Sex on television isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s always been a part of the way we tell stories because of how interlinked it is with the human experience. That being said, over the years television has tended to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other when it comes to the depiction of sexuality. Thanks to the less rigid censorship rules on premium cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz, TV is becoming more and more daring in terms of the sex it portrays between characters -- as well as turning to sex as an avenue to explore issues that are more deep-seated than those on a physical level. Sex is complicated, after all, both in reality and in the works of fiction that draw from real life.
Even in the currently airing lineup, however, there are deviations between shows that have succeeded at the use of sex on-screen and the ones that have fallen short. Series like HBO’s The Deuce and Insecure have been praised for their utilization of sex and sexuality as more of a lens into the lives of their characters, while other shows, like Game of Thrones, have come under fire over the course of past seasons for wielding sex scenes as a mere tool of titillation, with little to no character development attached. (At one point, even Saturday Night Live took Thrones to task for their seemingly gratuitous and, at times, completely pointless nudity.)
That’s not to suggest that shows with a track record of negative depictions of sex can’t improve, or that Game of Thrones doesn’t have the potential to change course as it prepares to wrap up. But when held up against another genre show adapted from a successful set of books, Thrones pales in comparison. Outlander, first written by Diana Gabaldon and published in 1991, was the start of a series that’s still ongoing with eight books and counting -- and was eventually adapted for television by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, debuting on Starz in 2014. The show delves into many controversial topics similar to Game of Thrones, but where it’s really set itself apart is in its depictions of both consensual sex and sexual violence -- with many questionable scenes having been modified from the original source material to address the contemporary conversation about consent and consider the perspective of the modern audience watching at home.
Admittedly, Outlander has garnered something of a reputation for being the cable TV equivalent of a sexy bodice-ripper novel, but closer examination reveals some pretty interesting visuals -- especially when you take into account what many fans consider the sexiest episodes of the series. Both “The Wedding,” from Season 1, and “A. Malcolm,” from Season 3, were undeniably much anticipated by Outlander fans. They feature two of the most exciting moments: Claire and Jamie’s wedding night, where they have sex for the first time, and Claire and Jamie’s reunion after nearly 20 years (and two centuries) apart from one another. They also both happen to be directed by women: “The Wedding” by Anna Foerster, who would go on to direct three more episodes of the show in Season 1, and “A. Malcolm” by Norma Bailey, who is as of now helming one more episode in the third season.
These episodes represent something important in a larger story context, of course; they’re two of the most intimate for Outlander’s romantic leads, not merely on a sexual level but an emotional one as well. But it’s how both Foerster and Bailey choose to approach the eventuality of Claire and Jamie’s intimacy with one another that makes each hour stand out from many other similarly themed episodes of television. Jamie and Claire don’t tumble into bed with one another at first sight; there’s a seduction involved, both for the characters and for the audience. In Season 1 their relationship is undoubtedly a slow burn; Claire is the epitome of a fish out of water, a World War II nurse thrust backward through time and forced to marry a man she barely knows for the sake of her own safety -- not to mention she’s already technically married. Jamie is a surprising twist on the trope of the romantic hero in most bodice-rippers; he’s actually the inexperienced virgin who has to rely on Claire for his sexual education, even as she struggles to address the conflict between her own lustful feelings and reluctance to commit infidelity.
“The Wedding” is slow and indulgent, but not drawn out. We get scenes of Jamie and Claire preparing for the actual ceremony peppered in throughout the episode, and they serve to build anticipation for what’s to come as much as prolong the inevitable. By the time Claire and Jamie move to face one another and begin undressing, it doesn’t get rushed through. In fact, the way Foerster lets the camera linger on Jamie’s naked body as long as it does is a prime example of what both this and the later “A. Malcolm” succeed most at: the female gaze. Unlike the male gaze, which positions a female character as an erotic object to the frequent point of voyeurism, the female gaze takes into consideration the gaze of the female filmmaker, the female character, and the female spectator (or audience) simultaneously. It’s why Jamie’s nude form is so often more predominantly on display in episodes like “The Wedding,” or when Claire fantasizes in bed about a naked Jamie stoking a fire in “Surrender” (another episode directed by a woman, Jennifer Getzinger). The focus on Jamie’s body isn’t only about reversing the stereotypes that some genre shows often fall into. We’re intended to be privy to Claire’s desire -- to learn what she wants as a woman. It’s something that’s been so often neglected in the depiction of sex on television but seems to be on the rise now.
Naked bodies aside, it’s also how these episodes design their sex scenes that feels more exciting on the level of dramatic storytelling. In essence, it’s foreplay -- and it’s effective. When Claire and Jamie finally reunite in “A. Malcolm,” there are interesting parallels to their first wedding night two seasons prior. These are two people who have spent decades apart, and much of their time reconnecting involves catching each other up on what’s happened since Claire left. They sit down to share a meal together first, just as in “The Wedding,” and even when Jamie finally invites Claire to come to bed with him their mutual undressing calls back to their first tentative disrobing. They take turns removing each article of clothing. They’re awkward and fumbling once again -- this time, Jamie accidentally head-butts Claire when he moves in to kiss her. And, like the wedding night, where the love scenes actually mapped the journey of Jamie and Claire’s intimacy from mere sex to lovemaking, “A. Malcolm” does much of the same. The first time, they give over to their physical longing in an intense clash of bodies; the second time around, there’s exploratory tenderness and rediscovering. The camera alternates between tracking Claire and Jamie’s movements together and zeroing in on Claire’s face, focusing on the deep intimacy of the moment and its emotional significance rather than any wanton nudity.
“The Wedding," in particular, was hailed back in Season 1 for its unapologetic representation of the female gaze on-screen; it felt revolutionary in a sea of ill-conceived and lazy depictions of sex on television, many of which aired within that same time frame. “A. Malcolm” feels primed to garner similar praise for a lot of the same reasons. It’s what both episodes share, however, that should be a leading focus among critics: the perspective of a female filmmaker. When episodes like these are demonstrating the potential of sexual representation on-screen and the consideration afforded to female desire, anything less feels like table scraps. Outlander may not be for every fan, but the statements it’s choosing to put forward about sex are proof of a positive shift in the realm of genre television.