Sunday, June 16, 2013

Orphan Black, Motherhood, and Humanity

The television series Orphan Black is about a lot of things: nature vs. nurture, science vs. religion, the concepts of identity, humanity, belonging, and individualism.  In that this is a story of a woman's quest to understand her existence as one of a group of genetic duplicates, it makes a certain amount of sense for these ideas to be explored.  However, Orphan Black also pays careful and close attention to one other fundamental meditation on life and birth: motherhood itself. To call it “attention” would actually be an understatement; Orphan Black not only populates its universe with devoted mothers and daughters, it almost sanctifies the construct, by placing it at emotional center.  This world, in which science and religion cannot be trusted, devotes itself to only one holy truth: motherhood.

Let’s start with the very first moments of the show.  We meet three people in a very brief amount of time: Sarah, and a mother and daughter on the train.  It’s the tiniest moment, to show a mom’s reproach of Sarah swearing in front of her daughter, but it communicates so much.  We assume Sarah’s not a mother, because she doesn’t behave like a mother might in front of children.  And we quickly learn that she is on the run.  Her decisions in the first episode are extreme, impulsive yet calculated.  She drinks soap!  She drinks soap as a method of escape!  She is in survival mode, backed into a corner, and reacting out of defense.  We don’t know this woman’s compass, because she’s not centered on it.  That is, until, we learn that Sarah in fact is a mother, and that seemingly incongruent identity is almost the only thing that defines her.

By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that Kira is designed to be Sarah’s compass, beating heart, and soul-tethered motivator.  More than running away, Sarah wants to have a life with Kira; Sarah wants to be a mother.  She prizes her motherhood over all else, even if it’s a role that might terrify her, or not quite seem to fit her.  So, every decision Sarah makes over the course of 10 episodes is both informed and directed by her relationship with Kira.  It’s everything.  She begins a character intent on running away, and becomes a character who stands and protects.  As she eventually tells Paul: "I don't do run."

Orphan Black takes this principle of Sarah’s protection of Kira, and uses it to codify motherhood on the show.  ‘Motherhood’ and ‘protection’ are practically synonymous, and are wielded together as the backbone to several characters and their actions.  They’re utilized as a motivating force not only for Sarah, but also for Mrs. S., Siobhán, Kira’s primary caretaker at story’s beginning and Sarah’s foster mother herself.  Mrs. S. is clearly defined as a mother of deep and enduring devotion.  She took in foster children in England, until it became imperative, as she was told, that she hide young Sarah further from her birth environment.  When that happened, Mrs. S. basically sacrificed, blindly, her entire livelihood for Sarah’s benefit, and moved them, with Felix, to Canada.  Currently, she protects Kira from Sarah herself, as Sarah skipped out for 10 months, and also from the potentially violent threat of Sarah’s clone associations.  Orphan Black makes it very clear that Mrs. S. is fundamental to the nurture and safety of her children, none of whom were born to her biologically.

In that Sarah was raised by a foster parent, the narrative comes with the built-in idea that there’s a duality of motherhood, tapping into the show’s theme of nature vs. nurture.  There’s Sarah’s birth mother, and there’s the woman who raised Sarah.  We actually get the chance to meet Sarah’s birth mother, Amelia, a woman who carried two babies for a couple before realizing she was being paid by scientists to incubate an experiment.  In an act of blind protection, she gave both babies over to higher institutions that might keep them safe from harm: one to the church, and one to the state.  The most important decision that this woman makes is framed entirely by her motivation of motherly sacrifice.  In this way, the concept of nature vs. nurture doesn’t quite fit the dichotomy between Amelia and Siobhán; they both contribute to the nurture of the children in their care.  Because of this, both mothers are held in high regard, as Orphan Black never ventures any stance in the definition of a “real” mother.  A mother is simply someone who cares for a child, and both Amelia and Siobhán qualify.

Not to go all T.Lo on your asses, but notice that these are the first and last appearances of Alison in Season 1.  In the first, she is actively fighting, and wearing a very saturate pink.  In the last, she is surrendering, and wearing a much less saturate pink.  The intensity of the color, like the fight, is drained out of her.

A third key character is defined strongly by fierce protection over her brood: Alison Hendrix, Sarah’s seeming foil.  Alison’s identity as a mother is wrapped up neatly in her original stereotype: “soccer mom.”  She is initially an obstacle for Sarah, as she attacks any perceived threat to her pack (her children, her family, her clone sisters).  Not one to sit idly when her family might be at risk, Alison’s protection almost always manifests in violence (often to hilarious and disturbing ends).  She demanded Beth teach her how to shoot a gun so she could keep her family safe; she maces and tasers Vic when he mistakenly harasses her; she tortures her own husband under suspicion that he might be monitoring her.  Alison goes to any length to protect her family, and at season’s end, she shows exactly that by signing away her identity for the sake of her family’s safety.  She says it herself early on: "My bottom line is my children can't know their mother is a freak."  Alison’s actions are almost always extreme, but we understand because the show codes her using motherhood as a motivating force, as it does with Sarah, Mrs. S., and Amelia.

