The “Outlander Isn’t a Romance” Problem

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Image from Starz.

Diana Gabaldon doesn’t like her bestselling Outlander series being described as romance, and she has never been quiet about saying so. Indeed, with the television adaptation growing in popularity and critical acclaim, both she and showrunner Ronald D Moore seem determined to reassure potential viewers that there shall be no ripped bodices beyond this point.

This is something that has justifiably been a thorn in many a romance reader’s side. To see Gabaldon, whose work was originally packaged as romance because it came with a higher first print than science-fiction before winning the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award, consistently dismiss this sizeable section of her devoted fanbase is nothing new, but it still stings. There are arguments to be made as to whether the romance label is accurate – the oversaturation of rape in the series remains the biggest talking point on this topic – but those discussions seldom come with such smug scorn for a passionate audience. Gabaldon is happy to talk of the financial benefits that being marketed as romance brought with it, yet gaining a level of acclaim that allowed her to disassociate from the label is positioned as a marker of true literary respect. Ultimately, once men are marketed to, it’s all fine.

Romance, along with the vaguely defined and much dreaded label of ‘women’s fiction’, seem destined to remain on the scrapheap of the literary scene, at least in terms of mainstream respectability. It’s an issue many of us, including author Jennifer Weiner, have discussed for some time. To have your work not even be considered for review or analysis because it’s seen as feminine and therefore worthless is a difficult pill to swallow. The archaic modes of publishing and marketing are also allergic to genre-breaking stories and themes, preferring something more easily boxed into one category or another. As a result, romance will probably never be reviewed in the New York Times. But here’s the thing – that’s their loss, not ours.

An outdated industry’s refusal to embrace the creative, financial and cultural benefits of work made exclusively by and for women is not our problem. If they want to miss out on a billion dollar a year field that helped to pioneer e-books as a mainstream means and self-publishing as a legitimate literary outlet, they’re missing out big. Clearly Gabaldon’s publishers saw this potential and latched onto it for Outlander, which received a 500k first print (10 times that of a science-fiction debut at the time) and almost immediately became a sensation amongst romance readers. They took the money happily when it benefited them. Gabaldon took the money. To use an appropriate, if hackneyed, term, she bit the hand that fed her.

Gabaldon’s dismissal of the romance label isn’t limited to her or Moore, who often seems like he’s on a one-man mission to ensure fragile men that they won’t turn into women if they enjoy a show mostly liked by silly ladies. Critics use the term ‘bodice ripper’ to describe the show, almost sarcastically, as if to acknowledge the sexual elements is worthy of sniggers. Then there are those who love the show and shower it with praise for its strong women and feminist undertones, yet do so while distancing it from the romance genre, as if romance and feminism are mutually exclusive. I guarantee you the vast majority of people who review or recap the show for major publications haven’t read a romance novel, and would probably see that as a marker of pride. I’ve seen the series talked about as a ‘good example’ of romance, with no wider context for a decades old industry with centuries of history behind it and over a million books on Amazon alone. When discussion of romance begins and ends with a book the author refuses to be categorised as such, it smudges away a key genre and the work of millions of women.

Gabaldon’s disappointment that a romance marketed Outlander may be ignored by men also signals the driving force of not only publishing but the entertainment industry at large. Regardless of changing demographics and high-profile flop after flop, Hollywood still works under the constantly refuted assumption that straight white dudes aged between 18 and 49 are the ‘default mode’ for life, and everything outside of that becomes a niche group that could never be considered universally relatable. There’s no financial incentive behind getting more dudes to watch the show. The biggest share of that viewership is women, and in an age of ‘peak TV’, gaining any audience over 7 figures is something to behold. Romance on TV is nothing new either, and it’s been popular for decades: From Moonlighting to Cheers, Friends to Futurama, Bones and Booth to Castle and Beckett. Fans come back for the love.

I’m reminded of the debacle of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, which I have previously written about, and the ways in which the network strained to make the show ‘more appealing’ to that desired demo, even as it pushed away the devoted fans who made it a hit. It wasn’t enough that women, particularly women of colour, had found real joy in a show with a woman of colour in the lead and a diverse cast: Whiteness sells. But it didn’t. They would rather have had some white dudes watch their show than a whole lot of women of colour. If they couldn’t have all of the money, then some of the money just wasn’t going to cut it. They built up a base then let it crumble away to appeal to an imagined audience that was never there. The mirage mattered more than the oasis.

I’m sure there are men who enjoy Outlander, both the books and the show, and I’m glad that they do. Anything we can do to disabuse ourselves of toxic masculinity is fine by me. But imagine if every romance reader stopped reading those books or turned over to a different channel. I’m sure Gabaldon would suddenly be open to the label.

1 COMMENT

  1. I don’t see it as necessarily being dismissive of the genre or the fans but more of trying to let people know it’s more than that. Right or wrong, many people have preconceived notions of what a romance novel is (both men and women) and she is trying to get them to read as well. I know people (again-both men and women) who will either instantly grab a book or avoid it because of the romance label. Not saying that it’s fair, but just my thoughts.

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