Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

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


I think you might have hit on the source of the biggest contradiction of this show—how a modern 21st century audience is viewing/reacting/digesting a show set in the 18th century, with all the care Ron and Co. are taking to make that world real. We can’t help but watch the events in Outlander through the filter of our own modern experiences, and there will alway be someone who can’t reconcile modern attitudes with historical ones. But there is also a danger of going too far in the other direction—if the historical characters exhibit too much “modern” attitude, the whole thing feels contrived and unreal. The idea that men can’t cry or be emotional to be “manly” is a relatively recent, and very American, phenomenon. And strong women have existed since the beginning of time, but for the most part have been rendered invisible by history, or the media. You don’t have to dig very far (but you do have to dig, sadly) to find story after story about women just like Claire who made huge impacts in their times. Her strength and determination isn’t that rare or unusual. But because those stories have been buried by our culture, we see a Claire and we think she’s not acting appropriately for her time, and is therefore too “modern.” But you’re asking, if I understand correctly, whether we should accept the biases of our cultural understanding of gender and portray characters like Claire and Jamie more in a way we assume men and women to be, rather than perhaps how they actually were? On the one hand, that would make American audiences more comfortable and, perhaps, give the show a bigger audience. There is certainly a case to be made for that. But I think that part of the appeal of the books, and the series, is that Jamie and Claire are products of their own times, which is alien to each of them to the other, and to audiences. Both characters have what modern people consider to be “masculine” and “feminine” attributes, which is exactly why they make a lot of people uncomfortable. One thing we get wrong about history is that somehow women were more “feminine” and men more “masculine” than they are now. The social mores of different times did force women, and men, into very traditional roles–but that doesn’t mean they were happy there, or that they didn’t break out of those roles all the time. Showing Jamie and Claire switching these “traditional” roles may be deliberate on the part of the show creators to develop complexity in their characters, but I also think it’s an honest and accurate portrayal of them as ordinary people. What is very interesting to me is that it seems a lot more WOMEN are having a hard time accepting Jamie’s emotional complexities than men are. It makes me wonder how much gender expectation is really with women rather than men. Thoughts?