The Unique Gender Dynamics of Orphan Black

A sharp-tongued, morally questionable con-woman steps out onto a train platform to a sight that seems both strange and familiar at the same time: a mirror image of herself, who promptly commits suicide by walking in front of a train. Over the course of the first season of Orphan Black, we accompany Sarah Manning as she uncovers a scientific conspiracy involving illegal human cloning and dangerous corporate entities. The brilliant, Emmy-winning Tatiana Maslany plays over nine clone “sisters” with different personalities, accents, and backstories (and hairstyles).

Orphan Black examines the deeply personal effects of modern, socio-politically motivated technology on one’s identity and autonomy. The unique presentation of the relationship between gender and technology purposefully reverses the traditionally male-dominated science fiction tale, and thus, is able explore deeper thematic narratives involving womanhood and politics.

The first season of Orphan Black reveals the destructive effects of technology in the lives of multiple individuals, taking place in a society not too dissimilar from our own. Sarah, the show’s main protagonist, grew up believing she was an orphan. Completely unbeknownst to her, Sarah’s entire life has been shaped by the technology that created her. In an even more tragic instance, Beth, unable to live with her cloned reality, decides to commit suicide. Orphan Black emphasizes the relationship between society and technology by making one a direct recipient of the others’ actions.

We discover soon enough that the social construction of technology has had dehumanizing effects on its subjects, resulting in their lack of autonomy. The heavily implied consequences for the real world create a compelling, eye-opening hour of television.

However, instead of focusing solely on the science fiction tropes of cloning and evil scientists, Orphan Black explores the many ways that women are manipulated and policed by others, especially by gender politics and those in power. Women in science fiction and fantasy stories are almost never portrayed as the narrative center of a story; they simply react to events initiated by others. Orphan Black turns this idea on its head: the clones fight against their pre-destined storylines in order to become the architects of their own lives. This is best illustrated when Cosima, another clone, finds a patent statement in her DNA that reads: “This organism and derivative genetic material is restricted intellectual property.”

It becomes clear that the clones are nothing but trademarked products to the scientists that created them. However, the show continually proves that statement wrong – with the help of one another, the clone sisters reject the decisions that scientists have made for their bodies and assert control in their lives.

Orphan Black utilizes the strength of Tatiana Maslany’s acting abilities to explore the multiplicity of a woman’s experience. At the outset of the series, we discover that despite all of the main characters being clones, they each have individual identities so complex and well-acted that it’s easy to forget that they’re all played by one actress. Sarah is a careless hustler who, at the same time, is an astute, empathetic character who cares deeply for her young daughter. Meanwhile, Alison (another clone!) is initially portrayed as a suburban soccer mom – who eventually confronts her darker insecurities.

As a result, the show argues that a modern woman cannot be defined by a singular hero, but rather by multiple. The technological nature by which these characters are born are ultimately eclipsed by the intricate, human ways in which the clones have developed their own identities.