thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

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


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.


This is fairly basic feminism. Or should I say classic? Orphan Black testifies to the infusion of second wave feminism into our cultural consciousness. But the show exhibits virtually no concern over issues of race or ethnicity. The clones are molded as conventionally attractive white women and there is only one significant character of color—Beth’s partner, Art (Kevin Hanchard), whose race has little bearing on his character. Orphan Black also shows only a passing interest in issues of class, primarily through making fun of Alison’s bourgeois sensibilities and celebrating Sarah’s street smarts and pluck. The show thus nestles into its second-wave paradigm and hangs out there. Even with these prominent omissions, Orphan Black reminds me that it’s easy to ignore the structural power of patriarchy given how far we’ve come politically and culturally. Yet much like Freud’s theory of the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious aspects of our psyche, critiques of the power and prominence of patriarchy still have resonance even as we acknowledge their limitations and blind spots.

Orphan Black does engage with intersections between feminism and lesbian, gay, and queer issues, helping it to mingle second wave feminist assumptions with third wave sensibilities. One of the clones, Cosima, is a lesbian, another point of individuality between her and her “sisters.” Further, a prominent secondary character is Sarah’s foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). Often forced into the role of supportive, long-suffering gay “bestie”/brother, the show gives Felix enough meat to deepen him beyond this stereotype. *spoiler* The addition of a transgender clone in season 2 extends this engagement with GLBTQ representation. Through these characters, Orphan Black reveals how patriarchy polices gendered behavior as well as women’s bodies, a subjugation of all who don’t fit into its rigid sex and gender categories.



Orphan Black also emphasizes its feminist stance through the recurring theme of female procreation, including Dyad and the Proletheans’ obsession with controlling it. *spoiler* Most of the clones are barren, and engineered to be so as we discover in season 2. But Sarah has a young daughter so she’s both an extra source of fascination for Dyad and the Proletheans and a recurring monkey-wrench in their machinery. However, Orphan Black avoids veering into the “But think of the children!” territory that fetishizes motherhood and childbearing as another means of controlling women’s behavior. Instead, the show emphasizes that the evil lies not in the clones’ ability or inability to procreate biologically but in the control exercised by outside forces on their choice to procreate. This point is a major theme running through season 2, in particular, and highlights the show’s engagement with a woman’s (inherent, human) right to choose.

But here I am nattering on about feminism and I forgot to mention how fun Orphan Black is. It’s smart, thrilling, and surprising, with fascinating characters, twisty plots, and well-placed bits of comedy. There’s also much more you could tease out of it than its patriarchal symbolism. It’s not really even a “message” show, it just happens to use its science fiction premise to explore social realities. This in itself is not a new move for the genre. Science fiction generally functions as a thought experiment on humanity itself—what it means to be human now, what it might mean in the future. It has often been a testing ground for ideas about gender and sexuality as well. But Orphan Black puts its unique spin on this dialogue, representing core and contemporary feminist critiques through a science fiction lens.

Orphan Black is currently on hiatus between season 2 and season 3, set to air next spring. However, the first two seasons are very binge-worthy (I had to make myself slow down and savor) and can be bought through all the regular venues (Amazon, ITunes, etc.); season 1 is also streaming free for Amazon Prime members. And in honor of this smart, fascinating show, next week will be “Orphan Black Week” on GLG, with various posts dedicated to each of the clones. Happy watching!



  1. Reblogged this on A Million Ancient Bees and commented:

    New Post for Girls Like Giants.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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