With their manifold identities, ‘Orphan Black’s’ Leda clones and ‘The Americans’ ’ Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings might serve as the perfect metaphor for the 21st century work-life balance.
“I’m a bitch, I’m a mother, I’m a child, I’m a lover, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint …”
Few pop songs have been better deployed on television than Meredith Brooks’s anthem to female multiplicity as sung by Alison Hendrix in Orphan Black. Alison—a North Face–vest-wearing, smoothie-sipping suburbanite basic who finds “Bitch” totally empowering and transgressive—is one of over a dozen clones created as part of the secretive Project Leda, including a criminal, a cop, a scientist, a soccer mom, an executive, a Ukrainian refugee.
Even when the plot is impossible to follow, it’s mesmerizing to watch Tatiana Maslany portray the beautifully differentiated Leda clones. The Americans offers similar pleasures, as Keri Russell cycles through a warehouse of wigs to play the various alter egos of Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings.
Orphan Black is science fiction; The Americans is a tale of espionage rooted in historical drama, but the way the shows play with female identity and its dangers and discontents is strikingly similar. Elizabeth and the Leda clones have missions—they aren’t slackers or midlife-crisis-indulging antiheros. But the price of purpose is freedom: Elizabeth is owned by the Russian government; the Leda clones, by a rapacious corporation. None of these women has ever been given permission to exist for her sake. Their wellbeing has always been subordinated to ideology, or power, or profit. They are unsure if even their own mothers truly love them, or only raised them for the glory of some higher cause. They struggle to protect their own daughters, not knowing from moment to moment if “protect” means to preserve their innocence or arm them with awful truths.
The Americans accepts its occasional moments of domestic comedy, and on a certain level Elizabeth Jennings can be read as a satire of “having it all.” Elizabeth has a handsome and devoted husband, two bright children, two high-powered careers, and even frequent lovers with her husband’s approval. She’s a Charlie girl! She can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a loyal son of the Motherland however seduced you may occasionally be by America’s sports cars and Kama Sutra–wielding secretaries. She is my beloved Fashion Plates toy from the early 1980s.
What Elizabeth Jennings does for work-life balance, the Leda clones do for intersectionality. Maslany is most impressive when the clones have to impersonate one other: a thousand women’s studies dissertations wouldn’t compare to the way she embodies the misunderstandings among women of different classes and backgrounds. Petty criminal Sarah can mimic the wealthy Rachel better than Rachel can impersonate her, because Rachel slips into an imperative tone too easily, not realizing that Sarah lacks the privilege to command. Sarah has trained herself to observe and blend in, to con people up close. Alison’s community-theater hobby has her playing to the back row when she tries to pass herself off as Sarah by stomping around and shouting “Oi!” like an extra from Oliver! Cosima, a lesbian academic, is the most intellectually gifted of the clones, but she literally can’t remember to use heteronormative language to save her life while impersonating the others. The clones misread, underestimate, and stereotype each other constantly.
And despite this fact, the Leda clones support each other and hold one another together, whereas Elizabeth Jennings’s different identities are tearing her apart. Psychologists call it “role conflict” versus “role support”—the idea that multiple identities can sabotage or reinforce each other. The Leda clones can give each other practical support, like the sister-wives in Big Love—except with a fabulous gay brother instead of a clueless patriarch in polo shirts. Elizabeth’s different roles are a zero-sum game: Time spent blackmailing a government scientist is time that can’t be spent on household chores.
But time management isn’t the biggest problem, for Elizabeth or the clones—or us. Wearing too many hats (or wigs) doesn’t do women in. If you feel that your roles make you better—you’re a better writer because you’re a mother, and vice-versa—you’ll be fine. The damage comes when one role feels fundamentally incompatible with another. Time conflict is nothing. Values conflict is everything.
Elizabeth’s identities are at war. As a spy, she is alienated from her identity by definition. To serve her homeland is to never speak its language or eat its foods again. (Paige expresses this paradox with hilarious teenage logic when her parents suggest returning to the USSR: “What are you going to do there? You can’t be Russian spies in Russia!”)
Like her husband, Elizabeth nurtures intimate relationships and then destroys them as part of her work. But Philip does EST. He’s the self-actualized spy, the spy who came out of the closet. Philip is trying harder to combine his identities. He tells Paige the truth about his childhood. He breaks character with his teenage contact Kimmy in a way only a stoned 15-year-old could miss, and puts forth the wistful notion that shared espionage might bring parents and children closer.
Elizabeth actively writes herself out of her own story, because at this point, the only way her story makes sense is if Mother Russia, not Elizabeth herself, is the main character. Even her KGB handler worries: “Your feelings matter,” he tells her. “No they don’t. Or they shouldn’t,” she replies. To be a good spy is to subordinate all other identities to that master narrative, to be ready to betray anyone. Especially herself.
The Leda clones, despite their conflicts and missteps, give each other a chance to re-weave their stories. Their relationship with each other has allowed them to transcend the boxes that the wider world has put them in. Abused, indoctrinated Helena learns to play. Alison discovers uses for laminators and hot-glue guns that Martha Stewart never intended. The clones take their individual hurts and turn them into something bigger. They learn from one another’s mistakes so that no woman’s error is wasted in shame and futile regret. Alison uses the real emotional pain and details of her infertility to expertly finagle details about the sinister Brightborn clinic from her neighbor. Her story of humiliation and anguish is redeemed into one of a tricky mission successfully accomplished. The sisters—or “sestras” as Helena pronounces it—repair each other’s identities.
The recent past of The Americans and near future of Orphan Black are dystopic worlds. Ideology is valued over people, mothers exploit daughters, lovers can’t be trusted, money doesn’t keep you safe. Elizabeth Jennings and the Leda clones can’t always choose what to do, but they can decide what their actions mean. They may not own their bodies, but they do own their stories. We all own our own stories. We can all strive to let the different parts we play tear us apart, like Elizabeth, or hold us shakily but indomitably together, like Sarah and her sestras.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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