‘Orphan Black’ and the female body


The female body, a maternal pillar, one that has been documented for over thousands over years and more recently in visual culture too. This essay seeks to discuss, critique and contest the female body with regard to feminism theory. This essay will critically analyse and discuss the TV series Orphan Black  and comment on the recurring theme of the maternal body therein. Orphan Black is a tv series that began in 2011 and is beginning to show its fourth season. The essay will also make reference of the article Mom’s with Guns; Woman’s Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture by Kim Miller (2009), Shelia De Rosa’s article Mother, dear Mother, 2004, J Wingate’s article,  Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism (2008)

This essay will cover themes such as fertility and the use of the female body to give life as well as the maternal body as a soldier, being able to carry a gun in order to protect her family, the mother being the sole caretaker of her children. The aim of the essay is to discover weather the feminist theories are in favour of the depiction of the maternal body in visual culture, or wether they are fought against.


To understand the theme of the essay, one first needs to define what a maternal body is and how it fits into feminist theory. Feminist theory firstly, is said to explore gender inequality and gender itself.  The maternal body is more specific as it then focuses of the female, concerning, conniving a child, giving birth, the ability to become a mother as well as the ability to grow and develop with the infant that is her child. This theme is touched on in  visual media and throughout time, however in this television series it is a very evident theme.

A brief overview of the tv series is given, in order to understand where and in what time frame the series was created. Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction series that is set in Toronto, Ontario about a woman called Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslayn and directed by John Fawcette. In the first season, Sarah discovers that she is a clone and has over twelve identical ‘sisters’ all over North America and Europe. However of those clones, she is the only one who can conceive a child, she has a daughter, Kira Manning. There is a great emphasis on finding her ‘defect’ as all the other clones were designed not to reproduce. All the main characters, except one (Felix Dawkins, who is gay), are strong and distinctive females, who are all fighting for the good of their protection and sadly of their family.

As Miller (2009) says in her reading on Mom’s with Guns women in the Anti- Apartheid South Africa are meant to be seen as soldiers. Women have substantial muscles that are visibly taut, demonstrating great physical power. The “good mother” is active and empowered, focused pri- marily not on her child, but on a larger political goal. In one hand she holds a gun, ready to fire, while on her back sleeps her child.

This characteristic of being fit, strong and able to physically protect her children is evident in the character of Sarah Manning too. Sarah is seen doing parkour, while her sisters are also staying fit and strong doing their own exercises such as gaming (Aliosn), and bench press ups and sit ups (Helaina). Each character focuses not on keeping in shape, but on being physically strong enough to be able to fight, if they need to, especially when needing to protect their family.

Figure 1: Alison about to open the door to her house. Image available from locker dome.com

The characteristic of the mother with a gun is often seen. More prominent in Sarah’s won mother, Siobhon, who almost always greets her visitors with a gun before letting them into her house, where she protects her granddaughter. When Sarah first learns that she is a clone, her instinct is to protect herself, as did her sisters. Her clone sister Alison teachers her how to shoot, and says that her own reason for learning how to become a professional shooter is ‘to protect my family’.

Sarah is also seen posed with a gun ready to fire, in season 1, episode 5, when she has to keep the scientists away from her daughter.

As Annelise Orleck notes, “[F]or many women in cultures around the world, motherhood is a powerful political identity around which they have galvanized broad-based and in uential grassroots movements for social change” (Orleck 1997:7). The idea that mothers need to stand together and behind a gun to protect their children, often in the absence of husbands, is one that connects women around the world. In South Africa particularly where a large amount of women are single mothers and raise their children with their own mothers, there is often an absence in the father figure in the children’s childhood. The same can be said for Sarah Manning, who is a single mother raising her child with her mother, Siobhon, who was also a single mother. Mother-activism can reinforce patriarchal appeals to women’s maternity (as actual or potential mothers) as the primary basis for their worth (Miller).

The beginning of this protective mother emerged in the second World War, when artists such as Bashka Paeff, created her sculpture The Maine Sailors and Soldiers Memorial, seen in Fig.2, as read about in Jennier Wingate’s reading Motherhood, Memorials and Anti-Militarism (2008). The sculpture depicts a strong and masculine mother shielding her small child from the revenges of war around her.

Figure 2: The Maine Sailors and Solders Memorial. Bashka Paeff, 1926. 

The sculpture was one of the first to acknowledge the hardships of a mother, firstly by allowing the child to go to war and believing that it would be for the better good of her country and the next is that maternal body becomes a figure of protection and a physically strong being. Although, contemporary reviews regarded her work to be more of a success story as she was a woman sculpture during the 1920’s and not as radical political advancements. Reviews about her work were often accompanied by a ‘rags to riches’ bibliography of her life, although they were not necessarily true.

