- Infertility and parenthood in Orphan Black
Infertility underwrites Orphan Black. Yet the show seems much more willing to represent the loving complexity of adoptive relationships than the experiences of families that choose to use reproductive-assistive technologies. In this essay, I will illustrate how this omission inflects the narrative arc of the show and threatens to flatten some of the important feminist work that Orphan Black has been celebrated for doing.
Recall Rachel's heteronormative horror when she presumes that her inability to have children was a mistake and learns that it was an intentional part of her design (season two, episode eight, 'Variable and Full of Permutation' (7 Jun 2014)). This scene underscores the villainy of Neolution, a movement that creates women, takes away their right to choose and transforms their uteruses into ticking time bombs.
In season three, episode seven, 'Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate' (30 May 2015), when we watch blood bloom between Cosima's legs in the bathtub, we know that her disease is progressing. This symbol of clone death is a common experience for women struggling with infertility in the world outside of the show: before we feel any pain, we might bleed when we're not supposed to. Not only are the sestras generally infertile, but they also experience the fears and anxieties of unruly embodiment that attend the experience of undesired childlessness.1
Yet, despite the show's interest in infertility, Orphan Black fails to address the reasons why parents – of clones or of any child – would seek reproductive assistance rather than adoption. This conspicuous omission2 is felt most palpably in the paucity of clone parents that we meet in the show. Only a few biological parents play a role of substance in Orphan Black: Helena and Sarah's birth mother, Amelia, who features prominently in the climax of season one, and Alison's birth mother, Connie, who plays a minor antagonistic role in season three. But while these characters primarily serve to [End Page 401] emphasise the nefariousness of Neolution, their flatness or outright absence warrants further scrutiny: why would a show so attuned to issues of infertility, adoption, and embryology miss – or, more pointedly, avoid – the opportunity to represent the complex power dynamics of the patient/doctor/fertility-science assemblage?
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Let us begin with Connie, as she is the only featured parent of a clone who experienced undesired childlessness. Connie embodies a humorous but unsympathetic type – the Bad Mother. At the beginning of 'Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate', Alison confronts her mother's oppressive perfectionism, yelling: 'Nobody is good enough. Not Dad! … And certainly not me!' Near the end of the episode, Connie comes to agree with this accusation. She cruelly explains that Alison's father was not good enough: he could not father a child 'because of his low motility'. The invisibility of Alison's father is crucial to this scene. Viewers may sympathise with the absent and unnamed father as Connie emasculates him. But the shame and depression that accompany infertility remain unrepresented. This absence is especially striking when we consider that Alison, like her father, was unable to have biological children.
This scene does not draw attention to the similarities between Alison and her father's nonreproductive bodies – or to the shame, vulnerability [End Page 402] and depression that can accompany such physiological limitations. Instead, Connie's monologue underscores the exploitative and transactional character of Neolution. She explains that she asked the fertility clinic for 'an upgrade' – a provocatively techno-consumerist word choice to describe the personal, costly and technoscientific process of becoming pregnant by in vitro fertilisation. Alison's mother appears to be an uninformed co-conspirator with Neolution in this case. She treats Alison in much the same way that Leekie treats her: as an object rather than a fully human subject.3
The only other clone birth mother we meet in the series is Amelia. As a surrogate, she implicitly holds a different relationship to Neolution and the...