Orphan Black is one of the best shows that premiered on TV last year, and as it features several women as main characters whose life goals are not primarily finding husbands and having babies, it’s a wonderful relief from most of the crap clogging up the airwaves. The premise is simple: a young woman named Sarah Manning witnesses a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. Since Sarah is strapped for cash, she assumes the woman’s identity and embarks on an uncertain, terrifying road of discovering that she’s a clone. She teams up with two other clones, Alison Hendrix and Cosima Neihaus, to unravel the mysteries behind their existence. However, between a mysterious killer targeting them and all of their closest loved ones potentially monitoring them, it’s enough of a struggle to keep both themselves and their families safe.
In so many ways, the show is a real treat. Not only is it an engaging story, but it’s also marginally more diverse than most other stories on mainstream television. The show is really about the clones, and although there are male characters who have important roles in the story, their tales don’t outshine the main plot. Furthermore, the show has a romantic arc between two female characters, but their story is not solely about being queer. This is refreshing because many representations of GSRM characters in mainstream media only focus on those characters’ sexualities and/or gender identities as the crux of their character development.
As much as I love Orphan Black for giving us something a little different, it’s not flawless. The biggest grievance I have against it is the way it handles Amelia, the only black woman in the show.
Amelia arrives very close to season 1’s end and reveals that she is Sarah’s birth mother. This is exciting for both Sarah and the audience because there’s finally a chance of so many questions being answered–how did Amelia get involved with the scientists who made the clones? What did they do to her? Does she know what they might be planning? Some of these questions are at least partially answered. Amelia had twins, one that she gave to the Church (Helena) and one that she gave to the State (Sarah). Once she discovered what kind of people these scientists were, she sacrificed everything to protect the two babies.
By meeting Sarah as an adult, Amelia once again risks her life. She’s introduced near the end of one episode and dies in the finale. It seems like she is only here for a second. Because her death happens so quickly and is a catalyst for Sarah’s pain and angst, I think that Amelia is a victim of a variation of the fridging trope. Here’s why:
- As the only black woman in the story, her quick, violent death plays into the trope of black people dying first in many TV shows and films. It also demonstrates that the way the story ends for exploited black women is death.
- Her death is fuel for the white protagonist (Sarah) to reach a new level of character development via intense emotional pain. The same thing happens to Rue in The Hunger Games film (I specify the film because Katniss is portrayed as a white woman when she is really a woman of color).
On one level, Amelia’s death is necessary. She potentially holds many answers to this clone mystery that Sarah may not ever discover. She’s also comparable to many other parental/mentor figures is tons of other stories whose deaths force the protagonists to reach a new level of independence (e.g. Lily and James Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Gandalf, Brom, and Jiraiya). It’s a way to make the main character’s journey more trying so that they ultimately become a stronger person.
I’m okay with Amelia, as the birth mother who Sarah has dreamt about and who can answer so many of her questions, dying before Sarah is satisfied with knowledge. Sarah needs to learn to figure out who she is on her own without knowing all the answers about her origins or her existence as a clone. It’s the fact that Amelia is the sole black woman that makes her fridging much more obvious and problematic. If there was another black woman, or even several, then Amelia’s quick arrival and violent death wouldn’t be the only story about black women in the show.
Your mileage may vary, but for me when there’s only one representation of a particular minority in a book, TV show, or movie and they fall under some tired trope that has been disproportionately applied to that particular group, I’m disappointed. However, when there are several such characters and one dies for a particular plot reason, I personally do not see it as problematic.
For example, in Attack on Titan, Eren Jaeger’s mother dies very early on. Dead mothers appear in so many types of stories across several genres, especially fantasy, and they are often examples of fridging. If Eren’s mother was the only or one of very few women in the series and/or the other female characters were terribly sidelined as in many other shonen series, I would take issue with it. However, there’s Mikasa, Annie, Hanji, Ymir, Sasha, and Christa to balance everything out. Therefore, Eren’s mother’s death, while still motivation for his growth, is only her story as opposed to the story of women in general.
What Could’ve Been Different and What Can Writers Learn?
The easiest fix would have been to introduce Amelia a little sooner or maybe given her a few more scenes before she’s killed. The writers also could’ve included at least one other black female character who would play a larger role in the story and would stick around for a while. Maybe season 2 will include some flashbacks where Amelia will appear again so we can learn more about her.
I think the lesson for writers here is a set of questions. As you develop your characters and your worlds, it’s always good to stop and ask yourself “Is this character who is of a different race/gender/sexuality/etc. from me and/or my other characters a well-rounded, fully developed character? Is there a notion in my writing that this person only exists to be the token representative of their group? Have I given them more to their character than my outside knowledge of their race/gender/sexuality/etc., which may involve what I think these kinds of people look like, act like, and enjoy?”
No writer is perfect and no TV show, book, or movie will be 100% free of fridging or other tropes. However, awareness, knowledge, and listening can help you avoid these things in your writing. All of that can only help to make you a stronger storyteller.
Check out this video for some more examples of fridging: