Relevance of Cyborg Manifesto to Tv Series Orphan Black

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And finally, a female author as the source for season titles: Donna Haraway, a feminist intellectual whose popular and much-anthologized “Cyborg Manifesto” perfectly matches Orphan Black’s ethical themes and concerns. Her “A Cyborg Manifesto” considers how a cyborg—an enhanced person with added mechanical capabilities—symbolizes being female. She focuses on woman’s hybrid nature, as well as her agency and relationship with their own existence.

Haraway’s relevance to the show is not overlooked by Cosima Herter who opens her view of the show with a quotation from Haraway:

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“The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century…. Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs—creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted. Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality.” (Herter, “Eat Me/Drink Me”)

Herter concludes that the today’s world has “fantasized Haraway’s cyborg” in weird “and disturbing ways” (Herter, “Eat Me/Drink Me”). In a world where McDonald’s replaces (in an act to cut expenses and circumvent minimum-wage laws) human workers with machines without any problem, boundaries separating people and objects blur. The phallogocentric origin stories most crucial for feminist cyborgs are built into the literal technologies—technologies that write the world, biotechnology and microelectronics—that have recently textualized out bodies as code problems. (Haraway 175).

Similarities between clones and Haraway’s Cyborg abound. As “trickster figures that might turn a stacked deck into a potent set of wild cards for refiguring possible worlds,” the cyborg shatters boundaries (Haraway 66). With this, the Ledas not only shapeshift into each other, but break boundaries with surprising mental powers. Each is a nonconformist in some way, from violent Helena and frightened M.K., to Alison who plays by the rules but indulges in affairs and pills underneath. Meanwhile, the female characters continue to save each other by every and any means. Interestingly, “unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden”; that is, Haraways explains, “through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos” (Haraway 151).

Although there are few women writing cyberpunk fictions, cyborgs have nonetheless been adopted by feminist theorists as a tool for imagining hybrid identities and categorical disruptions. While cyberpunk fictions do not openly address feminist concerns, the cyborg itself disrupts restrictive categories of identity in a way that can be friendly to feminist politics. If the cyborg blurs the boundaries between “human” and “machine” and calls into question the purity of such categories, cyborgs (both in fiction and in reality) are conceptual tools that challenge the stability of many other conceptual categories (human/machine, human/animal, man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, etc.). Donna Harraway’s famous essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (originally published in 1985 and also collected in Harraway’s 1991 book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women) challenges readers to use the concept of the cyborg to move beyond isolating categories such as “man” and “woman” and to begin imagining these categories as fields of affinity offering different possibilities for expression and play beyond typical social limits. (Higgins 79–80)

It’s no substitute for true racial diversity, but in science fiction, cyborgs, androids, and aliens often stand in for minorities. As the clones’ personhood is called into question, a slavery metaphor emerges, as well as a disability model for characters who can be fixed with technology or opt to remain as they are.

In season four, analogues of what are arguably tantamount to Haraway’s cyborgs are introduced to the show: Brightborn’s genetically modified babies, a technology that tries to correct human’s biology. Rachel’s mechanical eye comes as another significant point in the season. The eye has made her hybrid in a sense that has enable her to receive mysterious visions form her creator, Westmorland. As Haraway discusses, the cyborg’s hybrid nature gives even more awareness and understanding (4). The very same insight in the cyborg characters leaves room for potential challenges to the system, creating spaces in which they would be able to resist any classification.

Many of the episode titles in season four have roots in Haraway’s essay “The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology,” which looks specifically at human engineering and capitalism—themes explored through Evie Cho, who acts independently of Neolution to commodify genetically modified humans and to secretly launch her own eugenic projects through Brightborn’s offerings. Part of Haraway’s essay focuses on American psychologist, primatologist, and eugenicist Robert Yerkes, who envisioned human engineering to benefit culture, society, and industry, and who described it in a way that almost sounds like an overview of Project Leda. (Griffin and Nesseth)

The unprecedented relevance of Haraway’s thought—today in general and in comprehending Orphan Black in particular—does not escape Cosima Herter either. “The real Cosima” is fully aware of this when quoting Haraway: “Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life” (Herter, “Eat Me/Drink Me”).

Herter’s choice for the source of final season episode titles is the 1914 poem “protest.” For Herter, the final season is more a hailing of women and their struggle for social and political equality, “an allegory of evolution, resistance, and protest” (Herter, “Why Protest”). The last season is a testimony of what women can achieve.

I felt, for this concluding season of Orphan Black, that the titles should be less science or theory specific, and more about the overall sense of not only women’s suffrage, but inclusive of some of the most important (at least to me) themes that underpin the entire show: body autonomy, political and personal agency, continual resistance to oppression and ideological authority, courage, hope, and change. The idea of protest is deeply embedded in and woven into the OB narrative on so many levels. I felt that “Protest,” being short and poignant, was pertinent because it reflected the strength and perseverance not only of these characters that I’ve come to love, but of something more deeply philosophically and politically meaningful to me as person. The question then, is less, “Why ‘Protest’?” the poem, and more, “Why protest as an action in the world?” (Herter, “Why Protest”)

Herter describes her mother, an immigrant, being sterilized without her consent during Cosima’s own Caesarian birth in 1970. “Once aware of what had happened—the reason given to her was that she’d already had ‘too many children that could barely be supported as it was’ (I was her fourth child)—despite it being illegal, she’d felt she had no recourse, nowhere to complain, no one to appeal to for help. She could not protest” (Herter, “Why Protest”). She salutes silenced women around the world—reflected by women on the show kept in compounds and convents with their lips sewn shut and tongues cut out, women locked away, women forced under duress or poverty or lies to sign contracts giving away their very bodies and children. As Herter insists, all women deserve the power to speak out:

Frankel shrewdly observes that Herter describes her mother, an immigrant, being sterilized without her consent during Cosima’s own Caesarian birth in 1970. “Once aware of what had happened—the reason given to her was that she’d already had ‘too many children that could barely be supported as it was’ (I was her fourth child)—despite it being illegal, she’d felt she had no recourse, nowhere to complain, no one to appeal to for help. She could not protest.” (Herter, “Why Protest” qtd in Frankel)

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