4:15 pm EDT, May 3, 2016

‘Orphan Black’ and trans representation: Can they fix Tony Sawicki?

Orphan Black introduced a transgender clone in season 2, but since then we’ve seen little of him. It’s a sensitive subject matter, and maybe it was one that the show wasn’t ready to tackle, but after experiencing some backlash, I think it’s about time that Tony returns — just not the same way he was portrayed.

Disclaimer: I write this as a cisgendered male, so feel free to tweet me or contact me personally if there are incorrect statements or if you disagree.

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Representation is everything. It’s what we all want regardless of race, sexual preference, gender identity, or anything else that makes us unique. We’re different, and we want to see those differences represented in the media. When Orphan Black introduced trans clone Tony Sawicki, he was met with great enthusiasm from the majority of fans, but there was also skepticism and concern. Not from disapproving, transphobic people who didn’t want him to be there, but from the LGBTQ community.

Trans representation is just barely making headway in Hollywood. While the issues and concerns have existed for years, they’re only now starting to be seen by the general public and covered by the media. There are public figures like Laverne Cox and the Wachowski sisters who are making their mark in Hollywood in a positive light with marvelous characters, but there are also many people in the spotlight who put transgender issues in a negative light, highlighting only the problems that others perceive them to have. That is why we need — now, more than ever — to have characters representing the trans community on TV, and why I believe Tony should come back to Orphan Black.

orphan black tony sawicki

First and foremost, I need to say that the fact Tatiana Maslany is a white, heterosexual, cisgendered woman playing a queer transgender man is not what I think the issue is. This is a show about clones, and as the situation goes, it does not make any sense to have anyone other than Maslany portraying this character, which is more than can be said about Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. However, I understand why many feel she should not be playing the role of a trans clone — there are so many trans actors in the world that need and can fill roles for trans characters.

The thing is, there are bigger issues than just who’s portraying who. The portrayal of Tony seemed to lack poise and detail, and he conforms to stereotypes that aren’t what the transgender community generally adhere to.

I think it’s fantastic that we’re getting a transgender clone on the show, but for some reason Tony looked like Maslany just stepped out of a community theatre in which she was supposed to play a man with purposely bad facial hair. It’s not that I expect Maslany, or Tony, to look like a cisgendered male, but it just felt like the costuming department barely tried here. They tacked on an awkward goatee that made no sense and couldn’t have looked faker, and I have absolutely no idea where they were going with the eyebrows or hair.

Hell, maybe it was supposed to look fake. It’s hard to say since we didn’t get to learn anything about him. At first glance Tony looks like a bad attempt at aligning with the transgender community just so they could add a transgender clone. Why do all of the other clones get to look so different than one another (Helena and Cosima most notably) but when they dress Tony up they barely try? From a costuming perspective alone I’m disappointed in this character.

cosima niehaus

You can’t just create a trans clone and go, “Hey, look, we’re representing a group of LGBTQ people that don’t ever get represented! Yay! We hope you like it!” Of course, I’m happy they’re breaking down barriers and including transgender people in an industry that rarely does that — but if they want to be truly inclusive they need to do their research, and they need to realize that simply putting Maslany in men’s clothes and slapping on a goatee doesn’t equal fair representation.

And I haven’t even gotten to the biggest problem of all: Tony Sawicki is incredibly over-sexualized, and his little make-out session with Felix was completely unnecessary.

I like the creators of the show very much — John Fawcett and Graeme Mason are incredibly kind, generous people that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, and they’re fun, awesome guys. However, when it comes to Tony, I just want to shake their shoulders and go, “Why?!” Why did Tony have to be so sexual, when there’s already a stigma against the LGBTQ community that everyone in it is inherently sexual by nature? In a show where you already have Felix, who is this amazingly independent gay man, who’s already very sexual and open and free, you don’t need another overly sexual queer character.

It boils my blood when the only LGBTQ representation on a show is that of the overly sexual kind. The kind that’s always trying to hook up with people or get action, because as Orphan Black‘s Cosima says, my sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me. We need to strike a balance here. We need to introduce LGBTQ characters who do not care about sex, who do not want to be hooking up with people they just met, because that’s how it is in real life. Not every gay man is on Grindr. Not every lesbian woman is all about hooking up with other woman. For some reason Orphan Black fails to see this, and as a result two out of three LGBTQ characters are over-sexualized and paint us in the LGBTQ community in an inaccurate light.

orphan black felix dawkins

Here’s one reason this over sexualization is a problem: 49 out of the 50 states in the U.S. are still letting criminals use the gay and trans ‘panic’ defense, which allows defendants to claim that a person’s sexuality and gender identity is the reason for their excessively violent actions. Somehow the victim’s sexuality or gender identity actually explains and excuses the perpetrator’s loss of self control and the assault, which allows them to get off the hook scot-free. People actually try to pin their violent behavior and attacks on the LGBTQ community on “being scared,” or “confused” by the victim’s sexuality/gender identity… and the stupidest thing is that it works in nearly every state in America.

Society already sees gay and trans people as overly sexual beings, sex objects, and people who have no other value but what’s between their legs and what they can offer physically. If this representation is continued in our media and on television shows, then we have no hope to escape the stigma and show people that we are normal human beings, whose lives aren’t defined by sex.

There are also non-binary people who conform to neither a specific gender or sexuality, and Orphan Black had this absolutely incredible and rare opportunity to represent those who aren’t inherently sexual. They screwed that up as soon as Tony came on screen and started acting sexual and flirtatious, and then kissed Felix. They could have just let Tony be Tony, but they, for some reason, instead chose to weird the audience out and have Felix kiss a clone, which is also something I feel like Felix would never do, generally. Instead of fighting the stigma, Orphan Black has now fed into it.

All of that said, I think the creators are aware of these problems. They’ve largely avoided the topic of Tony when he’s come up at conventions or in interviews, and they refuse to say if he’s going to come back. I think they know they messed up such a sensitive topic, and now they don’t want to alienate anyone or cause further trouble.

Yet, avoiding the subject isn’t going to fix things. Introducing a trans character as flawed as Tony and just kind of leaving them be is worse than not introducing one at all, I think. Sure, it’s representation that the transgender community would have never had if Tony didn’t show up, but does a failed representation even count? Misrepresentation is worse than no representation and I think Orphan Black still has two seasons to fix it.

I want to see Tony come back because I want to see Maslany represent the trans community in a better fashion. I just want to see it done right, and I feel like it’s still possible. But with all the damage already done… that might not be the case.

What do you think of ‘Orphan Black’s’ portrayal of Tony?

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