Orphan Black and the Female Body

[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.


  1. Nialla says

    An interesting bit about that intense scene where Sarah is being barraged with questions at DYAD is it’s not completely scripted. The actor asking questions was given a list to ask, but Tatiana Maslany came up with the answers. Due to her choices as an actress, we find out that Sarah had been pregnant at least one other time besides with Kira, but had an abortion. You rarely see abortion mentioned on TV shows, but since the clone situation is allowing for exploration female body autonomy, it seems like good place to mention a sometimes difficult topic, even if it wasn’t explored at the time. I imagine that would make Rachel even more upset knowing that Sarah managed to get pregnant twice when she too was intended to be “barren by design”.

    I know at least one other scene was not scripted, the one where Helena gets her revenge on the Prolethean sect leader who took her eggs without her fully understanding what was happening and thus not able to truly consent. She really does not understand reproduction at all due to being raised by a religious order who viewed her as an abomination, but she is fiercely protective of children due to her own experiences.

    I think the writers are showing their confidence in Maslany’s acting choices by letting her have a lot more input into her multiple characters. I’ve read that co-creator Graeme Manson would collaborate with Maslany on each clone, deciding on their back story, parentage, and upbringing. I’ve heard so many actors talk about how the writer’s room keeps their door locked, or might listen, but rarely take their input into the script. It’s refreshing to see a different attitude, and I think it makes the show that much better.

    • SunlessNick says

      The actor asking questions was given a list to ask, but Tatiana Maslany came up with the answers.

      Really? I had no idea about that. That’s excellent, both on the writers’ and Maslany’s accounts.

      Sarah had been pregnant at least one other time besides with Kira, but had an abortion.

      I liked that Sarah has had an abortion, because the whole setup of the scene leaves it inextricably counted among the things she doesn’t deserve to be questioned or hurt or humilated over.

  2. says

    I can’t add much to your wonderful article, Nick, or Nialla’s exciting info on the behind the scenes, but I will say this: for me, the most powerful line of S2 is when Helena tells Gracie, who’s been implanted against her will with embryos comprised of the genes of Helena and Gracie’s father, “If you don’t want to have my babies, don’t have my babies.”

    Here is a woman raised in a convent saying not only that a woman has a right to abort her own fetus, but also “my babies.” It’s one of the strongest statements I’ve ever heard about the autonomy of a woman’s body. Helena recognizes that life without choice isn’t really life at all – preserving a fetus for a choiceless life is not anything to be proud of. Gracie already had no choice in being impregnated – a situation more common in reality than the American hard right wants people to think – so Helena is offering her the only choice left, essentially saying she would rather someone not bear her babies at all than be forced to carry them to term against her will.

    That is “pro-life.”

    • SunlessNick says

      That is “pro-life.”

      And powerfully so.

      Gracie’s an important character, because she’s not one of the clones, but is abused by the same people for much the same purposes. She removes any possible illusion that the story is a speculative musing on bioethics – the abuse is not of clones but of women.

      • says

        She removes any possible illusion that the story is a speculative musing on bioethics – the abuse is not of clones but of women.

        And it will be interesting to find out in S3 what the military wants the male clones for. The obvious guess is: to use them in warfare. It could simply be that you could lose all the clones you want in reckless operations without anyone complaining. Or it could be the military intends to program them to be superior soldiers in some ways.

        Either way, I think it’s likely to become even more obvious that the metaphor here is not bioethics or even eugenics, but human beings owning other human beings outright, to the extent of breeding them like cattle. And, as with slavery in the antebellum US, the desire to own other humans is largely about profit and economy.

        • SunlessNick says

          I’m not very enthusiastic about the male clones, because these issues affect women far more than men – though the military establishment has potential both as a sphere where men are affected too, and/or/but for the male clones to end up as part of the problem. Or both.

  3. Cheryl says

    I’m late to the party, but I just got caught up on S2.

    The way the Prolethians led by Johansen treated Helena really grabbed my attention and stuck with me. She was revered for her genes and fertility, never valued as a person. If she’d been infertile, she would have been considered worthless and left to Tomas’ “mercies”. Women in that branch of the sect were broodmares and their value and worth were judged almost entirely by how many children they produced after they began their period. It’s not hard to see parallels to certain religiously-motivated groups in the real world and the influence they’ve had on US lawmaking and politics, which is scary as hell. Where is the First Amendment when you need it?

    I’m looking forward to finding out more about Project Castor.

    • SunlessNick says

      It’s not hard to see parallels to certain religiously-motivated groups in the real world

      More than anything, they remind me of the Quiverfull movement.

      • Cheryl says

        They definitely crossed my mind. In a general sense, I see the Prolethians as representative of all groups in the real world that want to limit/control access to contraception and/or abortion.

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