A lot of my shows are ending soon/have ended already (Mad Men, Parks and Rec, Falling Skies, Breaking Bad… ok, now I’m getting sad), so I’m always excited to replace them with something as good or better. It always seems a daunting prospect.
Outlander is a new novel adaptation from Starz, based on a series of the same name authored by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve not read any of the series, though a good friend recently pointed me towards the 2nd and 3rd books. As she said it, the first book is really about establishing place, character, and tropes before it gets at the meat of things.
The story’s premise is quite simple: Outlander is a time-slip story about Claire Randall, a former British Army nurse putting her life back together with her husband after WWII until she transported to the middle of the 18th century while on vacation in Scotland. It follows her attempts to get back to her husband and her own time. That said, the Wikipedia article indicates that the series overall is not just a time-slip story but instead covers multiple genres including “elements of historical fiction, romance, adventure and science fiction/fantasy.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the impetus for adapting this series is part of a trend in historical fiction and premium cable in general and a reaction to Game of Thrones in particular. While many series have come out of an interest in historical fiction, fewer have been adapted from genre-blurring works. As a big fan of both, they didn’t need much convincing for me to give the show a chance.
In that vein, the way the show adheres to and at other times defies the conventions of just these shows has made it an interesting addition to the list of those my lady and I watch together.
First, a tip of the hat to historical accuracy or, at the very least, earnest attempts in that direction. Eighteenth century Scottish dress and mores are not really in my wheelhouse, but if I’m to believe at least half of what I have read from reputable sources, they’re making a good effort. That said, Chels has more than once expressed concern for modern attitudes tempering the portrayals, most especially in Claire’s nicer than expected clothing as bestowed by her captors. I’m willing to accept that perhaps she is kept in nicer garments because of the pretense that this is still a guest, rather than a prisoner, but she is more skeptical. YMMV. In either case, the show makes for properly immersive historical world building, even if at times it messes with the facts.
One of the items in early reviews that most captured me was that the show featured prominently a sex-positive female protagonist. So many shows are all about male gaze and I was looking forward to a change of pace. I got it, to an extent, though perhaps some judgment must still be reserved.
The sheer volume of male gaze sex scenes in premium cable television had become a turn off of late. As a liberal cis-male, I’m almost tired of saying “enough already” to female nudity. Sex is an integral part of being a human and has a place in our fiction. So too is defecation a normal human function. Funny how that hasn’t similarly invaded television. Unfortunately, as sex is over used, we get to a point where we almost can’t tell what is meaningful use and what isn’t. Or perhaps worse yet, we get so sick of these depictions that we don’t even want to allow for the good uses.
I say we not merely for the like-minded but specifically for the people with whom I most often watch TV. Chels has hit a threshold already and I can’t blame here. Sex scenes on the big premium channels have tried to equate male and female torso nudity. Maybe one day we will get to that, but it isn’t the world we live in now. Right now, there is a continuum and at best female nudity from the waist up is somewhere in between male torso nudity and genitals, and it is definitely closer to the latter. JackOSpade (the other person with whom I watch a lot of TV, most especially GoT) is somewhat more selective, seeing as suspect every scene in every show but a little more willing to accept that it might have a use. Of course, he is often wrong, but it makes sense that another cis-male would be more willing to accept a sex scene, given that these scenes are basically meant for us. That said, he and I have both abandoned shows for the overuse.
The issue, besides a false equivalence, is often in sexualization. Far, far more often than not, female nudity is sexualized, even in instances of sexual violence, while male nudity is a joke or meant to discomfort the audience. I was almost excited to see male nudity proceed female nudity on The Leftovers until it became clear that the man was mentally unbalanced. Then, just one episode later, female nudity and YUP, it’s supposed to be sexy.
I digress a bit on this point because it is something that is bothersome as we watch more and more shows on premium cable and I don’t think I’ve expressed this concern before.
In the first three episodes of Outlander, there is at least one scene of the protagonist topless. In the fourth and most recent episode, no such scene. Most of these scenes are needless. While the pilot uses its nude scene—in addition to another sexual scene devoid of nudity—to establish the character as sex-positive and progressive, subsequent scenes haven’t served much of a purpose. Thankfully the show also works to sexualize one of the lead male roles (the show’s only looker, says Chels), though it is to an obviously lesser degree. So far, I have been happier with these changes, if not quite satisfied.
