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


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.

-Brian stated in his post on Beth Childs that Sarah is a survivor. This is true. Raised an orphan by a woman with ties to an IRA-esque revolutionary group, Sarah contains a highly-honed ability for self preservation. Whether she’s faking her death to escape her abusive boyfriend, Vic, seducing Beth’s boyfriend in order to distract him, or jamming rebar into the gut of a knife wielding assassin, Sarah does what she has to do to stay on top of the situation.

-Sarah is unabashedly working class. She appears visibly more comfortable and herself when wearing her punk clothes than Beth’s business casual separates. She and Felix both mock Alison’s bourgeois sensibilities and Cosima’s higher ed intellectualism. And no wonder from a woman raised by an Irish revolutionary. Sarah refuses to sugarcoat the grimness of the world.

-She shags some hot, hot guys. Okay, Vic is a loser who’s most often played for laughs. But then Sarah kicks her penchant for bad boys up a notch, making it with hot, hot Paul, the compromised ex-military contractor blackmailed by Dyad to “monitor” Beth. Then Sarah trades up again, reconnecting with hot, hot Cal, the morally stable, legally dubious, off-the-grid hippy hacker guy. Orphan Black does not emphasize romantic relationships yet the building love triangle between Sarah, Cal, and Paul is minor enough not to be irritating and interesting enough to be intriguing and fun.


-Sarah matures when she’s forced to mature, and begins to take seriously her role as Kira’s mother once Kira is in danger. Kira’s safety in Mrs. S.’s care enabled Sarah to pretend concern about her daughter while continuing to bang through her own chaotic life. But when put in a situation where she must care about and care for others than herself, not only Kira but also Mrs. S., Felix, and her clone sisters, Sarah finds wells of strength within herself even she did not know existed.

-Sarah is loyal. She does not give out her allegiance easily but once someone has it, they have an ally for life. In particular, it takes time for the bond between Sarah and Helena to build from one of antagonism to fierce loyalty but watching that development stands as one of the show’s great and fascinating pleasures. Woe to anyone who messes with these sisters.

-Last, Sarah has an amazing brother in Felix, aka “Fee,” and, indeed, inspires loyalty in a host of admirable people. We opted to focus this series only on the clones and thus are not including a “How to Be Awesome Like Felix” post even though he easily merits a full discussion. Orphan Black emphasizes Felix’s flamboyance and eccentricity as a means to then highlight his savvy and stability. Fee is Sarah’s rock, and Kira’s too, and later Alison’s and Helena’s and Cosima’s as well. He is the sister-brother we all wish we could have, and an amazing balance to Sarah’s perpetual crises.

Sarah and Felix … sexuall charged.

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