Orphan Black: The Feminist Show We Need?

Not so long ago, I stumbled upon an excellent post about how to make a non-sexist show, from the blog The Cutprice Guignol.  The post lays out some of the major elements needed to truly make a feminist-worthy tv show.

One of my favorite shows is Orphan Black, a sc-fi show, created by John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, starring Tatiana Maslany. This show is slowly (finally!) starting to gain attention and has many of these elements.

Warning! Spoilers ahead. If you plan on watching the show, then I recommend going and watching it, then coming back here. I repeat, do NOT read this post if you haven’t watched the show yet and don’t want it ruined for you.

Set in a city that’s Canadian-like, the first episode opens with Sarah Manning (aka Tatiana Maslany) who has returned to reclaim her daughter and reunite with her foster brother. Unfortunately, her plans don’t go so well when her foster mother refuses to let Sarah take her daughter Kira. First, Sarah must prove that she is ready to be a real mother. Soon after, Sarah witnesses a woman commit suicide by jumping off a train, leaving behind her personal belongings. Weirdly enough, the woman looks just like her, but with a much better life. Sarah assumes her identity and inadvertently discovers that she’s one of many clones with a complicated history. The series first aired in March 2013 and has been getting better and better ever since.

sarah and felix

Here is Orphan Black’s answer to a non-sexist show:

1. Have You Presented Either Gender’s Sexuality as Dangerous, Manipulative or Deceptive?

This show has come a long way since Season One. In the first season, Sarah, posing as Beth, seduces Paul to distract him from becoming suspicious of her, as Beth. However, later on, she develops an attraction to him, which creates a confusing love/hate relationship with Paul. He’s working for the enemy, but also cares about her. It makes them both more human. Sarah isn’t just using her sexuality to continue to deceive Paul. Even though they were strangers at first, through Paul’s intimacy with Beth, he and Sarah grow close.

After Rachel’s monitor is killed, Paul replaces him as her monitor and lover. In Season 2, we witness them having sex, while Helena is attempting to assassinate Rachel. Not only is this scene intense and so well orchestrated, but it shows this primal side of Rachel. She uses her sexuality to control Paul. Yes, it is manipulative, but this is entirely what Rachel’s character is comprised of. She uses people to her advantage to benefit herself first and then the DYAD Institute. She has been raised in an environment where she is aware of her use as a scientific experiment. This makes her cold, clinical and narcissistic. Everything about Rachel is calculated. The only vulnerable side we see is when she is with her father, Ethan Duncan. However, because they show other views of sexual expression, besides Rachel’s it’s slightly more acceptable.

2. Are All Genders Being Paid the Same Respect?

The cast of OB is mostly female, which is a nice change from the regular all-male cast we usually see in mainstream media. All of the clones have their own conflicts and ideas. Sarah wants to repair the relationship with her daughter, Kira, who she left with her own adopted mother, Mrs. S. She also wants to help protect her sisters and her brother, Felix. Cosima wants to help protect her sisters from the DYAD Institute and the  Proletheans. At the same time, she’s intensely interested in learning more about the clones’ DNA, both to understand her identity and as a scientist. Alison, reluctantly, is willing to help her sisters, but, above all, values her family. Helena, the “evil” clone, is trying to fulfill her mission of destroying the clones who are (she believes) copies of herself. Tatiana Maslany does an incredibly job in the role of Helena, managing to make her completely terrifying at times, while endearing and hilarious at other points.


Felix, Sarah’s adopted brother, is an an artist and partner-in-crime to Sarah. With most of the focus on Sarah and her sisters, this doesn’t leave much room for character development for him. He has his moments, like when he leaves Sarah with Cal, Kira’s father, because he feels as if there isn’t any place there for him. He is learning to separate himself from Sarah, as much as he can, despite her complicated life. However, I do think there is more that could be explored here, such as how he creates a life for himself, outside of Sarah.

Art, Beth’s partner, is completely skipped over. Here, the show definitely fails. He is purely used to push the plot forward. His divorce is mentioned one or two times, but he appears less and less as the seasons go on, which is disappointing because he is one of the few people of the color in the show.


3. Are Your Relying Entirely on Stereotype for Characters of One Gender

This show excels in not giving into stereotypes. Cosima is an unique character. She is one of the few queer characters on the show, who doesn’t fall into a stereotype. She’s smart, but sexual. Nerdy, but not socially inept. She appreciates her body chemistry not only because it helps her understand herself but also, because she appreciates the science of it all. She is looking for love and finds it (in all the wrong places). But, she is as she says, “more than her sexuality.”


One of my favorite moments in Season 3, was the introduction of Krystal. At first glance, she appears to be a dumb blonde, who is tricked by a male clone, who murders her boyfriend. She is traumatized, but returns to her life as a nail technician. However, we learn more about her when Felix goes to meet her and attempt to steal her bank information. She reveals that she is investigating what happened to her. It’s clear from the way she speaks about it, that she understands something strange was going on. She is more perceptive than we think, not just some Valley girl.

4. Are You Disproportionally Representing One Gender as Overtly Sexualized

Despite this show being made up of mostly women, they are not as sexualized as they could be. Cosima and Delphine fall for each other, but the show focuses on their complicated relationship, rather than the sex. Sarah is easily the most sexualized character. She has sex with Paul out of deceit, then love. She also sleeps with Kira’s father when they are reunited.

Rachel is definitely sexualized; from her outfits to the way she controls her monitors through sex. I see this more as a part of her character than of objectifying her though. She owns her sexuality and uses it.

We often see Felix’s bare ass, but these moments are not so much sexual as him just hanging out at home, painting. It’s where is he most comfortable and proves that nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.

5. Are You Giving One Gender Power By Taking It Away From The Other One?

Ultimately, no. The show does a good job of creating characters of both genders with powerful characters and strong dynamics. I think that often, Sarah uses some of the men in her life to get ahead. She relies on Felix to help her with whatever plan she has. Often this gets him into trouble, like when he winds up in jail, falsely accused of murder or is harassed by Vic, Sarah’s ex. It makes Felix seem a little bit of a weak character at times, which I think the show could improve on. He has such a strong personality that it just doesn’t fit.

Bonus points: The show later introduces a trans clone, Tony. Tony’s character is complicated and multi-faceted, which makes him so much more than a character that the show creators stuck in for diversity’s sake. Here’s hoping they bring him back!


You can watch Orphan Black on BBC America, Itunes, Amazon, Google Play and On Demand. Season 1-3 is also available on DVD.




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