- Trans-embodiment and the biopolitics of reproduction in Orphan Black
Tony, what you're doing here is more complicated than sex or gender.Tony:
Oh yeah?– Season 2, episode 8, 'Variable and Full of Perturbation' (7 Jun 2014)
Tony Sawicki is Orphan Black's only trans character. He appears relatively early in the show's run in season two, episode eight, 'Variable and Full of Perturbation' (7 Jun 2014). Amongst other things, the episode features his seduction of Felix, his sexual anatomy and his self-administered injection of testosterone. This attention to Tony as a sexed and sexual spectacle combined with his isolation to a single episode have alarmed some fans. As opposed to the show's many other queer characters, all of whom get to have fully developed storylines, the way Tony is positioned seems to take advantage of a trendy topic without giving the character his due or respecting the diversity of the trans experience.1 Without contesting these objections, I would like to offer an alternative sense of Tony's role. For despite the way the episode appears to position Felix's sexual identity as akin to Tony's gender expression, I will make the case that Tony's inclusion in the show points instead to their difference. This difference, I contend, has everything to do with the show's participation in the overarching epistemic shift I call 'the biopolitics of reproduction'.2
Felix's assertion that Tony's role 'is more complicated than sex or gender' points us to this difference. Immediately before this exchange, Felix asks Tony how he fares as a trans man amongst what Felix saucily calls 'the bandit set'. Tony replies by asking Felix when he had come out of the closet. 'Tuesday?' he quips. In this jockeying exchange, Felix and Tony acknowledge that they [End Page 385] share the same threat of violence from a phobic social order, and both express a practiced insouciance in the face of that threat. But then Felix turns sober. Their identities as a gay man and a gay trans man, he asserts, are beside the point. The issue here is not desire and identity, but bodily genesis. Cloning, of course, is the thing more complicated than sex and gender and it draws a division between Tony and Felix. What Tony is 'doing here', Felix tells us, is not just about the sorts of things two gay men might do together. It's about what a trans man and a clone might share, especially a trans man who is also a clone. By paying attention to the brief conversation between Tony and Felix that serves as my epigraph, I want to centre the torsion between sexual orientation and biological materiality that Tony's place in the series puts into motion despite its brevity.
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Where Felix's sexual identity has to do with who he is as a person, Tony's gender expression has at least as much to do with what his body can be made to do. In this sense, Tony provides Orphan Black with another example of the animacy and mutability of biology that the series more fully centres in reproductive technologies like cloning, germ editing and IVF techniques. Tony's trans embodiment may not be reproductive, but it nonetheless takes part in the same logic. Indeed, in a series so fully concerned with the technical elicitation of biological materiality, it should be no surprise to find the endocrine system as an object of concern alongside DNA. Tony reminds us that the soma [End Page 386] as well as the germ line make up the stuff of biological plasticity. Both have been rich resources for monetisation. As Nikolas Rose writes in The Politics of Life Itself, the contemporary period in biotechnology has been marked by a move away from the goal of restoring or conforming to 'the normativity of a given vital order' (11) that seeks to optimise health along the lines of whole persons and populations. The model now dominant in...