But Orphan Black wields motherhood even beyond its role as a motivating force.  Motherhood is also defined as a connecting force.  Obviously, it connects the actual mothers with their own daughters.  But it’s more than this; it also connects mothers to other mothers, and mothers to non-mothers simply through an overwhelming plea for empathy.  Every ally that surrounds Sarah and Kira is devoted by virtue of Sarah’s devotion, whether mother or not.  Felix is practically a parent to Kira.  Paul risks his personal safety to keep Sarah safe.  Delphine keeps the knowledge of Kira hidden from Dr. Leekie.  Cosima blows up at the possibility that Delphine could have turned over the information.   Kira, as a child, a daughter, is at the center of a clutch of individuals ensuring no enemy breaks the line and threatens her security.

Of course, there are three other key figures in Kira’s protection, and all three are developed as core dynamics of season 1, entirely founded on the motherly connection.  The first is, naturally, Sarah and Mrs. S., as their rift is healed slowly with the understanding that they both put Kira as top priority.  Mrs. S. offers up as much information to Sarah as she knows about her identity, and Sarah refuses to lie to Mrs. S. about her involvement with the police, choosing to wait for the right time to introduce her foster mother into the fold.  After all, she’s already one of Kira’s sworn protectors; may as well give her all the information.  By the end of season 1, Sarah and Mrs. S.’s relationship is one of the more emotionally affecting, even though the narrative hints at Mrs. S. possibly being involved with Sarah’s creation.  Hopefully the writers choose to shade this association with mitigating circumstances, keeping Mrs. S. in her role as devoted mother and still fleshing her out as morally complicated.

The second key relationship connected by motherhood is one of the least likely: Sarah with Alison.  They may not be all that similar, but they are constructed on one very fundamental principle: protect the family, at all costs.  It is this idea that creates a bond between Sarah and Alison, that pushes them individually towards one another, and that serves as the backdrop for them to ally themselves to each other.  The story can be told in three simple steps: Sarah chooses to return Alison’s money, her ticket to freedom, to do right by Kira.  Then, Alison steps up to impersonate Sarah in front of Kira, and even goes further to earn Sarah the chance to reconnect with Kira.  And then, Sarah steps up in return, not so much by torturing Donnie for Alison, but for defending her to him when he lashes out at her.  It’s important to note, too, that Donnie’s attack of Alison is framed entirely by her femininity; he accuses her of “irrational nonsense,” then tells her to get her “frazzled, PMS shit together.”  The fact that Sarah immediately shuts that down and defends Alison specifically for her role as mother to the family is glorious, and a shining example of where this show centers its values.  Motherhood is sacred, and synonymous with protection.  The end.

The final crucial relationship bound by motherhood is actually the least likely, considering the murder and kidnap attempts: Sarah with Helena.  Sarah and Helena both feel a unique connection to one another which is explained with the knowledge that they shared a womb.  Thus, the concept of motherhood tethers them to one another biologically, and even extends further to Helena’s relationship with Kira.  Sarah and Kira become a fixation for Helena, as she was raised in the absence of motherly love.  She can’t go through with kidnapping Kira, choosing instead to disobey at the risk of personal abuse.  She treats the little girl almost as a sacred being, and this actually becomes a motivating force for Helena as well.  For better or for worse, both Sarah and Kira are connected to Helena through the idea of motherhood, and through Amelia herself.  Helena’s compass becomes directly tied to Sarah and Kira, and their relationship to her.

Thus, of the four main clones, Sarah and Alison are both understood individually in the narrative by their roles as mothers, as both a motivating force and connecting force between them.  Helena is also closely related to this concept, as she is motivated by her relationship with Sarah and Kira, and tethered to them both by the same token.  But Helena also exists, structurally, in conjunction with Cosima in their roles representing the institutions that Sarah and Alison, as mothers, often have to protect their families against.  The first, of course, is religion, personified by Helena.  And the second is science, personified by Cosima.

Religion and science are the closest things this show has to real villains, and Orphan Black smartly treats them not as inherently good or bad, but twisted to be good or bad based entirely on the human wielding the power of conviction.  It’s important to note that while Helena and Cosima represent their higher concepts, neither of them fall absolutely under that category.  Instead, they both are under threat of manipulation by the actual villains: Tomas, and Dr. Leekie, respectively.  Tomas holds power over Helena through contempt and abuse, disguised as protection and love.  Dr. Leekie uses Delphine, under the guise of protection and love, to gain access to Cosima.

What do these two villains, wielding a false promise of love, have in common?  Both represent larger social institutions, and both are aged white men of high standing.  This is no coincidence, because both science and religion are built with the power structure of patriarchy.  Orphan Black goes out of its way to find intentional similarities between the two seemingly juxtaposed constructs surrounding our heroines, and results in a narrative structure that reveals an underlying gender paradigm reinforcing the story.

