My Body, Your Patent: Orphan Black and the Ownership of Women’s Bodies

The regulation of women’s bodies is nothing new. It’s an entrenched aspect of patriarchal societies, and scholars speculate that it derives in part from questionable reproductive paternity – when a women gives birth, we can safely assume she’s the mother, but paternity is more difficult to assume and requires medical testing to incontrovertibly establish. Whatever the reason, men in positions of power have always sought to control women’s bodies.

Orphan Black is of course about many things – nature vs. nurture, the definition of family, identity, and so forth – but on a very fundamental level it is about who controls women’s bodies. The bomb dropped in the final episode of season one, that the clones’ DNA has been patented, regulates not only their own biology but also that of their progeny. In this way, the show explores motherhood in an especially progressive way, focusing on biology rather than on the soft, nurturing side of women. Children are viewed as a genetic extension of their fathers – they have their father’s last name, and often their father’s first name as well. Foregrounding the genetic relationship between mothers and children, Orphan Black escapes the traps of patriarchal reproduction: It doesn’t matter who Kyra’s father is, it only matters who her mother is. And it doesn’t matter who donated the male DNA to make the clones – they only ask who the original (female) clone is.

Discovering that their bodies are property will (one can assume) lead to resistance, but also to huge existential questions: are the clones more than their biology? Can a human actually be property? Moving beyond the philosophical examination of what it means to be human, the show asks more specifically what it means to be a woman, and a woman seeking to reclaim her body in a universe that considers her skin and hair and synapses property of someone (since corporations are people too!) else.

As the show continues to unfold, laws regulating DNA patents are shifting. It will be interesting to see if the Orphans turn to the law as a means to reclaim their bodies, or if they decide (as I’m sure Sarah would advocate) to operate outside the law to terminate any connection between their creators and themselves. Either way, the central conflict of the show promises to be the reclaiming of women’s bodies as their own, and no one else’s. Against the cultural backdrop (in the U.S. and elsewhere) of heated rhetoric about contraception and abortion, Orphan Black’s representation of women’s bodies is refreshing, mostly because it’s told from the woman’s point of view.

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