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FeaturesNovember 4, 2014

Tuesday Talks: Outlander, Fandom and Feminism.


Alex Casey went along to the official Outlander fan gathering, and discovered a visionary group of female fans who are as unconventional as the show they love. //

I didn’t know a lot about Outlander. I had watched half of the pilot, had read some bits and pieces online, and raced through the infamous sexy episode after seeing some uproar on Twitter about it. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was the most ill-prepared person at the official #ANZOF (Australia New Zealand Outlander Fans) gathering.

Jamie and Claire
Jamie and Claire

For those of you who don’t know, Outlander has broken some pretty heavy ground in the realm of female representation on screen. Based on the long-running epic series by author Diana Gabaldon, the story follows a Scottish woman in the 1940s who mysteriously travels back to 1743 and falls in love with a warrior called Jamie. The protagonist Claire’s heart is torn “between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.” It sounds like Mills and Boone on paper, but it’s a slick reclaiming of female sexuality and agency on screen. I’m just going to come right out and say it – the first episode has cunnilingus in a castle. Got your attention? Good.

I bring this scene up in particular because, as stated by The A.V Club review, it works as the polar opposite to the classic ‘dude guiding a girl’s head down for a blowjob’ scene that we have seen a million thousand times everywhere on everything. “It’s a sex scene that not only gives the woman control but is also centered on her pleasure, completely devoid of the male gaze Game Of Thrones would have rendered it through.” Because of scenes like this, Outlander has been welcomed as a strong feminist text, a reclaiming of The Female Gaze in a way that only a handful of other shows have managed (Orange is the New Black, Broad City, Girls).

Despite the progressive nature of the show, some critics diminished it as mere fodder for understimulated menopausal women. Variety called it the type of thing that “bored middle-age housewives have been going absolutely bananas over.”

This sort of response is a little infuriating, discounting not only the groundbreaking representations the show provides, but dumbing-down and generalising its fans as horned up ladies with nothing better to do. All I’m saying is, if it’s solely the appeal of sex scenes that mobilise an entire fandom – then Game of Thrones fans have a bit of explaining to do. I was intrigued to see these female Outlander fans in action, as all I had heard of them was whisperings of giant invite-only online communities and secret whisky and tablet parties in back alleys.

The fan gathering was held at a Mt Eden café called Ironique, which was not lost on me. Although I was hoping for an empowering and earth-shattering view of the secret society of female fandom, I was also aware of what crazy TV fans were like. Based mostly on the one time that I went to Armageddon.

I was half-expecting something uncomfortably bizarre and awkward, a gaggle of socially inept superfans sharing gifs on Tumblr across the table in silence. I mean, how much real-life time can you really share with a stranger whose only commonality with you is enjoying the same TV show? Turns out that I was wildly naïve.

Reserved for fans only. And me.
Reserved for fans only. And me.

When I arrived, the meetup was in full swing with around 25 tartan-clad women spread across several tables, surrounded by shrines of miniature cardboard cut-outs of the characters and the book’s author Diana Gabaldon.

“Are you here for Outlander?” A woman warmly took me by the arm, giving me a seat and a nametag before I had the chance to answer. She apologised for not having the Gaelic translation for me, as the rest of the guests had. One woman, Teisha from Whangarei, arrived in the courtyard theatrically in a wedding dress, donated by a friend (Donna-Marie, also of Whangarei). She would later whip it off to reveal a skin-tight tartan minidress.

There was a mix of young and old, clad in full highland regalia or just kickin’ it in jeans. Some of them had been reading the Outlander series for 20 years and some had just stumbled upon the TV show. One thing is for sure, they were all obsessed. Dressed in a patchwork tartan bodice, Jenny told me why she found the show so appealing:

“It’s definitely a show that appeals to women, and is driven by the main female character. If you are a sensual person, this is the one for you. I love the close ups, I love the dirty feet and dirty fingernails. It’s all just so provocative, I love it.”

I realised quickly that these were simply passionate fans, no different to the screaming Twilight girls or the B.A Hons True Detective scholars spitting out think pieces faster than time on a flat circle.

discussion tables
discussion tables

It was amazing to see such a large group of women talking so sincerely about a TV show they absolutely love. One woman, Robyn watches at least one episode every single day, and has even got her husband involved because he “likes the sex”.

