Horizontal Inheritance: Orphan Black's Transgender Genealogy

Curator's Note

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.




Cael, this is such an elegant and insightful argument. I love the way you recognise a broader transgender phenomenology at work in the series. I’ve been thinking about how this phenomenology intersects with the space of the home, which is similarly structured by vertical hierarchies and gendered norms. If gender identity is essentially about being at home in a body, then Orphan Black challenges the stability and safety of the space of the home. From Sarah’s vagabond lifestyle to Cal’s RV, we see the home as a space of mobility and transfer. From Aynsley’s garbage disposal to Rachel’s shower, the familiarity of the domestic becomes threatening and strange. And from Felix’s loft space to Cosima’s lab space, the true spaces of ‘home’ are those that are created and constructed. The more I think about it, the more I see the traces of transgender phenomenology everywhere! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the somewhat sacred position of motherhood in the series. Even though the series does explore non-normative family structures, I can’t help but feel like it privileges Sarah’s experience of biological motherhood. Reproduction and reproductive rights are both major issues within cisgendered feminism, and often structure transphobic and transmisogynist arguments. Do you think that this privileging of biological motherhood poses a challenge to the transgender phenomenology you’ve identified in Orphan Black?

That's an interesting point, and one I've been considering. It strikes me that Sarah's reproductive capacity is "queered" in that it is unexpected--a mutation. I think the corporate, scientific, and religious obsession with her reproductivity could actually be read as a critique of the reproductive imperative as well as the medical control of women's bodies. Because of her body's unexpected capacity, Sarah finds herself embedded in a world that relentlessly pursues control of that capacity and its product--Kira. And, of course, the name "Kira" returns us to the word "kyriarchy" and the sovereign role that childbearing is forced to play in the lives of women. To retain her status as a woman, as mother, Sarah MUST try to retain Kira in what almost seems like an expression of ideology.

This is an interesting argument but I'm torn about calling all of the clones "trans" bodies. Does labeling the other clones in this way not diminish Tony's experience? Tony is a character who, upon introduction, is clearly fighting against his genetic construction, which is a battle that none of the other clones have to take on (nor seem to want to take on). At the same time, I wonder if opening up the terminology to "transhuman" and/or "posthuman" might be more accurate. We are reminded quite a bit in the series about the clones being scientific creations. None of them were naturally conceived but were made in a lab. This is a point that you mention above and given this point, I am considering the transhumanist/posthuman thought about gender not having any meaning for creatures with no history and no way to pass it on. They are simply beyond it. The counter to this, of course, might lie with Sarah, who, while constructed is able to pass on her genetics. Still, I feel like this argument is far more inclusive not just for Tony but for all of the clones (current and future).

I agree with this suggestion, Liza-Anne! I believe that thinking about posthumanism might be a better way to expand our thoughts on the series. Specifically, I'm thinking here of Olivier and his tail and the discourse around body modification. It might be potentially problematic to equate all forms of body modification with transgender but transhuman or posthuman might be more fitting.

Intriguing points! This (above) is a distinction I try to point to when I distinguish trans as an identity politics from "trans" as an aesthetic. My use of "trans" above is similar to the use of "queer" in studies of textuality. Ultimately, I think we need to reject the concretization of trans as a form of normative identification: viewing OB in that manner leads to disappointment, since Tony is not a particularly politically correct example of trans "representation." However, if we think about "trans"--and here I think this is the same "trans" in "transhuman" or "transgenic"--as a set of aesthetic practices that bring the medical and institutional construction of humanity and its gendering into view, then we can "see" far more in the text than a simple reading for identity categorization will give us. A broad reading of "trans" does justice to Tony precisely because it illustrates that there is no real difference between these gendered categories of trans and cis: they are equally constructed. No one is more "natural" than the other. Also, I think "posthuman" readings may be too general to use when thinking through the program's specific inventions into gender, which is my focus here. And lastly, I read the show as a text in which nearly every character is "fighting" the biological determinism of genetics. Is this not the struggle that we see characters such as Rachel, Cosima, and Helena locked in?

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