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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Adult Education” (S1, Ep. 20)

In today’s entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Blanche is confronted by her professor, who tells her that the only way that she will be able to pass his class is by sleeping with him. Meanwhile, the other three women attempt to get tickets to see Frank Sinatra.

For me, this episode has always been one of the most explicitly feminist in its sensibilities. The episode is a scathing indictment of the way that men in positions of power think that they have the right to women’s bodies (and the expectation that women will give in to their demands for that access). Once again, it is uncanny how relevant the series has become in the era of Donald Trump, when the President-elect of the country has openly bragged about assaulting women and has won the election anyway.

The most frustrating part of the episode, however, is Blanche’s meeting with Dean Tucker. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has had dealings with university administration that he is not only criminally inept (he doesn’t even know which form the incident requires), but he seems far more interested in brushing the affair under the rug than in actually taking this harassment seriously. Like so many men that occupy positions of power, he remains much more invested in both protecting his fellow man and insulating himself from potential criticism than in helping the woman who has come to him for his assistance.

Furthermore, this incident reveals a problem that still exists in terms of women’s reporting of sexual assault. When she explains that there were no witnesses to the encounter, he immediately reminds her that given it’s a matter of “he said/she said,” he has to err on the side of caution rather than let the professor’s reputation suffer. Never mind that a woman has basically been assaulted by a man in a position of power.  The incident, as frustrating (nay, infuriating) as it is, reveals just how deeply run the channels of rape culture. It is always the woman whose account is called into question; the man is always presumed (because of his power) to be the innocent party.

Fortunately, though, Blanche does end up having the last laugh, since she does manage to attain the grade through sheer hard work and determination. The moment when she proudly tells her sleazy professor to “kiss my A” is one of the most rousing and fulfilling of the first season, a symbolic victory over the kinds of men (like our very own President-elect) who make this world such an unpleasant and downright dangerous place for women.

I’ve always found this to be a peculiarly vexed episode, though, especially considering the many subsequent times that Blanche actually does use her wiles to get the test information in later episodes. However, in those cases, I would suggest that those efforts are undertaken by Blanche rather than pushed upon her. As always, The Golden Girls straddles the line when it comes to politics, showing the conflicted and often contradictory spaces that women occupy in a culture that still views their bodies as fundamentally not their own.

Next up, the four women have the misfortune of contracting the flu, leading to an episode that is full of some of the best barbs and insults of the entire first season.

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Second Motherhood” (S1, Ep.19)

In today’s installment, we’re going to be talking about yet another suitor of Blanche’s who wants her to marry him, a certain wealthy widower named Richard.

Since Blanche is, unequivocally, the youngest of the four, it makes sense that she would be the one who could most easily slip back into the role of mother should the necessity arise (this is a theme that will emerge several times in the series run). However, she also comes to recognize that she can’t fix all of the problems that have already started to afflict his family, including his divided loyalties between his sprawling business empire and his children.

As always, however, the narrative forecloses on the possibility that Blanche is going to actually marry this man. For all that they actually seem to get along well, and for all that he would provide a measure of financial and domestic stability that she lacks, the series again reminds us that it is the relationship among the women that takes center stage. While Blanche does not say so specifically, it’s clear that she is not willing or able to take on the responsibility of fixing the many domestic problems that Richard has already begun to encounter.

The other narrative thread of the episode follows Dorothy and Rose as they attempt to install a toilet on their own. Of course, this whole sequence is delightfully ridiculous, as the plumber turns out to be quite  misogynist jerk who labours under the impression that women, especially older women, are incapable of doing male domestic labour. Of course, the two of them do, in fact, manage to successfully install it, giving the lie to the idea that two elderly women can’t take control of their own homes.

While this may seem a bit of a banal point, I do think it says something that Dorothy and Rose are able to reclaim this symbolic victory from the men who would dismiss them out of hand simply because of their gender and their age. Given that we now live in a country in which a notorious misogynist like Donald Trump has now been given the reins of power, this message of empowerment and reclamation seems to have taken on an extra layer of significance. This particular story gives us hope that even in the darkest of times there are still moments of representation–the symbolic, if you will–that show us what an alternative world might look like.

To me, the unruly women of The Golden Girls, with their refusal to cave in to the demands of patriarchal culture, are an important corrective to the world we are facing. We can look at them and draw hope from the fact that they managed to express such radical politics even during the backlash era, and we can continue to fight back against the powers arrayed against us.

Next up, we come to one of the most politically pointed episodes of the entire first season when Blanche is confronted with sexual harassment at her adult education course.

