Sexism is often justified on the basis of biology. Women and men, the argument goes, are naturally, innately different from birth. Men are aggressive. Women are timid. Men are providers. Women are caregivers. Men are leaders. Women are followers. Biology is destiny, and women’s biology is to care for kids and do as their told.
Feminists have long rejected this argument. They’ve done so in part by insisting that biology is not destiny and by emphasizing how important social factors are in shaping individuals. In her feminist sci-fi utopia The Female Man, for example, Joanna Russ writes about a number of alternate versions of the same woman, all with the same genes but born into radically different societies. One woman is mousy and frustrated and seeking a husband; another is a successful academic; another is a ruthless assassin with Wolverine-like claws. “We ought to think alike an feel alike and act alike, but of course we don’t,” Russ writes. “So plastic is humankind!”
Canadian sci-fi television show Orphan Black picks up where Joanna Russ left off, and it runs with the same feminist multiplicity. The show features Tatiana Maslany as a range of different clones. Being clones, all the characters of course have the same genetic biology, but the show revels, not in their sameness, but in their difference. Sarah Manning, the main character, is an irresponsible drifter and gutter punk; Allison is an uptight, neurotically perfect soccer mom; Rachel is a vindictive corporate villain.
Even attributes that we usually think of as biologically set, or at least biologically influenced, vary widely from clone to clone. Cosima is a brilliant, gifted scientist — though her “gift” of intelligence isn’t shared by the rest of her sisters, none of whom shows any interest in or talent for scientific pursuits. Even more startling is Helena, a clone who is incredibly strong, out-arm-wrestling truckers and casually tossing full-grown men hither and yon. Even physical strength, it seems, is more about how you were raised than the genes you were born with. Women can be resourceful. They can be smart. They can be (literally) strong. Give them a chance and biology won’t hold them back.
The diversity of possibility in Orphan Black extends to sexuality as well — and even to gender. Most of the clones are heterosexual, but Cosima (the scientist) is lesbian (or possibly bisexual.) Tony, a clone who appears briefly, is a trans man.
Again, this variation fits neatly into feminist rejections of biological determinism. But it sits uncomfortably with LGBT narratives about the innate nature of homosexuality. Arguments for gay rights are often based on the argument that LGBT people are born with their sexuality and gender. You can’t teach people to be gay just like you can’t reeducate them to be straight. As Lady Gaga says, you’re “Born This Way” — gender and sexuality are innate, not socially determined. And if that’s the case, then all the clones should have the same sexuality and the same gender expression. But they don’t.
Perhaps the most startling thing about the clones’ differences is that Orphan Black doesn’t consider them startling. In the first two seasons, there’s one scene in which Sarah asks Cosima if the other clone also gets dry skin on her forehead, since they’re biologically identical. Cosima never answers, and that’s really the only time anyone ever suggests that having the same genetics might be expected to lead to anyone being the same. No one ever discusses the sociological implications of Cosima being gay or Helena having super strength.
Joanna Russ is directly engaged in the nature/nurture debate; she tells you, flat out, human beings are plastic, and society makes them what they are. Orphan Black, for all its mirror images, isn’t that self-reflective.
You could see this as a weakness to some degree. Orphan Black is definitely an empty-headed show in many ways; philosophical issues are resolutely ignored in favor of the racing, ridiculous espionage plot and the fun of seeing Tatiana Maslany transform herself into so many miraculously disparate people.
There’s something to be said, though, for Orphan Black’s refusal to think about self and identity, biology and sociology. After all, what really is there to say about such things? In her book Excluded, Julia Serano argues that gender and sexuality are complex traits influenced by biology and culture in ways that it’s impossible to tease out. You can’t know for sure what’s genetic and what’s social, so what’s the point of trying to tease it out?
Even if women (and men) are influenced by their chromosomes and hormones, that’s hardly a reason to tell all men they have to go to war or all women they have to stay home and raise kids. Even if sexuality is influenced by culture as well as biology, that’s no reason to persecute LGBT people. Biology or culture aren’t reasons to treat people badly; they’re excuses. Arguing about them gives bigots more credit than they deserve.
A show about genetic identicals could be a way to try to parse exactly which human traits are innate and which aren’t. It could show you precisely how society shapes different clones differently (which is what Joanna Russ does.) Or it could show you how certain traits (like say, being gay) are part of an individual no matter the social setting. But instead, Orphan Black mostly just ignores the whole debate and asks you to accept and enjoy all these different people as different people. The show assumes, without much fanfare or contemplation, that clones and other people are more than the genes and the culture that made them.
It is interesting to muse about Orphan Black and the show’s implications for feminism and queer issues. That is, all the clones have the same biology, but they are very different one from another. That fits nicely with (many versions of) feminism, which downplay biological determinism (women can do anything — they can be scientists or super-strong killers or whatever.) It seems to work oddly with the gay rights movement’s positioning of sexuality as biological — Cosima and Sarah have the same biology, but one is bi and one isn’t. That seems to suggest that it’s not in the genes, but in something else. Nurture? Choice?
The show never really resolves this or thinks about it. That’s because the show is incoherent and thoughtless in a lot of ways — but still, I kind of like that it’s incoherent and thoughtless here. It sort of ends up saying, people have different potentials, and maybe that’s biological and maybe it’s social, but who knows? Either way, you shouldn’t trap people in boxes.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.