Aug 7 2014 3:30pm

Dear Old Mum Taught You Better Than That: Outlander and Gender Politics

Outlander by Diana GabaldonAs 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.

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Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
My biggest peeve was the fact that Ms. Robinson didn't seem to have either read the books or watched a whole episode and felt comfortable dismissing it because it was aimed at 'those other women', not her.

Any critic can say whatever about anything, they are just expressing their opinion. Bringing Harlequin into it shows both ignorance and spectacular lack of imagination, but hey, it is what it is. I haven't read either of the two other articles mentioned, but they seem to be criticising a show they watched. That makes the difference for me.
Katherine Bloom
2. lsbloom
My issue was the tone that a show aimed at appealing to women couldn't and maybe even shouldn't succeed.

I'm not a huge lover of the books, I find the writing ponderous and a tad cliche, which actually translated to my biggest problem with the pilot--them reading that prose out loud.

But I've taken issue with Robinson's article--even more of her followup article that Marvel is dragging it's feet bringing a woman-centric comic book hero to life. That again felt like a slap in the face. Women can like violence, but not sex. Great, thanks, lady. Because scottish soliders don't appeal enough, but men in iron suits do appeal enough to cross gender lines? Picka side. I've also taken issue with several male reviews, including an abysmal one on Time that tried to support Robinson's take with the explanation that people need to understand what adaptation is. mHumphf.

Reading reviews that come to the conclusion that "looks like it appeals to women" as a mark in the negative column without any further support or detail has my hackles up.

I will say in interviews and stuff Gabaldon protests too much against the romance novel comparisons, especially given she wrote them into her book series in the first place. I'd much prefer we accept that there shouldn't be anything wrong with portraying a show in which sex for a women-centric audience shouldn't be a bad thing. But I'd also like for people to accept that love is and has always been a primary tenet of drama for the entirety of human history.
Lege Artis
3. LegeArtis
Well, you nailed it. We took more offense as women, than as fans of the book/show.
I followed this a bit afterward and her attitude was not much different- when she was mentioning all this Outlander blowup, directly or indirectly, it was always in terms of how violeted and bullied she is by fans and she was only doing her job. I have no doubts she got some vitriol sent her way, but it seemed to me as another, back-around generalization of us, fiddleminded "wimminz" - we can't have an opinion on her poor use of references, nooo... we haaate her because we are fans.
At least this post mentioned what she did right and where she was in the wrong and yes, I dare to say, it's much better piece of journalism than her Oulander article.

JB Hunt
4. JB Hunt
Thank you for this insightful analysis. Very well done.

The negative reaction to women-centric stories reminds me of my days as a schoolteacher, trying to get boys to read books with female protagonists. It was often a struggle. But girls had been conditioned to accept a male protagonist as perfectly acceptable, of course.

My job was to encourage male and female students to both see themselves in some characters but also learn to empathisize with other characters who didn't look, feel, or live as they did. Not an easy task.

That said, I challenge anyone not to get sucked into the world of Outlander. It's a helluva story!
JB Hunt
5. Vol Fan
As to the question of whether this will appeal to men, I told my husband up front that I wanted him to watch the first episode with me, because this is a series I will be watching, and he needed to understand that this is what our tv was going to be set on during that time frame. No ifs ands or buts, LOL. I told him it so was important to me, that I will be getting Starz just for this show. That I have no intentions of dvr-ing this show & watching when he is not around. (Well, I will dvr it, but I want to watch it immediately.)

So saying that, he did watch the first episode with me. Given the slow start (the book was the same for me) I feared he would become bored quickly. Add in that the language was hard at times to get, I absolutely knew he would not like it. However, I ( and he) was pleasantly surprised. At the end of the show, he said that it had the makings of a very good show!

My husband is very easily bored with tv, so if it appeals to him, it should appeal to many other men IMO.
JB Hunt
6. @mostlybree
Confession: I'm only watching becuse my husband wanted to. I'm admitting this for science.
JB Hunt
7. fangirl
I don't have a problem with a critic not liking Outlander, book or series. I am not the hugest fan of it myself for a variety of reasons (prefer the show to the book so far, though). I do have a problem with her attitude that because this is targeted exclusively at women/will appeal exclusively to women, it's bad and will be a flop. I have a problem with anyone thinking that women-centric and women-targeted stories (or even just romance novels or movies) are bad because of the target audience or genre. That's insulting to the whole gender.

That is why I don't really care if a critic states "Outlander is boring" or even "romance without much else is boring" or whatever. But to dismiss a whole gender's preferences is another matter alltogether.
JB Hunt
9. Vickie Russell
There's nothing wrong with directing a show to women, lots of shows are probaby designed with mostly women in mind, and are successful. For me, this show seems to have been singled out because it came from a "romance book". If it had just come from the mind of TV series writer, it wouldn't be singled out so much and because of the fighting and mostly male cast a lot of men would watch it. Outlander just falls into that "for women only" category because it's considered a romance book and they have such a stigma.
10. elmindreda
I read the book when I found it on my father's bedside table.
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