Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta

Posted: May 9, 2014 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

  1. swo8 says:

    Interesting review. Thank you very much.

    • Jean Lamb says:

      There is some good Cavilo-fic in Bujold fandom; ah, to be small, blonde, and totally deadly (and is usually given a pretty horrific backstory, though in some stories she was Bad Seed from the beginning). But she’s fun to play with as a character.

  2. Holly Troup says:

    Think about THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO….Lisbeth Salander is one of the most compelling fictional characters I’ve encountered in many years.

  3. Amanda says:

    Oh YES. There is a scene in season 2 (no spoilers) that for me turned the writing from good to GREAT. Sarah sits down to her daughter and tries to explain why she has been an absentee parent, which comes down to “I didn’t have any parental role model. That made me really scared and I didn’t want to hurt you”. And instead of having the little girl be all naïve and innocent, and do the whiny “but mommy I miiiisss youuuu”, this kid says “you’re doing your best, just like Mrs S”, and they kinda laugh about that because, well, Mrs S – she’s a protector, but not a mother. I cannot remember another show that’s allowed a mother figure have that sort of strong vulnerability AND have a young child be so self aware (coz I KNOW kids can be like that, they’re just not allowed it on TV coz cutesy/innocent etc)

  4. jrfrontera says:

    Fantastic. Loved this so much. I hadn’t really thought about this consciously, but you are so very right on all points. I’ve now made it a goal in life to one day write an antihero female character myself… you are very right, we need more of them!

  5. jrfrontera says:

    Reblogged this on J. R. FRONTERA and commented:
    Brilliant and insightful post on the nature of antiheroes in our stories, and how male antiheroes are viewed completely differently than female antiheroes (and why that needs to change!) – absolutely worth your time to read!

  6. chrysoula says:

    Hmm. I think you’re onto something with the idea that ‘goodness’ is treated as intrinsic for women but acquired for men, and that influences the stories we tell about characters. I’ve always thought another aspect of how easily female characters are hated was the very focus on the men: in order to protect the men, fans think they have to attack somebody else.

    Here’s another thing: I think when female characters who audiences otherwise like do something that the audience doesn’t approve of, the audience tends to blame the creator rather than working at integrating it into the character. This is still the ‘women are good’ idea underlying it, but I suspect speaks some to why it’s so damn hard to present really flawed women characters. I think the best way to get it past the ingrained cultural censors is to do what was done with Regina (as I understand it): start with a villain, start with a woman who is already ‘bad’, and then refuse to kill her off for her crimes even if she has moments of conscience. Making her powerful probably doesn’t hurt….

  7. SSpjut says:

    Reblogged this on SSpjut | Writer's Blog | Stardate and commented:
    Shattersnipe.malcontent speaks up about the age old battle of male perception vs female, what’s good for the gander is not acceptable for the goose and it’s alright if you’re a wicked -male-hero, but not so much if you’re a wicked-female-hero. In other words, the world loves bad-boys, just not bad-girls.

  8. SSpjut says:

    Love Orphan Black (all nine Sarah’s) and loved this post. Reblogged it on

  9. Tasha Turner says:

    Great thoughts. Something I’ve thought about a lot. One author I think does a good job writing female characters who have both good and bad and manages to keep the readers sympathetic is Michael J. Sullivan in the Riyia revelations and chronicles which have ruined epic fantasy for me as I’ve become even more aware of what’s wrong with much of what’s available than I was before… It’s like the difference between a minor toothache and when it’s so bad you stop putting off going to the dentist.

    I agree with the person above who suggested Bujold who also does a good job.

    It’s sad how culturally brainwashed we are that we are unconsciously against our own gender. 😦

  10. Fabulous post! I’ve been truly enjoying Orphan Black. And it’s not just Sarah who’s morally ambiguous. Helena is ostensibly a villain, but is she? Alison is ostensibly a good girl, but is that veneer starting to crack? And yet all of them we (or at least I) follow and root for, through all their struggles. (And isn’t it amazing how Tatiana Maslany brings all these characters to life?)

