One of a Multiplicious Kind: Orphan Black, Performance and the Plurality of Female Experience

by Joseph Walderzak

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 136] This article argues that Orphan Black’s concentration of female characters, all performed by Tatiana Maslany, not only challenges and deconstructs salient stereotypes but exposes their triviality through establishing their mutability, accessibility, and diversity. Amanda Lotz’s work on television provides an entry point to analyzing the ramifications of Maslany’s performance. The diversity of characters from the same genetic source is in itself empowering, but the fact they can successfully portray one another and are all performed by a single actress shows the permeability and accessibility of various female personas. These scenes raise awareness of the performative aspects of identity, and, therefore, the thrust of this article is analogous to theories of gender performativity, particularly those which have built upon and challenged Judith Butler’s seminal works on the topic. Using this context of performativity, I here refine Lotz’s methodology in order to illuminate how performance is linked to archetypes.

Keywords: feminist media, gender studies, Orphan Black performance studies, performativity, television studies

Upon its debut in 2013, clone-drama Orphan Black (BBC America, 2013-2017) was both an anomaly of the contemporary television landscape and an aberration within the history of the medium. By its fourth episode, series lead Tatiana Maslany had portrayed six characters, and it was a rare scene in which Maslany was not on screen as one (if not more) of her characters. Throughout the series, Maslany has appeared as over a dozen characters—some for a scene, others for an episode, or as one of the five characters around which the show’s narrative revolves. At the conclusion of its third season and thirtieth episode, the final scene is a technological marvel in which Maslany appears as four of her characters, interacting with one another as well as several other principal characters. Her performance has garnered accolades (two Critics’ Choice awards and an Emmy) and attention from [page 137] journalistic sources, from gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly to being considered by a diversity of cultural critics. While the show is either dismissed as convoluted genre fare or appreciated for its brazen feminist discourse, it is Maslany who has consistently attracted glowing statements exemplified by the comparatively subdued praise of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who describes Maslany’s performance as “so magnetic that it transforms the show” and hails it “a tour de force of subtlety.” In fact, the labor and ingenuity required to successfully accomplish the sequence mentioned above is lost on the viewer who has been mesmerized by the singular performance. Ironically, it is the quality of the performance that enables the technological possibilities to be accepted despite the fact that the show could not exist without said technology.

Discussions of Orphan Black’s feminism and patent critiques of patriarchy acknowledge Maslany’s performance but fail to appreciate how the performance itself—severed from its ambitiously feminist narrative—is imbued with representational politics. Therefore, its broader political ambitions may obscure its most significant cultural feat; one performer’s ability to explore a plurality of female experiences has the potential to make stereotypes uninhabitable and challenge the cultural meanings associated with particular gender scripts. I argue that Orphan Black’s concentration of female characters, all performed by Maslany, not only challenges and deconstructs salient stereotypes but exposes their triviality through establishing their mutability, accessibility, and diversity. As such, I am far more preoccupied with the implications of Maslany’s performance than the nuances and gradation of her characterizations, although at times a consideration of the latter is inseparable from that of the former. To be sure, the gender politics provided by the diversity of characters within the narrative is the result of a singular incomparable performance. Therefore, no distinction can exist between the gender politics of interest and the performance of Maslany. In fact, any interpretation of the show that fails to acknowledge—if not foreground—the performative aspects is inadequate. Ultimately, the marvel of the performance is not as culturally significant as its broad implications, which this analysis [page 138] will explore.

Orphan Black’s convoluted narrative defies encapsulation, yet the basic framework of the plot is important to outline for the reader unfamiliar with the series; the finer intricacies of the narrative can be discarded, but the diversity of characters merits contextualization in order to appreciate their significance. In many ways, Orphan Black is a prototypical offering of BBC America in the 2010s; it offers a cerebral and pensive twist on a genre that is typically dismissed as cult (the understated zombie drama In the Flesh [2013-14] is another notable example). In fact, while frequently grouped as a science fiction drama due to its cloning storyline, the series has as much if not more in common with meditative doppelgänger dramas The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991) or Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013), which accentuate and prioritize human drama above the scientific context. This is not tantamount to the series being completely severed from science fiction, body horror, and the allure of supernatural; the series is a paragon of Veronica Hollinger’s claims that feminism within the genre “aims to render obsolete the patriarchal order whose hegemony has meant inequality and oppression for women as the ‘others’ of men” (126). The show begins at a train station when grifter Sarah Manning witnesses Beth Childs, a woman who looks exactly like her, commit suicide. Sarah steals Beth’s identity (convincing her foster brother Felix [Jordan Gavaris] to identify Beth’s body as Sarah’s), and this decision forces her to encounter a number of her doppelgängers, who are revealed to be her genetic clones over the course of the first several episodes: German Katja Obinger, soccer mom and suburbanite Alison Hendrix, PhD student Cosima Niehaus, and Ukrainian-trained assassin Helena. The series follows two narrative threads. The first involves the clones’, primarily Sarah’s and Cosima’s, search for answers as they pursue a cure for an illness that is killing them, pitting them against a number of ominous institutions and governments. Secondly, the series explores the bond of sisterhood that develops between the clones and their struggle for meaning in their personal lives amidst the tumultuous reality of their creation and observation. Aloof, ambitious, and self-aware Rachel Duncan, the transgender criminal Tony Zwickey, dying school teacher Jennifer Fitzsimmons, affable and ditzy Krystal Goderitch, and the [page 139] underground hacker M.K. are the other clones introduced throughout the series. That these roles are nearly entirely stereotypes is presumably intentional and has been acknowledged by critics such as Lili Loofbourow as “a bewildering diverse set of stock characters…encompassing almost every trope women get to play in Hollywood and on TV.” Valuably, Loofbourow and others interpret this procession of stock characters as a suggestive critique of media representations, yet the potential of this feature of the series demands further attention. Particularly, each character’s ability to simultaneously conform to these archetypes while challenging their conventions suggests that the series challenges the future viability of these stereotypes. Of most importance, however, is each character’s ability to enact each other’s persona (a frequently deployed—and undeniably enjoyable and impressive—narrative device) that demonstrates the diversity of outcomes for women. Each clone’s ability to perform as another clone—successfully duping numerous characters (almost always men) throughout the series—suggests the mutability of their personas. This obfuscates, if not prevents, fixed meanings associated with each character, and these scenes of chicanery involving inhabiting other identities make rigid stereotypes less accessible.

