As pretty much everyone knows by now, Vanity Fair recently ran a short piece by one Joanna Robinson about Starz’s upcoming Outlander series. The piece was rather unwisely entitled “Does the New Outlander Series Have What It Takes to Be More than Just a Bodice-Ripper?” Ms. Robinson’s conclusion (as far as I can tell; this wasn’t VF’s finest hour by any stretch) was no, because based on a couple of clips she saw at ComiCon, it was obvious to her that the show was made for and marketed toward (gasp!) wimminz, which would perforce prevent it from being a bona fide hit.
The response was swift and merciless, even here. Last week, Megan Frampton offered up a furious but measured response; commenters were even more, let us say, passionate in their remarks. “Another idiot trying to validate her superiority by 'differentiating' herself from ‘those other females’ and putting down anything liked or valued by ‘them women,’” opined our own Bungluna. Over at Vanity Fair, responses trended positively savage: “Your sloppy, uninformed article can suck a duck,” said one. “I hope you can get a refund from whatever University doled out your degree, along with the free keychain,” said another. “How unfortunate that Vanity Fair allowed a two-penny hack to write this review.” “Too bad that Joanna Robinson was taught to string words together without actually learning to read.” “You are living proof that a horse’s arse has teeth.”
Wow. Just, wow.
The response to Robinson’s piece is all the more interesting when one considers that she’s hardly the only critic to throw a little shade at the series. Here’s Brian Lowry for Variety:
“…a bit of a snooze – handsome, yes, but about as dramatically compelling as the cover of a Harlequin romance, and too flaccid to make hearts go pitter-patter.”
“Flaccid.” Now there’s a word.
In fairness, Variety did run a much more positive review right alongside Lowry’s. But here’s Mike Hale of the New York Times:
“[The actors] acquit themselves well, sharing the screen with the scenery and costumes and keeping straight faces through all the fantasy-romance conceits. They seem to be having a good time, and if you have a weakness for muskets, accents, and the occasional roll in the heather, you probably will, too.”
The actors are “keeping straight faces”? Again, wow. But I have to ask: Why isn’t Brian Lowry a “horse’s arse?” Where’s the vitriol directed at Hale?
Could it be because Joanna Robinson is…a woman?
Look, I’m not going to pretend that her piece was at all respectful or appropriate. We all know that her tone, at the very least, could have beneficially been moderated. But at the same time, this is Vanity Fair we’re talking about. If the story doesn’t lead with a couple of Kennedy kids speeding up the Amalfi Coast in a dictator’s borrowed Lamborghini, they’re probably not going to take it all that seriously. But would we, as readers and fans, have had the same response to the same piece if it had appeared under the byline of Chadd Hardbody of Bikinis Guns and Money Quarterly?
Leaving aside the really gratuitous insults, it looks as though the complaints leveled at Ms. Robinson are based upon a) the content of her piece and b) her tone. Content-wise, her thesis seems to be “This is based on a women’s book and Starz is clearly marketing it to women, and therefore only women will watch it and it won’t be a true hit.” But is this true?
Let’s unpack this a bit. First, I have to admit, I kind of…agree with her? To a point? Yes, men read and love the books, and some men will watch the series. But the books (especially the early ones) and the series are, and have always been, developed for women. I mean, in the United Kingdom, the novel was originally published as Cross Stitch—a title that’s hardly designed to capture male readers’ attention. And Starz’s marketing campaign focuses heavily on the romance angle—not the politics, not so much the violence. There are surely male romance readers out there, but nevertheless it’s pretty clear that Starz is banking heavily on its female viewership.
In fact, not trusting my own instincts on this one, I conducted a Highly Scientific Survey (read: I invited my Facebook friends to weigh in). There was a clear split. The women’s responses could be summed up as follows: “Of course I’ll watch, and you will too. We will watch together. There will be wine.” The men’s responses: “No” and “no” and “no.” Usually it was for some practical reason—“I don’t have Starz” was a big one. But even my own husband—who, in addition to being married to a romance blogger, is a voracious reader of Scots descent who has a history degree—said no. “It’s not really on my radar,” he diplomatically admitted when put to the question.
Ms. Robinson’s fatal mistake, I think, and where she and I part company, was when she decided that a preponderance of female viewers is a bad thing. The fact is, if every woman who has said she’s going to watch Outlander actually does, Starz is going to have a monster hit on their hands. Male viewership, which will surely exist (my own handsome husband notwithstanding) is going to be the icing on the cake. Maybe the show will offer a new model for determining a program’s success!
Her tone is more problematic—although it’s worth noting that the term “bodice-ripper” does not actually occur in the body of her piece, and that in many publications article titles are written after the fact by the editorial staff. She may have had nothing at all to do with that bit. Still and all, there’s the whole business about “dear old mum” and “fifty shades of plaid” and what have you. Not well done of you, Ms. Robinson. Not well done at all.
At the same time, though, I keep going back to Lowry and his, um, flaccidity, and I really can’t help but think that we have a different standard for women commenting on women’s work. If Outlander is by, for, and about strong, capable women, for another woman to come in and and make fun of it and treat it dismissively, without even having seen a complete episode—well, that stings, but it stings in a very specific way. When Brian Lowry says the show is “flaccid,” when Mike Hale is all “Well, at least the actors are all keeping straight faces, ha ha!”—well, that’s something that we, as women, have come to expect. When it’s one of our own, that hurts, and it’s something to which we naturally object, strongly, whenever we see it.
The question of whether or not Outlander will have crossover appeal between men and women is an interesting, entirely legitimate, and apparently loaded one; as one of my respondents said, “Probably not, but weirder things have happened.” Surely critics should be able to weigh in on this question without being called a “horse’s arse.” At the same time, no critic (male or female) should ever underestimate the appeal of this story, which has already won over so many readers, both female and male, around the world.
On that, I think, we can all agree.
Kate Nagy blogs at Kate Holds Court, contributes to Geek Speak Magazine, and will share her opinions with just about anyone.