    Another character that to me is a true standout female heroine is Starbuck. Yes, she’s a hero, but she has her flaws, can be judgmental, act rashly, and seems to put loyalty over morality, which gets her into some interesting situations. What really got me, though, was an episode where it’s boxing night. Any crewmember can fight anyone else. She fights Apollo. And it doesn’t feel like she’s being foolish. The scene is quite moving because it’s intercut with scenes between them, really loading it up with emotion. And there in the ring, it’s like they’re fighting for keeps, really walloping on each other. And only when it was over did I realize that not once did I think, “Oh dear! That poor woman!” She truly was on even terms with her male counterpart.

    I don’t think I’ve seen that elsewhere. Even Lisbeth in Dragon Tattoo draws a kind of gendered sympathy when she’s abused by her government supervisor.

    Sarah and Starbuck are characters that break the cultural conventions. I want more!

  11. Wow, am needing to process these thoughts, quite a bit of nuance ( for me anyway ).

    My wife and I have both loved Season 1 of Orphan Black. Season 2 is collecting on our DVR for logistical reasons.

    It’s hard for me to say with certainty re the comparison, but I feel Alice in the BBC series Luther, is worth considering.

    And even Killer Women on TV is kind if enjoyable, though not sure how that fits with your thoughts also.

    All in all, another interesting gender thread to consider, thank you much, best wishes.

  12. Morgan says:

    This is very well said. (Also, thank you for acknowledging non-binary people at the end. Those reminders really do help promote awareness that we exist, I think.) I haven’t seen Orphan Black yet, but this makes me all the more excited for it.

    The mention of Spike and Angel versus Drusilla and Darla got me thinking — do you think Bad Witch Willow could constitute a female villain/anti-hero who is treated as worthy of redemption? It’s hard for me to actually form an opinion, since I haven’t seen those episodes in years, and plus, I caught a this week and thus have cold-brain. (Sigh.) From what I remember, I think she’s given overall a more nuanced treatment than Dru and Darla, but I can’t say for sure. Faith springs to mind too… though I hate some of what the show did with her, I don’t remember her being completely written off as completely irredeemable.

    On the whole, though, this is all the more reason for me to keep avoiding a Buffy rewatch (I’m scared of how much it will almost certainly disappoint me as an adult for not being half as feminist as I thought it was at 16) and get into Orphan Black instead.

    • Morwen Cider says:

      Faith had a real redemption arc (mostly on Angel) then atoned and rejoined the Scoobies. Pretty much every Buffy character had an evil phase (Willow, Giles, Angel, Faith, Spike) then got redeemed. I think its often fans not creators who romanticize only troubled men.

  13. Vivi says:

    I do agree with your general sentiment (though I’d like to add that another reason why the female character aren’t written about in fandom so much is that a) the female villains usually get far less screentime and characterisation in the first place which makes them less easy to identify with and b) the majority of people writing extensive fandom meta are heterosexual women, and therefore more interested in male characters) and I have pointed out repeatedly to friends that, while the show is certainly entertaining and impressively acted, pretty much the only thing that feels ‘fresh’ and modern about Orphan Black is the show’s focus on female protagonists, who mostly are some version of deeply flawed and/or unlikeable, which is normally only allowed for male protagonists, at least in this genre. (Note: The theme of human cloning and the horribly stereotyped GBF that is Felix feel very, very late 1990s to me. Like the script was developed back then and only now found a buyer. In fact, I wrote a short story for a bioethics-themed student contest around the time of the Dolly experiment, which could literally serve as a prequel to Orphan Black. And even I was liberally cribbing ideas from a bunch of 90s scifi shows and movies at the time. IMHO, if a professional scifi writer can’t come up with a more creative, up-to-date premise than what a 16-year-old first time writer wrote on a 3 days deadline 15 years ago, then he’s not trying hard enough.)