But there is something further to complicate the mess. I don’t think that they are wedging these scenes in for the typical “hook-the-18-to-34-year-old-males” angle. Instead, the writers and directors for Outlander don’tquite seem to trust either themselves or the audience. Outlander made heavy use of voiceovers in the pilot episode to deliver a lot of exposition. While not strictly necessary, I can understand the want to do this. The only problem is, they’ve continued to use it. It’s the worse part of the show by far. Every episode explains things directly to the viewer, spoon-feeding and thus undermining an otherwise pretty intelligent show. They’ve also made some strange musical choices to somewhat ham-fistedly push viewer emotions in one direction or another.
Outlander doesn’t need these nude scenes any more than it needs the voiceover or awkward music. Claire’s clothing choices, discussion topics, and comportment have been ample to convey the idea that she is progressive and sex-positive and that she is likely to be a disruptive influence at Castle Leoch.
It is an interesting show with a lot of promise. The first season is half through but they received an order for a second season of 13 episodes next year. Let’s hope the showrunners and writers are listening to the dialogue generated. It would take so little to shave off these extraneous elements from the show and restore execution to the story’s promise.
Are y’all listening?
The first thing to recognize is that these people do not seem to actually, physically exist. Everyone deserves it. At some point, everyone needs it. It should be out goal to give it freely and our hope that others do the same. Empathy can be difficult and it is certainly misunderstood. It is also one of the greatest, most important skills you can have towards a kinder, more cooperative world.
So let me begin by saying that I have significant empathetic failings before sidestepping that fact to explain issues important to empathy and how I have planned/will continue to implement them.
Without empathy, true understanding is not possible. It represents the difference between knowing something and getting it. I might know that the victims of violent crimes feel a sense of helplessness or might even experience PTSD or similar symptoms, but without empathy, it is never more than a flat fact. Empathy allows for understanding. Empathy allows us to make the fact human.
This is not to say that empathy is default or that by empathizing you will automatically agree or permanently see from X person’s point of view. You will only be capable of doing so.
Empathy is often seen as a prosocial behavior and if the plethora of blogs, stories, and essays posted daily dealing with empathy are any indication (they are) then you can safely say that the ability to empathize is of central importance to our daily lives.
Empathy tends to breakdown into two components, emotional and cognitive. One without the other can be problematic, so I’d like to think about both in concert.
Emotional empathy is about being able to identify and share the feelings of others, be that your SO, your best friend, your enemy, or a stranger. In theory, all one should need to do to identify and share is first listen, then care. In practice, this is not always the case. Just as every person deserves empathy, every person can be unique in a million different ways pertaining to their interpersonal skills. Personality disorders present some empathic difficulties, but so too do rough conditions in upbringing, political divisions, and the state of one’s life needs being met, to name a few. Listening is the biggie here and listening means more than hearing and judging. It means actively listening. If you’re listening to family talk about something they often experience and relate, maybe you’ve heard this story before. Or maybe you’ve fought recently and that comes to mind. Maybe you think they are approaching a problem or a feeling incorrectly (side note: short of self-harm, do not suppose that you know the correct way to address any feeling). But you (and I, because this is somewhere I fail at times) must stop, because that isn’t listening. It’s judging and it steps into the attempt to empathize and messes up the place. Instead, take the words as they come, place them into context, and dismiss your reactions to them. For now, only listen.
Maybe you are listening, though, and the person is experiencing something difficult to convey or you’re just not getting it. There is a lot of research to indicate that physically mirroring someone can help to place you in their state of mind. Keeping in mind that body language can be just as important to the listener as is your pretense, you can try to mirror their stature, position, and facial expressions to kick start motor neuron imitation and get you a little closer to their state of mind.
Which brings us to the cognitive portion of empathy. If you’re someone who readily understands emotions, perhaps this is where you have difficulties. I know it often is for me. This is the point at which I often step back from the person with whom I should be empathizing and instead consider their feelings from my own POV. I shouldn’t do it and neither should you.
This is a strange point for me because I often find it effortless to empathize with fictional characters or far off/abstract people while I have to make an effort to empathize with the person right in front of me, often a loved one. The issue, I think, may be a mixture of burnout and frame of reference. Burnout because this is a person with whom I engage regularly, while the Other, the character, the person in Australia is in a different part of the world, I don’t know them, and I’m willing to allow for a lot more variance in lifestyle and emotion. The frame of reference follows immediately, because when someone is of the same culture, location, age, perhaps even sex and gender, it can be much easier to think that they see the world much as you do and thus your response might work for them. This presupposes too much, including the idea that you own Theory of Mind is mirrored by theirs. So very much goes into understanding the mind of another and assuming that it is like your own is an almost sure-fire way of missing the mark.
