As far as feminism goes, Orphan Black is a clear advocate. Creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson never, “set out to do a show that managed to encompass a massive spectrum of feminist themes,” — according to them, it just sort of happened. For a show that was never intended to have these feminist connections, it certainly has the female identity at its core. Born with the ‘60s with a revival of feminism, feminist literary criticism was born — mainly as another facet or branch of the women’s movement. Essentially, it gave rise to the realization that female portrayals in books, literature, and other media were, in fact, very influential. Feminist criticism challenges conventional gender roles and analyzes the gender-power structure in modern society.
Orphan Black relates to the feminist voice in a variety of ways. One of the issues with the entertainment industry rests in one simple statement — there aren’t women women in movies or television, and when there are…they are generally flat, static, stereotypical versions of what a girl should be.
The Bechdel test, popularized in the ‘80s by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, tackles female representation in popular media. To pass, the piece must have these three requirements: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The entire LOTR trilogy fails, unsurprisingly (thanks Tolkien). Also, the original Star Wars trilogy, Avatar, The Avengers, etc. Most of these are blockbusters or movies with a major following — so most people are watching films that can’t pass these basic requirements.
But, it’s not all the guy’s fault. It’s a culture problem. The Hurt Locker, Lords of Dogtown, Shrek — all female directed, all failed the Bechdel test.
Orphan Black is the champion of the Bechdel test. It is unapologetically female-centered. In fact, most male characters are treated as secondary, supporting characters — passing the reverse Bechdel test as well. There’s a decent amount of articles available that revel in this. Jessica Roake even saying, “Orphan Black’s straight men are among the stupidest and least riveting fictional creatures to populate the modern television landscape.” And that’s a good thing, she claims.
The role reversal is quite refreshing to see, however I’d argue differently. Felix, Paul, Dr. Leekie, Donnie, Rudy, Mark, Art, Professor Duncan — these aren’t flat characters, they are deeply complex. In a show like this, having ‘stupid’ or ‘static’ characters is honestly impossible — the complexities of the mythology and relationships of the show give each character certain motives and secrets. So, although the females certainly take the lead, I would disagree that the men are boring or static. And I wouldn’t necessarily celebrate any inequality on any show, male or female — simply because, that’s not what feminism is about.
Near the end of Season 1, Paul is captured by neolutionist, body-modder, resident misogynist and (for those who don’t remember) the creepy guy with the tail, Olivier Duval. At this point, Paul knows of the Sarah-playing-Beth situation. Although, Paul’s motives are constantly evolving as the show goes on, for the moment, he is on Sarah’s side — warning her that Olivier knows of her impersonating antics. Rather than running away from the danger, Sarah does what Sarah does…she confronts the danger with her a version of her classic, crazy, twisted, somehow-always-works-wonderfully plan. Helena cuts of Olivier’s tail and Sarah rescues Paul.
In terms of feminist criticism, this scene really shows a great example of gender role reversal. Now, Paul is the damsel in distress. How often have we seen some helpless, whiny girl saved just in time by the hyper masculine dude with lots of guns and stuff? Yes, many. Luckily, Sarah doesn’t listen to anyone — including Paul, who told her to save herself. Sorry, Paul you can’t always save the girl, sometimes…they save you.
Paul: I told you to run.
Sarah: Yeah, I don’t do run.
Next scene up is a personal favorite. In the Season 2 opener, Sarah-as-Cosima infiltrates a fancy Dyad party and attacks pro-clone Rachel Duncan in hopes of getting Kira’s location. Orphan Black contains major themes of bodily autonomy and the ownership of the female body (very relevant issue today). Dyad represents the corporate entity which controls the clones’ biology. Most of the series is really about taking back that ownership from corporate interests or military interests or religious interests and so on. Sarah leads this reckless and rebellious charge against the male-dominated factions which maintain power over the sestras’ bodies and lives.
In the scene, she goes into Rachel’s office armed, demanding information about Kira’s whereabouts. Rachel genuinely doesn’t know. Sarah doesn’t care. She fires a warning shot after Rachel smugly says, “You won’t shoot me.” Rachel doesn’t know Sarah very well. Then Sarah jumps on Rachel, pressing the muzzle of the pistol against her cheek saying, “You don’t own us.”
Sarah is a rebel in the purest sense, which makes her a perfect fit for a YA heroine. Dyad assumes ownership (remember they even have a copyright) over the women — controlling the reproduction of more clones, the monitoring of the current clones, and (as we learn) the life of their ‘experiments.’ Apparently, they had a similar experiment in Helsinki and when things got out of hand, they simply called in a cleaner, Ferdinand, to kill them all.
Around this time Sarah is really beginning to understand and accept the extent of her sisterhood, the network of genetic identicals with whom she shares deep biological, familial, and even spiritual connections. In this scene, we see the her rebellion and her protectiveness in an incredibly visceral way.
The sheer diversity of the women on the show is commendable. The idea is that — no, not one clone is the same, they are all independent, autonomous beings with different lifestyles, personalities, sexualities, and potentially even genders (see Tony Sawicki). Utterly shattering the flat-one-dimensional-typical female character to pieces! Bravo, Orphan Black. Female roles in entertainment are often too limiting — just some girly, ditzy, helpless cosmetology school dropout (sorry Krystal). There’s an entire myriad of things you could be: a Ph. D Evo Devo student, a soccer mom/school trustee/drug dealer/soap maker, an occasionally homicidal Ukrainian with twins on the way, or — yes, even a cosmetologist with a tendency to overshare (Krystal). Point is, women can be everything and anything or nothing of one thing and everything of this or that, etc. Orphan Black continually shows the incredible ranges of the female (gosh! can you believe it?!).
Paul: There’s nine of you.
Sarah: — No, there’s only one of me.
Sarcasm aside, the show really takes the depth of their female characters to a brilliant (and realistic) level. Sarah Manning, of course, being at the heart of it. A genuine feminist YA heroine, Sarah takes the cake — constantly stickin’ it to ‘the man’ (sometimes literally).