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Nice and Easy” (S1, Ep. 17)

It’s become something of a recurring theme in these posts that I discuss the importance of family to so many of the storylines in The Golden Girls, and today’s post is no different. In today’s episode, we get to meet Blanche’s (rather obnoxious) niece Lucy, who quickly shows that she has taken her aunt’s example to hear and has begun her own rather unruly exploration of her burgeoning sexuality. She soon reveals, however, that her attempts to mimic her aunt come from a profound sense of insecurity.

There are some really funny bits in this episode, including the revelation that Rose is a huge fan of Miami Vice. I’ve always been partial to those moments in the series when we get references to other shows running at the same time (there are at least two references from Sophia referring to Designing Women). To me, these references reveal the extent to which The Golden Girls was a very self-conscious show, perfectly aware of its own place in the television landscape of its own time. Indeed, it won’t be the last time that the show will make reference to Miami Vice. (By the way, how funny is it that Rose of all of them is the one obsessed with the show?)

The most compelling moment of the episode, however, is when Blanche takes Lucy to task for her behavior and her bouncing from one relationship to another in the space of a few days. Lucy, and I’m sure most of those watching the episode, rightly takes note of the fact that this criticism rings a bit hypocritical coming from Blanche of all people, who is hardly known for her circumspection in matters of the boudoir. Just as importantly, however, Lucy also reveals how uncertain she is about her own sense of self. While her fate remains somewhat uncertain by the end of the episode, we get the feeling that she will grow up to be as self-aware of her own sexuality and its powerful possibilities as her aunt.

What I find most extraordinary about this episode, however, is the way in which Blanche neatly turns Lucy’s criticism on its head. Rather than acting ashamed of her own sexual proclivities, she proudly tells her niece that her decision to bestow her favors on her gentleman callers is a decision that she undertakes of her own volition, not because she needs them to make her feel validated. This is one of the earliest of Blanche’s forthright reclamations of her sexuality from the jaws of patriarchal prudery, and I always cheer a little when I heard her say this. (Stay tuned for my entry on the episode on Valentine’s Day, when Blanche makes an even more empowered speech).

In our next installment, we move on to a moment of vulnerability for Dorothy, as well as some of the finest dancing the show ever produced. We also get to meet one of the ’80s most iconic sitcom guest stars (I’ll save her name until the post itself).

See you then!

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48847321

Film Review: “Ghostbusters” (2016) and the Deconstruction of Masculinity

From the moment that it was announced, the reboot of Ghostbusters attracted all of the vile misogyny that has taken root in that nebulous, noxious space we call the internet. Everywhere you looked there were the usual suspects decrying the film because it dared to cast women in the lead roles, because heaven forbid we allow women the opportunity to headline an action comedy. It was, truly, one of the ugliest and most unpleasant internet spectacles I’ve seen.

Well, as I like to say, fuck the haters. Ghostbusters is a surprisingly clever, funny and, dare I say it, nice film, and that is something of a pleasant surprise. I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot (since, let’s face it, we kind of know already), but let’s just say that it deftly interweaves the action and the comedy, with some genuinely funny and eye-popping moments.

While the plot slips a little too easily into the sort of blockbuster, CGI-fest that has become all too familiar in today’s Hollywood, the performances are what really help the film hold together. I actually think it was a good choice to have Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig tone down their usual over-the-top or excessive performances, as this allows both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones some room to shine. There is definitely a great deal of chemistry among the four leads, and there is a lot of room for growth if the (hopeful) success of this film leads to further productions in the franchise. One can definitely see how they could build upon these relationships to make some truly great (or, well, great for this genre) films.

What really fascinated me about this new iteration of Ghostbusters, however, was its relationship to masculinity. The primary antagonist is a (unsurprisingly entitled) misfit named Rowan, who embodies all that’s wrong with that particular type of self-important, self-aggrandizing masculinity. What’s more, there’s a particularly potent image at the end involving a non-so-symbolic moment of castration (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers). The film invests a great deal of narrative energy in revealing to us not only how ridiculous masculinity can be, but also how easily it can be punctured and rendered (relatively) harmless.

And then, of course, there is the overt sexualization of Chris Hemsworth. Of course, this was bound to happen, as he has sort of made his career out of being a beefcake, but it also reveals the extent to which he seems to be consciously aware of his star text. As one of my students pointed out recently, it seems Hemsworth has reached a point where he has begun to poke fun at his own male body persona. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, though of course it does come with its own set of problems. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like seeing Chris Hemsworth dancing; who knew that he had such good moves?

