Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

Reply To: On the TV portrayal of the "Strong Woman"


OK, I’m way late to the party, but am de-lurking because you’ve hit my nail on its head. I’ve spent many happy hours reading the Outlander series; also love the show. Costumes, vistas, characters. Amazing. However, the one thing troubling me about the on-screen adaptation has been — through the flipping of gender stereotypes — the empowerment of Claire at the disempowerment of the “Other.”

In the first book, by the time we meet them, Claire and Jamie are already fully-formed characters. They are young, and still learning, and not perfect, but they are also strong, intellectual, mature, courageous, willful, headstrong, and empathic. Even when they first meet, they are Equals; their individual abilities and expertise complementary. They are both displaced, they both have secrets, they are both liminal. They are a Good Match, ready to take on the world together (and everything the world throws at them as well … which turns out to be, well, everything).

But on-screen, it seems a chasm has opened. We are suddenly witnessing Jamie on his journey to actualize, rather than as we first meet him in the book (this could possibly be due to Claire’s pov in the novel and we don’t see Jamie struggling to Become because she’s just too preoccupied with survival — but the show seems to be purposefully highlighting these “in-progress” aspects of its male lead for a reason). Other parts of his character are brought to the fore, instead: his youth, his naivetĂ©, his inexperience with romantic relationships, his showmanship and impetuosity. In comparison, Claire is more mature, worldly (not only because of her broadened, 20th century knowledge base), and more reserved with her feelings. We learn Jamie loves her from nearly the moment he meets her; we see his eyes follow Claire from across the room on multiple occasions. Claire, on the other hand, understandably and initially disengages from deepening her connection with Jamie. Yes, we see that she desires him, but for several episodes and reasons (and even during the moments wherein readers know she IS feeling it), we don’t see love/infatuation emanating from her as clearly as we see it from her male counterpart.

Which brings me to my point: The Wedding Night, the Female Gaze, Ep 9. Claire demonstrates a lot of stereotypical “masculine” attributes in these episodes and scenes — guiding the action, pursuing voyeurship and “allowing” return of the same. She is in control, she is the teacher; Jamie the virginal ingĂ©nue. Unlike Jamie, she does not appear to be under the sway of typically “feminine” emotions like, for example, romantic love. Later in Ep 9 (SPOILER ALERT), we see Claire rage in their first major confrontation until Jamie breaks down emotionally, we see him pledge his obedience/submission (“fealty” being a pledge of submission to a feudal lord), we then see Claire hold a knife to his throat to exact a promise while he’s in a vulnerable, submissive pose.

Some of these things happen in the book. But on-screen, they haven’t yet been balanced by moments of James Fraser, a man in his own right, to prevent his character from being diminished to that of Emerging Stable Boy.

But freedom of adaptation aside, artistic choices respected and with an understanding that there exist a further seven episodes to reveal the fruition of this journey, it still makes me think: if this portrayal of a Strong Woman is based on Claire exerting her will over a man — especially if she’s using Strong Man stereotypes — is this really progress in the portrayal of equality between sexes? We’re celebrating the Female Gaze, but have perhaps just shifted stereotypes of the “weaker” sex onto the “stronger” without any thought about why we, as a mainstream audience, so easily conflate these patriarchal and traditionally feminine aspects with weakness, submission, and being “lesser than.” Especially problematic, since the paper versions of these characters are portrayed as equal from the onset, and any jockeying takes place on an even playing field wherein problems arising from expected gender tropes are (eventually) resolved through maturity, progressive thinking, understanding, and mutual respect.

Would love to know if anyone else feels this way. Have been mulling it over for a while.