[Full dislosure – this has been edited a little since I first posted it – partly to clean up some turns of phrase, and also to correct my omission of the dance party]
I imagine most people reading will already know what Orphan Black is… The story of a group of women – all played by Tatiana Maslany in a truly astonishing feat of acting – who discover they’re the subjects of an experiment in human cloning. It’s the story of their search for their origins, their developing relationships with each other, and their struggles against those who seek variously to own, study, exploit, and exterminate them.
Which makes it, ultimately, a story of women fighting for control over their lives, their identities, and their very bodies. A fight that, in the real world too, women face every day.
Threats to the clones are quick in coming. From a religious sect that sees them as unclean. From a corporation that sees them as property. From a scientific movement that sees them as experiments. From a world that allows these forces to move and act freely while surrounding the clones with endless obstacles. And most inescapably of all, from the patent coded into their DNA, a mark of ownership branded into every cell of their bodies. At the end of season 1, when it gets out that one of the normally-infertile clones, Sarah, has a daughter – and another, Helena, may also be able to have children – the potential for reproduction becomes the focus of ever more intensive and invasive attempts to control them. The local leader of the Prolethean sect decides the new way for Helena to redeem her body is to give up her eggs for fertilisation. The Dyad corporation is relentless in its attempts to get a hold of Sarah and her daughter, in the hopes of using them to extend the clone line, and studying them to discover how the other clones might be made fertile too.
Orphan Black presents a world where the clones are surrounded by forces looking to lay claim to their bodies and biology. Where their value is calculated according to their usefulness in reproducing. Where those who abuse them are sometimes too powerful to be fought, and the only choice is the level of surrender each clone is willing to accept. It’s a world that treats them as cruelly as any Westeros or Special Victims New York.
So what makes this any different from Game of Thrones, or Special Victims Unit, or any of the myriad other shows that chew up women’s bodies for the sake of drama? Well, Deborah Pless said it best (though she was talking about Veronica Mars at the time): rape is always personal. While the clones aren’t raped, exactly, they are subjected to almost every other sort of bodily violation. But these violations aren’t there just to foster a general sense of brutality – though they do. They aren’t there to tell us that the perpetrators are bad – though they do that too. Instead, it’s all about the clones themselves: how they react and how they resist, why they resist or why they don’t, what it means to them and where they draw the strength to keep going.
It’s a point made over and over throughout the series – in Sarah’s assertion of identity, “There’s only one of me, just like there was only one of Beth” – in Cosima’s anger when her lover Delphine, desperate to save her from a worsening illness, keeps secrets and makes medical decisions behind her back – in the silent breakdown behind the eyes of Dyad clone Rachel Duncan when she’s told she’s “barren by design” – and culminating in the climactic episode of season 2, where in response to her daughter’s kidnapping, Sarah surrenders to the Dyad institute. In a harrowing scene, Sarah is stripped down to her underwear, and subjected to a medical examination and a barrage of questions about her sexual health and history. The Dyad techs are completely indifferent to her pain and humiliation – to them, she’s not a person, just data for them to sift through. But to the camera’s eye, they’re the faceless ones – we mostly see them as hands reaching into the frame, while Sarah’s interrogator is only visible as a close-up of his mouth – even the details of the room are obscured. The result is a scene where Sarah is the absolute and only focus. There’s nowhere to look except at her, and no way to process anything except through her.
That’s one culmination, anyway. There’s another, at the other end of the emotional spectrum. Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Helena together for the first time. They’ve been fighting for control of their bodies all season – and at some point along the way, each of them has lost – and they know they’ll have to do it again. But for a little while they’re free. So they put on a reggae track and dance. They use their bodies for themselves, revel in them, and in each other.
Orphan Black does on the fictional screen what is being increasingly lost from the political discourse about bodily and reproductive rights: it recognises the women at the centre of the issue; their lives, their identities, their humanity, their reality. It’s a recognition that all too few fictional shows bother with – and that is resisted by the so-called pro-life side in the real world. Because only when women are reduced to abstractions can it make sense for a woman’s body to be seen as anything but hers alone, for decisions about it to be seen as anything but hers to make, or for the potential life of a foetus to be held up as equal to her real and actual life.