The introduction of a transgender clone in Orphan Black Season 2 received polarized responses from both audiences and critics: Was Tony Sawicki, a trans male clone introduced in “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” a gimmicky writing stunt or a sincere attempt at representation for an all-but invisible minority group? Reactions to Tony have been dominated by superficial discussions of “diversity” and “authenticity,” but Tony is not the only trans character on Orphan Black: all the show’s clones are “trans” bodies who illustrate the scientific construction of sex and gender, the phenomenon of passing, and the history of eugenics embedded in reproductive medicine.
While Tony’s characterization was problematic from the perspective of transgender identity politics, a deeper focus on Orphan Black’s structure illustrates how and why he belongs. Orphan Black belongs to a set of science fiction texts—including The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), and Under the Skin (2013)—that explore what might be called “transgender” phenomenology without necessarily being about transgender identity. Referencing early sci-fi narratives like Frankenstein (1818) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), these texts explore the relationship between the body and subjectivity, investigating how we know our bodies belong to us and how that knowledge is produced and controlled--by kinship, medicine, gender assignment, and the logic of species. Through gender, Orphan Black pursues ethical questions about bodily autonomy, medical authority, and the surveillance state that are fundamentally important to transgender studies.
Orphan Black resists normative representations of genealogical descent by revealing the horizontal inheritance of gender assignments and identities. The cisgender body is revealed to be as constructed as the transgender body, both products of medical science, both “passing” as natural. All clone bodies (not just Tony’s) inherit their gender artificially—not from organic parentage but through institutional and cultural power. Gender replicates horizontally from clone body to clone body in a non-heteronormative, transgenic pattern of reproduction that mimics the institutional fabrication of gender categories and their associated roles. This is why Tony belongs in the clone club: Rather than introducing the transgender character as an outlier or “orphan” in the vertical structure of gender inheritance, Orphan Black reveals the medically constructed nature of all gender assignments, universalizing a trans aesthetic in its exploration of embodiment and consciousness.