Given the utter uniqueness of Maslany’s performance, dominating nearly every scene and at times filling the screen with iterations of herself, there is hardly a methodology in place to examine such a perplexing text. Donna Haraway’s seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto” has become a touchstone to any analysis of femininity within science fiction, but the dichotomies that she establishes fail to appreciate the elaborate character work of Maslany, and Haraway’s critique of “traditional feminism” is divisive and reductive. The work on science fiction and gender inspired by Haraway has continued with narrative readings that identify dichotomies: natural body/techno-body, real woman/imitation woman, being a woman and performing femininity (Hollinger 127). While issues of performance are relevant and will be explored further below, Maslany’s performance and Orphan Black’s narrative largely do not so much adhere to these dichotomies as willfully deconstruct them, provocatively positioning these dichotomies as false, with characters severely [page 140] aware of their reality and engaging with their performance of identity. Thus, these methodologies are useful for understanding the narrative politics of Orphan Black but are not effective tools for a consideration of the implications of the performance of diverse characters.

Amanda Lotz’s work on television provides an entry point to analyzing the ramifications of Maslany’s performance. Lotz, building on Stuart Hall, claims that a multiplicity of images of a stereotyped group is more important than positive representations (a concept she finds problematic) in making such images uninhabitable (13). She argues that one must engage stereotypes to prevent fixed meaning from becoming established. While the prevalence—if not proliferation—of the archetypes that she identifies persisting into the 21st century could be interpreted as a challenge to Lotz’s claims, a more likely explanation is that the saturation point of diverse characters engaging with the stereotypes has yet to be reached. In fact, Lotz notes that the proliferation of stereotypes does not amount directly to a feminist gain but has the potential to render some problematic archetypes uninhabitable, or for subversive meanings to be associated with these stereotypes (20). The fact that many of the archetypes that Lotz identifies continue to proliferate magnifies her overly cautious claims as well as the significance of the performative aspects of Orphan Black. Maslany’s performance demonstrates how a multiplicity of tropes can likewise attract those scholars who are interested in identifying positive role models, an approach dismissed by Lotz and many others as reductive or simplistic. These criticisms rightly identify the quagmire of beatifying certain behaviors and lifestyles while impugning others (implicitly or otherwise), but a completely neutral approach risks relinquishing a feminist position on the shifting formation of power and strength. Ultimately, the choice between Lotz’s neutrality and beatifying discourses on power is made moot by Orphan Black’s multiplicity of strong characters, at least one of which must appeal to any audience member. This inevitable appeal is what makes Maslany’s portrayal an exemplar of what Lotz defines as “locations for identification,” wherein an ensemble cast caters to audiences’ self-identification and consequently exposes myriad female experiences (74, 92).

The diversity of characters from the same genetic source is in [page 141] itself empowering, but the fact they can successfully portray one another and are all performed by a single actress shows the permeability and accessibility of various female personas within a medium in which “representations of modern femininity are forged, fought over, and understood” (Gough-Yates, 39). These scenes of characters performing as another character have the unique capacity to accelerate the uninhabitable potential of the narrative, as these scenes will be shown to subvert the archetypes. These scenes raise awareness of the performative aspects of identity, and, therefore, the thrust of this article is analogous to theories of gender performativity, particularly those which have built upon and challenged Judith Butler’s seminal works on the topic. One such challenge, from Kathleen Jones, insists that Butler fails to acknowledge that women are “not from the head of Zeus, but from the body of a woman…that we came out of the body of some woman in particular, that we have a past, that we are not self-made” (79).1 Ironically, the female clones of Orphan Black are created as part of a clandestine program labeled as Leda, a fabled lover of Zeus. The Leda clones do not have a past and thus are an experiment within the series’ narrative as much as they are of Butler’s key assertion that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed…which required individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again” (277). Relatedly, Peter Digeser argues that identity is the result of the “performances that are demanded of us and in the deeds that are done,” which result in enormous social pressures (656-7). It is these pressures that speak to the saliency of the archetypes that Lotz identifies as being perpetuated by the mass media and which require subtle and repetitive iterations of subversion to overcome. In fact, Butler similarly suggests that “possibilities of gender transformation are to be found ... in the breaking or subversive repetition” of performative acts (271). Using this context of performativity, I here refine Lotz’s methodology in order to illuminate how performance is linked to archetypes (equally relevant to mass media as to everyday life), and Orphan Black’s unique and complex performative aspects demonstrate that it is an exemplary analytical text, as the performative aspects are illuminated by a single actresses’ transformation. Further to this end, particular attention in each [page 142] subsection will be given to the scenes of clone impersonation and how each relates to performative concepts of play and masquerade.