    However, what I don’t like about Sarah is not her ambiguous feelings towards motherhood – those I actually like a lot – but the fact that she stole from and deceived people for a living, and not just petty cash to feed herself. In real life, con-artists are awful, ruthless people who prey on the weak, not the kind of fun Robin Hood wannabes that TV and Hollywood tells us they are. I feel it’s disrespectful to real life victims to so consistently treat white collar crimes as if they are mere misdemeanors committed by charming rogues. Besides, that kind of storytelling is partially the reason why banksters and politicians, whose corruption, fraud and ponzy schemes arguably destroy more lives than any armed robber could ever manage to, get punished so lightly in our justice system that they have no real incentive not to commit their crimes.
    Also, Sarah has committed rape by fraud at least twice. Once with Beth’s boyfriend – she got lucky that he was guilty of the same crime and also pretending to be someone he wasn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that she intended to have sex with a man who, if he’d really been who he claimed to be, she knew wouldn’t have consented to have sex with her if he’d been aware she wasn’t actually his dead girlfriend. That kind of attitude is pretty reprehensible in my eyes, something only a sociopath would do in real life. Though it’s obvious that the writers didn’t see it as a crime or major personality flaw, probably because Sarah is pretty and because ‘everyone knows men are always willing’. Which makes it even worse. (The other time is revealed in season 2. The guy doesn’t mind later on either, not about the fact that they had sex without him giving informed consent anyway, but that doesn’t change that she was running a con on him at the time. The show plays it like the sex, and the feelings she developed for her victim during the con, partially excuses her doing it all just to steal from him…)

    Also, “a stolen kiss” – seriously? Sexual contact without consent is assault, not theft. Given your lengthy aside about women’s virtue and it’s economic value in history, you should know where that attitude comes from and not perpetuate it. And that you consider non-consensual kissing to be just as negligible as “a lie, a brushoff” is frankly disturbing. Or is it just no biggie if a woman does it to a man?

    • Vivi says:

      That said, I think Sanctuary had some less-than-perfect female protagonists that you might enjoy as well. Not criminally flawed, just… Well, the nominal protagonist is tough as nails, has about one episode per season where she goes violently insane for some reason or other, and she’s secretive to the point that it’s a problem with her leadership. (I say ‘nominal’ because the actress was the main pull of the show and also an executive producer, but her character’s young, and rather bland male protégé is the audience stand-in and therefore most episodes are told from his point of view. Kind of like with the Doctor and his companions. Actually, Helen Magnus is probably the closest we’re going to get to a female Doctor in some time. Or think of her as a female version of Torchwood’s Jack Harkness, minus the flirty nature.) I’ve seen a fanvideo about her and her protégé to the song “Kryptonite”, which I had never seen used for a female character before. (“If I go crazy then will you still call me superman?”)

      The other female character I’m refering to is sort of a female version of Han Solo – a criminal, but more in the sense of a mercenary who sometimes works for bad people, not a con woman. She gets redeemed very quickly by working for the good guys instead. Her character flaws are mainly messiness and the abrasiveness and trust issues that come with growing up fending for herself.

      Though I admit that show did have a major problem with trying to redeem/retcon irredeemable, but fan-favourite, male characters.

      The female protagonist of Fringe might also count as ‘flawed’, since she had some trouble expressing emotions, trust issues, and, IIRC, at least one version of her (… it’s complicated) killed her abusive dad when she was a kid. However, those writers also didn’t see much of a problem with a woman having sex with a man while pretending to be his girlfriend. Though at least in this case, the woman in question was under cover to save her world, so it’s perhaps allowable to treat her as a heroine later on. I believe she did apologize.

      Spartacus had a couple of very good female villains. Their story was actually more interesting and nuanced than that of the male villains, IMHO. As for flaws among the female heroic characters, most are generically kind and brave and bland, and Naevia starts out like that as well. But… well, PTSD does things to a woman, especially one trained as a warrior. (Predictably, the character was hated by most of the audience, especially because she’s a woman of colour. But from a feminist perspective, she’s amazing.)

