Tatiana Maslany at the Canadian Screen Awards 2014 on making headway by playing so many women in one show.
The thing that frustrates me about Orphan Black is that even with the complexity of the female characters, even with the queer representations, these women’s stories in a man’s arena are too much like what we watch every single day. (This is not to denigrate Orphan Black, which is a show you should watch, or Tatiana Maslany, who is an amazingly talented actress. Let me put that at the front of anything I say here.)
What’s odd about these characters? They’re all extremely isolated. They aren’t women with sisters or friends or support networks. Even this show with six strong female characters has trouble passing the Bechdel test reliably, and if you zoom out on the premise and take a literary critique, it’s the same woman being isolated in six different ways. Let’s review (tiny spoilers follow):
- Sarah Manning, the main character, spends her time doing crime with her foster brother and running from her rotten ex-boyfriend. She has some kind of mother figure, from whom she’s estranged, and she wants to be a parent but can’t get herself together to be more than a peripheral presence in her child’s life.
- Beth Childs was a detective with a male partner and a self-absorbed boyfriend/handler. It’s easy for Sarah to impersonate her because Beth didn’t have anyone to tell her secrets to.
- Allison is a paranoid housewife who feels trapped by her husband. She has female friends but doesn’t trust them enough even to lend basic assistance when they’re in danger. She and Beth are reported to have had a friendship of sorts, which could be read as another example of, “Trust no one but yourself.”
- Cosima could maybe be considered the most multifaceted character—after all, she’s a scientist AND she’s queer. Great, right? She strikes up a romance with Delphine, who is immediately “othered” by being alluring but untrustworthy. She’s pretty fascinated by the old white scientist dude, though he doesn’t have her best interests at heart. And, again, Cosima is grounded in and defined by the clone club.
- Katja: abused, psychotic, homicidal, also defines herself by her clone identity. No support network, pretty obviously.
All these characters are plausible, on the show’s face. They don’t sound that different from characters you see in other shows—but that’s because women so rarely get to form depth or complexity or interpersonal relationships in service to their own characterization, rather than to advance the events of the plot. It remains a nagging itch in the back of our minds—where are these women’s lives, outside the crisis of the current story arc? Where are their siblings, careers, hobbies? And is there really no way to weave those details into a multi-season series?
Women’s characterizations mostly stay shrouded in the background of modern fiction. But think about the women you know in real life; do they get defined by one thing? Or merely two? If so, congratulations: we have reached your ideal. But for most of us, as Maslany says, this show is only a little step, indeed. We can continue to write better stories, and they will continue to sell. Let’s not stop right here to pat ourselves on the back.