As we all hopefully know by now, Orphan Black is a super intense show about clones. For the first two seasons, at least, those clones are a host of wonderfully well-realized personalities played by the inimitable Tatiana Maslany. As such, the clones are primarily (though not all) cisgender, heteronormative, conventionally attractive white women. The feminism of the show may be limited, but within these narrow confines, the show effectively critiques the patriarchy and its commodification of female bodies and agency. Like the show’s limited feminism, patriarchy is also a fairly limited term for the systematic oppression of women by men. Orphan Black shows us how women are affected by the patriarchy and how women can also be complicit in furthering the patriarchy’s systematic oppression.
Although the show is shot from the point of view of its female protagonists, it’s clear that the clones are fighting against an institution that claims ownership over their bodies and tries to interfere in everything each clone chooses to do—which is a nice allegory for the patriarchy. As this great post on Girls Like Giants says, the patriarchy in Orphan Black is metaphorically represented by the Dyad Institute, which stands for corporate/government policy, and the Proletheans, who represent the religious patriarchy. This post will just focus on the Dyad Institute. It’s pretty creepy stuff, and the Dyad Institute’s involvement in the clones’ lives illustrates the many ways in which the patriarchy affects real-world women’s lives.
Spoilers through Season 2 of Orphan Black after the jump!
Though the clones began as a military project, the female clone line, Project Leda, was soon taken over by the Dyad Institute, a mysterious scientific organization which studies each clone in secret. Because almost all the clones are not self-aware, meaning that they don’t know they’re clones, each of them is watched over by a monitor—someone close to the clone, usually a significant other, who reports on the clone’s mental state and sometimes allows the Dyad scientists into the home to observe and take samples from the sleeping clone. If that wasn’t enough, Dyad also explicitly claims ownership over each clone through a patent:
Cosima: The barcode I told you about? It’s a patent.
Sarah: A patent?
Cosima: We’re property. Our bodies, our biology, everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them.
—Orphan Black, 1×10
The patent actually reads “This organism and derivative genetic material is restricted intellectual property.” That means that Dyad owns not only the clones, but any children or biological material the clones might have. This might not be a concern, as all the clones were designed to be barren, but one clone, Sarah Manning, proves capable of having biological children.
Sarah at least believes that she’s free of the controls and oversights on the other clones. She was raised outside the Dyad system, so she never had a monitor who would spy on her. And because Sarah is fertile, she has the freedom to make choices that the other clones do not have. Sarah has the freedom to choose whether or not she wants children, and she’s had both a daughter and an abortion.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have Rachel Duncan. She was taken from her adoptive parents, scientists Ethan and Susan Duncan, at a young age, and groomed to take over the Dyad Institute. Thus she was raised self-aware—she always knew she was a clone and that she would have a monitor. This has obviously affected her behavior. She doesn’t offer anyone any information that isn’t completely necessary, probably out of a desire to keep whatever she can private. As a high-ranking person at the Dyad Institute, she shows a side of her that is cold, ruthless, and unemotional, as if to get ahead at Dyad she had to strip away anything about her that could be perceived as stereotypically feminine. In Season 1, she tries to get all the clones, notably Alison, to sign contracts with Dyad that would ensure Dyad had the legal right to basically keep doing all the creepy stuff it was already doing, and in Season 2 she continues to try to draw the recalcitrant clones into the fold. She’s not interested in subverting the patriarchy because she’s interested in keeping the power she already has.
In between Sarah and Rachel, we have clones like Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus, who both decide that they can work within the system. Alison is a suburban housewife who, though infertile, has adopted two children she cares deeply about. Though she’s trying to cooperate with the system, unlike Rachel, she has no power within the system. She gets police officer and fellow clone Beth to teach her how to shoot a gun, and she carries around mace and a rape whistle, but it’s still not enough to stop her monitor husband, Donnie, from drugging her so that the Dyad scientists can come in and do their stuff. At the end of Season 1, she signs the Dyad contract in order to keep her family safe.
Alison: So. You want me to sign a contract.
Dr. Leekie: More like a treaty. Rules both sides will abide by.
Alison: Even though everything you’ve done is illegal. You must think I’m so stupid. Stupid, suburban Alison.
Dr. Leekie: Quite the opposite. You’re a pragmatic and decisive individual. And now that you’re self-aware, we can start answering some of your questions!
Alison: I don’t want answers any more! I want my life back! I want my family back, I want my privacy back, I want you out of my life, and I want things to be normal again.
Dr. Leekie: I’m so glad you said so. [The contract] enshrines your family’s freedom. Guarantees protection from the likes of Helena, and ensures you’ll be unmonitored.
Dr. Leekie: Yes. But in return, you agree to twice-yearly medical testing. Private and non-invasive. I don’t want to scare you, but there are health concerns […] Regular testing is in everyone’s best interest.