When I mentioned that I had just watched the Wedding Episode (the very sexy episode) I was overwhelmed by the resulting conversation. I have never heard such open and frank discussion about sex outside of my own close personal friends after we have had 3+ glasses of wine. It felt cool, it felt weirdly quite rock and roll.

For a Sunday. In a place called Ironique.

“It seemed to really be telling to woman’s perspective [on sex]. If it was a man’s it would be all ‘high-five that was awesome’, but it’s not like that for her.” Talking to these women really highlighted how important this representation was, the power of having a woman in control not just in the sex scenes, but in her own story.

Nothing outlandish going on here
Nothing outlandish going on here

Annie, a writer herself, managed to articulate exactly why Outlander mattered in the fantasy/historical epic genre, “if you look at other programmes like this and actually see how women are portrayed, they are marginalised on TV. Whether its Game of Thrones, Black Sails, Vikings ­– they are either getting raped, or they’re nasty, or they are very peripheral characters. I’m sick of seeing that.”

Something I loved even more than the discussion was the clear bonds that have formed, the concrete existence of the “imagined community” of fandom.

And not the image of fandom you’d expect. Not a scary, greasy, lurky kind that argues on forums, but a vibrant and exciting kind.

These were librarians, teachers, writers, graphic designers, mothers – who just happen to love a show so much that sometimes they’ll watch episodes with the sound switched off whilst simultaneously listening to a podcast about it. If you are a TV fan, you’d understand doing something like this, but I got the feeling that maybe in their ‘other lives’ this behaviour wasn’t as welcomed or understood.

“My kids always laugh at me about it,” said Annie. “Especially today when I said I was going to an Outlander meet-up.” She found her fandom difficult to explain to her family, but noted that the online community of the show has opened up her vocabulary.

“I’m picking up all sorts of language from the internet so I can sort of say to my kids ‘whatevs’. It’s so exciting. And that’s just because of all the blogs I’ve been reading.”

Jenny and her homemade Outlander-themed calendar
Jenny and her homemade Outlander-themed calendar

Another woman, Jenny, found the buzzing world of the online fan community too distracting at work, having to turn off Facebook and Twitter all day. It got so bad that even a screensaver would trigger her obsession.

“I had this lovely one of Jamie and Claire at the wedding but then I’d start thinking Outlander again. So now I just have a nice scenic shot of New Zealand.” Jenny also showed me a homemade calendar that she had been working on, photo-shopping herself into her favourite Outlander scenes. ”I just wanted a way to fit myself into the stories,” she said wistfully, flicking through pages of her calendar. She had also made a picture book that was available for sale. I came exceptionally close to buying one.

The desire to carve their own Pictish symbol into the online Outlander stone was tangible, there were many fan artists who were happy to talk about their craft. I spoke to a young woman called Nadia, who had self-taught herself graphic design as a way of expressing her passion for the show on her popular twitter account.

“People look at me in real-life and think that I’m crazy, but then when I go online everyone thinks the stuff I do is really cool,” she says. She was currently working night shifts at The Warehouse in Nelson, and looking to go to design school next year. All because of a damn Scottish time-travel romance show. How many True Detective fans can say that?

“I liked Viggo when he was blonde,” said Jenny. “But I actually fancy myself a dwarf, if I’m being totally honest.” Although focussed on Outlander, the conversation throughout the day showed that these women had more in common than just a TV show. Topics veered between choosing the right baby names to power ranking which Lord of the Rings character was the hottest (Aragorn, obviously).

They reminisced about how a few of them got smashed on a $120 bottle of whisky at the last Outlander gathering down the Viaduct. It was clear these women were more than just fans – they were friends.

“Sometimes groups can surprise and inspire you,” said Annie. “It’s great to find people out there who like the same things as you. It’s almost like a tribe thing.”

I was genuinely moved by the union of this group of TV fans, which left me feeling okay about ‘wasting time’ watching terrible kitchen shows and writing about it on the internet.

I left not really wanting to leave, but was comforted by the much-repeated farewell of “see you on Facebook”. At the door, someone stopped me and plunged an Outlander poster in my hand. I should have declined but gladly took it, feeling like I wanted to stay part of their cool club for just a bit longer. I’ve still got that poster, I’m still a part of that Facebook group and I still haven’t actually watched the show in its entirety.

Who’s the freak now?

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