The Impact of Watching Orphan Black

May 24, 2017

By Taeja Liu

2017 DALTON CAMP AWARD WINNER

“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”1 The first episode of Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black premiered on Space the spring of 2013. Recommended to me by a classmate, I binge-watched season one the following February. Above are the lyrics that played during the debut episode in which Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) alters her appearance to impersonate her clone Beth Childs (Tatiana Maslany). In doing so, she straightened her hair and allowed the audience to do the opposite. She wore what can aptly be described as punk lingerie: all black undergarments with alluring cut-outs and see-through sections that casually taunted, “You can’t mess with me, but I’m already messing with you, mate.” The show’s appeal extends beyond an engaging plot about bioengineered illegal clones to encompass a cast of Canadian female leads and feature diverse, well-developed queer characters. Those lyrics unfailingly bring me back to the viscerally pleasant surprise I felt at the opportunity to see a thoughtfully constructed queer on-screen character.

It is for this reason that representation in media matters. Whether the platform be blockbuster movies, late night news, or YouTube subscriptions—it all matters. TV shows, Orphan Black included, are not merely entertainment. The role these stories play in our society is profoundly significant. Of specific importance is who tells what stories to whom. Queer inclusivity has improved in recent years due entirely to how our complex social structures are shifting to highlight minorities in both media and democracy. The increasingly open queer dialogue brings us, as a nation, to the inevitable realization that we have a gross surplus of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male narratives. Once upon a time in a rainbow-less kingdom called Canada there lived extremely powerful creatures called men who unfairly controlled all levels of society from government to education to corporations. We can’t lie and tell ourselves that tale has a happy ending. People with existing privilege to the extent of insisting their identities are the default don’t need further empowerment. Instead, we need platforms to shift the focus on the perspective of cis-het white men to events pertaining to the queer community. Optimistically, this will create a positive feedback loop between media and democracy that will lessen the unfounded advantages particular Canadians unfairly possess.

Unfortunately, it is easy to set up echo chambers in which queer entertainment and politics reverberate among those who are already aware while the rest remain ignorant. It’s easy to scroll past the post on Facebook about how the All Families are Equal Act passed in Ontario2 or ignore a Netflix recommendation for The L Word. Search engine results and social media feeds are filtered to show content based on personal preferences. To avoid these counter-productive echo chambers, queer media should be widely available to represent the sexual diversity of Canadians off screen. This is a necessity for queer individuals to be seen by the majority of the population as viable participants in Canadian society. The opposite of love and acceptance is not hate, but indifference. Nothing will change if those with the means to produce content or pass laws don’t prioritize moving Canada in a queer-positive direction. This is the crucial link between media and democracy: more visibility in one means more in the other.

Orphan Black allows its queer audience to see themselves in the portrayal of bisexual characters Cosima Niehaus (Tatiana Maslany) and Delphine Cormier (Évelyne Brochu). Their blossoming love story is what rooted my Orphan Black obsession—I couldn’t help but love me some genuine lady love. The engagement felt by the show’s viewers extended online in the Tumblr community dubbed Clone Club. This network of people became the basis of the internet trend referred to as “The Great Gay MigrationTM” in which users flock collectively to any show with a lesbian character, especially following a death. This phenomenon highlights the scarcity of spaces in which queer identity can safely be discussed and validated. Commonly, a continuous hesitance underlies any attempt to express feelings towards queer characters without simultaneously creating vulnerability. But with Clone Club, there’s an entire community of peers discussing the gayness of Orphan Black in minute detail. “I have never thought about bisexuality. I mean for myself, you know? But as a scientist, I know that sexuality is a spectrum. But, you know, social biases, they codified attraction.”3 Delphine’s line echoes the process of coming out to oneself: suppression, rationalizing, acceptance. It’s truly a breathtaking line that brings surprisingly happy tears to queer eyes. Ongoing throughout the first two seasons, even from the Canadian perspective, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US was a frequent topic of interest. Having never been explicitly educated on any kind of gay history, I had to incognito Google, “Is gay marriage legal in Canada?” The affirmative results instantly relieved me—it had been legal since 2005. Confusion quickly replaced relief. If it was legal, why did it still feel like it wasn’t okay?

Despite Canada being a country that at least maintains a passive tolerance towards the queer community, queer youth grow up being spoon-fed the subliminal message that ‘gay’ is synonymous with ‘bad.’ Those M.I.A. lyrics hit where it hurts: “Live fast, die young, gay girls go to hell.” Modern technology provides a constant, convenient feed of information to consume. You are what you eat, and in 2016 alone Canadians were force-fed a feast of dead queer characters from popular programs. These fast food narratives benefit corporation, not consumer. Another lesbian ‘accidentally’ shot or strangled to death? Shocker. These pointless, plot-pushing deaths serve as a brutal reminder that the reality on the other side of the screen isn’t much different. Canada is still striving towards fully acknowledging and accepting the queer community in order to overcome the stigma and outright fear its citizens feel from deviating from the socially-acceptable straight standard.

