The Brilliant Misandry of Orphan Black

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 18 2014 8:08 AM

Empty Suits

Orphan Black’s straight male characters are completely flat. That’s not an accident.

Ari Millen as Mark and Tatiana Maslany as Sarah in Season 2 of Orphan Black.
Ari Millen as Mark and Tatiana Maslany as Sarah in Season 2 of Orphan Black.

Courtesy of Steve Wilkie/BBC America

Like you, I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life watching “quality” TV featuring richly drawn, riveting male heroes—and the pretty, vacuous female “characters” who do nothing but react to them. That’s why the turnabout in BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns for its second season Saturday night, is so fantastic. The sci-fi–tinged series calculatedly disdains filling out its male characters, and it’s perversely thrilling to watch as a woman. Finally, men are the sexy, empty listeners!

Orphan Black is all about a woman, Sarah, and her many, many clones (all played by Tatiana Maslany), so it’s no surprise that the male characters are secondary to the plot. But the men aren’t simply less important to the story than the women. They are less than, full stop. With one exception, the male characters of Orphan Black are purposefully insubstantial, bordering on feeble. This gender reversal is not an accident on the part of the show’s creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett; it’s clearly a conscious decision, and it effectively delivers the show’s most potent message about the nature, quality, and persistence of the enemy.

Tatiana Maslany plays nine-plus women on Orphan Black, and each one has complexities, dimensions, and an arc, starting with the show’s antihero, Sarah Manning, a hustler who begins the series by robbing a dead woman—who turns out to be her clone Beth. As Sarah takes on Beth’s identity and meets her “Clone Club” sisters, she becomes stronger and more heroic. And all the clones are multifaceted: Alison, initially a caricature of the type-A suburban soccer mom (complete with obsessive crafting room), becomes the most tragic clone as she spirals into a pill-fueled yet oddly liberating breakdown. Cosima is a brilliant, stoner lesbian scientist; Helena is a ferile, abused, childlike killer. And the show’s other female characters, like foster mother Mrs. S and femme fatale Delphine, are also nuanced.

Over the course of Orphan Black’s first season on BBC America, the clones discovered some of their enemies: the Dyad Institute, a shadowy corporation aggressively interested in cloning and patents (especially people-patents), and “neolutionists,” club-kid science nerds intent on using the clones’ DNA for body-modification purposes (tails for everybody!). There were religious zealots, possible spies, and corrupt cops. Yet the truest enemy was an often innocuous, frankly dopey group the clones just couldn’t seem to shake: the straight men all around them. And they just kept popping up. Like, you know, clones.

Orphan Black’s straight men are among the stupidest and least riveting fictional creatures to populate the modern television landscape. After years of suffering through completely unrecognizable female characters on TV, it’s hard not to celebrate the show’s almost gleeful denigration of its straight male characters. Orphan Black’s creators are not interested in speaking to the straight guys’ justifications or needs, except to show how superficial they are. The straight men of Orphan Black are stupid, weak, simple, unethical, violent, buffoonish, and easily manipulated. They are purposefully one-dimensional sketches denied the layers and complex motivations given to the female characters. 

Complex characters act and initiate, whereas the straight men in Orphan Black, like most women in the history of entertainment, are given the job of being reactive. Orphan Black’s men are simply inert without the women to activate them—they don’t show any agency, display any power of individual thought, or demonstrate any critical thinking skills. (Even Art, Orphan Black’s semi-sympathetic but still obstructive cop, is really trying to think. You can tell by the serious scrunch-y face he makes.) Each male character is given maybe one discerning characteristic to set him apart from the other men: Alison’s husband, Donnie, is a suburban buffoon, Tomas is a religious wacko, Olivier is a perv with a tail.

The straight men on Orphan Black effectively function as roadblocks. There’s no artful conniving or brilliant subterfuge at work—they’re just big lumps whose function is to get in the way of the clones’ progress. They aggravate, bully, and push their weight around in typically macho fashion, but ultimately, they are simply inadequate, and their inadequacy is nakedly obvious. The men’s schemes and vulnerabilities are clear not only to the women, but to the audience, and so the question becomes not if, but when, the women will best them.

Orphan Black continually plays with the audience’s expectations about gender and power by setting men up as potentially formidable villains, only to show how little there is behind the bravado, and how easily the women can take them apart. Vic (“the Dick”), introduced as an abusive drug-dealing ex, soon emerges as the show’s most transparently stupid man-child, more annoyance than menace. By the time Orphan Black is through its first season, even the show’s most ominous male villain, the neolutionist scientist Dr. Leekie, seems more cuckolded middleman than brilliant mastermind.

Even the show’s romantic storylines are subverted. The character of Paul reads on paper like the show’s alpha antihero: an ex-soldier of questionable allegiances, prone to macho displays of physical violence, tasked with minding Beth as her live-in boyfriend. Instead, Paul becomes an emasculated lap dog to Sarah, who is living as Beth. Paul is a bohunk of very little brain, largely untroubled by curiosity; any time a suspicion arises (“Hey, didn’t you have a HUGE, PERMANENT SCAR on your neck last week, live-in girlfriend?”), all Sarah has to do is jump on him, and all is forgotten. The creators of the show deny Paul the big, macho action hero treatment—Sarah uses him as a sexual outlet when she needs release and otherwise employs him as somewhat untrustworthy backup muscle.

Orphan Black’s one fantastically vital, multidimensional male character is Felix, Sarah’s foster brother and moral compass. Felix is an artist/rent boy given to swanning about his loft in open shorty kimonos, so he’s generally shunned, dismissed, or harassed by the idiot straight men of Orphan Black. He feels a kinship with the plight and alienating experiences of his literal and spiritual sisters in the Clone Club, and takes on an increasingly active, empathetic role in their lives, though the creators avoid making him the dehumanized “gay friend.” Felix’s open, televised sexuality excludes him from Orphan Black’s point about the sexist, heteronormative confederacy of dunces facing down the clones.

There’s certainly a danger in making all the straight male characters so dramatically deficient. The show’s conflicts can seem clownish, like watching for 45 minutes as an extraordinarily strong woman fights off a small, yappy dog that can’t stop humping her leg. It becomes almost tiring watching the women have to deal with the transparent machinations, threats, come-ons, tantrums, attacks, and petty idiocies of these men every week, knowing that the women will triumph, but that the men will simply rise again, like so many walking erections.

But this is Orphan Black’s most subversive element: It has created aggravatingly persistent foils for its clearly superior female characters out of its purposefully inferior male characters. The heroines of Orphan Black are better than their straight male adversaries, but this will not ensure their success, because their world, like ours, is not a meritocracy. Orphan Black’ straight male characters are all joined or allied with institutional power and wealth, so the women have no choice but to fight them. It does not matter that the clones are better, faster, stronger—Donnie and Paul and Vic the Dick are still getting bankrolled.

The true nature of the clones’ struggle within Orphan Black is not against one exceptionally strong, brilliant nemesis, but against an army of small, insistent, polo shirt–wearing cogs charged with doing the daily work of undermining and exhausting, in the hopes of roadblocking greater liberation. Orphan Black’s straight men can afford to be as stupid and violent and arrogant as they want, because they stand with the larger, richer power structure. In Orphan Black, as in life, that’s a structure that brilliant, effective women have to work nine times as hard to take down.

Jessica Roake, a frequent Slate contributor, lives in Washington, D.C.