By now you've doubtless heard of Outlander, Starz's new entrant in the race for premium channel subscribers. The surprise hit, based on the epic fantasy romance novels by author Diana Gabaldon, isn't the first series to court a mostly straight female audience; True Blood, adapted from Charlain Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries, banked on the appeal of love triangles and quadrangles to rope in viewers who were still hungry for the romance of Twilight, with undeniable success. But unlike True Blood, which tantalized with ever more outlandish sex scenes and airbrushed-to-perfection hardbodies, Outlander presents a fantasy that doesn't seek to appease the pornography-influenced tastes of a straight male audience.
To put it in simpler terms, Outlander is a drama crafted for the straight female gaze.
From its premier, it's been clear that the Scottish time-travel romance would be different. While exploring a ruined castle as part of their post-war second honeymoon, smart, introspective Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), engage in some marital relations atop a table. The scene, in which Frank performs oral sex on Claire, focuses entirely on her pleasure. Unlike most Hollywood couplings, there are no flickering candles, no slow strip-teases to reveal her gravity defying breasts or his rippling six-pack. Perhaps the most shocking part of this scene is how graphic it is in its realism; without the usual cues to the viewer that scream, "you're watching something sexy," it feels like voyeurism. It looks like sex that anyone could be having.
Of course, fans of the books aren't sighing over Frank Randall, but the legendary Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the young Scottish outlaw who is pushed into an arranged marriage with his time traveling bride. Readers have long known that Jamie stands apart from the romantic heroes offered in books and on screen. While he exudes sexual charisma and comes complete with a tragic backstory (including a tragic story about his back), Jamie has what most romantic heroes don't: an ego that will take a backseat to his love interest's feelings. He is dutifully devoted to Claire from the moment they're affianced, and takes great care to consider not only her physical comfort, but the tender emotional state that Claire, a presumed widow, might be in when faced with a second marriage.
Rather than subjecting the viewer to the dubious consent expected from a medieval wedding night, fans were treated to an entire episode devoted solely to watching the new couple enthusiastically consummate their marriage. Mixed in with the candles and teasing glimpses of naked flesh, there was genuine caring on the part of the groom, who had no desire to take his reluctant bride by force. When the two finally seal the deal, it's fumbling, fast, and for Claire, disappointing; not only is Jamie younger than his wife, but he's a virgin as well. It's up to Claire to teach him how to be her lover, a task she's happy to undertake by the episode's end. In yet another role reversal, when Claire performs fellatio on Jamie, the audience sees the sexual awakening and inexperienced wonder of the male partner, in contrast to the usual depiction of a vulnerable woman's introduction her own sexuality.
Both romantic leads are almost supernaturally attractive. Balfe, with her flawless skin and long neck, resembles a porcelain swan, and Heughan's chiseled features are tempered with kind eyes and shy smiles. Yet when their clothes come off, they don't have the unobtainable bodies of gym-living actors who pump themselves up before each take. Heughan is undeniably fit, but he isn't in the same league as the Men's Health cover models seen on other cable dramas. Balfe is slender, but her stomach isn't flat and her breasts are natural. The lack of body hair is a bit disturbing, given the time period, but watching the actors together, the viewer sees two people being intimate with each other, instead of two sculpted dolls switching between acrobatic positions.
And that's where Outlander is truly appealing to the sexuality of its straight female viewers. Instead of painting female pleasure on the male terms of the virgin/whore dichotomy, the audience is shown sex as a normal, matter-of-fact piece of the relationship puzzle. Sure, Jamie and Claire can't get enough of each other on their wedding night, but their passion is forged by the connections made in the unhurried conversations that make up the bulk of the episode. Jamie is kind and Claire is emotionally conflicted, and their sex isn't perfect or without its awkward moments. At one point in the now infamous wedding episode, Jamie stops mid-coitus to make sure he hasn't hurt Claire. It's a far cry from the violent thrusting and distressed shouts of a Game of Thrones sex scene.
In further contrast from that HBO juggernaut, Outlander puts sexuality front and center, rather than utilizing a character's attitude toward sex as shorthand characterization in regards to morality. Neither does it cheapen the value of sex in storytelling by using it as a constant backing track, as Game of Thrones has coyly done to entertain the male gaze during scenes of protracted exposition. Outlander approaches sex in a way that's only shocking because it isn't shocking at all. It's non-violent, sensual, natural, and the woman is framed as more than an object for male pleasure. Female sexuality isn't demonized, and engaging in sex doesn't diminish Claire as a character. Outlander is the rare television drama that shows us a woman who is sexually experienced without being the villain of the piece, and a man who sees her desire and pleasure as a participatory experience, rather than an object to edify his own importance.
It's far too easy to suggest that the repressed desires of bored housewives are driving Outlander's success. Women know better. When presented with a complex, emotionally engaging plot and sensual content that doesn't degrade or shame female sexuality, they'll tune in, gladly. If the growing fan base is any indication, Outlander is the show that television has been needing for a long, long time.
An earlier version of this piece was presented at Trout Nation.