thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to Be Awesome Like Helena

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 27, 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.” Today, we have guest contributor Bethany Jacobs writing on the deliciously diabolical, chillingly childlike Helena.

Guest Contributor Bethany Jacobs

*spoilers throughout!*

Aspiring to be like Helena is not for the faint of heart. And I’m not referring to having the stomach for getting shanked by rebar, cutting off tails, and sniper-busting a half dozen faces that LOOK JUST LIKE YOURS. All this ferocity is as much a symptom of Helena’s systemic brainwashing as any inherent badassery, and let’s be honest—nobody wants to be the Helena who has suffered horrific psychological and physical abuse by the religious zealots in Orphan Black known as Proletheans. Or at least no one should want to be that Helena, though to each her own. But there is a profound appeal to this rogue clone, and I submit that a great deal of it comes down to her being one of the fiercest, slyest, and most unapologetic people in contemporary television—and that’s saying something given her sisters are grifters, cops, murderous housewives and sexy-ass scientists of the genius persuasion (among other persuasions that I particularly enjoy).

But I can’t be the only one who thinks that Helena is somehow bigger than the other clones, right? Even as she rocks the same feline muscularity of her sisters, she’s got a hugeness to her that stresses once again Tatiana Maslany’s incredible skill at bringing multiple distinct characters to life. Helena is a body, a presence, all her own. Is it her ravenous appetite? Is it the jacket and combat boots and hair? Is it her shrieking, discordant electronica theme, declaring everything that is discordant and horrific about Helena herself? But her larger-than-life presence coupled with an insanely violent streak shouldn’t fool anyone into missing the complexity of that same theme, which builds a haunting melody out of chimes, percussion, piano and eletronica magic. This is no simple soundtrack. Sarah Manning’s quasi-affectionate nickname for the Ukrainian assassin is “Meathead” (“Do not call me this,” Helena always retorts). It’s charming, but inaccurate. Though she is eccentric, and single-minded—a walking blunt-force trauma—Helena is also intelligent enough to lead the Toronto police on a fruitless cat-and-mouse chase. She’s a brilliant tracker and strategist. That she is even remotely functional given what she has endured throughout her life, that she has a moral compass apart from Prolethean teachings, speaks to a strength of character that beautifully complements her physical power and vigilante skills.

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What is most compelling to me about Helena is not that she can terrorize and fight and destroy her enemies; what compels me is her struggle for agency and her belief in her own humanity and value. Her motivations, shall we say. I’m not referring to the motivation behind her various assassinations or her conscription into religious zealotry. Helena starts out doing evil things for evil people, but as circumstances slowly deliver her from that evil, Orphan Black viewers discover a vulnerability and righteousness in Helena that is her own. She wants family, and loyalty, and love. What she wants is truly innocent, in a way that has nothing to do with sexual purity or church-sanctioned behaviors, but everything to do with protecting what is right and beautiful to her. Take, for example, her connection with her niece Kira, who repeatedly serves as a moral compass for the series. Kira senses Helena’s goodness even when the other clones have written her off as a lunatic. Kira reveals Helena’s tenderness and goodness by the simple act of not fearing this woman that Orphan Black would seem to demand that we fear.

Of course, using an affinity to children to demonstrate the humanity of questionable characters is an old tactic in literature and TV (Dexter Morgan, anyone? Silas Marner?), but in Helena’s case she is not simply a defender of children. She is child-like herself. That appetite of hers is particularly drawn to sugar packets and powdered donuts. She sings loud and off-key and without knowing the words and without giving a damn. She burps and farts and when she dances, it has all the manic energy of a three-year-old who has just discovered Katy Perry. It is hilarious to watch uptight Alison get nervous in the face of that energy. It is moving to see Cosima hug her and call her beautiful. It is terrifying to see her whisked away by Castor thugs at the end of Season 2, but exhilarating to know that those boys have no idea what they’re dealing with, and she will illuminate them shortly.

Indeed, lest anyone mistake me for wanting to reduce the violent, cunning terror of Helena to a sweet, well-intentioned girl-child, let me be clear: it is Helena’s very combination of vulnerability and horror that makes her so profound. It is because she falls helplessly in love with a sweet country boy and beats the crap out of his redneck acquaintances all in one sitting that makes her a refreshing retort to binaries of good/bad, innocent/lusty, fragile/powerful female tropes  in pop culture. But no one can really be awesome like Helena. In her, the show creators and Tatiana Maslany have created someone unique. As Sarah Manning furiously declares, “There’s only one of me.” There’s only one Helena, too. Respect.

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Bethany Jacobs is a postdoctoral fellow in English at the University of Oregon. She specializes in contemporary literature, maternal studies, and binge-watching television series. She is an amateur theorist of all things profound and mundane. She has a huge crush on Cosima Niehaus, which her fiancé endures.

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