Feminism and Orphan Black


Straight up? If you are a science fiction fan and aren’t watching the new BBC America show, you’re missing out.  It is not only one of the freshest and well-crafted sci-fi shows I’ve seen in years, it is also surprisingly one of the most feminist.

(Minor spoilers ahead)  For the uninitiated, the pilot starts out with Sarah, (played by the ridiculously talented Tatiana Maslany.)  Sarah is a pretty but hardened petty criminal waiting for a late night subway train.  She witnesses a suicide, and is shocked and confused to find that the dead girl is her doppelganger.

Being the anti-hero opportunist that she is, Sarah’s first instinct is to try to take this affluent, dead look-alike’s identity in order to drain her bank account.  Through a series of twists and turns Sarah realizes that she is in fact a clone, made for reasons not given yet.  There are in fact a dozen or so of “her”, some friends, some foes, all made of the same genetic material.

The show has just debuted its second season, and more pratfalls and twists await.  Although I watch the show for the cleverness of the plots and the well crafted acting, it also employs some interesting feminist aspects that adds to my enjoyment.


1.)   The Privilege Aspect –  Orphan Black  raises several thought provoking undertones about the aspects of sociology.  All the clones are beautiful, intelligent, and have impulsive tendencies.  But how they were raised morphs all of them into distinctly different personalities that raises questions about classism and internalized self respect.

There’s Allison, the tightly wound frustrated housewife.  Beth, the straight laced detective that solves crimes and upholds the law.  Cosima, the brilliant scientist grad student.  Last, there’s poor damaged Helena, so abused she is unable to function normally in society.

Theoretically they all have the brain power to obtain a PhD like Cosima, but she is the only one encouraged to take the academic route.  Sarah for instance uses her smarts as a low level grifter and scam artist.  As a woman raised in the foster system, she did not really have the temperament toward authority nor the opportunity to foster the traditional education route.

2.)Representation of GLBT Characters – Orphan Black has gay characters that don’t feel perfunctory or tokens.  There’s Felix, Sarah’s brother from foster care.  Felix is not only openly gay but he is a sometimes sex worker.  Sarah does not shame him or views him as less than for what he does for a living.  This is only one aspect of him as a young man and doesn’t define his role on the show.  Sarah and Felix alternate between love and frustration, a familiar dynamic to any sibling.  Felix is often funny, (and downright hysterical when paired with Soccer-Mom Allison) but his sexuality is never the butt of the joke.

 Cosima, the grad-school hipster clone mentioned above, is a lesbian.  This is never shown on screen to be a source of shame or pride, it’s just who she is.  Cosima’s lesbianism is never fetishized or unnecessarily focused upon as the main aspect of her character.  In short, she’s seen as a human being first, as most straight characters have been since TV began.

3.)    Female dominated cast. – Orphan Black passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.  The women are constantly interacting, at odds with, and supporting one another.  They rarely talk about their romantic relationships, there’s much more important things to do!  In fact, this show is almost a reversal on the Bechdel test.  Paul, Sarah’s love interest, is defined by Sarah.  Most of his conversations, actions, and motivations are based around his relationship.  It’s a flip on the standard formula and interesting to watch.

 4.)Bodily autonomy – I saved the most important for last.  The most striking symbolic theme for Sarah is an attempted control and ownership of her body by outside forces more powerful than she is.   She beats on ceaselessly against these forces, a boat against the current.  Spurred on by the soul deep belief that this is my body and it belongs to me.  You can’t get much more feminist than that.



Filed under feminism, pop culture

4 responses to “Feminism and Orphan Black

  1. Great piece. I LOVE this show for all those reasons and more. Maslany’s acting is amazing, and the show demonstrates that you can have lots of compelling, well-written female characters in a gripping story.

  2. Love this terrific show. The issues and themes of nature vs. nurture, religion vs. science, and autonomy over one’s own anatomy are so relevant to the real world.

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