Loofbourow’s claim that “instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them” can apply as much to the maleficent corporations within the narrative as it can to media producers who proliferated such limiting archetypes. Each of the five primary characters performed by Maslany—Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena, Rachel—conform to broad yet complex stereotypes. Briefly describing how each character subscribes to particular conventions, challenges those norms, and is able to masquerade as another clone on occasion supports the contention that the plurality of Maslany’s performance has the potential to render stereotypes uninhabitable. The fluidity of these transformations and the overwhelming success of their chicanery champions the depth of female experience—each able to “play” and understand a wealth of personas—while exposing the lack of perception of their male marks. It is these targets—genius scientists, detectives, industrialists, military figures, husbands and fathers, all with intimate relationships with a clone—who represent the patriarchal order unable to distinguish women from the roles they play; in turn, the audience shares in the experience of being Maslany’s own mark, lost in her own multilayered transformation. The pleasure of these dual ruses is exceptional, but the greater contribution rests in the potential of the clones’ ability to habituate one another, amounting to each individual stereotype being less habitable in the greater media landscape.


Sarah is the entry point for the audience to nearly all the narrative threads and therefore naturally caters to audience sympathies. Existing outside of corporate monitoring before stealing Beth’s identity, Sarah spearheads the investigation and quickly evolves from selfish disinterest (planning to rob Beth and Alison through conning Beth’s bank) to selfless valor. Sarah’s grifter persona is unmistakably established in the first several episodes. She inadvertently must imitate being a police detective in [page 143] order to maintain her identity as Beth, including clearing Beth of a suspicious shooting, manipulating a man from the department’s IT department, and blackmailing a psychiatrist to release her back to active duty. Meanwhile, imitating Beth leads her to the discovery of her clone sisters and places her life in immediate danger, as Helena is determined to kill Beth (whom Sarah is pretending to be) and successfully murders Katja. Her street survival skills are summoned when she must dispose of Katja’s body by burying her in a construction site and hoses out Beth’s car to destroy any evidence. When confronted by Helena, Sarah is able to escape by stabbing her with a metal bar and in a later episode punches her wound to force her capitulation. Additionally, Beth’s monitor, Paul (Dylan Bruce), becomes suspicious of Beth’s newly erratic behavior and punk clothing. Sarah refuses to trust Paul, uses sex to allay his suspicions, and repeatedly evades his efforts of containment despite his military training.

As the series develops, the danger shifts towards her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), which paces Sarah’s surprising development. Sarah is suspicious of the underground network that her foster mother, Siobhan Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy), uses to hide Kira from the Dyad Institute (the primary nefarious corporation responsible for the monitoring of the clones). Sarah and Kira are able to escape, despite being confronted at gunpoint, commencing a pattern of using her grifter resourcefulness to protect her daughter. Sarah uses her resourcefulness as an investigator, partnering with sympathetic detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard), frequently exhuming Beth’s persona. She cons her way into access of secluded research files that lead to their discovery of their creator. In the third season, Art and Sarah commence an investigation into the Castor clones (a project of weaponized military male clones played by Ari Millen). Despite their quest for Kira, Sarah convinces a Castor clone not to shoot her and eventually saves him by removing a bullet from his leg. When later captured by an unstable Castor clone, Sarah is imprisoned in a desert military facility. With Helena, Sarah concocts and executes an escape plan, but Helena abandons her as an act of (misguided) revenge. Eventually, she is set free by Paul, and the third season ends with Sarah’s most complex heroics. She coaxes Felix to steal [page 144] the purse of a newly discovered clone, beautician Krystal, to manufacture a fake identity to free Rachel from Dyad, because she can decode their genetic sequence and potentially save their lives. Their plan is impeded by Topside (yet another nefarious corporation involved in the clone’s development) and Felix, Siobhan, and Sarah use Rachel’s lone clue to leave for Britain to search for the genetic original. Discovering that the genetic original is Siobhan’s mother, they return to Canada, and Sarah uses her as leverage to ensure freedom for her sisters and execution of the Castor clones. Sarah, the deceitful grifter, is shown to have the same skillset as the detective she imitated. Though she remains coldly calculating (using Krystal and feeling no remorse when Siobhan’s friend is left for dead), the narrative shifts the context to resolutely reveal the heroism of her grifter skillset. In the fourth season, Sarah uncovers the battling scientific factions, conspires with the Leda faction to take control of Dyad, and contributes her genetic material along with a Castor contribution to provide stem cells needed for a cure. In the final season, Sarah is central to the toppling of P.T. Westmoreland (Stephen McHattie), the mastermind of the cloning experiments and engineer of an elaborate immortality myth. She rescues Helena from Dyad and kills Westmoreland in self-defense. While initially reluctant, Sarah is the clone who incomparably embraces the family dynamic of their clone sisterhood. This development contradicts her hard con-woman exterior and has the potential to leave such a stereotype uninhabitable. The only clone able to conceive a child prior to Helena’s forced impregnation, Sarah takes on a mothering role to the group: protecting them from danger and catering to their sympathies. By the final episodes of the first season, Helena is tamed, not through acts of violence, but through Sarah’s manipulation of her sympathies for Kira when convincing her to attack her patriarchal oppressor, instead. Likewise, Sarah uses the language of family and sisterhood to convince Helena not to kill Rachel, for the sake of Felix, who is being blackmailed for murder by Dyad. The grifter persona is revealed to be one dimension of Sarah, an aspect that she can resourcefully inhabit but that fails to fully encapsulate her person.