To be sure, these things are neither automatic nor necessarily easy. There is a good deal of research to support a predisposition towards empathy and just as much to assert there is not. We often find gender differences only to turn around and find that we’ve measured the wrong part in emotional response or that we’ve only tested for social, rather than innate, attitudes. It seems the better approach may be empathy as skill, regardless of how well one empathizes to begin with. Perhaps the more intelligent approach is to work actively at empathizing so that, in the best case, you only get better with time and in the worst, you are making progress towards engaging people in a helpful, hopeful, and kind manner.
As with many talks about self-discipline and how we engage with others, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, as related in the short film “This is Water”. If you’ve not seen it, I recommend watching it a few dozen times. It is perhaps one of the best bits of personal improvement advice I’ve ever heard. It comes to mind because Wallace points out how easy and automatically we can suppose the worst of someone. Inside our own minds, it is quite easy to suppose that someone is being a jerk, or inconsiderate, or oblivious. In the example of being stuck behind someone in traffic, he urged the students of the class of 2005 to take a moment to imagine that the person in front of you might be considering far more than you realize: “It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive … Not that that … stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
It may seem a stretch in the wrong direction, but Wallace’s point that “[the] only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it” barest a repeat. This is perhaps one of the few capital-T true things about the human condition. It is up to the viewer to perceive as they wish and to do so with consideration of the rest of humanity. You can choose to be empathetic. It is necessary and like many things that are, it isn’t automatic.
What is initially active will become easy and automatic in time. Empathy can be treated as a skill for one to work on until the purposeful actions and thoughts become second-nature. In the meantime, focus on all that is gained in the attempt.
My greatest aspiration as a five year old child was to be a paleontology and to every one I told that I had to explain the meaning of the word.
I founded a non-profit in college which I now find distasteful and needless. It was a scholarship incorporated under The Vega Society.
I grew up under the eye of a kind but exceedingly judgmental and coarse sect of Christianity. I was uncomfortable wearing shots until well into adulthood.
I’ve taken a few breaks from writing lately. First, and most significantly, I took the month of the Cup off. That time encompassed some strange feelings, not least among them the realization of just how easy it is to break a year and a half old habit. Less surprising was the want to get back to things. Phew.
I’ve also broken from writing quite so many updates on the status of the series and now that I’ve hit a new new, I’d like to take this moment.
Coming out of the month’s hiatus, I reread the entirety of the second books. Lots of issues to address and few of them fun, but I took copious notes and set it aside again. I know with absolute certainty that I will regret this in some fashion. I want to get all three novels, the current one included, into a near second draft stage before I set into the bulk of edits. If it is a mistake—as it feels—its one I am going into consciously. That much massive editing, just six months or so in the future, does not promise great fun, but I want a tight thematic arch across the trilogy and I don’t think I’ll find it satisfactory if I rush into the novels too quickly. I’m all the time figuring out what they’re actually about.
After that, I spent a little time crafting a story out of a couple of Writing Excuses exercise as a way of getting into something a bit more fun after the read-through.
For the past two weeks, I’ve sketched characters, made rough plot lines, and bulleted significant milieu changes I wish to institute in the final book of the series. I decided to give myself exactly two weeks, no more or less, and also to allow for a bit more discovery in this final volume. I’ve only very loosely plotted the first nine or so chapters.
But that does not constitute a great enough change to get me writing about writing again. Rather, it’s the will, perhaps the wish, to procrastinate. I’d hesitate to point to any particular states of mind or body that might be provoking this, but for the past week I’ve actually found legitimately difficult to begin writing in the morning. I have plans, I leave the story where I know the next few steps, I think periodically about what comes in the next few paces, yet when I sit down almost anything else will do. I’ve never experienced this before in work I do for myself and it’s not specific to writing—I’ve been putting off certification studying as well—but it is certainly worse in this than in other endeavors.
Hoping it passes or that at the very least routine wins the day.
Are you a procrastinator and if so, how does it affect you? Is it manageable? Is it regular? What exacerbates it?
EDIT: Immediately upon finishing this post, I recalled a Salon post from this morning and went back and deleted all double spaces following periods. Follow-up question: How many of you double space needlessly because of confusing or flat out incorrect instruction as a student?