Is Ghostbusters a perfect film? No. But it is enormously entertaining and genuinely (if not uproariously) funny. Don’t get me wrong:  there are many moments of genuine humour in this film. It’s just that they aren’t of the gut-busting sort, and for me that’s totally fine. What’s more, it’s a film that seems to have a good heart, and in that sense, it is a very sincere film, and there are, in the final analysis, worse things to see during the summer film season. It has a little bit of something for everyone, and it hits most of the notes quite well.

And, on the political end of things (because really, isn’t everything political in some form or other?), can I just say how great it is to see an entirely female-led film in the summer season? Even if I absolutely hated this film, I would still recommend that others go see it, if only so that studio brass would finally realize that women can actually lead a film. One would think that the success of Bridesmaids would have made that fact plain, but we all know that Hollywood is notoriously slow to adapt to change and include any form of diversity. So, if you care about such things, and if you want to see a pleasantly entertaining film in the bargain, then treat yourself to a night out to the movies and go to see Ghostbusters.

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Custody Battle” (S1, Ep. 11)

In today’s entry in the marathon, we talk about yet another bit of family feuding, this time between Dorothy and her younger sister Gloria. When Gloria–with all of her money–comes to town, she can’t resist showing off how much she has in comparison to Dorothy’s own rather meager circumstances. The real strain comes, however, when Gloria seemingly convinces Sophia to move back with her to California.

As always, the relationships among and between women remain key to the narrative tension of the episode. Dorothy and Gloria have clearly always struggled with their intertwined feelings of antagonism and affection, each jealous of the what the other has been able to accomplish. The irony, of course, is that each of them, to an extent at least, looks at herself as a failure. Dorothy struggles to break out of the never-ending cycle of being a substitute teacher, while Gloria recognizes that her primary role, that of wife and California socialite, has left her feeling somewhat empty and frustrated. Thus, their mutual antagonism stems as much from their own self-perceived failings critical judging of themselves as it does from any feelings of genuine resentment toward one another.

This episode also brings out the by turns fraught and loving between Dorothy and Sophia. While it is clear that they care for and love one another deeply, there is no denying that the former has begun to chafe under the (s)mothering influence of the latter. She wants to have her own space, but she also wants to have Sophia available when she needs her guidance and emotional support. But then, isn’t that how it always is with our mothers? We love them, but sometimes they drive us mad with their constant attempts to run out lives. In my view, it is exactly this contradictory and tense relationship that makes the mother/child bond one of the strongest that human beings experience.

It’s a neat little fact that Gloria, unlike some other members of the Dorothy/Sophia extended family, doesn’t make another appearance until Season 7 (when she is portrayed by a different actress). Of course, she is mentioned, quite a lot, by Sophia, usually in an unfavorable light to Dorothy. Indeed, the relationship between the two sisters seems much genuinely warmer than it will be in the later episode (in which it is much more straightforwardly antagonistic). It’s actually rather nice to see the ways in which the two sisters have genuine affection for one another, at least in this early episode. Furthermore, Gloria’s acknowledgment that Dorothy is and always has been the more responsible one, again reinforces the idea that their relationship is at once closer, and far more complicated, than it appears on the surface.

Next up, Rose begins a romance with Dr. Newman, the little person with whom she works. This raises all sorts of questions about whether Rose can indeed put aside her reservations about his size and marry him, as well as how we as a society view these physical differences in our everyday life.

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Return of Dorothy’s Ex” (S1, Ep

Welcome back to the Great Golden Girls Marathon. In today’s installment, we take a look at the second episode in which Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan appears. While he is ostensibly in town to take care of some business with Dorothy, he ends up revealing that his new wife Chrissy has left him for a younger man. To make matters even more complicated, he also confesses that he still has feelings for Dorothy. While she feels tempted to return to her old life with him, she eventually turns him down, and he returns to Chrissy.

On one level, Stan is certainly the most insufferable type of man imaginable. He seems curiously out of place in his own life, perpetually struggling financially, always on the hunt for a younger woman. All of which, of course, just points to his own insecurity as a man. He has, in many ways, largely failed to do exactly those things that American culture expects its men to accomplish. He couldn’t even manage to hold his marriage together (though we don’t find out how spectacularly he failed at that until several episodes later).

And yet, despite all of that, Herb Edelman brings a certain charisma, one might even go so far as to say charm, to Stan. He should be utterly unlikeable, and yet he always manages to bring life to the episodes in which he appears. I suspect that a great deal of this has to do with the undeniable rapport and chemistry between Bea and Herb, who really do manage to capture the mix of dislike and affection that a couple married for 38 years would exhibit. And that makes sense; after all, 38 years is a very long time to be in a life with someone. They built their lives around each other, and while Dorothy has clearly begun to rebuild hers, Stan cannot quite cope with the reality of this new era. When even Chrissy leaves him, he goes back to Dorothy. He realizes, unfortunately too late, that she is the one that he really and truly loves.