Sarah’s ability to inhabit each of the clones’ personas is a commentary on her resourcefulness but also on how each of their [page 145] personas is a well-established archetype. Importantly, these archetypes are exposed as reductive while, at the same time, a clone can successfully dupe outsiders by adopting another’s persona. Ultimately, the series reveals how these archetypes are cultural constructs, which allows for the clones to easily borrow one another’s personas. Through these transformative acts and other subversive behaviors that challenge these archetypes, the collective of clones reveal the superficiality of varied salient cultural stereotypes and how they can use such preconceptions to their technical advantages. Beyond Sarah’s sustained and intermittent imitation of Beth, Sarah plays a hotel staff as the German Katja in order to access Katja’s suitcase containing blood samples from European clones. She imitates Cosima, tricking the head of Dyad but not Cosima’s girlfriend Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), in order to get to Rachel, whom she thinks is responsible for Kira’s disappearance. She cons a Dyad leader as Krystal in order to isolate him in an alley for a coerced interrogation. She imitates Rachel with her lover in order to convince Topside that Rachel, whom Sarah had attacked, is still running Dyad. As became necessary when imitating Beth, Sarah deploys her (or Beth’s/Rachel’s) sex appeal in order to suppress any suspicions. In the penultimate episode, she again poses as Rachel in order to infiltrate Dyad and confront Westmoreland. A third masquerade as Rachel is the most technically impressive, as Sarah plays Rachel to spring Kira from Rachel’s observation and then exchanges roles with M.K., who plays Rachel while Sarah switches to M.K. in order to escape.

Sarah apes Alison on two notable occasions. In the first, a comedic highlight of the series, she plays Alison as she hosts a neighborhood house party while the real Alison interrogates her husband, Donnie (Kristian Bruun), before eventually drinking herself unconscious. Able to dupe all of Alison’s closest friends and a blindfolded Donnie, Sarah’s imitation makes clear the superficiality of Alison’s suburban life. In the other instance, Sarah imitates Alison at family day at rehab. Again able to dupe Donnie, Sarah uses these opportunities to berate his inability to appreciate his wife, and her ability to go undetected in even such intrusive environments reveals a profound understanding of suburban life, of which rehab is simply a natural consequence. Thus, these [page 146] moments of masquerade not only show the mutability and constructed quality of the archetypes but also allow for each archetype to be investigated and exposed, furthering the process of uninhabitability as defined by Lotz. Further, these cons and masquerades reify Digeser’s claim that for parodic subversion to be successful, it must generate a confusion “over whether the gesture is constituting one’s gender or expressing it” (667). Sarah’s assortment of deceptions is an act of playing—resembling Butler’s emancipatory description of drag for identities rather than gender—which exposes the limitations of archetypes. Consider how the meaning is retained when substituting “identity” for “gender” in this passage of Moya Lloyd’s analysis of Butler: “By disclosing that there is no original to imitate, drag denaturalizes, divulging the culturally fabricated nature of identity. It reveals all identity as only ever parody” (198). This shuffling of personas serves to displace norms and challenge archetypal identities.


Initially offering a superficial parody of suburban life, Alison’s character develops to reveal the limitations of the housewife archetype. Alison, who serves as her adopted children’s soccer and skating coach, is active in community theater, and spends much of her time in her craft room. Her Cinderella tendencies are exemplified when she lives with Felix and reverts to giving his bohemian bachelor pad a detailed cleaning. Much of the first season revolves around Alison’s paranoia concerning the threat of Helena and detecting her monitor. Alison is eager to wield her gun, holding both Sarah and Felix at gunpoint in early episodes, and armed and waiting by the door when suspecting Helena’s arrival. Yet her gun skills become useful when she teaches Sarah how to shoot, enabling her to continue masquerading as Beth, and later when she is able to procure an unmarked gun from her drug dealer. Alison proves equally as tough and resourceful as Sarah when she pepper sprays and Tasers Sarah’s ex, who approaches Alison mistaking her for Sarah. Likewise, she pepper sprays officials from Dyad when they are led into mistaking her for Sarah. When Donnie accidentally kills the head of Dyad, it is Alison who [page 147] immediately thinks of how to dispose of the body, gun, and evidence. Deciding to bury him under the garage floor, Alison has to take over the jackhammer from an incompetent Donnie and she is able to remain unmoved opposite Donnie’s anxiety. Later, Alison takes the lead again when having to exhume the body for Cosima’s research.