      And of course Xena was all about redeeming an originally villainous character (still through the love of a good woman…), and there was at least one recurring female villain in the show itself who had a sympathetic origin story and was eventually literally redeemed.

      • floacist says:

        Lets be frank and straight forward; the fandom hatred of Naevia was not her being a ‘woman of color’ but a black woman.

        The racist, bigoted and disgusting insults that were hurled her way would not have happened had she been Eurasian like Mira or racially ambiguous Cape Coloured like Lesley Ann Brandt.

    • fozmeadows says:

      The phrase “a stolen kiss” is commonly used, not to denote a kiss taken by force, but a kiss taken in secret; one made illicit because either or both the kissers should really be kissing someone else, or because there’s some other obstacle to their being together. I am in no way, shape or form excusing non-consensual kissing, and certainly not on the grounds that a woman is the one doing it.

    • Shelly says:

      If you’re going to accuse Sarah of rape by fraud, you have to do the same thing with Paul. He started a relationship with Beth under false pretenses, had people come in and do medical experiments on her without her consent, described her as being “a cold fish” in bed, gaslit her, wasn’t who he said he was. Paul and Beth’s entire life together was a lie. And yet people in OB fandom are quick to defend him. Which just proves the point made in the original post.

      (And yet! Paul described sex with Sarah-as-Beth as “passionate”, then went on to sleep with Sarah as herself in between 1×07 and 1×08… all after stalking her twice (including photographing her with Kira while they were walking home from Kira’s school) and plotting to murder Sarah via lacing his booze with Beth’s meds, serving it to her, and making it look like an overdose.)

      You also have to do the same thing with Donnie (his entire marriage to Alison is a lie!) and possibly even Delphine.

      I’m not negating things Sarah and others have done; I’m just saying the fandom en masse could do to be consistent.

  14. Aphotic Ink says:

    [i]f female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

    …I feel like I’ve just been hit in the head with something so stunningly obvious that I literally cannot imagine how I did not see it before.

    Thank you.

  15. […] Hugo-nominated writer Foz Meadows talks Orphan Black, gender, and antiheroes: […]

  16. […] appreciate Jim Hines’ decision to discuss the issue at length in Libriomancer. •Foz Meadows discusses the challenges of writing about unsympathetic women, particularly unsympathetic mothers—the big […]

  17. Giandujakiss says:

    Not that I disagree with the general sentiment, but for women villains and former villains with redemption arcs, we’ve got Faith on Buffy, Xena and Callisto both on Xena, and Cara on Legend of the Seeker.

  18. Reblogged this on ramblings of an autistic wordsmith and commented:
    An excellent look at the lack of complex female anti-heroes in the stories we consume, and why it’s going to keep happening unless we challenge the way we tell stories about women.

  19. verdantsamuel says:

    Reblogged this on Verdant Handshake.

  20. alph_gal says:

    Nice article. Orphan Black is indeed fabulous. You should also watch anything written by Sally Wainwright in the UK (Unforgiven, Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey). She is a master at writing complex, flawed female characters who are nevertheless absorbing and extremely sympathetic. She draws the audience in to their complicated worlds, whether self-made or forced upon them, and makes you root for them, flaws and all. Marvellous!

  21. Emily Dee says:

    When I was first starting to watch Orphan Black, I was on the phone with a friend, trying to convince her to give it a whirl. I was describing the main character, and I got to the part of her circumstances, and I hit a slick patch. “She’s not…very nice. She’s done a lot of questionable things. But it’s so great, so well-written, that you sort of…can’t help not caring about it.”

