Why Going Back In Time Would Actually Suck (Sorry, Outlander)

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Outlander is pretty much my ideal show. There's time travel, ambitious female characters, intrigue, sex with hot Scottish rebels, and — do you really need more convincing?
But while 18th century Scotland appears to be flush with excitement and gallant lairds, it's pretty short on baths, which is why I regret to inform all of you that IRL, Outlander would actually be disgusting.
Picture this: You, an average mid-20th century woman, who has known electricity, running water, moderately clean toilets, gas stoves, and the telephone, are dropped into an era in which people bathe approximately once or twice a year (in their undershirts, known as a chemise), have only recently discovered that teeth should be brushed (with fun things like rosemary ash, or even gunpowder), and throw their excrement in the middle of the street to run downhill towards the sewer, otherwise known as the closest body of water. Do you feel the stirrings of lust, knowing it would probably mean dealing with crusty body parts?
Season 3 of the Starz drama, based on Voyager, the third novel of the series by Diana Gabaldon, takes place on two different timelines, which eventually converge. The first, which follows Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) after the Battle of Culloden, a bloody conflict pitting George II's British troops against Scottish supporters of Charles Stuart, picks up in 1746. The second, which follows Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) back to the 20th century, runs from 1948 until 1968, when she decides to once more venture through time to find her lover. When Claire returns to 18th century Scotland, she's a doctor, having gone to medical school and become a surgeon in Boston during her period away from Jamie. Though it's a long way from our current technology, she's gotten used to living with modern conveniences not readily available in 1766.
"Bathing [is] such an essential part of life," Caitriona Balfe told me during a visit to the Outlander set last fall. "Heat and hot water. That's probably the one thing I would miss the most. When you think back to that time, — yeah we're doing this very romantic, epic show — but they all must've stunk. Imagine! No toothbrushes, no toothpaste, no soap."
But according to the show's costume designer, Terry Dresbach, women had even more to be concerned about than just being smelly. "No underwear," she wrote in a 2014 blog post detailing some of the considerations that went into planning an 18th century wardrobe.
"They didn’t wear it. 'What did they do when they got their periods??,' everyone always asks. Lots of debate on this one. Some historians maintain that there was a very different attitude to menstruation than there is today, the smell of menstrual blood was considered erotic, and obvious menstruation was a sure way of knowing when a young woman was fertile, and an older woman no longer was. And, there were no toilets except for the very wealthy. Most people did not carry chamber pots with them. One can assume people did there business wherever and whenever was needed."

When it's sexual violence, we have a responsibility to not take it lightly, to treat it with the respect that it deserves.

Caitriona Balfe
And that doesn't even address more practical concerns, like the attitudes towards women at that time. 18th century women were property, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Things like physical punishment, considered unacceptable by today's standards, were still the norm, as we saw when Jamie spanked Claire for disobeying him back in season 1.
So, considering all that, how does the show still work? When it comes to sexual violence, Outlander has actually been a great example of a show that doesn't shy away from these uncomfortable moments, instead making an effort to handle them in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.
"It's tough because [when you] come at it from your modern mind, especially with the spanking scene and things like that, there's an initial reaction of, 'No way we can do that.'" Balfe said. "My job in scenes like that is usually a lot easier because Claire is pretty much of the same thinking. She's a much more modern woman, and you have to look at things in the time that they're situated within. In the 1700s, this was kind of the way of life. I do think, especially when it's sexual violence, that we have a responsibility to not take it lightly, to treat it with the respect that it deserves. We have always said, from the onset of the show, that if there are scenes of a sexual nature, or violence, that they're there for a particular reason. It's to tell part of the story and to move the story forward. It can be a hard conversation sometimes."
And as for hygiene, well, there's a reason that the first thing that comes to mind when Jamie comes onscreen isn't exactly disgust. According to writer and producer Matt Roners, it's a question of what one is able to transmit onscreen.
"The issue with television is you can show dirt and grime as much as you want — it doesn't play," he explained. "What we react to is the smell of things. When you see something and it looks dirty, okay, but as soon as it smells, then you have a visceral reaction. We just can't do that yet, maybe one day. We try to portray if it's muddy or dirty... We can't portray the kind of grime and filth because we need the smell."
So, while you won't find me taking up any offers to travel back to 1766 anytime soon, I will most definitely be tuning in to season 3 of Outlander on September 10 — with an arsenal of scented candles at the ready, just in case.
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