Alison’s suspicions that Donnie is her monitor, the person hired to report clone activities to Dyad, lead her to accosting him with a golf club, tying him up, and interrogating him with a hot-glue gun. The fact that the craft room becomes repurposed into a torture chamber is emblematic of the intentional deconstruction of the suburban housewife archetype. In another instance, a relentless detective attempts to scam Alison, but she fails to be duped when the detective claims to live on a nearby street. Again, the knowledge of the nosy suburban woman is rehabilitated from useless to vital. When her suspicions shift to her best friend, Aynsley (Natalie Lisinska), she decides to sleep with Aynsley’s husband, declaring “I’m objectifying you sexually to get back at Aynsley” in an ostentatious announcement of a gender norms reversal (episode 10). Discovering Alison’s tryst with her husband, Aynsley confronts and attacks Alison in the middle their neighborhood street, exposing the fragility of the suburban milieu. Offered forgiveness by way of staging of an intervention, Alison rejects Aynsley’s overture and berates her for constantly interfering in her life, drawing an equivalency between suburban life and being scientifically monitored. In a final and fatal act of paranoia, Alison watches as Aynsley is choked to death when her scarf catches in the garbage disposal. Feeling a sense of security following Aynsley’s death, she agrees to sign a contract with Dyad but not before offering her self-aware quip that they must think of her as “stupid suburban Alison” (episode 10). These acts take on extra weight early in the second season when Alison discovers, through entrapment, that Donnie is in fact her monitor.

For much of the second season, Alison is contained in rehab after falling off the stage at a community theater performance. She is faced with Donnie’s indifference, threatening to castrate him if he fails to bring the kids to visit her. More troubling is the meddling detective, Angela DeAngelis (Inga Cadranel), who [page 148] blackmails a former associate of Sarah, Vic (Michael Mando), to coax a confession out of Alison. Upon discovering the plan, Felix and Alison drug Vic, forcing DeAngelis to temporarily abandon her interest in the mystery. The third season maintains Alison’s isolation from the principal narrative thread as she decides to run for the school board to prevent a redistricting plan. Faced with Donnie’s job loss, Alison decides to take over a drug business from her former dealer, which will bring in a substantial income, and to bribe her peers to vote for her. This scenario allows for the perfect amalgamation of the stereotypical overprotective mother who wishes to protect her children and the transgressive figure who deals drugs to ensure such ends while further exposing her upper middle class neighborhood, whose residents make up her client list. This is made more potent by the fact that the cover for their drug distribution is gourmet soaps, and they arrive at laundering money through purchasing Alison’s mother’s soap store. As in disposing of the body, Donnie offers very little to their partnership, which forces Alison to take on the brunt of the work and defend him to her disapproving mother. In the final seasons, Alison and Donnie are used primarily as leverage to ascertain the location and cooperation of what Dyad considers to be more essential clones, the fertile twins Sarah and Helena. Alison and Donnie avoid apprehension is a variety of ways, retreating to the woods or conspiring with other clones or their sympathetic partners to evade capture or negotiate freedom.

Much like Sarah’s grifter, Alison’s suburbanite exposes the archetype mostly through transgressive implementations of suburban life, from glue-guns to homemade soaps. Moreover, her resourcefulness challenges programs that deploy the suburbanite archetype in a vacuous way. Her resourcefulness explains her ability to imitate Sarah on two occasions. On the first occasion, she avoids Siobhan’s suspicions but is detected by Kira, and in the second, she tricks Topside officials who are duped into believing that Sarah remains in their custody. On both occasions, it is Alison’s inherent understanding of being an outcast, a rebel, which enables the relative success of their chicanery and also demonstrates the uninhabitability of any rigid stereotype. The stereotype of the suburban mother is a burden to Alison, who often feels that she is viewed by Dyad and Rachel as superfluous and simple; this comes [page 149] to a head in the final season when Alison confronts Rachel and her preconceptions about Alison’s life to ensure her freedom. This successful encounter convinces Alison to go on a retreat from which she returns in the final episodes with a jarringly carefree attitude. However, what appears to be a repudiation of her previous personality (and reverting the subversion that the archetype had undergone throughout the series) is only a momentary lapse, as her final appearances in the series finale show her fretting about the decorations at party, nagging Donnie, and sharing her frustration with her children. Rather than reversing Alison’s trajectory, the series reinforces Alison’s strength within her archetype.


A University of Minnesota doctoral student in evolutionary development biology, Cosima provides necessary exposition regarding the science of the series but is also the most benevolent primary clone, perhaps exacerbated by her illness, which motivates Sarah’s search for the original. Cosima engages with the person whom she suspects is her monitor, Delphine, and despite Sarah’s warnings, eventually becomes romantically involved with her. Through Delphine, Cosima encounters Dyad and begins to accept its tenets of “Neolutionism,” controlled or manipulated evolutionary experimentation. Her acceptance of Dyad and her pitching its cooperation pits her against Sarah’s intrinsic distrust of institutions. When Sarah is proven right and Delphine is revealed to have spied on Cosima, Cosima at first rebuffs Delphine but then accepts her back into her life because, despite the circumstances, their feelings for one another prove genuine and the authenticity of the relationship is a central “location of identification.” While her archetype is not as inured as other clones, her free-spirit, pot-smoking, lesbian persona is equally challenged as limiting and problematic. In part, this is accomplished through her fiery lambasts regarding their biological rights in a patriarchal order. Upon realizing that their genetic code is copyrighted, she pleads with Sarah, “We’re property. Our bodies. Our biologies. Everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them” [page 150] (episode 10). Similarly, she upbraids Delphine for bringing her blood samples to Dyad, passionately arguing, “This is my biology. My decision,” a conscious echo of the tenets of reproductive right advocates (episode 11). This position is echoed when Kira’s stem cells are used without permission and Cosima maintains, “This is my lab. My body. I’m the science” (episode 17). In these outbursts, her scientific mind and her ethical superiority are foregrounded, and her sexual lifestyle and carefree spirit are unapologetically relegated to being only a minor aspect of who she is.

