“My Biology, My Decision”: Orphan Black and Character Agency

Orphan Black's Helena, handcuffed, eating doughnuts

[Spoilers for season one and two to follow, as well as discussion of dubious consent and pregnancy]

The clone characters in Orphan Black have been objectified—literally, their DNA sequence comes encoded with a patent, so from a business standpoint they’re all property. Seeing as all these women want to live their own lives and follow their own wants and agendas, this sparks a rebellious spirit among them, especially in Sarah Manning. As if it wasn’t enough that these ladies were all living in a world where women’s bodily autonomy is a constantly re-arising issue, now the problem has been thematically boosted by the terrible beauty of science fiction. Sarah’s reaction to learning she’s owned, of course, is to run away leaving the message “up yours”, which kind of speaks for what stance the story takes on such things.

Orphan Black begins with Sarah seeing a woman identical to herself commit suicide, from which point Sarah assumes her identity and plans to skitter off with a great chunk of her cash. What she quickly learns is that she’s embroiled herself in a biological conspiracy, and that she, her alter ego, and many other friendly and not-so-friendly faces along the way, are clones created as part of a genetic experiment. This is news, but it’s not as if Sarah walks into the kerfuffle and that’s what kicks it off—whether or not she knew it, she’s been part of this her whole life, and naturally discovering that her very conception was the result of someone messing around with science with little regard to her being is a bit of a kick to the gut.

This theme of lack of control manifests itself in all the characters and their storylines: Alison is pedantic (bordering on psychotic, and occasionally with murderous intent) about keeping her family together and the happy status quo she’s built for herself and her children remaining steadfast; Rachel, despite being The Pro Clone, clearly still feels used and craves power in all its forms (which is also part of her sexual behaviour, but we’ll get to the stuff with bodies in a moment); Cosima is in a constant battle to keep her research to herself and have the freedom to learn about her own biology when other people would clearly rather monitor and prod at her instead. And Helena, oh, dear Helena.

Sarah and Helena, mirroring each other

Our wayward “Angry Angel” clone is the best example of a character who has been used her entire life, moulded into a weapon by Tomas’ cycle of nurture and abuse and constant brainwashing that she was the original and thus should kill all of the other “abominations”. Even when she escapes from him, she ends up in the hands of another group that’s only interested in what she can do for them with her unique talents, which in this case turns out to be her ability to have children. I’m not sure if being reduced to a trigger finger or a womb is more horrifying, but the latter certainly made me much more uncomfortable.

Progressively throughout the second season, the fertility of the twins Sarah and Helena becomes more of a focal point, with more and more parties wanting to capitalise on this irregularity with very little regard to the wants of the human being that happens to possess these much-sought ovaries. As each other’s mirror image (a thematic thing I’m really interested in being developed, but that’s a discussion for later, perhaps), they both end up strapped to medical chairs of some description with their respective deceptively giving captors keen and ready to get their hands on their reproductive gear.

Helena ends up artificially impregnated (with her consent, but it’s clear she doesn’t entirely understand the process, and is obviously emotionally stunted to the point where she’s childlike) and Sarah ends up bracing for a group of surgeons to remove one of her ovaries so they can experiment on it, telling her blithely that they’re going to leave one because they’re looking forward to her bearing another baby soon (as if they didn’t have enough of a Human MacGuffin in Kira!). As each other’s mirror, they end up in that same situation where they are reduced from woman to reproductive system without their full consent, and as each other’s mirror, they end up escaping leaving a trail of wreckage. R.I.P. Prolethian farm, R.I.P. Rachel’s eye.

Sarah threatening Rachel

It’s a moment of triumph and a general stuck-out-tongue to the attitude that women should be reduced to their babymaking abilities, but in dealing with themes and scenarios like that you must be careful not to tread into the problematic territory of feeling the need to make their experience as terrible as possible to make the revenge more satisfying. It borders on this (though your mileage may vary, this is a topic that makes me incredibly uncomfortable so I’m side-eyeing it harshly), but for the most part, most importantly, though the other characters within the world of Orphan Black treat the clones as objects, the writing itself doesn’t, and gives them each their own human centre and agency and ability to want what they want and do what they will with it.

What it makes it, then, is a story about women—and I’m making this gender specific since we only just discovered and haven’t yet seen the perspective of the male clones—existing from the moment they’re created in a system that seeks to benefit from them, and a system that they constantly have to fight simply for the right to be happy and safe and in control of their lives and their bodies.

Which makes Rachel’s (again, incredibly uncomfortable) sex scene with Paul interesting, since it’s obviously part of her power trip and an act to reclaim her bodily autonomy after so many people (though not necessarily in a sexual context, but there are definitely enough undertones of it) have been violating and messing with it for her entire life. Even if, unlike the other clones, she’s been aware of what she is and has supposedly given in to being voluntarily tested, it doesn’t mean the system she’s in is one she agreed to.

Rachel, being smug

It’s simply the one she was born into, and the fact that a key part of her acceptance of it is passive-aggressively rising to the top of the food chain to glare at everyone else should tell you that it’s only a conditional peace. And the fact that she maintains that power by tormenting the other clones could be a metaphor for the way society encourages women to throw their fellows under the bus or even disown them to obtain positions of power, positions “above”.

Basically, every major character in this show is raging against their biology, whether it’s killing them like Cosima, or damning them to a life where other people are constantly interested in exploiting their sexual organs, or generally trapping them in a situation where they’re constantly at war with their personal identity. And in a social climate where the issue of women’s rights and biological freedom (think abortion laws, ingrained culture that ostracises rather than supports rape victims, to name a couple) I think that’s a really important story to tell.

The allegory is clear whatever issue you choose to apply it to—their entire lives, whether or not they knew of it, these women have been manipulated for the gain of other people simply because of what they are. The sci-fi element just ups the ante and unveils the point.

[Note: By pure coincidence (and a bit of “aw dang, they beat me to it”), Lady Geek Girl and Friends put up a great post on a similar subject as I was writing this. It’s a small world of similar ideas! I recommend you check it and its kind out as a companion piece]

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““My Biology, My Decision”: Orphan Black and Character Agency

  1. Pingback: The Importance of “Found Family” Stories | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: Case of the Monstrous Wannabe Mothers | The Afictionado

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