I have a new TV obsession and I’ve got it BAD. Orphan Black is a new show on BBC America that just finished up its first season, and I’m already ripping my hair out waiting for the next one (which doesn’t come out until next spring. Uncool BBC, uncool). If you aren’t watching it, then a.SPOILER ALERT and b.start watching it. Right now. Go to your TV/computer, find it and watch it. Back? Ok. Good.
The most fascinating things to me about Orphan Black are the themes of owning your body, identity, and patent law. Today I’d like to explore some of the themes about ownership of body, and how the show provides some extremely interesting and insightful commentary on women’s bodies and liberation. The whole premise of the show is that there are a handful (possibly more?) of women who find out that their bodies and their lives are not what they think: they are actually clones who are being monitored by a scientific project. All of these clones are female, and over the course of the first season they begin to come together and find ways to fight back against whatever forces are trying to influence their lives or take ownership over them. There are clearly parallels between this clearly sci fi world and some of the forces that women feel in their lives every day. I’d like to explore how women’s experiences of becoming self-aware of oppression and then fighting back against that oppression parallel the experiences of the clones.
1.Our lives are not our own: we’re viewed as property even when we don’t know it.
There is a parallel between the existence of the clones, and the everyday existence of women. We are viewed as property and treated as property even when we don’t know it. The clones are watched and used by scientists as test subjects, as objects to understand. Similarly, many women today are watched and used by men or corporations or other sexist and oppressive forces. They are the subject of the male gaze, which reduces them to a sexual object rather than a scientific one. However in both cases, our bodies are being used for something without our consent, and often without our knowledge.
2.We often don’t understand how we could be property, and try to act as if we are not.
Very often it seems like a foreign concept to us that someone could own us or have power over our bodies that we don’t. It seems unfathomable that we wouldn’t know everything about who owns our bodies. But we are rarely the ones who hold the power or the knowledge, and are often left trying to make the best decision possible in bad circumstances.
In the case of the clones, they had no idea that there could be a patent written into their genes: this seems impossible. And so they made their choices as if the option to walk away and ignore Leaky actually existed. When they finally discover that they don’t have the autonomy they thought they did, they have to try to come to grips with the limited choices they have, and they do their best to create new options that allow them more freedom.
In a similar way, I think that few women grow up fully aware of the sexist culture that we live in. Girls may grow up not knowing that their father thinks of them as a possession, or they may have a boyfriend and not realize that the boyfriend is possessive. Many times women and girls simply take it for granted that they’re expected to care for others without much in return. They don’t realize the danger we all live in of having our bodies violated, abused, or possessed in ways we don’t like.
When someone becomes aware of these dangers, of the way that women’s bodies are rarely their own, the way that they’re expected to be beautiful for public viewing, conform to certain stereotypes, be available for sex in the appropriate fashion, etc. it can be a jarring and painful experience. Sometimes it comes in the circumstance of rape or other violence. And when this becomes part of one’s awareness, you have to try to build new choices that create autonomy for you, just as the clones did. Discussing ownership of women’s bodies head on often gets dismissed as “overreacting” or the “feminazis”. It’s hard for many people to accept that we don’t have full ownership over our bodies. However Orphan Black takes a more subtle approach and decides to act out a kind of thought experiment on what it might literally be like to not own your body. Through this lens, it can explore the reactions and defense mechanisms of the women involved. Hopefully it will help some people take feelings of disenfranchisement more seriously.
3.This show illustrates clearly how a “feminine” impulse towards nurturing or family can be channeled into strength and identity, as well as how it can be used to try to subvert those forces that might push us into societally defined identities.
An interesting element of this show is that while it looks at how women’s bodies are used for purposes that aren’t their own, it seems to pinpoint reproductive freedom as the base of Sarah’s independence (and in some ways as Allison’s motivations for trying to get her life back). Kira is her rock, her reason for living, the thing that was all hers until she found out about the patent. In many ways this seems to be metaphorical for how women’s reproductive systems are co-opted for purposes they don’t want (e.g. lack of access to abortion/being forced to carry baby of rapist), when in reality it should be the thing that we are most in control over. However even while it mirrors that lack of power that women have, it also illustrates how the maternal impulse, and some of the “feminine” traits of the women portrayed can be the most powerful and give the most strength.
It shows that when women want to take control of their bodies, that often means taking control of their families as well, and that this means cutting themselves off from toxic people (Vic) and taking independent control of their lives. Interestingly, it also means deciding where they want to build their family: for Sarah this involves trusting Felix, and for Allison this involves trusting Donnie. When you take back some power over your body, you seem to gain the power to decide for yourself who you want in your life, where you want to be, and who you want to be around. You may still make mistakes in trusting the wrong people (like Allison), but at least you are consciously making decisions about what’s best for you. Allison took steps to protect herself and her family, and while they were wrong because more information had been kept from her, her children and her family were her motivation, and her self-awareness made her able to stand up.
This show illustrates the power of bringing together a variety of traits and reclaiming things that may traditionally have been “feminine” or weak to fight against things that are harming you, as well as how the bonds of a mother to a child can be powerful. I’m uncertain as to whether this enforces a kind of gender essentialism, but we’ll see how it plays out.
4.The best part of this show is how the women whose identities are not their own come together to understand their situation and to take steps to rectify it.
The clones rely on each other, the people who are in the same oppressive situation that they are to build clearer identities and to take control of their situation. The most strength that the clones have is when they come together. Each one has a variety of talents and insights, and they contribute to each other’s well being. Interesting, Helena is the most destructive force in the show yet, illustrating that a break in the solidarity can absolutely destroy a coalition. Because each of these women are going through similar experiences, by talking to each other they begin to understand who they are. They don’t get much help from those who aren’t clones, not even those who supposedly have the “answers”. Those people who have experienced either being clones or giving birth to clones seem to have the best understanding of who each clone is. In the real life of women, it’s often important to talk to someone else with similar experiences to your own. Men can obviously help form solidarity and help you understand your identity, but there is something about being around those coming from a similar place and experiencing the same things that can be extremely beneficial to understanding those experiences. People who are living oppressed lives, banding together that creates more strength than anything else I can imagine. This show in my mind embodies some of the ideal ways of fighting oppression.
5.Unfortunately at the end of the day, no matter what they do, the game is rigged.
The big reveal at the end of season 1 shows that their DNA is patented: everything they do, their offspring, all of it belongs to someone else. Metaphorically, this speaks strongly to the state of women today, particularly the idea that a woman’s children don’t belong to her and that her body does not belong to her. Our game is rigged. No matter how talented we are, how intelligent we are, how independent we are, in all likelihood we will have far more difficulties succeeding than men will, and someone will want to put us in our place. There is a high likelihood that we will face sexual assault. There is a high likelihood that our ability to have children will be held against us in the workplace, and that our choice to have a family may be held against us. Again, we may feel that we have choices, but our choices are constrained.
6.The surrogate mothers are an interesting element as well and one that I would like to see more of: their bodies were used to perpetrate a kind of violence on others (the lives of the clones and their status as property is a kind of violence in my mind), and their “children” were taken away from them without their consent. They didn’t have the choice to continue or end the pregnancy or of what to do with the children afterwards. In many ways, women in this world have no choice but to bring their children into a world of violence and oppression. Especially with baby girls, when the girl is born she begins to become public property. She doesn’t belong to the mother, or to herself. Society takes ownership of her body. The pain that Amelia felt, and her desperation to protect her children appear to be similar to what many women feel when they bring their children into a world where their bodies may be used or objectified.
If you’ve been watching Orphan Black what are your thoughts? How do you see the interplay of gender, identity, and ownership?