I was planning to write about how skeevy it is that literally all the clones on Orphan Black are/were in relationships with their monitors (don’t worry, I’ll get to that in a sec), but thinking about this brought me to an unpleasant realization: just how common it is for shows with main female protagonists to have a system of male oversight/regulation above them. If that wasn’t bad enough, we never see an inverse parallel where women oversee/regulate men, nor even situations of matriarchal oversight for female characters. Spoiler alert for Orphan Black and Buffy the Vampire Slayer after the jump.
The patriarchal infrastructure in Orphan Black is quite uncomfortable, and seems incredibly jarring in a show full of extremely well-developed female characters who otherwise tend to show such great amounts of independent agency. The DYAD Institute is headed by Dr. Aldous Leekie, and Project Leda was founded by Ethan and Susan Duncan—a couple thought dead except surprise, surprise: the woman had died but not the man (although by the end of Season 2, both Leekie and Ethan Duncan are dead, so maybe things will change up a bit in Season 3). Seeing these men in the scientific/medical establishment all seeking to control these women’s bodies/biology/reproduction is terrifying, but perhaps it is a bit of a commentary on the current state of men in political and scientific arenas in real life who do seek to do exactly that.
I found it particularly troubling that the clones literally all end up in relationships with their monitors, from Alison and Donnie to Rachel and Daniel Rosen and even Jennifer Fitzsimmons and her unnamed boyfriend/monitor (Jennifer was the dying clone seen in footage that Cosima watched). Continuously lying to and deceiving one’s partner, particularly when it includes enabling invasive medical examinations without her consent or knowledge, is absolutely abusive; if not directly so, it sure as hell is indirectly abusive by enabling such harm and violation of bodily autonomy. Watching these women unwittingly stay with their abusers/abuse-enablers is incredibly upsetting to me.
Now, there are definitely instances where this is turned on its head. Rachel Duncan knows that she is being monitored by Daniel Rosen and he does so with her consent. Cosima, as well, enters into her relationship with Delphine as equals, both as girlfriends and as co-scientists studying Cosima’s biology, rather than as monitor and subject. It’s also somewhat hopeful to see that the monitors’ existence does not totally compromise the clones’ agency; Alison stands up to Donnie about trust issues in their marriage before she even realizes he is her monitor, and Sarah (as Beth) essentially uses Paul for her own sexual ends before she knows he is her (er, well, Beth’s) monitor. This latter point is especially interesting, as Sarah’s level of sexual freedom is something typically reserved for male characters. Rachel’s treatment of Paul as her new monitor after Daniel’s death is also characterized by a power inversion, but one that dehumanizes Paul by turning him into a sex object.
Let’s look at another group of powerful women controlled by men. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Slayers are supernaturally gifted women—exclusively women. Now, there is theoretically only one Slayer at any given time who has her full power and is the Slayer; the rest of them are considered potential Slayers. Since one can never be sure which potential Slayer will be next in line, they are trained to be ready to take on the mantle by a group known as the Watchers’ Council, a group made up almost exclusively of men. You’d think ideally the best person to train a Slayer would be another Slayer, but sadly a potential Slayer will only inherit her full power upon the death of her predecessor. The Watchers on the show are overwhelmingly stodgy, old-fashioned British men, though at least we’ve seen not all of them are white. However, the Watchers of non-white descent do not feature prominently, and are merely in the background of scenes.
The existence of female watchers is certainly supported on screen: Giles mentions that his grandmother was a Watcher, we’ve actually seen maybe two or three female Watchers, and Faith’s first Watcher was also a woman. Granted, one of the few on-screen female Watchers ended up being a total secretly power hungry bad guy, and Faith’s mentioned-but-not-seen female Watcher was fridged before her Slayer came to the show, in an unfortunate case of fridging women for women. Regardless, the Watchers’ Council remains an undeniably patriarchal group that seeks to essentially control the Slayers, something that Buffy clashes with them about. But would it have been so impossible for a group of strong and powerful women to be the ones to train the next generations of strong and powerful women?
The final blow is of course the fact that nothing even remotely resembling an inverse situation can be found in pop culture. A matriarchal group supervising/regulating some sort of unique group of men? Perish the thought. Male protagonists are either self-taught, stumbling along their journeys on their own (or with a few close friends), or they have an older male mentor. Think Scott on Teen Wolf has a woman overseeing him or studying his biology in an Orphan Black way? Nope. Derek provides him with the basic lycanthropic lessons, Stiles also helps him figure out things, and Dr. Deaton provides him with the necessary advanced supernatural expertise and counsel, even though Deaton’s sister, Ms. Morell, is also a druidic emissary. A group of wise, experienced female hunters providing training or guidance to the likes of Dean and Sam Winchester? Hahahahahaha!
In short, geek media will at times relent and have shows where women are the main, most important, and even most powerful characters, but only if there is a patriarchal, paternalistic support system to back them up and regulate, or even control, them. This sends the message that women are incapable of unlocking and mastering their full potential and self-agency either by themselves or with the help of female mentors with more experience, that a man must have the final authoritative oversight. It’s saying that a woman could never possibly journey along the path of self-actualization and self-empowerment without a man to check in to make sure she’s doing it right. I desperately would like to see an alternative make it to screen.