August 18, 2023.
This review contains spoilers. There is discussion of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and misandry.
Orphan Black is a well-known science fiction show about autonomy, identity, and found family. The basic summary is that a group of clones, after finding out about their biological origins, work together to try and gain independence from their creators. The clones have all been created through a process of in-vitro fertilisation, with their genetic material sourced from one woman.
Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress, plays many clones throughout the series, and her acting is genuinely mind-boggling. Every clone is vastly different, with unique personalities, accents, interests, and sexualities. Five clones appear in S02E08, titled "Variable and Full of Perturbation". Four of them (Sarah, Rachel, Cosima, and Alison) are cis women. The fifth is a trans man named Tony Sawicki.
When I first watched this show, I remember being utterly delighted by Tony's inclusion. Here were the reasons for my joy:
His presentation is quite masculine, especially compared to the other clones.
He is shown wearing (what appears to be) a tank top binder. Most importantly, he is not shown binding with bandages. He is also shown packing in his underwear.
He is confident in his body and unashamed, even when taking a bath in a stranger's apartment.
He is shown injecting testosterone.
After meeting Tony, Sarah (another clone) expects that he will have an "identity crisis", similar to other clones' reactions. He calmly denies this, saying, "I did all that work a long time ago. There's only one Tony, and you're not me, sucker." I loved that, even when confronted with the truth of his conception, he remained self-assured and secure.
What I liked most about Tony was the implication that anybody could be born trans, however you conceptualise the reasons that we trans people exist. Whether you focus on scientific explanations like the development of the brain, or you focus on the soul and cultural constructs, or you believe in a complex combination of factors, anybody could be born with gender incongruence/dysphoria and anybody could someday make the decision to alter their sex. In a show which chiefly focusses on autonomy and individuality, specifically in defiance of biological expectations, trans themes seemed a no-brainer. I was glad they explored trans male self-determination through one of the clones.
Rewatching this episode, though, I noticed a different aspect of Tony's characterisation which I now find deeply troubling.
An uncomfortable scene at best.
I registered that Tony kissed Felix, a gay main character, of course. But what I noticed during my rewatch was a double standard which I've seen in other films and shows; LGBT+ characters ignoring consent in situations where cishet men (particularly) would be harshly judged for acting exactly the same way.
Tony corners Felix and asks him a question. When Felix hurriedly answers and tries to move away, clearly uncomfortable, Tony refuses to let him walk past. He crowds Felix into a corner and kisses him, after which Felix shakes his head and verbally indicates that he doesn't want to kiss Tony.
Viewers, of course, know that Felix is uncomfortable with the intimacy because Tony looks a lot like Sarah, another clone and Felix's adopted sister. But it doesn't matter why Felix is uncomfortable. It doesn't matter why people say no, it just matters that they do. If Tony had been a cis male character treating a cis woman exactly the same way, I guarantee that fans would've furiously criticised his actions. This is an example of sexual harassment occurring outside of a widely-believed, limited stereotype (a cis man abusing a cis woman), and therefore not being taken seriously.
I was similarly frustrated when I watched Below Her Mouth (2016), during which a masculine woman repeatedly ignores a feminine woman's protests and refusals, sexually harassing and even sexually assaulting her (groping her inner thigh, kissing her on the mouth). You can read a good review of the film here but, to paraphrase another review that I can't seem to locate now: arousal does not equal consent. That applies when any person corners another person and insists on kissing or touching, not just when a cis man does that to a cis woman. If someone is saying no, they're saying no. If someone is physically trying to move away and escape, forcing them to stay still is wrong. Just because you think they've flirted with you, or are attracted to you, doesn't mean you should ignore their refusals. No means no, whatever form that "no" takes.
As LGBT+ people, we need to be on our guard for LGBT+ content which perpetuates dangerous stereotypes. Being desperate for representation shouldn't mean we're content with characters who harass or assault people without any consequences.
Masculine LGBT+ people shouldn't be portrayed as inherently predatory due to our masculinity. Masculinity does not mean ignoring consent. I can confirm that as a very masculine trans man myself, who fits into many norms of masculine presentation/identity, certainly within my culture. Masculinity does not mean forcing a more feminine person (whatever their gender) to submit to you. Not only is it an awful stereotype to perpetuate, it does a disservice to the reality of being a trans man or being transmasculine. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, trans men and AFAB non-binary people experience the highest rates of lifetime sexual assault in the entire trans community; a struggle which is worryingly under-discussed and even ignored. Being masculine, or men, does not make us predators. Being masculine often makes us vulnerable to assault, specifically if we were born female... as was brutally explored in Stone Butch Blues.
I would not recommend Tony Sawicki as an example of good representation, which is an unfortunate thing to say, because I really did enjoy his characterisation upon my first viewing. It felt like quite the betrayal to return to his episode as a more mature, deliberately masculine man, and to realise the misandristic stereotype which underpins who Tony is. As he only features in one episode, there's not any opportunity for him to grow beyond that foundation.
What this episode offers is the sole appearance of a trans man, played by an actress who over-exaggerates negative attributes in order to make his maleness convincing. He's a token character that I previously enjoyed, but not anymore.
As I only watched the Tony Sawicki-related scenes again, rather than rewatching the entire episode (let alone the entire show), I can't comment on how well or badly other aspects of Orphan Black have aged.
Please note: While I personally agree with lesbians and other female-attracted women who have criticised Below Her Mouth, I can see why it would be an enjoyable film for many, and it certainly offers unparalleled sex scenes. These reviews, as always, are my own opinion only.
If you are a man who has survived sexual abuse, I recommend the site 1in6, which supports and advocates on behalf of men/boys who are survivors. It addresses the specific struggles faced by men. You are not alone.