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Last Saturday was the season finale of BBC America's Orphan Black, a fast paced Canadian sci-fi series about human cloning. The show's main protagonist Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a street-wise orphan just returning to Toronto after having spent a year abroad. She barely lands in the city before a woman who looks exactly like her commits suicide by train, right in front of her. In the following commotion - out of curiosity and hoping to score some cash - Sarah grabs the woman's purse and walks away.
She does find some money in the woman's purse, but also a cell phone and keys to a nice flat. Having no place to live herself, and hiding from an abusive ex-boyfriend, Sarah hatches a crazy plan: She will temporarily switch lives with this woman – Beth Childs – and let the world believe that Sarah Manning is dead. Then she will pick up her young daughter, who is currently living with Sarah's own foster mother, she will clean out Beth's bank account and skip town. To set the plan in motion Sarah enlists the help of her foster brother and best friend, Felix (Jordan Gavaris). However, things start to get complicated quickly when Sarah realizes that Beth was a police detective (with a nosy detective partner), that she lives with a man – Paul (Dylan Bruce)- and that there are even more women out there who look exactly like her. To make matters worse, there also seems to be someone out there trying to kill them all.
Sarah kicking ass
Orphan Black is what television could have evolved in to after the 1990's, had not the Internet - with its masses of misogynistic and pornographic material - caused such a backlash during the beginning of the new millennium. The show does not have an overtly feminist agenda; It doesn't present us with in depth looks at inequality or the hardships of women, or serve up feminist slaps on the wrist. What it does is tell a story using a modern and more equal filming/viewing alternative, in female (and male) characterization and in camera focus/gaze. The formula is brilliantly simple; Whatever the story, simply avoid the habitual sexism and misogyny that the audience has, sadly, gotten so used to.
There are many TV shows at the moment that are loaded with gratuitous female nudity. Game of Thrones might be the most widely discussed example, but even shows like critically acclaimed Homeland and the amazing The Americans employ the trick to gain or boost ratings. At a premiere or during sweeps week it becomes glaringly obvious that producers think they can't promote or continue a show without throwing in random 'boob-shots' here and there (and unfortunately they might be right). Sure, we sometimes get a token man-ass-shot during a sex scene, but in actual screen time most sex scenes are almost completely shot at an angle zooming in on the woman's breasts, naked arched back or orgasmic face.
While naked women in media are almost always beautiful, young and skinny - and constantly sexualized - male nudity is shown in other ways; A man preparing for battle, a man stumbling to the fridge for a snack, a man running down the street in a drunken stupor. Naked men are most often more “normal” looking and are allowed to be old, obese or even ugly. A naked over-weight silly man is funny, even relate-able, while a naked over-weight silly woman is either completely invisible, shamefully pitied or horribly degraded – if not in the media itself, then on the Internet afterward. It always comes down to the same thing: A naked man is still a human being, a naked woman (and often also a fully clothed one) is an object.
Paul with his morning coffee
Orphan Black contains quite a few shots of naked bodies, but no obvious gratuitous 'boob-shots', and where there is female sexualized nudity there is also male sexualized nudity. As an example, in the first episode when we see Sarah jumping Paul's bones in the kitchen (to avoid conversation that would tip him off that she is not Beth) we get to see Sarah's naked body for a moment, but it is followed up in the next scene by shots of only Paul's naked body. The camera lingers on Paul, as Sarah's gaze lingers on his body. This allows the audience the female gaze – for a change.
Orphan Black hosts an entourage of diverse female characters. Considering that Tatiana Maslany has to introduce several different clone personalities over just a few episodes, the audience can forgive what only briefly feels like parodied acting. As the show develops 28-year-old Maslany's skills as a versatile actor become more evident. Though the fast pace of the show doesn't leave much time for developing very complex characters, the diversity between them makes up for that. Orphan Black has female characters who are strong, weak, smart, caring, neurotic, sexy, tough and downright crazy.
Helena, one of the clones
With a more diverse and equal viewing experience also comes portraying other characters and relationships than just white straight people. Orphan Black has one main character - Art, Beth's detective partner - and three other characters who are black, and it has two regular Latina/o characters. The show has not yet made it onto GLAAD's LBGT characters list but I suspect it is only a matter of time, since two of the main characters are gay - Felix and Cosima - and they are both getting a lot of screen time in every episode.
Felix is, as mentioned earlier, Sarah's foster brother and best friend. He is an artist and a male prostitute. He can be silly and flamboyant at times, but he is also caring and funny. He's an excellent sidekick in complex social situations, he always has Sarah's back and he gets to serve as the voice of reason more than once. Despite him having to resort to prostitution to make ends meet, he seems to be secure in himself and his sexuality. Cosima is one of the clones, a scientist who is trying to map them all out, and find out the wheres and the whys of their existence. She is smart and sweet, but her scientific curiosity at times gets the better of her and puts her in danger. The show gets extra points for portraying Cosima's courtship with a fellow scientist without objectifying the two women for the straight male gaze - something most shows nowadays fail miserably at.
Felix and his lover bidding adieu
Orphan Black has been picked up for a second season and is slated to premiere sometime during the first half of 2014.