In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in Business Insider, Jethro Nededog writes that Starz’s Outlander is a show mainly watched by women (64%), and more specifically by soccer moms who have become hooked by reading Diana Gabaldon’s novels, who like the characters’ family values, find inspiration in Claire and Jamie’s marriage, the strong female point of view, and the good-looking lead actor, Sam Heughan. These reasons are probably true for some people, but do not adequately explain the obsession readers and more recently, audiences have with the books and the TV series. Gabaldon’s books have sold 26 million worldwide, and the Starz production has averaged 5.1 million viewers each episode in the first half of Season 1.
Gabaldon’s books offer multiple levels of intellectual, emotional, aesthetic psychic engagement, and Ronald D. Moore’s production has been careful to replicate this experience on screen. Here are my five reasons why women (not necessarily just soccer moms) love Outlander:
- A strong, competent heroine
Gabaldon presents a strong, intelligent heroine who is able to perform amazing feats of nurturing and healing because she has the advantage of 200 years of science and medicine. During the first encounter of Claire Beauchamp with the Highlanders, her ability to put back Jamie’s dislocated shoulder was the first riveting scene that made us and Jamie fall in love with the heroine. Not since Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) have we seen such “competence porn,” the enjoyment derived from witnessing impressive feats of human capability” (Dartnell). Starz understood this attraction and made the most of Claire, and later, Jenny representing them as feisty, strong, and capable women, at home in Lallybroch and on the road.
19th century melodrama is characterized by the clash between extremes of good and evil, between strong and weak, rich and poor, but also by its use of archetypal, mythic beliefs. Gabaldon’s novels are full of heart-wrenching scenes of emotional conflicts and drama. The scene of Black Jack Randall flogging Jamie works at a number of levels. The flogging scene, with Jamie’s outstretched arms, is one of goodness and innocence at the hands of the wicked, suggestive of Christ at the hands of Roman soldiers. Diana Gabaldon describes Black Jack as a “pervert” and a “sadist” (Facebook post 28 April 2015), but even David Cameron appreciated the power of such a scene when he requested that Outlander not be shown in Great Britain before the Scottish referendum.
In the eighteenth century, sentimental novels used stock characters and scenes to create affecting scenes for readers: a seduced maiden asking for forgiveness at her father’s feet or the reunion between a father and his long, lost son. Different readers have their own list of gut-wrenching scenes in Outlander but for many it is the scene at the standing stones, when Jamie bids Claire to go back to her “own time on the other side” because “There’s nothing for ye on this side, lass!” (Chapter 25 Thou Shalt Not Suffer). Later, he admits that letting her go was the “hardest thing” he ever did. Instead of replicating the self-sacrifice through dialogue, the Starz production shows Jamie crying himself to sleep, and then weeping for joy when she returns to him at the cottage.
In addition, melodramas often feature orphans and emphasize the weak and the unappreciated. Interestingly, Claire and Jamie are both orphans, which intensifies their need for each other. Promises of unconditional care become more critical. Early on, Jamie tells her, “You need not be scairt of me.. Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye” (Chapter 4 I Come to the Castle). Care is also given to Claire by Mistress Fitzgibbons who offers Claire a “kindly” welcome, dresses her and respects her as a healer. These scenes are important because Claire, and to a certain extent, Jamie, have been itinerants, without stable homes, and are emotionally- starved. In the Starz production, when Claire imagines telling someone who she really is, it is to Mistress Fitzgibbons to whom she dreams of confessing.
- The Renaissance man as hero
Even though Sam Heughan has become the “alpha male” of 2015, most women would agree that we are in love with the fictional character Jamie Alexander Fraser rather than Sam. As well as being a brawny fighter and soldier, Jamie is a true Renaissance man, cultured and accomplished in the arts and sciences. He speaks English, Gaelic, French, German, and reads Latin. He is good with horses, is emotionally intelligent, often understanding people’s needs before Claire, and is a born leader. He can fix a mill wheel, knows how to run a farm, and later, can build log cabins with only an axe (Drums Of Autumn). He is a tender and passionate lover. The only thing he cannot do is sing. Okay, Jamie’s (and Sam’s) physique and handsome features help.
- Romance and transgressive sexual passion
Contrary to those who see Claire and Jamie’s marriage as the epitome of pure married love, I see their relationship as the embodiment of transgression and desire. All through the first two-thirds of Outlander, Claire’s feelings for Jamie are ambivalently tinged with admiration, love, but also feelings of guilt, worry, and her sense of impropriety. She knows she is married to Frank, and the relationship with Jamie is that much more exciting because it is, in the back of Claire’s mind, a forbidden one. Sure, Jamie and Claire’s relationship has been sanctified by marriage, but was she free to marry? There is nothing quite so exciting romantic as being reluctantly swept up into a passionate love affair, for once, letting one’s body (and soul?) judge what is right instead of following one’s reason.
- Nostalgia and Elegy
Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber are extended elegies for the Scotish clans, their kilts, their grand horses, and the Gaelic language. In the Starz production, Claire and Frank visit the battlefield of Culloden right at the beginning. In the novel, Claire warns Jamie not to participate in the Rising. She remembers “the clan stones, the grey boulders that would lie scattered on the field, each stone bearing the single clan name of he butchered men who lay under it” (Chapt. 25 Thou Shalt not Suffer). We are reminded that the Highlanders and their way of life are doomed, and the impending destruction infuses the story with a sense of melancholia and nostalgia. Even though readers and viewers may not have been to Scotland, we feel nostalgia for the rolling green hills, the craigs, lochs, old castles, majestic mountains, and heather-covered fields. The Starz production makes the most of the pastoral beauty of Scotland by highlighting its magic and mystery. Terry Dresbach’s meticulous and detailed costumes make even the drabbest wool and plaid come alive and look stunning. Is it any wonder that tourism in Scotland has increase by 30% since the show started?
By: Eleanor Ty