Stick with me for a moment: many monotheistic religions, including Christianity, are founded on the principle that a god, a masculine entity, has the power to give life - something biologically feminine.  Similarly, the nature of Orphan Black’s science, “neolution,” hinges on the idea that nature can be defied to create a self-directed evolution.  In very basic terms, this is “womb envy” and “the God Complex,” respectively.  These concepts also tie in directly to the cloning project that gave life to Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena.  Both principles, spawned from science and religion, tether strongly to the masculine creation of life through “unnatural” means, proving capability - and power - greater than the supposed “sacred feminine" nature.

This specific choice creates a heavily gendered construct throughout the entirety of Orphan Black.  In choosing for their legion of clones to be women, and putting them at the hands of two patriarchies, the show is making a hard statement not only about the challenges of empowering the feminine in a masculine society, but also about the fundamental role of femininity in humanity.  After all, every clone struggles to assert herself as a “real” person, an individual human.  Sarah boldly declares, “there’s only one of me,” despite her genetic duplicates.  Alison, after purporting herself to be a horrible person, follows it up with a tragic, “I’m not even a real person.”  Helena’s entire worldview is constructed on the idea that the clones aren’t human at all, simply perversions of science.  Cosima’s research even results in the disheartening realization that the clones are identifiable by an ID tag, a series of numbers and letters.  The easiest way to revoke someone’s humanity is to reduce them to a number, and the reveal is gutwrenching.  These women are all technically property, designed to exist in this world only as the spoils of ownership.  Nothing about their identity, their humanity, their individualism, is truly their own.  The shadow of the patriarchy strives to deny them that, to monopolize the creation of life and stamp out the humanity resultant of it.

But Orphan Black denounces the idea that these women could be anything but human, as they stand together at the center of the story, protecting their daughters, their families, the sacred feminine in themselves and others.  It’s denounced by the virtue that we see every clone character in a full range of emotions, each demonstrating her own spectrum of varied characteristics and behaviors despite being genetically indistinguishable.  And it's denounced because of the emphasis placed on the the sacred humanizing power of motherhood that motivates and connects its female heroes.  The implication is that humanity is femininity.  In a world created by Father God and run by white men with god complexes, that's huge.  In effect, this show could be summarized with one simple description: mothers and daughters fighting against a patriarchy that aims to control their bodies.

So while Orphan Black delves into the scientific, religious, and philosophical implications of cloning as thematic explorations, there is only one emotional core to the show: the role of motherhood.  It is a motivating force, a connecting force, held sacred and synonymous with protection, femininity, and humanity itself.  It burgeons through characters, between characters, and in the overall construction of the show’s conflicts.  Orphan Black is about nature, nurture, DNA, birth, and life: so why wouldn't it also be, at its core, about mothers, women, and femininity?


  1. I just watched the entire season within 24 hours, so I love that you are writing about this! I thought it was awesome, and maybe the best new show i've seen in a while. It is a sci-fi show, but it seems to be focused on what makes a 'family' and what makes you an 'individual'. And wow, Tatiana Maslany for best actress and best supporting actress.... at the same freaking time. You easily forget that she is playing ALL the characters!

  2. I'm not understanding one small thing. If the show says that humanity is femininity, does it imply that masculinity is inherently inhuman?

    Because I am interested in watching this show, but I'm sick and tired of movies and shows that state that men are inherently villainous while women are inherently virtuous (neither is true).

    1. Nah, it's not that clear cut. The women are not all virtuous - in fact, I flat-out did not like Sarah (the main character) until episode 3, maybe, because her choices were really alienating. All of the main women make decisions that are super questionable under moral scrutiny. But I think the show challenges its audience to engage with these inherently flawed women who are struggling to assert themselves in a world that doesn't want them to.

      As for the men - individually, there are "good" men and "bad" men within the narrative, but they are identified as "good" or "bad" based on how they treat the women they're associated with. Felix, Sarah's foster brother, would do anything for her (include calling her out on her bullshit), and is portrayed really lovingly. Art, Beth's partner, goes to great lengths to protect her, and preserve the integrity of their partner relationship - to his own detriment. Paul, Beth's boyfriend, acts against orders to keep her safe from harm - again, at his own risk.

      The main difference is that the show's POV stands with the women, and the men are made meaningful or antagonistic based on their relationship to these women, and how they treat them. All of the characters, male or female, have flaws that manifest in real ways. And even antagonists who act against Sarah do so in an understandable way, given their place, values, and duty. There's a lot of gray area.

      Hope that helps! I would suggest you definitely check out the show, but if you're not into it by episode 3 or so, it may not be your cup of tea. Thanks for reading!

  3. wow, this essay is amazing, and very well on point, as a clone club member myself, i can only have good things to say about this article, the many subjects OB invite us to reflect are never endless. again, amazing article

  4. Awesome, insightful essay. I love that this is a fun, exciting show that is so narratively complex and yet can still stand up to such scrutiny and maintain such wonderfully rich characters. I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts about it here and in your reviews for the season two episodes!


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