It’s somewhat hard to believe for an awards show that won’t air until September, but Emmy season is already upon us. Primetime television nominations will be announced in July, and the cast and crew of Outlander have already begun the long (and often political) process of soliciting nominations.
What’s even harder to believe, especially coming off another excellent season, is that Outlander’s two main leads- Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe- have yet to be nominated for an Emmy in their categories. I argued a few months ago that Balfe was deserving of a Golden Globe win, in large part due to the phenomenal way Outlander creates roles for its female actresses. But credit must also be given where credit is due: Outlander, in elevating the portrayal of women onscreen, has also upped the ante with their male characters. Again, this is a show that leads by example and the example they are setting is one of excellence. Just as Caitriona was thoroughly deserving of her Golden Globe nomination, San Heughan is just as worthy of accolades.
For Outlander fans Jamie Fraser, as created by novelist Diana Gabaldon and portrayed onscreen by Scottish actor Sam Heughan, needs no introduction. If you aren’t yet an Outlander fan I must first question your sanity, then command you to start watching (immediately), and finally inform you that Jamie is the central male character in Outlander– the hero, the romantic lead, and (as fans love to semi-joke) The King of All Men.
The exceptionalism of this show is multi-factorial but foremost for me is its authentic depiction of relationships and marriage. Outlander succeeds where many, many others have failed. So let’s break down some problematic, all-too-common male tropes and discuss why Outlander is particularly good at avoiding those pitfalls. Let us, in short, celebrate good men.
Now, arguably, the men of the world do not need me to be their cheerleader. Men are already rewarded with bigger paychecks, more political representation, and- relevant to this blog- larger and better roles in entertainment. But I would posit that we are rewarding the wrong men and, moreover, that error is due in very large part to the way we are accostomed to seeing men on film and television.
Many of these depictions are absurd at best, sexist at worst and, frankly, unrealistic. I married a good man and I’m sure many of you have your own “Jamie” in your life- fathers, brothers, spouses, partners, and friends that quietly get the job done. These are honest, hard-working and supportive men that perhaps are under-represented in pop culture. Before we can celebrate those men and understand why Outlander is so special we first need to discuss the shortcomings of some of the more common representations. First up?
Alpha Males and Lovable Misogynists
Alpha Males and Lovable Misogynists aren’t always the same but they are very often conflated. It’s hard to concretely define an alpha male character but he is easily recognized when you see one: he’s the handsome, strong man all the women want and all the other men wish to emulate. He’s the hero (or anti-hero) of the story and usually the main protagonist. Very often he’s also kind of a jerk, which is where the idea of the Lovable Misogynist comes in. (Note: I did not coin the term and for an excellent take on the Lovable Misogynist trope I recommend this review by Lindsay Ellis.) This archetype, in my opinion, is a lazy writing crutch for when a male character is needed to seem manly but also flawed; the flaw, all too commonly, is treating women like crap.
These male characters are brash and confident and they always manage to land the lady even though they’ve probably behaved pretty shabbily. Think Rhett Butler, Don Draper, Han Solo, and pretty much every John Wayne character.
Like the Cool Girl archetype I discussed in my previous blog, it can be difficult to criticize this male trope because it has been foisted upon audiences for so long as an ideal. The conventional wisdom with this representation is that women like a man to take charge, like being rescued, and secretly get a thrill with a little physical roughness.
Do we want men to act this way? I can only speak for myself, but what I would argue is that, yes, there are many women out there that like a take-charge kind of guy. Where the problem exists in these fictional portrayals, however, is the lack of consent. Can being spanked be a turn-on? Sure, if you consent to it first or it’s a well-established routine with your partner. Otherwise it would be terrifying. Is it sexy for a man to take charge of a situation? It definitely can be, but only if it doesn’t come at the cost of having your ideas dismissed or patronized.
So let’s think about Jamie Fraser in comparison to these men. He famously does spank Claire after he rescues her from Fort William. And, if you recall, it is far from a turn-on for her. She did not consent to it. Rather than fall into his arms with lust post-spanking she gives him the cold shoulder (and cold bed) for a few days. Jamie, in turn, apologizes when he realizes this dynamic won’t work in his marriage. We do see Jamie and Claire occasionally engage in rough sex, but it is always consensual and playful.
As for alpha-maleness, Jamie definitely takes charge of situations and rescues Claire from danger more than once. That’s a huge part of why we love him, right? But the difference between him and many other leading alpha men is that he demonstrably views Claire as his equal. He is okay with the two of them taking charge together. Jamie does not readily dismiss Claire’s ideas, he usually brings her along for the adventure, and he (mostly) listens to her advice. He is commanding but not controlling, which is one of the sexiest things about him.