When watching Orphan Black one can see that the fear of portraying a mother as a fighter and protector in the war too has disappeared and evolved into one of the main themes in the series. One particular moment is in season two, episode 3 when Sarah as well as Siobhan are armed and out in the streets protecting Kira.

Another point that feminist theory comments on is how motherhood has been reduced to a ‘battleground in which growing numbers of women choose to conceive and rear their children without men’, according to Shelia de Rosa in her article Mother, dear Mother (2004). While women have suddenly been able to obtain career positions that are decision making positions and therefore also an economic value, women are still expected to raise the children, as they have done for thousands of years. De Rosa says that as third wave feminists, women should embrace their new opportunities and take advantage of the new freedom to climb the financial ladder to achieve a ceo position. Meaning that the maternal life should not be separated from the career life.

Figure 3: Sarah dropping Kira off at school. Image available from projectfandom.com

When looking specifically at Sarah Manning’s character, she is unable to be the maternal mother as well as the working mother because she gave her daughter to her mother, Siobhan to look after while she went to do freelance work as a designer. Her sister, Alison defies de Rosa’s ideology and is a stay-at-home-mom, also often called a ‘soccer mom’, as seen in Fig.3. While Siobhan remains the only mother who raised her children and worked as an undercover detective.

Figure 4: Alison as ‘stay-at-home-soccer-mom’. Image available from hypable.com

What can also be read of de Rosa’s reading is that women are no longer needing a man to even conceive a child. In recent medical advancements it is possible to conceive a child without the female or male body ever interacting. This of course is the main theme in Orphan Black as it deals with clones that have been created in test-tubes. All of the clones are science experiments, which is where the moral issues of the institutes come in, saying that the clones belong to the institute and therefore have to be controlled as observed as a proper experiment. All the clones do all have a ‘monitor’ someone who gives daily reports to the institute to record their activities, usually the monitor is also a spouse or boyfriend.


In the series Orphan Black feminist topics such as the mother as a protector, a single mother and a working mother as seen. The female body as a soldier and protector as Miller describes mothers of the modern world to be is evident in characters such as Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix and Siobhan Sadler. All three women are seen as physically strong, as well as being able to pull a gun in a situation when needing to. This advancement in the depiction of motherhood began with feminists sculptures in the 1920’s. The single mother that De Rose mentions in her article is Sarah Manning who raises her child with the help of Siobhan. de Rosa, comment that women are living in a battleground of trying to raise their children without men, firstly financially and then physically without the presence of the father or even his conception. Finally, after analysing Orphan Black I feel that this series might be the most feminist series there is out there as every power decision, even within the institute is lead by a woman. Not just any woman, but a clone, a child born out of a test-tube. All the female characters are seen as fiercely independent and protective of their family and clone family. All women are never seen in need of a man to help them out, there are smaller characters given to the men but all the main characters as well as power characters are lead by mothers.


Brooklyn Museum. (2011, 27 December) What is Feminist Art? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QbdobcKNhM. [Accessed on 7 May 2016].

De Rosa, S. (2004). Mother, dear Mother. Journal of Visual Art Practice. 3 (2), p83-89.

Orleck, Annelise. 1997. “Tradition Unbound: Radical Mothers in International Perspective” In  e Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Le  to Right, eds. Alexis Jetter, Annelise Orleck, Diana Taylor, pp. 3–23. Hanover NH: University Press of New England.

Miller, K. 2009. African Arts. Mom’s with Guns; Woman’s Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture. 68-75

UCL Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences. (2015, March 10) . UCL History of Art: Griselda Pollock – Making Feminist Memories – Part 1. [Video file]. Retrieved from – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhCLvdZPy1o. [Accessed on 7 May 2016].

Wingate, J. (2008). Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism.Woman’s Art Journal. unknown (1), p31- 38.

Feature image: Vignette. Orphan Black. [Online]. Available from http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/orphanblack/images/b/b1/OrphanBlack2x10HelenaKiraAlisonCosima.jpeg/revision/latest?cb=20140809025905. [Accessed on 14/06/2016].

Figure 1: LockerDome. Orphan Black, Seanson 4 Trailer. [Online]. Available from – https://lockerdome.com/tvovermind/8486966341795860. [Accessed on 7/05/2016].

Figure 2: Wingate, J. (2008). Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism.Woman’s Art Journal. unknown (1), p31- 38.

Figure 3: Project Fandom. Orphan Black S1E4 – Instinct. [Online]. Available from – http://projectfandom.com/orphan-black-s1e2-instinct/. [Accessed on 7/5/2016].

Figure 4: Hypable. Nine things you don’t know about Orphan Black. [Online]. Available from – http://www.hypable.com/orphan-black-talks-to-hypable/. [Accessed on 7/05/2016].