sexuality and gender in orphan black
Sci-fi as a genre undeniably has something of a shaky history when it comes to feminism. All too often sci-fi’s female characters fall into one of two categories: the ‘slutty nemesis’ or the ‘damsel in distress.’ This is why BBC America’s science fiction series Orphan Black is a great addition to our screens. Here’s what you need to know about the show: Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a super punky and super street-smart young woman who stumbles upon a woman who looks exactly like her – only a more sleeker, high heeled version of herself. Seconds later this woman takes of her shoes, folds her suit jacket and jumps in front of a train. Sarah assumes this stranger’s identity in the hope of gaining access to some ready cash and thereby escaping her abusive drug dealer boyfriend and the general crap that is her life. But Sarah gets a lot more than she bargained for as she is thrust into a world of secrets, scary corporations, religious cults and… clones.
You may think that the idea of clones sounds like an unrealistic, overdone subject, but Orphan Black approaches cloning in the smartest way I’ve seen in film and television. It tackles themes of property over ones body, family, gender, sexuality and identity – all things that are definitely not totally alien to our society today.
I’ve spent hours and hours of my life watching “quality TV” featuring riveting male heroes and the pretty, submissive female characters who do nothing but react to them. In Orphan Black, these traditional gender roles are reversed. The straight men in the show, like most women in the history of film and television, are given the job of being reactive. They effectively function to get in the way of the clones’ progress. It’s brilliant and transgressive to watch.
The clones are all played by Tatiana Maslany, who gives a spectacular performance. There are moments when you will forget one person plays them all. She is a talent beyond description; she brings so much humanity, depth and individuality to each character, playing them against each other, even layered over each other sometimes as one clone playing another.
With nine clones thus far, there are multiple female characters to ramble on about. Very few shows have this many female characters filling out a cast and even less have a number of well-developed and strong female characters. Though these women may be genetically identical, each one is unique in their own way – one is an evolutionary scientist, one is a cop, one is an former member of a religious cult, one is a soccer mum and would-be actress. The characters represent an astonishing range of ways to ‘be a woman’ while at the same time illustrating the commonalities they have together as a group. When the ‘Clone Club’ gets together it is nothing short of extraordinary, especially in a cultural setting where one female character in a show is considered a substantial victory for all. The group of women share their struggles, rely on each other and rally together to fight for the ownership over themselves and their identity.
The cast of characters not only provides a positive representation of women but also realistically treats sexuality and transgender issues. The character of Felix (Jordan Gavaris – and yes he will be your favourite male character) is Sarah’s flamboyantly gay stepbrother. Felix has a personal life of his own on the show and his character is both comprehensively and sensitively portrayed. Also interesting is the shows treatment of its second queer character – one of the clones, Cosima. However, while the show depicts appropriately the development of her relationship with her girlfriend, being a lesbian is hardly her defining characteristic. Moreover, the addition of a transgender clone is season two extends the show’s commitment to LGBTQ representation.
Probably my favourite moment in the show is when Sarah is asked, ‘There are nine of you?’ to which she replies, ‘No, there’s only one of me.’ This moment could be relevant to the life of every woman who has ever been moulded and caged in by stereotypes telling us how all women are or should be. Orphan Black successfully reveals how patriarchy polices gendered behaviour and women’s bodies and the combat against these rigid sex and gender categories. It is sci-fi done the right way.