Fandom Fixes: Don’t over-dude it, “Orphan Black”

 
 
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Orphan Black is the TV embodiment of modern feminism’s bloody, dirty, infinite battle against the relentless, deep-pocketed claws of the patriarchy, a show awash with commentary about the way women’s bodies are claimed and commercialized and dissected by corporations and governments and religions and individual men. Beth is subjected to medical testing by her army-employed boyfriend in her sleep; Helena is kidnapped, raped, and treated as an incubator by a religious cult; Sarah is forced to sign away her literal ovary to a multinational medical corporation; Cosima is used as bait for her more “useful” sister and niece. The very DNA of the women on this show is patented. They were created by men, for men, like some kind of modern day Eves, and these Adams will go to any lengths to keep their ownership over these women.

Orphan Black is also the TV embodiment of the modern LGBT community’s most perplexing question: Are we born this way? It takes that Pride anthem and flips it on its head, offering up clones created from the exact same DNA who have completely different ideas about sexuality and gender. “Sexuality is a spectrum,” Delphine says in season one, after finding herself attracted to Cosima. “But social biases codify sexual attraction, contrary to the biological facts.” And that certainly seems to be Cosima’s take on it as well. She’s attracted to who she’s attracted to. “It’s the least interesting thing about me,” she says.

And then there’s Tony, who was intended by his “creators” to be a woman but who ultimately identified and decided to express/present himself as a man. Like Cosmia, he doesn’t feel like his defining attribute is what’s happening between his legs.

Was Cosima born with same-gender attraction, and if yes, why are the other clones all in relationships with men? Was Tony born as a man, and if yes, why do all the other clones identify as female? Are gender and sexuality encoded into our genes, or influenced by our environments? Are they a combination of those things and so much more? And does it really matter how we’re born? Doesn’t it matter more who we grow to be?

"Orphan Black" Ep 206 Day 7Photo: Jan Thijs 2013

Orphan Black is also showcase for Tatiana Maslany, a once-in-a-generation talent whose skill as an actor is seemingly endless. She plays every main character on the show, and every main character on the show is completely different. The way they walk, the way they talk; the way they hold their heads, their hands; their posture. All the clones make different faces, even though they literally have the exact same face. She can act opposite of herself and make you laugh, she can act opposite of herself and make you cry, she can act opposite of three of herselves and make you dance, dance, dance. She is one of the only things on television that actually has to be seen to be believed. She is a singular talent. She is a marvel.

Those three things, when added together, make Orphan Black the most unique (and one of the most uniquely rewarding shows) in TV history—so why (oh why!) did it close out its second season by adding a male clone to the mix?

Let’s back up for a second. The thing that made Orphan Black‘s first season one of the best rookie seasons ever was the character work, the idea that all of these women who looked the same and were created from the same DNA could be so very different. And the exploration of society’s murky feelings about female agency.

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Sure there was the thread of who? and why? pulling us along toward the finale, but it felt more like a nudge moving us to the next act only because we couldn’t stop gawking at how great Maslany was in the previous act. Season two also featured some deep, exciting character development—Helena, especially, was remarkable; Rachel was shockingly layered—but instead of gently prodding us to focus on the overarching theme of the season, the show jerked us up and down and back and forth on goose chases that became increasingly impossible to follow. And, most bizarrely, no one in the audience really wanted to follow them.

Who do you know that would rather duck and dodge around with DYAD conspiracy theories than watch the clones have a sleepover/dance party? No one, that’s who.

And those problematic elements converged into a potentially enormous issue when Mark was revealed as a clone from Project Castor, the brother test group of Project Leda. Everyone I have spoken with gave that scene a pronounced side-eye, not because it’s nonsensical (Leda did birth boy/girl twins to both Zeus and her human husband, after all), but because it felt like a threat to the high-stakes conversation the show has been having about feminism, sexuality, gender, and the politics of female identity. It felt like a promise that season three would be less about the characters we’ve grown to adore and more about expanding the mythology of the shadows behind the cloning. And also because more boy clones means less Maslany clones, and that is a worse punishment than being bedazzled and drugged in rehab like some kind of Vick the Dick.

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Orphan Black has one of the smartest, most engaged fandoms on the internet and the common consensus seems to be that the show needs to be very careful about how it chooses to include the new male clones going forward. It needs to be done sparingly, unobtrusively, with an eye toward continuing the feminist themes at its core, and without taking attention away from the show’s soul (and the reason Tumblr exists), which is of course: Tatiana Maslany’s face.

 
 

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