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  • Orphan Black and raceOmissions and a new realism
  • Rebecca Wilbanks (bio)

Framed as part of a humanist project of self-understanding, the Human Genome Project sparked innumerable discussions about how genomic knowledge would interact with individual and group identities. Would genomics give new life to biologically essentialist notions of race, or create new forms of stigma? These questions were emblematised by Gattaca (Niccol US 1997), the 'bioethical blockbuster'1 about a man facing the destiny seemingly fated by his genes, as well as–even more significantly–the discrimination connected with his supposedly inferior genetic makeup.

In 2016, a group of scientists pivoted from 'reading' to 'writing' by proposing to synthesise a complete human genome (the project was originally called Human Genome Project-2 or Human Genome Project-write).2 Although Elie Dolgin recently explained in Nature that the project has since been scaled back due to lack of funding, the emergence of synthetic biology as one major focus of research and investment in the post-genomic era makes clear what was perhaps always the case: that the thrust of genomics is not just to understand the world, but to change it. Synthetic biology is not, after all, geared towards producing perfect replicas of biological objects, but towards opening them up for redesign.3 Imagining human lives shaped by synthetic genomes, Orphan Black explores the ethical issues that arise as biological fabrication forges ahead. Corresponding with the shift from reading to writing, the series shows far more concern with how the future is made–and who owns its means of reproduction–than with how genomics contributes to socially embedded forms of knowledge. [End Page 395]

For all of Orphan Black's billing as an exploration of identity, its dynamic women are more focused on making the conditions that will enable their future survival than on self-contemplation. By analysing how the show deals with race, we see how this facet of identity becomes relevant not through any putative relation to genomics, but indirectly through structural inequalities as knowledge becomes capital becomes power in the biotech economy. Overall, the series devotes scant attention to race and gives little indication of how race or racism might impact the subjective experience of its characters. However, when compared with earlier genetic fictions such as Gattaca, it displays a new kind of realism regarding racial inequality. Moreover, the subtle ways in which racial disparities are portrayed on the show suggest a broader shift from questions of identity to questions of ownership, structure and control.

Like Gattaca, Orphan Black eschews genetic determinism, although what for the earlier movie was a grand statement around which the plot pivots is largely taken for granted in the show. Orphan Black reflects a nuanced portrayal of genetic causation consistent with the growing post-genomic recognition that the relationship between genotype and phenotype is rarely a straight line, and that environment can impinge on genes in ways that challenge the linear causation of molecular biology's central dogma. As Everett Hamner noted in a 2016 conference presentation, the show departs from the trope of the 'carbon copy clone', instead revelling in how many different characters Maslany and the special effects team can produce: each a pleasurable demonstration of the endless permutations of personhood that can be drawn from the raw material of Maslany's body.

Moreover, while the show has been celebrated as an exploration of identity, the self-doubt that the characters sometimes experience is neither connected to their status as clones nor to the specifics of their genetics. 'There's only one of me', Sarah asserts early on. Their individual personhoods are never truly in question, except to the extent that the personhood of women is implicitly put in question by patriarchal institutions. Unlike many other fictions involving engineered humans, from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Blade Runner film adaptations (Scott US/Hong Kong 1982, Villeneuve US/UK/Hungary/Canada 2017) to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl to HBO's Westworld (US 2016–), the series does not imagine a world in which such origins automatically place one in a less-than-human social category or into a new kind of servant...


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pp. 395-400
Launched on MUSE
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