    Most of that reluctance had nothing to do with Kira and Sarah’s relationship, and everything to do with Sarah’s lifestyle as a criminal. When we first meet Sarah, she is on the run from Vic the Dick, having bashed him over the head, and stolen a kilo of cocaine from him. Her next action is to pick up the purse of someone she’s just seen commit suicide; her theft of Beth’s life is at least partially motivated by curiosity, but it’s undeniable that her actions are almost entirely (at the beginning) monetary. Looting Beth’s wallet, she gets to the driver’s license and mutters “what the fuck…” but it’s even as she’s pocketing the cash. It’s clear that she’s done it time and again in the past, as she and Felix are seamless about their ability to con people, and when we meet Cal, he’s justifiably angry about a past con she ran on him.

    But here’s the thing; the narrative is so tightly written, I couldn’t help but shrug, and keep watching. Sarah is a fantastic character, and the show has her at its center in every way. It’s made clear: Sarah Manning is someone you can trust with your life, just not your debit card.

    I think her abandonment (and it is still going on, as what is this extended sojourn with babydaddy Cal, but another form of what went on with Mrs. S last season, one that gives dynamite Maria Doyle Kennedy some time away from the living room, a meatier role that allows us to see Siobhan as just as dangerous as any of the other women on the show?) of Kira is presented in a pretty practical light. Sarah’s only getting deeper into the CloneClub world, coming up against the Prolethians (eventually, right?) and Dyad Group. While they wrote Kira in as this sympathetic motivating plot device; Sarah is doing all of this for her daughter! So they can be together! It doesn’t make for the sort of taut, high-stakes TV that Orphan Black is known for, if we know that Sarah is going to slip her bonds in that shower stall and get home in time to feed her daughter supper and tuck her in.

    What’s great is that I haven’t really seen that much in either the show’s language, or the metacriticism condemning Sarah for it. She is being allowed (although perhaps OB has slipped in via the side entrance) to be just as much of an absentee parent/badass as a hundred action stars have been before her. Jack Bauer, John McClane, and Sarah Manning.

  22. James Edward says:


  23. James Edward says:

    That was AMAZING

  24. […] post: Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta by Foz […]

  25. […] הארץ: "גוף שלוש" והמדע הבדיוני הסיני. – פוז מדווז – מגדר, אורפן בלאק והמטא של המטא. – שתי כתבות על מדע בדיוני בערבית. מתוך "המזרח התיכון […]

  26. […] Rocket Talk. Foz Meadows, “Gender, Orphan Black, and the Meta of Meta.” […]

  27. […] Foz Meadows takes a look at the characterization of Sarah. […]

  28. […] reserved for males and stays sympathetic. Foz Meadows additionally places it completely in this essay about Orphan Black: We consider males as antiheroes, as able to occupying an intense and interesting ethical gray […]

  29. […] on the portrayal of Black Widow in Age of Ultron). There is also a history of reception that is much harder on female characters than on male characters. Male characters are allowed to be unlikeable, for instance, in a way that female characters seldom […]

  30. Marco says:

    Um, it’s way more likely that female villains get redemption arcs in media, but more likely if they’re pretty (just one example, Pussy Galore and another, Maleficent in the 2014 movie (btw, fuck that movie)). It’s still a deeply troubling implication, though; that women cannot be evil if not because of an evil man (again, Maleficent).

  31. […] Sarah is not a particularly moral character, but even so, she’s quite likable and I can’t help but root for her to succeed. She’s an anti-hero. And it didn’t quite hit me how significant this is until I read a post by Foz Meadows on Sarah’s likability, Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta. […]

  32. My Blog says:

    […] Foz Meadows (Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta of Meta) […]

  33. […] just because yo I believe everyone has the right to excellent Black Widow meta but because Natasha is one of the most meta’d ladycharacters around and it’s still hard for some people to find. I think of this confession, which I initially […]

  34. FYBW says:

    […] Meadows, Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta Format QuotePosted on May 20, 2014Author AlexTags foz meadows, quotes, why i do what i […]

  35. LowlySacker says:

    […] Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta […]

  36. […] territory normally reserved for male characters is discussed fascinatingly by Foz Meadows here: Alison remains sympathetic despite her numerous quirks and a much darker streak; treatted here as […]

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