enjoying. Particularly in recent years several television shows, including many that have otherwise been critically lauded, have come under scrutiny—whether justly or unjustly—for prurient, male-entitled nudity with, it is argued, little to no storytelling merit. Nudity, as some showrunners have confided to the media, is a mandate for many premium cable productions.

This is the television and critical climate Outlander inhabits. Whatever the “necessity” or “merit” of exposed bodies and sex among its programming company, and however equally—if differently—sensational and pornographic the reputation for literary romance which the novels have—again, justly or unjustly—inherited, Starz’ Outlander is doing something interesting and subtly groundbreaking.

[Note: Although the questions and observations that inspired this post rely heavily on anticipating details from the novel, this discussion includes no spoilers beyond the third episode “The Way Out”. If you choose to include any specific details beyond this in the comments, please include a spoiler warning and hide the relevant text until highlighted. All image credits: Starz.]


BODIES

I laughed at the memory of Corporal Chisholm. “He told me, ‘If I’m goin’ to lie on my face wi’ my buttocks bared, I want the lass under me, not behind me wi’ a hatpin!’” (Chapter 1, “A New Beginning”)

Or, “Don’t tell me my ass offends you too.” (Episode 3, “The Way Out")




There’s something of a paradox of attitudes towards nudity in Outlander’s forked timeline. Claire, whose sensibilities of the human body are firmly rooted in both her mid-20th century habits of fashion and sex but also her extensive experience as a combat nurse, thinks nothing of her fine white knee-length dress until she finds herself transported to the mid-18th century being lasciviously leered at by men, English and Scots alike, who mistaking her dress for undergarments think she may very well be a whore. Castle Leoch’s Mrs. FitzGibbons is mildly scandalized by Claire’s attire. But, when it comes to remedying her wardrobe, she is unabashed by Claire’s naked body, distracted instead by her unusual “corset”. Conversely, Claire may be willing but is visibly embarassed by undressing in front of an entirely non-body-shy stranger, guarding her chest with her forearms, smiling nervously, and bashfully sliding out of her knickers. It’s a brand of physical intimacy the 18th-century housekeeper barely registers but the 20th-century nurse finds distinctly uncomfortable. As such, it’s also a telling vignette of Outlander’s disjunctive anachronism. Claire’s relationship to her own body and her sense of privacy about it become markers for her degree of acclimatization.


But, though we’ve seen little of it, Claire shows minimal embarrassment or reticence with wounded or debilitated bodies. Like Mrs. FitzGibbons dressing the lady, the professional context mitigates her interaction with those variably exposed bodies. Claire betrays no particular interest in Jamie’s body in Episode 1 outside of treating his injuries, and she’s confident and sure in her handling of it accordingly, resetting his disjointed shoulder with authority and bandaging his musket wound with a steady hand. She’s able to observe and diagnose Colum’s painful and disfiguring disease without shrinking in horror or gawking rudely. Her tactful candor regarding his therapy and her amused—yet unabashed—demeanor when casually presented with his bare ass, especially when followed by her unflinching treatment of his lower back, reinforce her professionalism. But Episodes 2 and 3 present a perhaps more uncertain tone for Claire and Jamie’s physical contact. No doubt, the circumstances shift: Claire now disinfects and bandages his wounds beside a castle fireplace rather than on the roadside with dirty rags and whiskey, and perhaps she’s just as delicate with all her patients when she has leisure to be, but the privacy and nearness her care imparts the pair, the more they seem to lapse into fraught eye-gazing.

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“But when you see it yourself, it’s like”—he hesitated, looking for words—“it’s a bit…personal, maybe, is what I mean.” (Chapter 8, “An Evening’s Entertainment”)




There’s a moment just before his wrap falls to his waist that Jamie—if you can tear your eyes away from his impressive chest long enough to notice—visibly balks, at first surprised and reluctant to allow his back to be exposed, then self-conscious and resigned in turn. Claire’s steady, if curious, hand and their conversation somewhat ease his manner, but Jamie is circumspect about having his mutilated back define him, a worry that keeps him from letting Old Alec see his scars. Part of it can be attributed, as it later is by Jamie himself, to Claire's deft bedside manner and battlefield training. Quite honestly, she's seen worse. But between these two, such an unveiling seems both confessional and erotic.

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“Her dress was torn a bit.” (Chapter 4, “I Come to the Castle”)




As TV.com reviewer Lily Sparks points out in her review for “Castle Leoch” (here), Outlander transforms the flippant phrase “bodice-ripper” into a far more sinister and menacing designation, just one in any number of de-romanticizing strategies prevalent in Gabaldon’s novels and their adaptation. At the violent hands of the nefarious Captain Randall, Jenny Fraser’s clothes are ripped open, her chest is exposed, and her head pried back by her hair. It’s a posture of vulnerability and subjugation, a violent demonstration of English force and Scottish (and perhaps also feminine) helplessness.