At the other end of the spectrum from alpha males are your…
Sitcom Dads and Hapless Husbands
Far from being the take-charge sort of man, this character is content to let his wife do most of the work, especially with regard to housekeeping and child-rearing. The general theme uniting so many prime-time TV dads and families is one of a husband who thinks it’s amusing to sneak off to play golf on the weekend, act perplexed when it comes to changing a diaper, and put up with a nagging wife who is sick of his supposedly amusing antics. I give this archetype some major side-eye.
The show According to Jim is arguably the worst culprit in this genre but the theme is prevalent in most family sitcoms, especially those hailing from the 90s and early 00s: Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement, Step By Step, etc. It’s also an especially prevalent trope in movies. Indeed, there are whole feature-length films whose sole premise is a man being unable to cope with childcare: Three Men and a Baby, Mr. Mom, Big Daddy, Mrs. Doubtfire, and so forth.
Now, I will admit the humor in these portrayals exists in some small kernels of truth. When our first son was born my husband (now infamously) was nervous to put a little newborn onesie on him at the hospital. I get it. Unfortunately, most men still don’t have as much in the way of child-rearing exposure by the time they become fathers. But my husband learned very quickly and I’m sure yours did, too. So, yes, a hapless dad can be good for laughs but as a running gag for numerous TV seasons the trope wears thin. Can you imagine a real-world situation like the one in Everybody Loves Raymond? Where the husband is constantly skirting his household duties and cracking jokes at his wife’s expense? It would be enormously frustrating and (most likely) marriage breaking.
By contrast, pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing are taken seriously in the world of Outlander. Jamie Fraser easily and readily handles his nieces and nephews as infants and he invests in their childhoods. He is as much of a responsible father figure to Willie as he can possibly be, given the circumstances. He makes the ultimate sacrifice in sending Claire and Brianna back to the relative safety of the twentieth century. Hapless he is not.
And neither are his peers. Ian Murray, Sr. is an excellent and accurate representation of a father and grandfather. Frank Randall nobly and successfully steps up to be a good father to Brianna. Even Dougal MacKenzie is shown engaging with Hamish, his biological son.
Children and child-rearing for the men of Outlander are a matter-of-fact part of family life. They are not embarrassingly scary. And, yes, most of the domestic work falls to the women. But this is historically accurate and the men are not loafing around the castle like useless twits.
Speaking of twits, let me present to you the last of the most frustrating male character tropes:
Persistent Nerds and Relentless Underdogs
If you came of age during the heyday of John Hughes films you are particularly familiar with this narrative. For some reason there was an explosion of plot and sub-plot lines in the 1980s that involved uncool guys relentlessly going after the popular girl(s) and eventually winning their hearts: Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Can’t Buy Me Love, etc.
More recent movies still fall into this trap, too. American Pie, Transformers, and pretty much every Spider Man movie position a less-than-cool guy trying desperately to win the heart of a beautiful girl.
Do nerds deserve love? Of course. Hello- I’m a blogger writing about a science-fiction show. I’m a huge nerd, too! But the problem with this trope is the message it sends: if you just wear a person down enough they will eventually fall in love with you. In the real world this isn’t romantic, it’s stalking. The problem with these male characters is- and this is important- they do not respect boundaries. For the most part, women in the real world do not eventually fall for guys that won’t leave them alone. In some situations, yes, someone can have a change of heart. But it usually does not come by following someone around or making repeated, unwanted romantic gestures. Constant unwanted attention isn’t flattering. It’s harassment.
Outlander does a very good job of drawing and maintaining boundaries between characters. A woman who says no does not really mean yes- she means no. Big, romantic gestures aren’t unwelcome, but they are appropriately placed within the context of two people who are already fond of each other.
John Grey is a great example of unrequited love shown appropriately. He is enamored with Jamie but, when his advances are initially rebuffed, he respects the line that has been drawn. Jamie and John’s friendship works so beautifully because of that respect.
The boundary-keeping extends beyond romantic relationships as well. Joe’s friendship with Claire is one of mutual respect and professional esteem. It isn’t played for sexual tension like a lesser show might be tempted to do. Adults behave like adults and relationships on the show are allowed integrity.
So, to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences: are you paying attention? Because all of us most definitely are. Outlander is groundbreaking and is the best example of roles for men and women and romantic relationships that we need to see going forward. And to all the good men in this world: thank you. Thank you for respecting and supporting women and encouraging others to do the same. You are the unsung Jamie Frasers and we praise you.