“Outlander” and the Gendered Branding of Starz

There has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding Starz new series Outlander, based on the bestselling series of historical/fantasy/science fiction/romance novels written by Diana Gabaldon (the question of genre is a vexed one where this series is concerned). Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed and Willa Paskin of Slate have both pointed out that the series, unlike other high-end cable productions, actually seems to cater to a female spectator.  This is no small thing in the cable world, which is regularly saturated with fare that, while offering some pleasures to women, is very obviously created for and consumed by an assumed (straight, white, middle-class) audience.  At the same time, however, Starz’s executives and the series’ showrunner have also made it clear that they want to appeal to more than just the female components of the audience, with a concomitant desire to distance this novel from the romance appellation into the more esteemed (and less critically derided term) “great drama.”  Heaven forbid that we have a series that is a straight-up historical romance (one need only look at the critical reception of CW’s Reign or Showtime’s The Tudors to see what happens when a series does that).

And this desire to make a great drama, it seems, poses somewhat of a problem for Starz which, along with Showtime, has always occupied the enormous shadow thrown by the heavyweight HBO.  Few of its original series have lasted more than a season, two notable exceptions being Da Vinci’s Demons and Spartacus (both of which, it should be noted, focus heavily on male exploits and gazes).  For all that Spartacus was a ratings success for the network, it never quite managed to get out of the trap of being largely derided as low-brow, frothy entertainment, due in no small part to its pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator through a great deal of explicit sex and violence.  It would seem, then, that Outlander is Starz’s attempt to harness a presold commodity and, utilizing its own branding efforts, finally break free of its low-culture efforts into the genuine realm of quality TV.

These discussions, particularly the commentary from the executives at the network, also highlight the ways in which TV remains a highly-gendered medium, both in terms of the stories told, as well as in how they are marketed and understood by the executives who approve them.  Almost every major TV series that has gained the distinction of quality–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Fargo–has focused on the alleged trials and tribulations of white men, and the networks on which they are found, AMC, HBO, FX, have also accrued a reputation for catering to male audiences.  With rare exceptions, it is only when series and networks cater to the fears and anxieties of an assumed male audience that they are able to break away from the low-culture stigma that continues to cling to the medium.  To dare to focus on female subjectivity, still less to make a woman the central character of the drama, threatens to alienate male audiences in a way that focusing on a male character does not, it seems, run the same risk of alienating female spectators.  As we continue into the alleged golden age of TV, it’s worth noting that, in that age, it is men who, at all levels, get to call the shots.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Starz, in its attempt to solidify its brand identity and create a competitor for Game of Thrones, has decided to cater to this male audience, especially by making such public statements about its desire to draw in those same viewers.  This is, of course, no surprise, considering the desperation with which Starz wants to reach the same level of cultural esteem of its competitors.  What better way to do that than to try to cater to both the built-in female audience for Gabaldon’s work and also the allegedly pickier male viewers that certainly won’t tune in to watch a woman’s story, no matter how compellingly or lushly told.  Now, if there were boobs and political intrigue involved (Game of Thrones style), then presumably they would.

What makes Starz an especially interesting case, however, is the way in which it also utilizes history as a means of granting to itself the gravitas necessary to elevate itself to the upper echelons of premium cable programming.  The representation of history itself has a vexed relationship to quality and to masculinity–one of the key ways in which historical films and TV series are denigrated by the critical public is by branding them melodramatic, a sinister and sly way of denigrating femininity–so it should come as no surprise that Starz has attempted to beef up the first few episodes of Outlander by focusing more on the politics and scheming, in addition to the aforementioned emphasis on female subjectivity.

It remains to be seen whether Starz’s experiment in genre-blending will succeed in its desired goals of gathering in a male audience and setting the brand apart from, or at least being able to meaningfully compete with, that already established by HBO.  Even if it fails to draw in the male audience, if it manages to woo the female (and, I might, add, gay male) audience demographic that makes up so much of Gabaldon’s fan base, that should still garner the series’ enough ratings to make the adventure worth it.  Given critical predilection for male-centered dramas (and general dismissal of romance, especially its historical strain), it remains somewhat less certain that it will manage to gather the same accolades (Emmys and whatnot) that have been showered upon its male-drama counterparts.  One need only look at the continually-snubbed The Good Wife to see what happens to series that dare to focus on women rather than men.  Hopefully, however, Outlander will be a game changer in more ways than one.  If we are lucky, we might finally get a top-notch premium cable drama that is not only quality, but also manages to remain tightly and insightfully focused on the historical subjectivities and experience of women.

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2 comments

  1. paul haine (@paul_haine) · August 10, 2014

    I think you’re a little unfair to Spartacus, which had as much male nudity as it did female, and not just in a male power fantasy way either — the men are slaves, and are used and objectified as much by the series’ powerful women as the men. Ilithyia, Lucretia and Gaia were frequently shown to be more capable than their male counterparts, and there were also gay characters who weren’t just gay for the sake of a character trait. I found it to be a very inclusive show.

    • tjwest3 · August 11, 2014

      I completely agree with you. There is much about that series that makes it exemplary. Indeed, like “Rome,” it features some really stellar female characters. However, there are still some ways in which it remains male dominated (in its title, for example). Women, though more central and certainly more complex than their counterparts in cinema, are still not the main narrative focus of any of the seasons. It is still, squarely, about Spartacus’ journey. That’s what makes “Outlander” such a compelling case, as it is very squarely about Claire’s experiences, first and foremost. It will be interesting to see whether the series holds to that focus as it goes on.

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