But, although Jenny shares considerably in the scene’s violence, it is—primarily even—designed to humiliate and terrorize Jamie, forced by Randall to face his sister’s exposed body with no power to intervene. Recounted to Claire, it is not a story about Jenny and how horrible it must have been for her. It’s a story about Jamie, how terrible it was for him to be viciously taunted by the spectacle of his sister’s exposed and debased body. Shortly after, the exchange devolves into alternating violations of both siblings’ bodies: Jamie’s bare back is whipped for his interference in view of Jenny, Jenny is terrorized into submitting herself to rape to keep Randall from slitting Jamie’s throat, and after being knocked out with the butt of a sword, Jamie wakes on his way to Fort William to be mutilated and flogged to near death, twice.


No doubt, Outlander’s leads are very fine eye candy. Caitriona Balfe’s tall, lithe frame and alabaster skin make her a stunning heroine, validating the amorous attention she receives from Frank, Jamie and others. And Sam Heughan’s tall, muscled physique and strong, elegant bone structure make him a pleasantly suitable vehicle for the sexual fantasies Jamie inspires in Laoghaire, Claire and others. But Outlander’s nudity is more interesting, and ultimately more fun, than just that. It discloses character even as it allows for the quiet titillation that bare flesh stirs, in both the other characters and us viewers.


SEX

He sprang the clasp of my brassiere with one accomplished flick of the thumb, and bent to pay a skilled homage to my breasts. (Chapter 2, “Standing Stones”)




Claire and Frank are good at sex.

“Sassenach” makes a few changes to its source novel—adding the off-camera sex scene immediately after their arrival to Mrs. Baird’s, relocating Frank and Claire’s sex at the hill of Craigh na Dun to the “troll lair” in Castle Leoch, and reframing it as oral sex for her pleasure—but it remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of their relationship. Claire and Frank, trying and struggling to conceive a child, nevertheless have a flirtatious sexual dynamic, one that teases Mrs. Baird’s eavesdropping or bantering about the love lives of trolls. Their relationship may be more immediately difficult for an audience to invest in, since their romance—their love story between first meeting and falling in love—is unseen, but they have an easy, if a little estranged by wartime separation, rapport.

It’s also a relationship that empowers Claire. Twice it is she who initiates sex. She pulls Frank down to her after jumping on the bed to tease Mrs. Baird and begins removing his clothes. While exploring the castle ruins, Claire escalates the sexual moment, inviting Frank by seductively flashing her stocking suspenders and with a guiding push requests oral sex for her own satisfaction. She’s desirous and assertive about her desires, and though he never drops his polite English bearing, Frank seems impishly pleased to acquiesce.



In short, through its both sweet and piquant sex scenes, “Sassenach” succeeds in establishing a satisfying tone for Claire’s sex life with Frank and separately precedent for Claire’s own self-assured sexual appetite.

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“I don’t hold wi’ rape, and we’ve not the time for it, anyway.” (Chapter 3, “The Man in the Wood”)



If ever there was an unconvincing statement of principle, Dougal’s intervention on Claire’s behalf nails it. Like her lightly clothed body, sex changes its meaning for Claire after she travels through the stones. Rather than a vehicle to reconnect with her loving husband through pleasure and physical closeness, sex quickly becomes something to fear. Beginning only minutes after arriving in 1743, she’s nearly raped by her husband’s evil ancestral doppelgänger, threatened rape again by her would-be Scottish rescuers, menaced into submission at sword point with the threat of being thrown over a shoulder and carried back like a petulant child, and suggested a beating for being a heretical, foul-mouthed woman, all before she even reaches Castle Leoch.

Claire’s stubbornness doesn’t waver, but her growing awareness of her physical vulnerability gives her a different, unwelcome perspective on her own body. Although Claire sexual keenness doesn’t abate, as she confides to the audience in Episode 3, she is now under near-constant threat of sexual assault.

Not completely exhausted after all. (Chapter 4, “I Come to the Castle”)


The more I return to the scene, the more I’m convinced Jamie’s unseen and unmentioned erection is responsible for Claire’s sudden discomfort and his reassuring non-apology: “Ye need not be scairt of me. Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye.” It answers those very fears of sexual violation visibly troubling Claire.

It’s an odd scene, one whose on-screen representation elevates the most immediate erotic resonances that the book intimates, and Claire and Jamie’s moment staring into each others' eyes—a moment that is again echoed in her surgery in “The Way Out”—is rich with diverse meaning. It’s an intimate moment, one which by itself could easily take Claire aback, since her fidelity and her love still belong to Frank. She could easily be surprised as much as anything by the unconscious acknowledgment of her own attraction to the impressive young Scot. Such a physically intimate moment, especially but not necessarily one that is made unexpectedly and unambiguously sexual by the sudden awareness of his erection, would be an intrusion on that sincere affection. It also recontextualizes her budding friendship with Jamie as something that, in this new world, perhaps should be feared. In fact, Claire appears to have felt less threatened by his holding a sword to her neck in the last episode than she does here.

poll


What are your impressions so far on how Outlander has presented bodies and sex?

Are there any scenes that particularly deserve revisiting? Are there any that prove particularly irksome or troublesome?

How do you feel about Jamie's flashback to his first conflict with "Black Jack" Randall? Any thoughts on the differences between his and his sister's bodies?

Has Outlander sufficiently established Claire's marriage with Frank as a viable love interest to rival her burgeoning flirtation and undeniable chemistry with Jamie?
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