- Sterility, abominations and the optical illusions of Orphan Black
'We have not been bold enough', Susan Squier wrote a decade and a half ago, 'in our approach to the intersection of literature and science, and the result has been a specific sterility. We have limited ourselves to using one field to gloss the other rather than using them to unsettle not only each other but also their mutually opposed relation' (44).
I join Squier in challenging that pattern. The binary mentality with which academia often views the sciences and the humanities (not to mention the social sciences) has major consequences. Building on Squier's work and that of Donna Haraway, this essay suggests that Orphan Black's rejection of these disciplinary barriers allows it to more effectively subvert binary definitions not just of men and women, but also of human beings and animals. To illustrate, I will consider how the series uses Helena's childhood experiences of religiously justified propaganda to expose the harsh judgements routinely operating in rhetoric about gender, sexuality and species.
Utilising flashbacks, Orphan Black's penultimate episode in season five, 'One Fettered Slave' (5 Aug 2017), explores the repressed sexual desire shaping one of Helena's formative experiences. The subject here is not her own sex drive, as she was only a young girl stealing chocolates. But after Helena is stunned by the sight of a nun pleasuring herself, we learn how she ended up in the clutches of the Prolethean cult so prominent in season two: after she was rescued from the convent's proverbial closet, it was only to be submitted to even greater abuses.
Orphan Black fans had long known that Helena's mentor, Tomas (Daniel Kash), had perverse reasons for calling her 'special'. But now we finally learn what they are. Raising the girl as a killing machine, he programmed her with a warped Barbie-doll theism in which her clone victims were heretical copies, 'walk[ing] the earth while the original is at home with God'. However, for all of the absurd essentialism of this mythology, consider the subtlety with which Orphan Black constructs Helena's psychology. While the superficial rationale was that these 'science devils' threatened their archetype, the underlying condemnation specifically concerned their sexuality. By this logic, the clones [End Page 411] were, as characters on the show have often called them, 'abominations'. Despite extensive differences in character and subculture, their seeming homogeneity imputed deviant desires that formed a fundamental threat to the logic of patriarchy.
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In this sense, the show takes advantage of a science-fictional capacity that is unique to cloning narratives. As traced by my Editing the Soul, the 'Carbon Copy Cloning Catastrophe' masterplot evolved over the last half-century-plus, running in literature through Le Guin, Butler and Ishiguro and in film from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel US 1956) to Moon (Jones UK 2009). In the current context, then, it makes sense to revisit once more Donna Haraway's thinking about cyborgs. In 1991, she imagined these beings as 'resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity', which is why season four of Orphan Black took all its episode titles from Haraway's work. The show is therefore not so much a 'cyborg manifesto' as a clone manifesto. Notice how smoothly the terms can be exchanged in a passage from Haraway's most famous chapter:
The [clone] does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The [clone] would not recognize the Garden of Eden … [Clones like Helena] are not reverent; they do not remember the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection – they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party [#CloneClub]. The main trouble with [clones], [End Page 412] of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism [Castor] and patriarchal capitalism [Leda], not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after...