One can’t blame Dorothy for finally deciding that she cannot go through with this particular iteration of her relationship. Sure, there are deep connections–both financial and emotional–that manage to rope them together (as we saw way back when Stan first appeared at Kate’s wedding), but she also knows that they can never recapture the magic of what they had when they were married. As I’ve learned the hard way, there are some wounds that go too deep to ever fully be healed, no matter how much we might wish that they would. That, for me, is one of the saddest things about the show:  despite how much they clearly love each other, Stan and Dorothy will always remain a tale of almost. They almost made it, but ultimately it just can’t work for them.

Next up, we meet yet another member of the family when Dorothy’s sister Gloria shows up, and a tug-of-war between the two sisters ensues.

What Do Maroon 5 and Camille Paglia Have in Common? Or, How I Know Rape Culture Exists

The answer, surprisingly, is a lot.  Or at least that’s what one might think seeing Maroon 5’s new video for the song “Animals,” as well as Paglia’s recent column for Time.  Viewers and readers alike no doubt emerge from their engagement with these texts with the idea that a.)  Men are primarily animals and beasts, driven by base lusts that cannot be controlled b.)  It is women’s responsibility to learn how to not only deal with but defend against this irredeemable and irrevocable part of man’s nature and c.)  If they can’t, then they should just give in an enjoy the ride.

If it sounds like I’m being snarky, it’s because I am.  When I watched Maroon 5’s video yesterday morning, I was appalled not just by the imagery (which mainly consists of Adam Levine dancing with slaughtered animal carcasses and then making out with his object of affection, which he has stalked and smelled out like an animal, while being doused in blood), but by the suggestion that women secretly love the sexual allure of being stalked by an incessantly and disturbingly amorous man.  Even more importantly, I was struck by the equating of the stalked woman with an animal that the speaker of the song, played by Levine, will hunt down and devour “like animals.”  As Carol J. Adams long ago pointed out in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, there is a deep and powerful cultural connection between the consumption of meat and the perpetuation of violence against women.

Cue Camilla Paglia who, in typical Paglia fashion, takes aim at what she sees as the failings of liberal feminism, namely that it has insulated young women from the “urban streets,” which she argues are full of animalistic men driven by a prey instinct that makes them eternally susceptible to misreadings of women’s sartorial choices and likely to go on a murderous sex rampage at any moment.  As she sees it, our civilization is always on the brink of collapse into animality and chaos, simply because of the ways in which men’s brains are hard-wired.

If this sounds like something from the 19th Century, it should, and Paglia even refers to 19th Century psychoanalysis to bolster her thinking.  To her, there are certain immovable parts of men’s brains that make them inescapably violent and sexual, and we as a society have taught women to ignore these facts at their peril.  Aside from the racism implied in Paglia’s “urban streets” comment, her thinking is both incredibly reductive, discounting any cultural influence on the ways we train our men to behave (after all, if we train our young women to ignore the danger of men, don’t we also train our men to ignore the “fragility” of women?  Clearly, Paglia did not follow her own logic to its conclusion).  Aside from my political differences with the piece, I find it lazy writing as well, an example of lazy public scholarship masquerading as serious engagement with one of the most important and urgent political and social issues of our time.

Though I doubt that Maroon 5 has read Paglia, their most recent video nevertheless serves as a perfect illustration of the way in which her particular brand of thinking permeates our culture, encouraging us to see victims of stalking, rape, and other violent crimes as both asking for it and secretly enjoying it.  The lyrics to the song include the phrase “the beast inside,” implying that there is something deeply and irrevocably bestial about the male psyche.  The fact that the character is played by the undeniably charismatic and attractive Levine makes the video’s vexing politics even more aggravating, as it casts its glamour around one of the most unpleasant, vicious, and downright ugly aspects of our culture, one which we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate, rather than valourize or explain away via outdated and heavily-disputed notions of biological determinism.

If I had possessed any doubt that we live in a rape culture, both the video by Maroon 5 and Camilla Paglia’s deliberately inflammatory and simplistic tract would have disabused me of any such idealism.  We clearly live in a culture in which the objectification of women, and the blaming of women for that objectification, continue to hold sway.  I know that I, frankly, am tired of these pernicious attempts by our culture to convince us that really, deep down, the problems that women face in our society are either their own fault or easily explained away an contained by their erotic submission to men.  As feminists and gender justice warriors, we must continue pushing back against these attempts to blame victims of oppression for the conditions of their subjugation.  We will continue to put pressure on those systems as we work toward a more just and democratic society.  We will not be intimidated by their rhetoric, and we will not be silenced.

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.

“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.