According to Statistics Canada, 1.7% of the population identifies as homosexual; 1.3% as bisexual.4 Not accounting for people who are closeted, under 18, or otherwise identify as queer, that’s approximately 1,066,212 Canadians. That’s a lot of people! Yet overwhelmingly, the privileged agenda is prioritized. This is not a situation unique to LGBTQA+ people. In fact, it’s prevalent among all disadvantaged groups—women, people of colour, people with disabilities, neurodivergent people. However, marginalization persists to be a harsh reality with potentially life-threatening consequences.

It starts young—we are raised in a society prejudiced to the proud. Two thirds of queer students feel unsafe at school for statistically good reasons: “51% of LGBTQ students have been verbally harassed about their sexual orientation and 21% have been physically harassed or assaulted.” Trans kids particularly feel the brunt of this discrimination—74% have experienced verbal harassment and 37% have been physically harassed or assaulted, purely based on their gender expression.5 Growing up hearing classmates referring to negative things like homework as ‘gay’ locks kids in the closet. Children aren’t always taught how to acknowledge diversity appropriately and this absolutely makes it dangerous to live as a queer person. We need shows like Orphan Black available for the public to watch and critically evaluate their perception of queerness. Think high school—see hordes of teenagers in flickering, fluorescent hallways. Smell the pungent body odour produced by pubescent sweat glands. Feeling soul-crushing peer pressure and all-consuming desperation to be accepted doesn’t make a safe, healthy environment to come out in.

For most of Canadian history, homosexuality was criminalized and punishable by death. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort before Bill C-38 became federal law on 20 July 2005, legalizing same-sex marriage—which is not the be-all and end-all of gay rights. Change began in May 1969 when Bill C-150 decriminalized gay sex. Over the next four decades, media attention was garnered through protests and riots, which publicized the horrors of police brutality and systematic oppression of queer minorities. Today’s outrage over the death of prominent lesbian icons like The 100’s Lexa is rooted in queer history that dates back to these decades of discrimination. For example, on 5 February 1981, “Toronto police arrested almost 300 men in raids on 4 bathhouses. The following day a crowd of 3,000 people took to the streets” in violent protest.6 These are the lessons Canada’s school system leaves out. It is a history that is screamed and shouted, yet barely heard as a whisper.

In the late twentieth century, police brutality, workplace discrimination, and physical assault against queer people became topics of controversy. With no out role models to look up to, how could Canadians understand that gay Canadians were still Canadians? And if recognized, how could they be unempathetically labelled as anything but “other”? The first openly gay MP was British Columbia’s Svend Robinson in 1988. He, along with many other LGBTQA+ figures, began to change public opinion on queerness and fuel changes in policy on both provincial and federal levels of government. In 1996, protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation was added to the Canadian Human Rights Act with the passing of Bill C-33. This recognized that all Canadians should be able to contribute to and be protected by their own country’s laws.

Over many decades, the focus has shifted as both queer rights and deaths accumulated. However, allowing queer Canadians access to the same quality of life regardless of sexuality remains the endgame for the so-called Gay Agenda. Letting queer characters like Cosima and Delphine love each other on television normalizes the free expression of queer love in real life—it is as simple and as complicated as that. At the turn of the century, same-sex marriage became an attainable goal. In 2002, Ontario was the first province to legalize same-sex marriage; British Columbia followed in 2003. By 2005, Bill C-38 passed, and Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and PEI joined the rest of the country in legalizing same-sex marriage. In the current decade, trans rights and visibility have been emphasized. While the struggles have lessened with increased awareness granted by media coverage and legal reform, the struggles of decades past are still applicable in Canada today. Nowadays nobody should be afraid of social, legal, or financial repercussions for being here and queer.

Canada has a long history of being an unsafe place to come out in with the triple whammy of legal persecution, social suicide, and/or lack of education on queer subject matter. Slowly but surely, being gay is actually starting to feel okay, with increased awareness of this sensitive situation. I am adamantly optimistic about the future successive generations will enjoy in which queerness has tipped past public displays of affection being a luxury to simply being an unabashed kiss between lovers. A future where Canadians can enjoy narratives that follow the legacy of diverse representation that shows like Orphan Black leave. Considering the context of Canada’s history, TV is not trivial, but a fundamental reflection of the progress our society has made. I invite every privileged person to imagine themselves as invisible. To imagine themselves endlessly searching every mirror society has created and hardly seeing any semblance of their reflection. This is the terrible reality of today Canadians of tomorrow will be spared, thanks to countless progressive people—all of whom make watching Orphan Black possible.

Endnotes

1 Arulpragasam, Maya, Nate Hills, Marcella Araica. Bad Girls. M.I.A. Danja, 2012. CD.
2 The Canadian Press. “Same-sex Parents Don’t Have to Adopt Own Kids under New Ontario Law.” CBCnews. N.p., 29 Nov. 2016. Web.
3 “Entanglement Bank.” Orphan Black. Space. 18 May 2013. Television.
4 Statistics Canada. “Sexual Orientation.” Statistics Canada. Statistics Canada, 09 Nov. 2016. Web.
5 Egale Canada Human Rights Trust. “Come Out Canada!” Egale. Egale, 11 Oct. 2011. Web.
6 Historic Canada. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights in Canada.” Historic Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016. Web.