Twenty-first century Americans are fascinated with stories featuring bodies that blur the boundaries between self and other. Collectives frighten us. We recoil before the canyons filled with human batteries in The Matrix; we run from the herds of hungry zombies in The Walking Dead, and we shudder before the seas of cloned storm troopers in Star Wars. In these reiterative hellscapes, there’s no space for the “I” we’ve come to treasure and that our culture urges us to continually redefine. Perhaps not surprisingly—and with the powerful exception of Ripley in the Aliens films—it’s male protagonists who are forced to carve out their own identities from these hives of anonymity.
Our worry isn’t new. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared that “society is everywhere in conspiracy against the manhood of its members.” In our current fantasies, society is comprised of aliens or clones, but the basic conflict remains the same: the lone man must carve out his space from among the rapacious masses.
It’s no accident that we tend to see male protagonists fighting this battle. Our culture has always had a hard time understanding what women’s lives say about individuality. Pregnancy, since America’s earliest “seduction novel” bestsellers, has invited imaginative slippage between private and public, between past and future, and perhaps most provokingly, between self and other. Women’s capacity for reproduction raised vexing problems for the founders who sought to imagine a citizen as an unencumbered, freestanding subject, and it continues to raise problems in a society that cannot seem to make peace with the boundaries that pregnancy inevitably transgresses.
Orphan Black draws upon both old and new stories of a frighteningly replicable self. The show began with Sarah, a female protagonist who, in line with some of our most beloved antiheroes, is busily building (?) her individuality in high definition, one terrible choice at a time. For Mad Men’s Don Draper and True Detective’s Marty Hart, those choices involved dalliances with an endless array of seemingly interchangeable brunettes. For Sarah, they involve a penchant for practicing her con-artistry on an array of largely indistinguishable suckers. She’s a woman, but at least at first, she’s fully enacting the role of the alienated male antihero.
Almost immediately, however, we realize that we’re in a very different story. Orphan Black soon pans back to showcase of a bevy of indistinguishable brunettes—usually the bit players in others’ dramas—who drive the action of the plot. Sarah, it turns out, is one of (at least) nine clones, all of whom are besieged by an array of men who want to claim ownership of the product their bodies represent. Instead of creating the background that sets the star apart, it is the crowd of women who hold center stage.
And the show seems to know how terrifying this prospect is for audiences primed to celebrate the sharply defined individual. The cloned women are confronted again and again with the reality that they are not special snowflakes. The face that Sarah sees in the mirror, and the face of what she most seeks to define herself against—a boring housewife, a cop, a feral killer—are, again and again, the same face. Her face.
At first glance, the mutant beauties might seem just another iteration of the misogyny that lamentably still populates so much popular culture. One hot brunette is, literally, as good as another. Certainly the male villains on the show see “their” women as resources—as sites of valuable DNA, of cash, of suburban respectability. The clones of Orphan Black are the 2014 version of the Matrix’s human batteries, only with much better hair. And of course, we know all too well that viewing women as indistinguishable commodities does not happen solely in works of fiction. From Nigeria to Isla Vista, acts of indiscriminate violence against women remind us how often women’s bodies are viewed as dispensable resources. Like the best works of science fiction, Orphan Black’s wild fantasy renders an earthbound reality visible: one need not be a clone, an alien, or a cyborg to become an indistinguishable commodity. You need only be a woman seen through the eyes of a particular sort of man.
But in a refreshing twist on Emerson’s lament, it’s the manhood of the show’s villains that keeps them from mastering the society of clones. In episode after episode, the women profit from the fact that men just can’t tell them apart. Alison’s husband can’t distinguish his straitlaced wife from her clone, the street-smart Sarah. The Machiavellian geneticist Dr. Leekie is utterly fooled when Sarah attends a fundraising gala in the guise of another clone, the brilliant scientist Cosima.
As satisfying as the role-reversal is, Orphan Black’s approach to individuality goes beyond simply swapping out indistinguishable male dunderheads for the usual parade of female hotties. The women of Orphan Black may be the heroes of the story, but they nonetheless embody a longstanding American phobia. As clones, they are on some level, interchangeable, or at the very least inextricably intertwined. Their bodies exert a pull on one another that shapes their choices, their actions, and the very shape of their reality. They are simultaneously each other’s sisters, and each other’s mothers—each woman’s body is implicated in the creation of the other.
Sarah, the character who initially echoes the male loner we’ve come to celebrate as the epitome of individual freedom, finds her own renegade actions constrained by the way her body is connected with others. She can, and she must choose how to respond to the villains. She runs, she fights, and, when need be, she seduces. But those choices always invoke a host of consequences that will reverberate throughout the community of connected bodies, including her own. And it’s in this respect that Orphan Black returns us to the problematic site that so fascinated early Americans trying to figure out the right balance between self and society—the reproducing (and in this case, the reproducible) female body.
In the ongoing debate that rages over the boundaries of that body, we continue to circle our philosophical wagons around two opposing conceptions of individuality: a pregnant woman is either one body, or she is two. The reality, Orphan Black suggests, exists somewhere in the middle. As Sarah’s body transforms into two, then three, and so on, we find a different perspective on the relationship between self and other. In contrast to a mythology in which reproduction diminishes the original, Orphan Black offers a far more realistic, and perhaps a more unsettling vision of how we work in the world.
As the women of Orphan Black enact the puzzle of reproduction, they are both free to act and inexorably pulled by the tugs exerted by the bodies connected to them. The alchemic force of motherhood—of having a body that both encompasses another and is separate from it, both constrains and enlarges the power these women have to act in the world. For Sarah, the code contained in her body enmeshes her within an interdependent community. Her fate, and that of those attached to her, by both biology and by affection, is a collective one.
Orphan Black’s fantastic approach to reproduction tells us something important not just about motherhood, but about the human condition. Motherhood is simply one powerful manifestation of how all human bodies reside within a vast network fueled by the demands and gifts of others. As real-life scientists continue to discover, our bodies and minds are embedded in those around us. Our brains are laced with mirror neurons that set off pain receptors in our own cells when we see the distress of another. Studies emerge almost weekly about the highly contagious nature of both behaviors and emotions. As rising temperatures and sea levels remind us, we are indeed in this together. The rugged fantasy of Robinson Crusoe foraging for himself on an unconnected island was always a dangerous model for citizenship. As that island sinks beneath rising seas, it is Crusoe’s disconnection, rather than the clones’ synchronicity, that emerges as the real horror story.
Anna Mae Duane