Orphan Black follows protagonist Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) as she discovers that she is a clone, meets her sister clones and Tony (a transgender brother clone), and uncovers several clandestine organizations and plots related to human cloning and eugenics. Set in modern day, the clones’ (all played by Maslany) interactions with powerful institutions, each other, and society reflect and challenge contemporary gender dynamics and norms. Just as George Rutledge argues that Samuel Delany’s work is informed by the Black Power movement of his time, Orphan Black is in conversation with the current feminist context.

[i] A significant theme in contemporary feminism involves highlighting and supporting a range of identities and choices instead of prioritizing one way of being over another.[ii] Orphan Black gives the viewers several versions of the same biological person, who each navigate career, sexuality, motherhood, and life choices in different ways. The viewer could identify with one or none of the characters, and still see their right to agency and selfhood. In this paper, I will present an overview of how Orphan Black uses the science fiction (SF) plot device of cloning to discuss feminism and body ownership in contemporary society.

We learn in Season 2 that the clones’ DNA is patented, and Dyad (the powerful biotech corporation that created the clones) repeatedly tries to exert ownership over their “property.” The clones reject this notion that they are scientific objects. The BBC America Season 3 promotional poster shows an image of Sarah with the words “I am not property” across her face. Orphan Black shares this concept with other SF texts (including Frankenstein, Humans, and Ex Machina to name a few), in which a creator looses control of their sentient creation. One could argue these creators, including Dyad, do not own their creations anymore than a parent owns their children. The clones belong to themselves.

The show also argues against a biological determinist view of sexuality and gender identity. One of the clones, Cosima, is queer. Tony is anatomically female, but undergoing hormone treatment to become more male. These characters illustrate that even when scientifically engineered, individuality persists. Tony also presents a more empowered model of human-science relationship, in which humans voluntarily use science as an expression, instead of denial of their identity. The show is careful to not fetishize or misrepresent identities, which is a further means of each character claiming ownership of their selfhood. The queer and trans individuals and relationships presented are not stereotypical, but complex and well rounded. As Cosima states: “My sexuality isn’t the most interesting thing about me.”[iii]

As much as they try to claim ownership of their bodies, religion, science, and government intrude on the clones – a clear metaphor of how these same institutions assert themselves in lives of biological females in our society. The clones and their allies are what SF author Lawrence Person might deem “classic cyberpunk characters,” marginalized and “on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life [is] impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”[iv] In the beginning of the show, the clones are unknowingly monitored by Dyad, which employs the clones’ intimate partners to covertly collect data and conduct experiments on them in their sleep. This twist shows how even trusted partners could be agents of oppression and deny loved ones consent. By scientific assaulting the clones, these monitors treat them as less-than-human objects of science. Dyad is also obsessed with Sarah’s reproductive organs and their unique ability to produce children (something that no other clone can do). This reflects contemporary reproductive rights battles. Instances abound of government, religious, and scientific/health organizations controlling women’s bodies, particularly through restricting access to reproductive health or even conducting involuntary sterilization.[v][vi] The clones’ choices as female or trans are considered secondary to institutional objectives and ideologies.

From a feminist perspective, it is significant that the writers give each clone agency. Even though they are consistently “tampered with” and under constant threat of extermination or imprisonment, the clones are not presented as victims. This flies in the face of widespread depictions (including in SF texts) of women as helpless and in need of male assistance to survive.[vii] Instead, the clones work together to regain a sense of ownership of their individual and collective bodies and identities. Pooling financial, intellectual, and strategic resources, the clones are unified by their biological similarities and collective threat.[viii] This can be read as a metaphor for sisterhood and feminist group organizing. The clones’ realization of the dangers they face and need to work together closely mirrors the Consciousness-Raising (C-R) groups championed by the National Women’s Liberation (NWL). NWL describes that C-R groups: “collect and analyze data (e.g. women’s life experiences). Get to the root of sexism–figure out who benefits and who pays. Understand that the pain and struggles in our lives are not our individual problems and we cannot solve them on our own. Take action (using C-R conclusions as the basis for our theory and strategy).”[ix] This maps exactly onto the actions and goals of the clones throughout the show. While Orphan Black takes place in a frightening world, it also presents a feminist utopia of sorts, with empowered women and allies standing together against oppressive religious, scientific, and government institutions and expectations.

 

 

 

[i] Rutledge, Gregory E. 2000. “Science Fiction and the Black Power/Arts Movements: The Transpositional Cosmology of Samuel R. Delany Jr.,” Extrapolation 41(2): 127-42. p. 129

[ii] Cobble, Dorothy Sue, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. First edition. Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. p.185

[iii] Manson, Graeme, and John Fawcett. Orphan Black. BBC America. Television. Season 2, Episode 2. 26 April 2014

[iv] Person, Lawrence. “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto.” 1998|. Web. http://cyberpunk.asia/cp_project.php?txt=27&lng=fr

[v] Cobble, Dorothy Sue, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. 114.

[vi] Ross, Julianne. “One Chart Shows All the Times Politicians Decided to Regulate Men’s Bodies in 2014.” Identities.Mic. Mic, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. <https://mic.com/articles/95402/one-chart-shows-all-the-times-politicians-decided-to-regulate-men-s-bodies-in-2014>.

[vii] Stankiewicz, J.M. & Rosselli, F. Sex Roles (2008) 58: 579. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9359-1

[viii] Manson, Graeme, and John Fawcett. Orphan Black. BBC America. Television. Season 1. March-June 2013.

[ix] “Feminist Consciousness-Raising.” National Women’s Liberation. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.womensliberation.org/priorities/feminist-consciousness-raising>.