thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to Be Awesome Like Sarah Manning

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 26, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” Next up, Sarah S. on Sarah Manning, the complicated central protagonist of Orphan Black.

Sarah S.

Even though each of the clone characters on Orphan Black is played by Tatiana Maslany, Sarah Manning is the chief protagonist. Even when you realize you’re watching an “Alison” episode or a “Helena” episode, these plots always run alongside the main narrative centered around Sarah.

As viewers, Sarah is our entrée into the Orphan Black universe. Unlike her “sisters” Cosima, Alison, Beth, and even Helena, Sarah does not know what she is and so we discover the details alongside her. She is our touchstone for the entire narrative of clones, monitors, the corporate Dyad group, and the zealous Proletheans.

Sarah also develops substantially throughout the series. She begins a cynical grifter, only too willing to steal a dead woman’s life and enlist her long-suffering brother, Felix, into her schemes. Her reasons for these actions are ostensibly venerable: she wants to reconnect with her daughter, Kira, and escape her violent, druggy boyfriend. Yet the likelihood that she will succeed in these goals remains dubious. If Sarah really wanted to parent Kira, she would be parenting her, not leaving Kira with the woman who raised Felix and Sarah, Mrs. S. Her shadowy origins have made Sarah rootless, shiftless, untrusting, and untrustworthy. No wonder Felix rolls his eyes and Mrs. S. vows not to relinquish Kira.

But everything changes once Sarah finds herself not only assuming the identity of a cop who could be her identical twin but also discovering that she’s one of several clones. Most notably, when the going gets hard, Sarah cowgirls up. So here is how to be awesome like Sarah Manning.

How to Be Awesome Like Beth Childs

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television, Uncategorized on August 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

Beth cast photo

Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” First up, Brian Psi on Beth Childs, the clone who exists almost entirely in inscrutable past tense.

Brian Psi

The clones of Orphan Black are haunted by the ghosts of those who have died before their time, sisters who our characters will never come to know, and whose fates they may come to share. In the first season, Katja is a warning to the others of their propensity towards sickness, and is killed by the assassin that will soon be targeting the others. In the second, it is Jennifer Fitzsimmons, whose harrowing video diaries prior to her death amplify our concern for Cosima, who is suffering from the same rare respiratory ailment.

I’d like to focus on Detective Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Childs, the show’s ur-ghost, whose death in the pre-credits sequence of the very first episode is the show’s primal scene, its great moment of uncanny, existential ‘WTF-did-I-just-see?’.

The pilot episode of Orphan Black is titled “Natural Selection” after Darwin’s mechanism by which the smartest, strongest, and swiftest pass on their legacy, while the slowest and slightest do not. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ Its very first scene stages the only encounter between Sarah Manning and Beth Childs. Both of them are upset—Sarah about her inability to see her daughter, Beth about pain that we do not learn about until much later. While Sarah huffily paces the train terminal walkway, Beth ritualistically removes her shoes, jacket, and purse, leaving them in a neat stack. Turning to see her double Sarah staring at her, Beth abruptly walks in front of the train that she has come to kill herself with. Sarah is horrified, but not so stunned that her survival instincts leave her. She grabs Beth’s purse and flees.

Beth strips herself of self by leaving shoes, coat, and purse. By picking up this purse, with its photo ID and credit cards and police badge, Sarah impersonates or perhaps becomes Beth. She is for several episodes called Beth by people—Beth’s partner Art, her fiancé and observer Paul, his handlers, the other members of Clone Club—who don’t realize that they are separate people. Sarah lives in Beth’s apartment, works Beth’s job, sleeps with Beth’s fiancé… lives Beth’s life until it becomes too burdensome for her, and she, too, is forced to give it up (in this case, by confessing to Clone Club, to Paul, and to Art).

It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!: Orphan Black and the Mainstreaming of Feminism

In body politics, feminism, gender, spoilers, Television, TV, Women's health on August 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

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Sarah S.

The Canadian television series Orphan Black begs the question, what if the future really is now? Its central protagonist is Sarah Manning, a British ex-pat, orphan, and grifter whose life changes forever when she sees a woman commit suicide in the subway. The catch? The woman turns out to be Beth Childs, a New York City police detective who looks exactly like Sarah. Given their shared appearance, Sarah decides to assume Beth’s identity and discovers in the process that Beth is not a long lost sister or cousin but that Beth and Sarah are two of several clones. A group of them is only just discovering this truth about themselves, or to use the parlance of the scientists who created them, becoming “self-aware.” The plot thickens as Sarah learns that Beth is under review by her department for shooting a civilian and someone is systematically murdering the clones. In short, Sarah’s life gets very, very complicated very, very quickly.

In many ways, Orphan Black seems like a classic science fiction plot—science is run amok, humans pay the consequences. But wrapped inside this broad perspective is a representation of patriarchy’s effects on women’s lives. Despite their shared genetics, Orphan Black emphasizes the personality differences between the clones, from uptight soccer mom Alison, to brilliant scientist Cosima, to mad, traumatized Helena. (I should note here the mesmerizing performance of Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the clones; she makes you believe each one is a distinct person.) Despite the characters’s individuality, they find themselves equally subject to exterior forces that deem them less than human and therefore able to be owned, manipulated, and objectified.

Two social institutions vie for control of the clones: corporate science and religion. Specifically, the Dyad institute, who took over the clone research and monitors the women in secret, and the Proletheans, a zealot sect that believes the clones flout God’s creative power. For both of these organizations, the clones exist to be controlled and forced to adhere to each group’s worldview. But by emphasizing the humanity and individuality of these women, Orphan Black makes viewers emotionally reject this premise, siding with the clones over the forces that seek to control them. Thus Orphan Black sets up Dyad and the Proletheans as metaphorical stand-ins for the patriarchy, blindly pursuing its own power at the expense of women’s independence and self-actualization.

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