While these comments exceptionally place Cosima within the political context of the show’s narrative, these same retorts are proffered regarding her own characterization. When described by Rachel as a lesbian, Cosima retorts, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me,” a riposte aimed as much at Rachel as at the lesbian television archetype itself (episode 12). Cosima not only transgressively inhabits a stereotype to make it uninhabitable (the one-dimensional gay character deconstructed, as it were) but also actively comments on the tropes of her archetype by acknowledging its limitations. It is her scientific mind that is far more interesting than her sexuality, and the obstacles of her relationship that she develops in the third season revolve around trust, honesty, and latent feelings for Delphine; the series may be remiss to present a world free of prejudice, but it notably jettisons such concerns to develop aspects of a gay character that largely go unexamined. Significantly, in Cosima’s lone scene as another clone, imitating Alison at a campaign rally, she identifies herself as a lesbian before quickly covering her gaffe; the narrative foregrounds Cosima’s sexuality but resists the trope of treating that characteristic as singularly representative or descriptive. Aided by her clumsy and affable lab assistant Scott (Josh Vokey), Cosima develops a pencil launcher that allows Sarah to escape Dyad through attacking Rachel. She dominates role-playing games with Scott and her male peers, and when removing a brain from a dead Castor clone, it is Cosima who enthusiastically accomplishes the gruesome act as Scott fails to have the fortitude. These actions, combined with her ability to solve numerous mysteries of their genetic heritage and illness, represent a resourcefulness both uniquely foregrounded above her sexuality and equated with the survival skills of Sarah and Alison. [page 151]

As the stakes rise in the final season, Cosima remains the emotional center of the series while invariably rivaling Sarah as the narrative center as well. Cosima leads and coordinates the investigation into Brightborn, a sect of Dyad that advocates implanting bots that edit genetic sequences. Her meddling amounts to her being a witness to the murder of her genetic original, which given her sympathetic status, maximizes the cathartic aspect of this pivotal moment. Cosima continues to be integral as she works with Susan and Rachel, prior to their dueling betrayals, to create a cure, and, in the final season, she is intransigent in her quest to investigate the mythic Westmoreland. Her resiliency proves fruitful in challenging Westmoreland and unearthing both his true motivations and his real identity before absconding with the cure and the information used to take down Dyad and Neolution. Cosima’s fate is to travel the world with Delphine and cure the other, unaware clones. With Cosima heroically foregrounded in the narrative, her Berkeley qualities—typically used for comedy in popular culture—are challenged; likewise, her sexual orientation is never muted but never sensationalized or used as a plot crutch or twist. No one more than Cosima articulates her frustration with the patriarchal order. For instance, when revealing that project Leda was developed purely to find a way to extend Westmoreland’s life, Cosima emotes, “all this suffering just so you can extend your life…you gave me life. I know you can take that away. You can’t take away my humanity” (episode 56). By deeply ingraining Cosima with brilliance and strength, the series subverts the multiplicity of archetypes that Cosima embodies.


Trained to kill and brainwashed into believing that she is the original clone and all others are sacrilege and abominations, Helena superficially conforms to the archetype of the television action heroine. This archetype has generated both praise and criticism from scholars, the latter of which is often more convincing yet is insufficient when considering a character like Helena.2 For instance, Lotz astutely dismisses critics who praise the archetype merely for granting female characters access to arenas previously [page 152] inaccessible because they are often simplistic gender reversals or “do not account for the various ways a series can undermine empowerment at a narrative or visual level” (32). This point is well taken, but Helena’s characterization is without any fetishization, and the narrative develops the character from a programmed assassin to an empathetic clone devoted to her sisters and able to defend them in brilliant displays of violence rivaled by few on the contemporary television landscape. As such, Helena could hardly be described as being “drawn for the fantasy of male audiences,” as is typical for the archetype (Lotz 70). Helena’s obsession with motherhood, her disheveled appearance and awkward syntax, as well as her lack of sexualization serve as a stark antithesis to the archetype that appeals to these male fantasies.

Helena is introduced through the police investigation of Katja’s murder, which features Sarah investigating the murder of a clone by another clone, which she covered up, all while posing as Beth. The discovery of Helena’s apartment reveals her derangement, the walls filled with drawings of her presumed future victims. As Helena is made aware that Sarah is her twin and becomes attached to Kira, her loyalty shifts from the radical religious sect that raised her to her clone sisterhood. She turns her remarkable survival and fighting skills toward protecting her sisters, saving Sarah from the Neolutionists in the first season and from Rachel’s monitor in the second, as well as saving Alison and Donnie on a number of occasions. Her loyalty to the clones is strenuously tested by her desire to punish those who cross her; she murders her birth mother for giving her to the convent, nearly murders Rachel before Sarah interferes, and vows to kill Siobhan for turning her in to the government before offering forgiveness. Most of Helena’s heroism, however, is definitively fixated on those who threaten her sisters. She burns down the estate of a radical sect who forcibly impregnated her, pummels several men in a bar brawl, and concocts two plans to escape from a military desert prison (the first of which is derailed so that she can mercy-kill a Castor clone being experimented on). In the final episodes of the third season, Helena’s heroism becomes more directly tied to the lives of her sisters. She kills a cabal of drug dealers, freeing Alison and Donnie from the threat of retaliation against them or—more distressing to Helena—their children. In the finale, Sarah’s partnering with [page 153] Topside is only made possible through sending a crazed Castor clone to Helena, whom she dispenses with in a “prison-rules” standoff.

