It's no coincidence that the first clones are women on Orphan Black.
On the series, the female body is a battleground, with the women literally reduced to objects. The more easily controlled or useful the clones' bodies are (read: able to be reproduced), the more they're worth to the government-supported scientists and religious fanatics who continuously lay claim to Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) and the rest of Clone Club.
At a time when issues surrounding women's bodies and reproductive rights are not just debated, but frequently taken out of women's hands — more often than not, by the government or religious fanatics (sound familiar?) — this is an increasingly relevant discussion to be had. The fact that it's playing out on a sci-fi drama on BBC America is far from surprising. Science-fiction has always been reflective of fears currently plaguing society. And by encasing these issues within the trappings of a sci-fi action-thriller, Orphan Black exposes its viewers to radically feminist views without scaring anyone away with the 'F' word.
But unlike a lot of what passes for TV feminism, the show's not just about women being confident or comfortable in their own skin. It's about reaffirming that their skin, their body, and their decisions are theirs to control. This is the battle all women in America are living with right now, whether they realize it or not. I'm not saying I'm too worried about someone owning my DNA, but I am exhausted by people exerting their own values and opinions onto my body. That's why it's such a thrill to see the women of Orphan Black reaffirm their agency and fight back against the system, without the series ever resorting to gratuitous sex and nudity (I'm looking at you Game of Thrones).
No one so directly expresses these concerns as Cosima, who definitively stated last week, "This is my lab, my body. I'm the science," when she discovered Delphine, a supposed ally, had stripped her of her agency regarding the true origin of the stem cells. Questions surrounding Cos' autonomy have been building all season as she struggles to maintain control over even her own body. As Cos becomes progressively dependent on finding a cure, the Dyad Institute is more than happy to exploit her illness, increasingly reducing her to a medical marvel on which to experiment.
With Helena, the theme of men laying claim to women's bodies erupts in a disturbingly literal fashion. After being recaptured by the Proletheans, the sect's leader Henrik forcibly impregnates her and removes her eggs. In the end, Helena decides to willingly return to the Proletheans and carry the child herself. It's a bittersweet decision, but a sadly understandable one. Helena has been so egregiously dehumanized since birth that she's now willing to compromise everything simply to become a religious cult's broodmare. In her eyes, pregnancy is the closest she'll get to what she's always wanted but was taught she never deserved: a chance to feel human and to have value in society.
These two examples only scratch the surface of the horror the clones have endured throughout the less than two seasons of Orphan Black. Each member of the Clone Club is repeatedly subjected to gendered violence and dehumanization. And though they share the same DNA, each clone leverages her unique strengths as a means of fighting back. Too often in television, female characters are reduced to one-dimensional archetypes, barely distinguishable from one another, while in the real world, women are subjected to sweeping and insulting generalizations. By making its heroes clones, Orphan Black forces the viewer to recognize that though women might share a lot in common genetically, every woman is a distinctively complex individual. In fact, by highlighting the differences between the clones, Orphan Black demonstrates how crucial environment can be in shaping individuals and — especially in the case of Helena — the importance of shaping an environment that actively supports women, rather than degrades them.
But despite their starkly different upbringings and personalities, every member of the Clone Club shares an incredible capacity for independent capability. Sarah, Alison and Cosima are each extremely self-reliant, while remaining aware that consequences of their actions reverberate throughout the group. Even when a clone's decision has negative effects on the rest, their support of each other never wavers. Rather than tearing each other down, the Clone Club draws strength from one another. What makes this so important is the fact that they don't need one another to succeed. Yes, it's hard to imagine where they'd be now without Cosima's smarts, Sarah's fearlessness or Alison's... Alison-ness, but the show still gives the impression that, united or divided, the clones are survivors above all else.
It's refreshingly empowering and incredibly subversive to see a series — or any popular media, really — triumph female strength without resorting to the ya-ya sisterhood of female solidarity. So often, Hollywood's use of female camaraderie gives the impression that individual women are not worthy of attention or capable on their own. Take, for example, this Hollywood Reporter cover. Can you imagine male actors being asked to earnestly fawn over each other like this for a photo shoot? It would immediately be classified within the realm of parody. But as Orphan Black demonstrates, women don't need to band together to be strong or deserving, nor must they be the stereotypical lone wolf Strong Female Character. It's when strong women recognize and appreciate each other's strengths without erasing their own individuality that the exceptional occurs. Sadly, this isn't always enough.
As many women know from personal experience, it doesn't matter how independent you are. It doesn't matter how smart you are. It doesn't even matter how connected you are. The game is rigged to begin with to ensure that even the strongest women are subject to having their bodies re-purposed without their consent. Which is why even as much of an antagonist as Rachel is, I can't help but empathize with her.
Rachel poses the greatest threat to the clones — far more so than the Proletheans or Leekie. While Dyad lives in service to science and the Proletheans to their religion, Rachel only serves herself. She's constantly exerting her own autonomy, dominating Paul sexually and taking Leekie's fate in her hands rather than following Marion's orders. Yet despite all this, it doesn't change the fact that Rachel remains an object. No matter how high in the ranks she rises, Rachel cannot escape the degrading patent embedded in her genetic code which subjects her to the same repressive control as the other clones.
So while Rachel may be the only worthy adversary to the clones, it's clear she's not the show's real Big Bad. The heir to that particular throne still remains a mystery (though the mysterious Marion is a contender). Instead, the clones are left to mainly face off against chauvinistic, one-dimensional bullies, who seem to get in the way more than truly intimidate.
Though the majority of the villains are men, Orphan Black is not the story of women vs. men. (Even Helena, who represents the most radical form of feminism, sweetly dubs Felix "brother sestra.") Instead, Orphan Black is about women vs. the system. While the men are nothing more than empty suits, the misogynist system they're a part of gives them power. Leekie's idea to reduce women to man-made synthetic wombs, Duncan's project of creating an endless supply of "little girls," Henrik's religious rape — these ideas, not the men, are the real threats. And since the men who run these projects have wealth and institution on their side, they are able to provide real road blacks to the clones, even though the women are far more intelligent and proficient.
This is why Orphan Black is not just a show women should watch nor just a show feminists should watch. It's a show everyone should watch for the simple reason that it allows us a means to explore these issues in a safe space. More often than not, when these topics are directly tackled in the public sphere, they're met with instinctual defensiveness (see: #YesAllMen). But by exploring them through the proxy of a television show, Orphan Black allows viewers to gain perspective on the issues and understand that, while #YesAllWomen are not clones, #YesAllWomen have struggled with these issues and it's past time to face this.
Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 9/8c on BBC America.
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