Orphan Black and the Reverse Bechdel Test

I promise one of these days I’ll post about something other than Voyage of the Basilisk or TV. ๐Ÿ˜› It’s just that right now, I can’t say much about either of the books I’m revising (because spoilers), and I have limited brain for anything else.

So let’s talk about TV! Again!

My husband and I have started watching season two of Orphan Black, finally. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the show follows a group of young female clones (in the modern world) who are finding out where they came from and what’s going on around them.

To begin with: can I say how much the main actress, Tatiana Maslany, impresses me? Not only does she play all the clones (and we’re talking more than half a dozen characters, here), but she differentiates them beautifully. Not just the obvious things like accent and clothing changes, but body language and so forth — and then there are the times when she’s playing one of the clones pretending to be a different clone, and that performance, too, is distinct. Maslany playing Sarah pretending to be Allison does not look the same as Maslany playing Allison. It’s a remarkable achievement.

My praise is not just an idle side note. It’s critical that she be able to pull that off, because the vast majority of the show’s weight rests on her shoulders. She’s playing literally half of the major characters, for crying out loud! Virtually all of the protagonists, and some of the major villains as well!

There’s something else that struck me while watching the first season, and it has to do with the way Maslany carries the show. In a nice reversal of what we so often see on TV, the male characters are almost completely defined by their relationships to the women.

Sarah’s brother. Sarah’s ex. Beth’s boyfriend. Beth’s partner. Allison’s husband. One of the big male antagonists is a scientist deeply involved with the clone project; his entire raison d’etre is this group of women. And because a lot of those men exist in separate spheres (the individual lives of the clones), they don’t talk to one another. When those spheres start colliding? It’s because of the women, and that’s what they end up talking about. It’s entirely possible the show up until this point has failed the Reverse Bechdel Test. Everything that’s going on is mediated by the clones and their stories; they are the engines driving the plots, the forces other characters respond to.

But at no point do I feel like the show is doing that just to hammer home a point. It’s simply a matter of: these clones are the story; they are women. Therefore, this is a story about women.

It is, in short, exactly the kind of structure I would expect if the story had been about a group of male clones. Just gender-swapped.

(When it comes to hammering home a point, though: my god, how often have we seen Felix’s ass? I find it kind of hilarious that most of the nudity so far has been male, and something like 50% of that has been Felix, with another 30% being Felix’s lovers.)

Anyway, we’re very much enjoying S2 so far. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Evil Science Organization metaplot; that sort of thing is often where SF/F shows fall down for me, but this one is doing okay, at least for the moment. And I love the clones: the range they show, the odd quirks and the way their strengths and weaknesses combine. I would drop-kick Allison out a window if I had to deal with her in person — but she’s a fantastic character, and has vastly more depth than you think when you first meet her. And Helena, oh my god. Ten pounds of Mentally Unstable in a five-pound sack. (Not without good reason.) The other characters, too: Mrs. S is becoming fascinatingly complex, and I’m rooting for Art to figure things out. (And is it wrong of me that I’m trying to remember whether Felix is bi instead of gay, because I’m starting to hope he’ll hook up with Allison? I mean, he came to her musical.)

No spoilers, please: I’m only three episodes into the second season, i.e. well behind. But it’s rock-solid so far.

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