What truly transforms the archetype, challenging its habitability, is how these acts of violence are juxtaposed with her enthusiasm for being accepted by her clone sisters and her prospects of being a mother. Helena’s concern for hurting Alison with her presence in her house, a reminder of Alison’s inability to conceive naturally, leads her to retreat to the woods and, later, a convent. Her early declaration of being good with children plays as satire, but the development of the show proves that any early interpretations of satire were due to inured archetypal expectations. Helena’s desire for children and to be married break the convention of the action heroine stereotype, particularly one who revels in her depravity with such zeal; this transgression is hardly a mere comedic ploy but a revision of an archetype that has provided a vacuous form of empowerment prominently throughout television’s history. Her ability to pose as Alison through a police investigation and summon the name of several of Alison’s closest friends signals the complex duality within Helena’s seeming one-dimensionality. The birth of Helena’s child coalesces with a desperation suicide attempt to deter Dyad from stealing her babies, not unlike Beth’s suicide, M.K.’s sacrifice to allow Sarah’s escape, or Cosima’s contemplation of inserting a bot into her mouth although it would almost certainly kill her. That Helena’s selflessness bears a striking resemblance to those other instances is as significant as it is because her raw depravity never vanishes. After a blood transfusion saves Helena and her twins, she must flee from Westmoreland and his followers and teams up with Art to joyfully kill Virginia Coady (Kyra Harper), the mastermind of the Castor experiment and Westmoreland’s final ally. It is this juxtaposition of her maternal selflessness and her violent revelry that accentuates her archetype’s false liminality.

Rachel and Other Clones

Rachel’s aloof, calculating, corporate executive persona likewise conforms to and transgresses her archetype’s norms. Introduced in the finale of the first season, hospitalized for the majority of the third season, and recovering in the fourth season, Rachel’s appearances are at times rather limited, yet this is distorted by Maslany’s particularly dynamic and memorable performance. Her self-awareness leaving her cold, she refuses to approve Cosima’s treatment until Sarah surrenders to Dyad. Sexually, she is a dominatrix who gets pleasure from physically punishing and manipulating Paul and Ferdinand, a Topside executive. She callously orders the murder of a Dyad leader, contemplates an order to murder all the clones due to their self-awareness and lack of cooperation, and manipulates Sarah and Cosima’s desperation for answers to ensure her escape from her hospitalization. Yet, through poignant scenes in which Rachel watches home videos and assorted other moments with her (long presumed-dead) scientist father and Kira, her coldness is explained as a result of her isolation and abandonment. Rachel’s archetype of the power-hungry, detached woman unabashedly embracing traditional masculinity, is incrementally subverted, leading to a boldly subversive transformation. In fact, Rachel’s arc over the final stretch of episodes is one of the most illuminating and enjoyable alterations. After a series of machinations with Sarah, Susan, and, ultimately, Westmoreland, Rachel takes over control of Dyad. Discovering that her artificial eye is a spying device from Westmoreland, which symbolizes her ersatz autonomy and spurious power, combined with her affinity towards Kira, Rachel turns on Westmoreland. She releases Kira to Sarah, cuts her artificial eye out with a broken wine glass, and releases documents to Sarah in order to take down Dyad and Neolution. Sympathies towards Rachel are developed through a series of flashbacks that show her callous treatment as a child and are conceivably cemented in a moving scene when she asks Ferdinand to run away with her and pursue a life of simplicity. She is rebuffed for suggesting that they surrender their power, and her shifting alliances are fiercely expressed as she exclaims, “no, we win if Neolution is exposed and Westmoreland is stripped of his myth” (episode 58). Her history of betrayal and cruelty keeps her ostracized from her clone sisters even after she gifts Felix with a list of all the Leda clones to aid in Cosima and Delphine’s rescue mission, yet the freedom that Rachel has gained –despite the massive sacrifices—is her satisfying reward and the archetype’s [page 155] satisfying dismantling. It is not greed, power, or notoriety that ultimately motivates Rachel, contributing to rendering the one-note icy corporate executive archetype uninhabitable.

The characters of Tony and Krystal merit a brief consideration because of their potential to challenge archetypes more so than because of their accomplishments. Tony, a transgender iteration, only appears in one episode, and not enough development takes place for conventions to be truly challenged, if such conventions even exist in a landscape where transgender characters are proliferating but certainly still a novelty. Krystal, the clone version of a bubbly ditz with Valley-girl syntax and dyed blonde hair, first appears late in the third season. Despite her brief appearance and Topside’s description of her as “not one to pierce the veil,” the show pivots from the archetype’s conventions when Krystal’s intuition proves insightful and Felix discovers she has been successfully conducting her own investigation (episode 28). Throughout the final two seasons, Krystal’s investigations continue to overlap with those of the clone sisters, and while this is often played for comic effect, it does not completely devalue her investigative concerns.

