Terry Dresbach

Outlander Costume Designer

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


Hi, AllisonL:

You bring up some excellent points, and I really do appreciate you taking the time to respond and share your insight.

You’re right about our modern ideas of men and women being skewed by selective history — usually independent, strong women were marginalized, and certainly rarely made appearances in recorded documents. And perhaps the nuances of gender rarely made those pages, either. Without digging, as you say, for examples of those that existed outside the norm, we can all fall prey, at one time or another, to anachronism.

And you make an interesting point about how women are more prone to pick out/on the emotional sides of Jamie — perhaps because they have been socialized in a way that allows them to talk about these things more openly?

I suppose my thoughts fall into two parts:

The books were written in the late 20thc, and while researched, the characters were still created in the author’s time. So is it safe to say that Jamie, despite being a well-sourced fictional character of the 18thc, can still be seen (through the pen of the author) as emerging via the lens of the 20thc? Yes, he demonstrates the attributes of the author’s impression of what an 18thc Highlander could be, but again, he’s still a 20thc creation and thus not immune to a modern lens. This is, of course, the same situation as with Claire, just with a narrower intervening space between her time and the book series’ publication date(s).

The books and the show have been produced for a modern audience, and so I wonder — even if the characters have been written as products of their own times — to what extent can general audiences still relate to them in a way that involves modern stereotypes, and are these stereotypes used by the show runners — whether intentionally or not — to flesh out some of the nuances for the sake of clarity or time constraints or relatability? And so, my original troubling gender identification question arises.

I think, to a certain extent, we are all biased in some way or another; it is impossible to live in any society and not sometimes (cognitively or not) ascribe to certain commonly held “universals” that exist within that group. I suppose I’m railing against the idea that these particular gendered universals do still exist and that mainstream culture still seems to identify with them so strongly. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see emotions and actions for what they are and not feel compelled to organize them into neat little compartments of what we think we already know about them?

And so, and of course this is subjective — I wonder what happened (in society, in the demands of the audience, in modes of communication) between Jamie’s creation in the 1990’s and the show’s production, that changed his strong book character into a screen depiction that is a little less sure of himself and a little less assertive. Perhaps it has nothing to do with gender at all, but still I wonder.

All of this in my humble opinion, of course, and perhaps there’s no answer to my ramblings.

I feel like this discussion would work better over a cup of coffee rather than over the internet, but I am enjoying it regardless, so thank you.