thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

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.

How to Be Brave: The “Divergent” Method

In dystopian literature, feminism, YA on August 15, 2014 at 7:57 am

Sarah Todd

Too many girls grow up learning that they should be afraid to live in the world. Female action heroes offer us a different vision. When Ripley punches a slobbering alien queen, we see what it’s like to fight back. When Buffy defeats a pack of vampires with witticisms and a series of neatly executed roundhouse kicks, we can imagine our own unlikely victories. When Katniss aims her arrow at a shimmering window in a force field and lets it fly, it seems possible that we too can take oppressive systems down.

Inspiring as these characters are, their heroism can seem a little inaccessible–their ferocity inborn and therefore difficult to reproduce. Ripley is already a tough, no-nonsense warrant officer when she encounters her first slimy spider-creature. Buffy has the physical strength and superb fighting skills necessary for taking on the Hellmouth. Katniss has a rebellious spirit, fleet feet and perfect aim long before she enters the Hunger Games arena.

But for many real-world women, being brave takes practice. After all, women aren’t wrong to be afraid sometimes; the world really can be a dangerous place, and fear can be a life-saving instinct. But our culture is wrong to instill fear in women and then stop there, encouraging us to stay at home with all the lights on rather than empowering us to try to make the world safer for everyone.

That latter possibility forms the core of Divergent, a young adult film starring Shailene Woodley and based on a popular dystopian trilogy by Veronica Roth. The story—a blander, declawed version of the Hunger Games—isn’t going to set anybody’s world on fire. That said, I’ve read the whole series and expect to see all the movies. This is not because they are actually good, but because I’ve yet to encounter another story that engages so directly with the idea of a young woman who teaches herself courage.

Divergent is set in a bombed-out future version of Chicago that’s walled off from all that lies beyond city limits. Society is divided into six factions, according to the quality most prized by each. The Erudite are smarties in lab coats, while people in Candor are honest enough to tell them that lab coats are really unflattering. Abnegation members practice the art of selflessness; Amity types are peace-loving hippies. And then there’s Dauntless—a group of people who pride themselves on being brave, and will do pretty much whatever dumb thing to prove their mettle.

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