Motherhood and Conclusion

Not only does each character engage and subvert individual archetypes through narrative and performance, but jointly, they coalesce to complicate depictions of motherhood. Sarah’s grifter persona proves ancillary to her position as a mother, guilt ridden and trying to make amends after her nearly year-long abandonment of Kira. In fact, the first scene of the series is Sarah calling Siobhan, attempting to make arrangements to see Kira. Her plan to empty Beth’s bank account is motivated by her desire for herself, Kira, and Felix to abscond and live a new life together. It is her relationship with Kira, and to being a mother, that deconstructs her archetype as a street girl. Sarah is at her most desperate when having to decide if Kira should donate bone marrow or when pleading for Kira’s life when held at gunpoint by a Castor clone. Similarly, Helena’s preoccupation with becoming a mother and maternal protector to Kira and Alison’s children subverts her own [page 156] archetype. Again, this is not unlike Rachel’s own maternal passions. Her lone scene of imitating another clone, playing Sarah, enables her to kidnap Kira—in part for her science but equally so she can have a genetic child in her stead. When she is informed that the clones have genetically designed infertility, she trashes her office. This scene, and her other lone moment of weakness when her father commits suicide in front of her, position Rachel’s fierceness as compensation for her loneliness.

Conversely, Alison’s life revolves around her children, but her attention to them is only equal to her other obsessions and oftentimes seems secondary to curating a particular image of domesticity. This range of motherly expressions and desires is articulated in the series’ final scene, when each sister discusses her concerns and self-doubts about being a mother. Importantly, Cosima reiterates her total lack of maternal instincts, openly ruminating as to whether it is selfishness or fear. Being the most openly affectionate clone, Cosima’s rejection of motherhood provides an interesting contradiction, and, collectively, the clones’ attitudes on motherhood are too diverse for a singular perspective on motherhood to coalesce.

The narrative of the series provides a multiplicity of female experiences and copious locations of identification to lure audience recognition. This plurality of experience suggests there are a plethora of female experiences, of which all are strong, resourceful, and heroic. Essentially, Maslany’s performance demystifies the dichotomy of feminist/anti-feminist representations and reveals that feminism—even heroism—can manifest in any type of character: a grifter, suburbanite, assassin, lesbian scientist, or corporate executive. The performance challenges archetypes by showing that they fail to be definitive representations, and each character’s ability to adopt another’s persona exposes the performative aspects of personality. Rather than a performance determining gender identity (although in Tony it is true), all identities are performances that are equally social constructs and which equally are perpetuated by media entities. These acts of playing become emancipatory within the narrative as well as in the larger context of subverting the archetypes. Each character adheres to the tropes of a particular archetype, dictated equally by society and media conventions, but contributes to making such roles [page 157] uninhabitable by showing their permeability and complicating and vastly expanding their characterization. When a multiplicity of female experience can be condensed to the milieu of one narrative, then the opportunity to comment on these experiences and revise their limitations is heightened. That these experiences are all explored by a single actress further exposes their mutability and compounds any transgressions.

Issues of multiplicity and stereotypes are not merely theoretical concerns, as their cultural urgency is reaching a crucial turning point. Recent years have witnessed a shift in the stigma of stereotypes, the result of a divisive cultural war that has arguably neutralized the arts—ranging from stand-up comedy to the television paradigm—the lasting result being a dismissal of anything that entertains derogatory stereotypes. While awareness of the harm and ramifications of damaging archetypes is a victory that cannot be diminished, an ancillary effect is that it removes stereotypes from cultural discussions, particularly those generated in media texts. By stigmatizing any deployment of stereotypes rather than making them uninhabitable, it restricts their ability to be rehabilitated because mass audiences will reject them as derivative and disparaging. Thus, gender archetypes which Maslany’s performance explores are significant because their approach rehabilitates and challenges the future vitality of stereotypes as opposed to ignoring them and implicitly confirming and perpetuating the myths. The consequence of not grappling with stereotypical representations of women or other marginalized groups is that the context of their creation—male dominated patriarchal values—are also left unchecked. Maslany’s performance proves that many of the most pervasive media stereotypes of women demand resuscitation, not dismissal. Her performance finds the depth, humanity, and heroism of various female archetypes, and, consequently, this plurality defies a future in which such stereotypes will remain viable.


1. For an additional and likeminded objection, see Digeser, 668-669.

2. See particularly Sherrie Inness’ Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). [page 158]

Works Cited

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Chansky, Dorothy. “Usable Performance Feminism for Our Time: Reconsidering Betty Friedan.” Theatre Journal, vol. 60, no. 3, 2008, pp. 341-364.

Digeser, Peter. “Performativity Trouble: Postmodern Feminism and Essential Subjects.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3, 1994, pp. 655-673.

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Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Feminist Theory and Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 125-136.

Jones, Kathleen B. Compassionate Authority: Democracy and the Representation of Women. Routledge, 1993.

Lloyd, Moya. “Performativity, Parody, Politics.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 16, no. 2, 1999, pp. 195-213.

Loofbourow, Lili. “The Many Faces of Tatiana Maslany.” The New York Times Magazine. 2 April 2015, Accessed 1 September 2015.

Lotz, Amanda. Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era. U of Illinois P, 2006.

Nussbaum, Emily. “Cheaper by the Dozen.” The New Yorker, 28 April 2014, magazine/2014/04/28/cheaper-by-the-dozen. Accessed 1 September 2015.

MLA citation (print):

Walderzak, Joseph. "One of a Multiplicious Kind: Orphan Black, Performance and the Plurality of Female Experience." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 136-158.