—Orphan Black, 1×10
As you can probably tell, Alison quickly finds that just signing an agreement with Dyad means nothing. Dyad lied about Alison being unmonitored, and they coerced her into signing the contract and agreeing to medical testing by terrorizing her and making her feel afraid for her own well-being. Signing the contract—agreeing to go along with patriarchal norms—made Alison feel more protected, but it ultimately didn’t help her.
Cosima follows a similar path. At the end of Season 1, she’s offered a job at Dyad, with promises that she can analyze her own body and genetics in a state-of-the-art lab, and she too accepts. This might have worked out for her, but in Season 2 it’s revealed that she is suffering from an illness that most likely stems from the gene sequence that made all the clones barren. She wants to be in control of her own treatment, but finds herself hindered at every turn—by her monitor girlfriend Delphine, who gives vials of her blood to Dyad superiors without her consent, and by Rachel, who’s locked in a power struggle with Sarah and uses Cosima’s treatment as leverage.
The patriarchy illustrated by the Dyad Institute and the clone system affects our clones in different ways. It has the most explicit effect on proud, independent Sarah, who gives herself up when Rachel kidnaps her daughter. In a chilling scene, Sarah’s asked invasive questions about her sexual activity and menstrual cycle and then forced to sign away the right to her own eggs; later, a scientist tells her he’s going to take out an ovary, and she’s strapped to a bed so that the surgery will continue whether or not she wants it to. The show even tacitly acknowledges that Dyad—and our real-world corporations—have power over women’s bodies, even if the women haven’t consented to anything:
Dr. Nealon: In sixteen days when you begin to ovulate, we would like to harvest your eggs.
Sarah: You would?
Dr. Nealon: Yes.
Sarah: Well, I would like to see my daughter.
Dr. Nealon: Sign consent to the procedure, and I will make that happen.
[Sarah looks at her handcuffed wrists.]
Sarah: Look at me. Do I really need to sign? Does that really matter?
Dr. Nealon: Bureaucracy.
—Orphan Black, 2×10
Although Rachel is a part of the system, she still chafes at her lack of agency. She’s always known she has a monitor and seems to have used them as an attempt to reclaim some agency for herself. Daniel was her lover; Paul was Beth’s monitor first, and Rachel later sleeps with him in an incredibly rapey scene. It doesn’t excuse her actions, but it’s clear that Rachel thinks of this as one of the few ways she can fight back against the monitors who have watched and controlled her her whole life. Most of all, Rachel wants to have the choice to be biologically capable of having a child, and when her adoptive father tells her that she was made to be infertile, it drives her into a wordless rage. There’s a part of Rachel that feels inevitably locked into the system, and the scene of her crying over her adoptive father and everything she’s lost was one of the few times we got to see it.
Alison’s plot is played for comedic effect all the time, but it’s really one of the most realistic (and thus, scary) parts of the show. As the secrets around Dyad and the clones pile up, Alison starts taking more and more pills and alcohol to try and manage her life. It doesn’t help that her monitor husband Donnie gaslights her at every turn. He insists that he doesn’t know anything about monitors and gently suggests that, you know, she might be going crazy. Later, Alison ends up in rehab, and Donnie visits her there to tell her that she can only see their children if he thinks it’s okay.
Alison: You said you’d bring the kids.
Donnie: I will. On Family Day.
Alison: I wanted to see them today.
Donnie: Well, Alison, until you start taking this place seriously, I don’t think it’s a good environment for them.
—Orphan Black, 2×06
It’s poetic justice to discover at the end of Season 2 that Donnie is just as hopeless as everyone always thought he was; he never even knew about the clones and he’s ill-prepared to enter the world of intrigue that he unwittingly opens when he kills Dr. Leekie by accident. But it doesn’t detract from the impact of seeing Donnie take everything that mattered to Alison away from her.
If we get more characters of color and more LGBTQ+ characters in the upcoming season, Orphan Black could move from a critique of the patriarchy to a critique of the kyriarchy—that is to say, a critique of the social system of all oppression, which would really be better for intersectional feminism. Orphan Black’s feminism is limited by the fact that all its main characters are clones of the same white woman; because of this, it unfortunately doesn’t fully take into account race or other issues. While it does have some LGBTQ+ characters like Cosima and Tony, it doesn’t delve into the systemic oppression faced by lesbians or trans men, and Tony in particular felt a little bit like a one-off gimmick because he hasn’t yet gotten any further episodes. But the show still skillfully unpacks the different ways in which the patriarchy affects women, particularly white women, and it has a fantastic gay character in Felix, Sarah’s foster brother. And with the arrival of the male clones in Season 3, we might, hopefully, get a storyline that illustrates how the patriarchy negatively affects men. That would be a great addition to an already well-written show.