Reading Lili Loofbourow’s new profile of Tatiana Maslany, I’m struck again by Lili’s consistent attention to the relationship between female reading and genre:
In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.
By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones — it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.) Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts. In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be.
Here I was reminded of Lili’s 2012 review of Pixar’s Brave for The New Inquiry, a meditation on the detection of small differences when every female character is a stereotype.
Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative. Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations.
In the land of small differences, she points out, a princess movie in which the mother is actually alive constitutes a major departure. Stereotype and repetition, the constitution of the feminine as generic, means an attention to the kinds of “slight variations” that we might recognize elsewhere as “gender parody.”
Naomi Schor asks, “Is the detail feminine?” and Lili’s criticism gives an alternate, mass-cultural account of why it might be.1 I hope to see this strain of thinking elaborated further in her future work.
1 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (1987; New York: Routledge, 2007): 4.