thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to Be Awesome Like Cosima Niehaus

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 28, 2014 at 7:32 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.” Today our second guest contributor, Larissa Ennis, describes the multi-faceted stability of Cosima Niehaus, the brainiest clone and the one all of our writers wish they’d gotten to before Larissa called dibs.

Guest Contributor Larissa M. Ennis

We are introduced to Cosima in season 1, episode 2 “Instinct.” Cosima is introduced moments after the German clone Katja Obinger is murdered in front of Sarah-playing-Beth Childs. The disembodied voice over Beth’s cellphone demanding that Sarah/Beth find the German’s briefcase snaps Sarah back to reality as she reels from Katja’s murder, the revelation of another look-alike, and her near miss with a sniper’s bullet.

While to Sarah the woman on the phone is simply a mysterious voice assuming she is Beth, to the audience the voice promises that Beth and Katja aren’t the only “twins” (which Sarah is calling her multiple doppelgangers at the moment); there are more clones to come. Late in the episode, Sarah tracks down Allison, who reveals Cosima and the truth about who—or what—they are.

I must confess I find Cosima the most relatable of the clones. In season 1, Cosima Niehaus is a PhD student studying developmental evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota; in season 2, she pits her brains against the corporate brawn of the Dyad Corporation and goes to work for them, a double-agent out in the open, as Aldous Leekie knows that having a happy clone researcher will get him a lot more results than no clone researcher at all.

While Alison and Sarah can pass for one another, or the departed Beth (and do) quite easily, Cosima has a style all her own, an eclectic fashion sense that helps set her apart. She doesn’t skimp on the eyeliner, a liquid black shaped into a vintage cat eye. She wears awesome black-rimmed glasses, slightly hipster but definitely intellectual; her clothes are a hodge-podge of thrift store finds, and her hair… The hair.

Cosima’s hair is almost impossibly cool, thick and black and shaped into awesome dreadlocks, which she wears back perpetually. But while she often slips into California slang, using “dude” liberally, her hair never seems to approach embarrassing white-girl-with-dreads territory.

More substantively, Cosima is the most self-actualized of the clones. She is unapologetically herself—a scientist, a lesbian, a founding member of Clone Club. While we don’t know much about Cosima’s backstory, she does not need to somehow make amends for a shady past, the way Sarah does; nor does she suffer from the suburban housewife syndrome that renders Allison brittle and unstable.

Cosima is, in a way, zen; she takes things as they come, she lives in the present, and she moves on from past slights. She goes after what she wants, accepting a position with Dyad at the end of season 1 despite its potential to compromise her objectivity as she searches for the reasons for Project Leda and the opposition of the Proletheans. Cosima advocates for her own needs, even when it might piss off those in power, as in when she walks to the space that will become her lab at Dyad, and immediately begins giving orders for equipment, imagining how the space will be optimally used to further her research agenda.

While she has some quirky mannerisms, Cosima occupies space with confidence and self-assuredness, a striking difference from the other clones (and yet another testament to the incredible em-bodiment that actress Tatiana Maslany undertakes). Sarah moves through the world like a stealthy cat, a physicality no doubt honed by years on the con; Alison vibrates in place like a tightly wound spring, her nervous tics (touching her hair, crossing her arms, setting her chin in one hand and raising her perfectly plucked eyebrows) betraying an insecurity that underlies her brash prima-donna hauteur; and Helena twists and jerks through space like a marionette with a few broken strings. Cosima, however, moves through space like an energetic but graceful puppy, quick in act as in thought, but lacking the self-doubt or wariness of her clone sisters who have been burned one too many times by life. Thus Cosima has a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, and a belief that she has a right to occupy space, a silent but important staking of a feminist claim.

In terms of work-life balance, Cosima again has a healthier grasp on having her own needs met than the other members of Clone Club. She always makes time in her schedule for “chilling out”—taking a break (enabled by kind herb) from her high-powered cognitive calisthenics. She pursues a relationship with Delphine, knowing all along that Delphine is likely her observer on behalf of the Dyad Corporation. When her lover does indeed turn out to be her handler, Cosima listens to her gut: initially she holds Delphine at arm’s length, but eventually lets Delphine prove herself. Cosima has faith that love is a stronger force than the desire for power, and knows herself well enough to trust others, again an uncommon and subtlely feminist statement.

In season 2, Cosima’s narrative is taken over by her illness, which dampens her energy and changes the way she occupies space but does not fundamentally change who she is at heart: the Clone Club den mother, both making space for each clone to be herself and acting as peacekeeper when tempers flare, as they inevitably do. She convinces Sarah and Alison to give Helena a chance rather than reacting with fear when they discover that Helena is the sniper who killed Katja; she tempers Alison’s uptightness and Sarah’s tendency to act or speak before thinking. The den mother/big sister/peacekeeper to the other clones, the superego reminding them all of their shared responsibility to each other.

“We are your biological imperative,” Cosima exhorts Sarah early in season 1, and this is Cosima’s fundamental role: to further the common good, to remind each other we’re not in this thing alone, to act with faith and good humor towards a future where we all possess true sovereignty and bodily autonomy, and to remember the importance and power of love and compassion when they are drowned out by fear.


Larissa M. Ennis earned a PhD in film studies at University of Oregon. She is currently a program manager at UO Academic Extension, managing operations for Cinema Pacific Film Festival, coordinating online credit programming, and managing a variety of non-credit programs. She counts as her cinematic heroes both Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, and has been known to yell out “I am Final Girl!” while running through a haunted corn maze.

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